Arafat's Dead? Rewrite History!!
Jude Wanniski
November 12, 2004


Memo To: President Bill Clinton
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Who Failed at Camp David?

Dear Mr. President: I know it still grates on you that despite your best efforts you could not bring off a conclusive peace agreement between the Israelis and the Arabs, but I do regret you using the occasion of Yasir Arafat's death to blame him for the failure. In the last three years, since he has been virtually imprisoned in his West Bank compound by Ariel Sharon, he has scarcely been able to keep up with knowledge of the venomous attacks on him in New York and Washington by those who bear the real responsibility for the breakdown of the peace process. Now that he is dead, it is even easier for people to forget the courageous efforts he made in his lifetime in bringing the Palestinian nation to accept the idea of a permanent state of Israel existing on 78% of the land Palestinians once claimed as their own. It is shameful now, given what is on the record, that supposedly serious people are saying at his passing that he never really wished for peace with Israel, when it is the Likud Party that is officially on record opposed to the very idea of a Palestinian state.

I particularly regret your insistence that Arafat walked away from the Camp David offers that were made by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2000 when in fact the talks continued at Taba, Egypt until the end of January 2001, a week after you left office, with his team and Prime Minister Barak's diplomats coming very close to a conclusive agreement. Of course, in order for there to be a conclusive agreement, Barak would have had to defeat Sharon in the elections that followed a month later, complete the negotiations, and get the agreement through the Knesset. But Barak lost and Sharon flushed down the toilet all that work that you helped initiate in 1993 with the Oslo Accord. It is amazing to me, Mr. President, that you know this is exactly what happened, and yet you blame Arafat for the loss while he is being buried.

You may not have read the Arafat obituary Judith Miller wrote in The New York Times, but as I would expect of her and the Times, she gave the last word to your Middle East advisor, Dennis Ross, who has been working overtime to rewrite history to make himself look good at Arafat's expense:

But Dennis B. Ross, who spent 12 years trying to negotiate an Arab-Israeli peace settlement in Republican and Democratic administrations, ultimately concluded that while Mr. Arafat might have been prepared to die with Israel in existence, he was not prepared to have history regard him as the man who betrayed the vision of a single Palestinian state. "In the end, he was not prepared to give up Palestinian claims and declare that the conflict is over," Mr. Ross said in an interview.

Because I know you are a great reader, Mr. President, I suggest before you go further in denigrating Arafat that you read the following excerpt from an exchange on your Camp David talks that appeared two years ago in The New York Review of Books. The section I excerpt is in part two of the exchange, with Robert Malley, who was the ever-present intermediary on your behalf at Camp David. In this excerpt, Malley is trying to straighten out Ehud Barak, who also found it most convenient to blame Arafat for the failure. It all comes down to Arafat refusing to give up on "the right of return" of the Palestinian refugees. Once you digest Malley's account, you may wish to review the entire exchange, which took up two issues of the New York Review. (The links are available below.) It is absolutely clear that Arafat was consistent in his eagerness to work out this sticky issue and that he had even appealed directly to you to think of ways to resolve the problem. This is an immensely important topic, because it still has to be worked out if there is to be a conclusive peace agreement and not perpetual war.

Volume 49, Number 10 · June 13, 2002

Camp David and After: An Exchange (2. A Reply to Ehud Barak)
By Hussein Agha, Robert Malley
In response to Camp David and After: An Exchange (1. An Interview with Ehud Barak) (June 13, 2002)

2. A Reply to Ehud Barak

Both sides in the Israeli–Palestinian war have several targets in mind, and public opinion is not the least of them. The Camp David summit ended almost two years ago; the Taba negotiations were abandoned in January 2001; Ariel Sharon has made no secret of his rejection of the Oslo process, not to mention the positions taken by Israel at Camp David or in Taba; and the confrontation between the two sides has had disastrous consequences. Yet in the midst of it all, the various interpretations of what happened at Camp David and its aftermath continue to draw exceptional attention both in Israel and in the United States.

Ehud Barak's interview with Benny Morris makes it clear why that is the case: Barak's assessment that the talks failed because Yasser Arafat cannot make peace with Israel and that his answer to Israel's unprecedented offer was to resort to terrorist violence has become central to the argument that Israel is in a fight for its survival against those who deny its very right to exist. So much of what is said and done today derives from and is justified by that crude appraisal. First, Arafat and the rest of the Palestinian leaders must be supplanted before a meaningful peace process can resume, since they are the ones who rejected the offer. Second, the Palestinians' use of violence has nothing to do with ending the occupation since they walked away from the possibility of reaching that goal at the negotiating table not long ago. And, finally, Israel must crush the Palestinians—"badly beat them" in the words of the current prime minister—if an agreement is ever to be reached.

The one-sided account that was set in motion in the wake of Camp David has had devastating effects—on Israeli public opinion as well as on US foreign policy. That was clear enough a year ago; it has become far clearer since. Rectifying it does not mean, to quote Barak, engaging in "Palestinian propaganda." Rather, it means taking a close look at what actually occurred.

