Was Arafat the problem?

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
April 18 2002 7:14 PM

Was Arafat the Problem?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

One thing nearly all pundits seem to agree on is that Yasser Arafat's rejection of the land-for-peace offer made by Ehud Barak at Camp David in the summer of 2000 was indefensible. This conventional wisdom has been a great asset to Ariel Sharon. Its implication—that Arafat was never really interested in a two-state solution to begin with—has helped turn many former peaceniks in both Israel and America into hard-liners.

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

An example is Rabbi Martin Weiner of San Francisco, president of the Rabbinical Association of Reform Judaism. "For most of us Prime Minister Barak's proposals seemed so generous," he explained on NPR's All Things Considered. He can't understand how Arafat could have "rejected the Palestinian state that was offered to him in the summer of 2000." Given this rejection, and Arafat's subsequent sponsoring of terrorism, Weiner is "sadly coming to believe" that Yasser Arafat's goal "is now and may have always been the destruction of Israel."

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In this week's Nation, political scientist Richard Falk contests the standard view that Israel's offer at Camp David was eminently fair. But Falk's argument, embedded in a larger critique of American foreign policy, doesn't get deeply into the nuts and bolts of the issue. If you want to see Camp David from Arafat's point of view, a better place to look is a New York Review of Books piece that appeared back in August and was co-authored by Robert Malley, special assistant for Arab-Israeli affairs in the Clinton administration. Malley was at Camp David and found Arafat's behavior there intensely frustrating, but he doesn't buy the interpretation that is favored on the right—that Arafat's rejection of the deal amounts to rejection of a two-state solution.

So, are Falk and Malley right? Is Arafat's Camp David behavior even remotely defensible?

There were actually two Barak offers to Arafat—one at Camp David, and a more generous one that took shape over ensuing months, culminating in failed negotiations in Taba, Egypt, in January of 2001. Most Arafat critics, like Rabbi Weiner, focus on Camp David. So, let's look at Camp David first and Taba second.

David Horowitz, editor of the Jerusalem Report, recently said on the NPR show To the Point that Barak offered "basically all the territory the Palestinians were purporting to seek." This is a widely repeated claim—that Israel offered something like the "pre-1967 borders" that had long been the mantra of Palestinians who favored a two-state solution. But for Palestinians to get all the territory that had been under Arab control before the war of 1967 would mean getting a) all of what we now think of as the West Bank; b) all of East Jerusalem (which some consider part of the West Bank); and c) all of the walled "Old City" that lies between East and West Jerusalem. Barak never offered any of those things—not at Camp David, not at Taba.

As a practical matter, he couldn't. The problem wasn't just the famously provocative settlements that Israel's government had long been sponsoring in the West Bank. Barak was willing to dismantle some of those and consolidate others. But there had also been more organic, more "innocent" settlement, in the greater Jerusalem area and elsewhere. Further, for political reasons, Barak couldn't possibly surrender control of the part of the Old City that contains the Western Wall of the Second Temple—the wall you see Jews praying at in file footage.

So, Barak hung on to key parts of the Old City and proposed that, before surrendering the West Bank, Israel would annex 9 percent of it, leaving 91 percent for the Palestinians.  That was his last, best offer, at Camp David.  

But wait. Didn't Barak, as his defenders say, offer Arafat land from Israel proper in return for the annexed 9 percent?

Yes. But the terms of the trade bordered on insulting. In exchange for the 9 percent of the West Bank annexed by Israel, Arafat would have gotten land as large as 1 percent of the West Bank. And, whereas some of the 9 percent was choice land, symbolically important to Palestinians, the 1 percent was land whose location wasn't even specified. 

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