1. An Interview with Ehud Barak

Barak's central thesis is that the current Palestinian leadership wants "a Palestinian state in all of Palestine. What we see as self-evident, two states for two peoples, they reject." Arafat, he concludes, seeks Israel's "demise." Barak has made that claim repeatedly, both here and elsewhere, and indeed it forms the crux of his argument. His claim therefore should be taken up, issue by issue.

On the question of the boundaries of the future state, the Palestinian position, formally adopted as early as 1988 and frequently reiterated by Palestinian negotiators throughout the talks, was for a Palestinian state based on the June 4, 1967, borders, living alongside Israel. At Camp David (at which one of the present writers was a member of the US administration's team), Arafat's negotiators accepted the notion of Israeli annexation of West Bank territory to accommodate settlements, though they insisted on a one-for-one swap of land "of equal size and value." The Palestinians argued that the annexed territory should neither affect the contiguity of their own land nor lead to the incorporation of Palestinians into Israel.

The ideas put forward by President Clinton at Camp David fell well short of those demands. In order to accommodate Israeli settlements, he proposed a deal by which Israel would annex 9 percent of the West Bank in exchange for turning over to the Palestinians parts of pre-1967 Israel equivalent to 1 percent of the West Bank. This proposal would have entailed the incorporation of tens of thousands of additional Palestinians into Israeli territory near the annexed settlements; and it would have meant that territory annexed by Israel would encroach deep inside the Palestinian state. In his December 23, 2000, proposals—called "parameters" by all parties—Clinton suggested an Israeli annexation of between 4 and 6 percent of the West Bank in exchange for a land swap of between 1 and 3 percent. The following month in Taba, the Palestinians put their own map on the table which showed roughly 3.1 percent of the West Bank under Israeli sovereignty, with an equivalent land swap in areas abutting the West Bank and Gaza.[*]

On Jerusalem, the Palestinians accepted at Camp David the principle of Israeli sovereignty over the Wailing Wall, the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, and Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem—neighborhoods that were not part of Israel before the 1967 Six-Day War—though the Palestinians clung to the view that all of Arab East Jerusalem should be Palestinian.

In contrast to the issues of territory and Jerusalem, there is no Palestinian position on how the refugee question should be dealt with as a practical matter. Rather, the Palestinians presented a set of principles. First, they insisted on the need to recognize the refugees' right of return, lest the agreement lose all legitimacy with the vast refugee constituency—roughly half the entire Palestinian population. Second, they acknowledged that Israel's demographic interests had to be recognized and taken into account. Barak draws from this the conclusion that the refugees are the "main demographic-political tool for subverting the Jewish state." The Palestinian leadership's insistence on a right of return demonstrates, in his account, that their conception of a two-state solution is one state for the Palestinians in Palestine and another in Israel. But the facts suggest that the Palestinians are trying (to date, unsuccessfully) to reconcile these two competing imperatives—the demographic imperative and the right of return. Indeed, in one of his last pre– Camp David meetings with Clinton, Arafat asked him to "give [him] a reasonable deal [on the refugee question] and then see how to present it as not betraying the right of return."

Some of the Palestinian negotiators proposed annual caps on the number of returnees (though at numbers far higher than their Israeli counterparts could accept); others wanted to create incentives for refugees to settle elsewhere and disincentives for them to return to the 1948 land. But all acknowledged that there could not be an unlimited, "massive" return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. The suggestion made by some that the Camp David summit broke down over the Palestinians' demand for a right of return simply is untrue: the issue was barely discussed between the two sides and President Clinton's ideas mentioned it only in passing. (In an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times this February Arafat called for "creative solutions to the right of return while respecting Israel's demographic concerns.")

The Palestinians did insist that Israel recognize that it bore responsibility for creating the problem of the refugees. But it is ironic that Barak would choose to convey his categorical rejection of any such Israeli historical responsibility to Benny Morris, an Israeli historian called "revisionist" in large part for his account of the origins of the displacement of the Palestinians and for his conclusion that, while there were many reasons why the refugees left, Israeli military attacks and expulsions were the major ones.

The Palestinians can be criticized for not having presented detailed proposals at Camp David; but, as has been shown, it would be inaccurate to say they had no positions. It also is true that Barak broke a number of Israeli taboos and moved considerably from prior positions while the Palestinians believed they had made their historic concessions at Oslo, when they agreed to cede 78 percent of mandatory Palestine to Israel; they did not intend the negotiations to further whittle down what they already regarded as a compromise position. But neither the constancy of the Palestinians' view nor the unprecedented and evolving nature of the Israelis' ought to have any bearing on the question of whether the Palestinian leadership recognized Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. It is the substance of the Palestinian positions that should count.

* * * * *

For the entire exchange:

June 13: Barak and Morris

June 13: Malley and Agha

June 27: Both teams in response