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."

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. 

I'm trying to imagine Yasser Arafat selling this 9-to-1 land swap to Palestinians—who, remember, are divided into two camps: the "return to 1967 borders" crowd and the "destroy the state of Israel" crowd. I'm not succeeding. And Arafat would have had to explain other unpalatable details, such as Israeli sovereignty over Haram al-Sharif (site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque), which had been under Arab control before 1967 and is the third-holiest site in Islam.

The Camp David offer also had features that kept it from amounting to statehood in the full sense of the term. The new Palestine couldn't have had a military and wouldn't have had sovereignty over its air space—Israeli jets would roam at will. Nor would the Palestinians' freedom of movement on the ground have been guaranteed. At least one east-west Israeli-controlled road would slice all the way across the West Bank, and Israel would be entitled to declare emergencies during which Palestinians couldn't cross the road. Imagine if a mortal enemy of America's—say the Soviet Union during the Cold War—was legally entitled to stop the north-south flow of Americans and American commerce. Don't you think the average American might ask: Wait a minute—who negotiated this deal?

I'm not saying any of these things aren't defensible from an Israeli point of view. I'm just saying it takes very little imagination to see why Palestinians might balk, after three decades of nursing a grievance centered on—at the very minimum—the right to have their very own state defined by pre-1967 borders.

Another big issue was the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees. The Israeli fear is certainly understandable: If all Palestinians who once lived in Israel—and all of their descendants—were allowed to return, Israel might wind up with an Arab majority. Accounts differ on how hard a line the Palestinians have taken on this issue at various negotiations. Malley and his co-author, Hussein Agha of Oxford University, say Arafat showed unprecedented flexibility at Camp David. In any event, by early 2001 Arafat was showing flexibility, advocating in a New York Times op-ed "creative solutions to the plight of the refugees while respecting Israel's demographic concerns."

Malley and Agha do a good job of illuminating Arafat's psychological state at Camp David, notably his lack of trust of the Israelis and his sense that the Israelis and Americans were ganging up on him. The portrait at times borders on the patronizing—Arafat comes off as almost childish in his insecurity and pride compared with the cool, linear-thinking Barak. But this is the kind of portrait Arafat's harshest critics have been known to paint when they're not busy depicting his Camp David demurral as the coolly rational act of an evil mastermind.

Arafat's complex psychology may help explain the most valid criticism of his conduct in the summer of 2000, routinely cited even by his defenders: the failure to offer a distinct counterproposal, or, after Camp David, to tell the larger world exactly what was wrong with the Israeli offer. Certainly the latter failure was a public-relations disaster, and it is one reason Arafat has been depicted as the problem ever since. (An aide to Arafat has said that he kept quiet after Camp David out of respect for Clinton's interests.)

As for the failure to be clearer at the negotiations themselves: In the Malley and Agha account, this reticence—which Malley found maddening—emerges as a product not just of Arafat's peculiar psychology, but of a specific Palestinian concern. In any event, depicting the Palestinian silence at Camp David as signifying opposition to a two-state solution doesn't mesh well with subsequent events. In the ensuing months, Palestinian negotiators got quite explicit about their position. By the time of the Taba negotiations, they were drawing maps and talking numbers: Israel could annex 3 percent of the West Bank and compensate Palestine with the same amount of land from Israel proper.

The Israelis, for their part, had sweetened the pot considerably by the time they got to Taba—most notably in accepting Palestinian sovereignty over Haram al-Sharif. They also made the land offers more generous. But they didn't really offer "97 percent of the West Bank," as has been asserted not just in such right-wing outlets as National Review and the Fox News channel, but in Newsweek, the Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere. The Israelis offered 94 percent of the West Bank—a 6-percent annexing—and then offered to compensate the Palestinians with land from Israel proper equaling 3 percent of the West Bank. That is, they offered a total land mass as large as 97 percent of the West Bank.

Taba was a big step forward. A 2-to-1 land swap sure beats a 9-to-1 swap. But it still left Arafat having to answer the obvious question: Um, why not 1-to-1? If Israel really accepts the principle that pre-1967 borders are a valid goal except where rendered impractical by demographic "facts on the ground," then shouldn't it offer fair recompense for the land being withheld—especially since it created those facts on the ground, in some cases cynically? Israel's Taba position also left in place some details—no Palestinian military, for example—that made the term "statehood" a bit misleading.

More important, by the time of Taba, the whole political environment had changed. In September, Barak had allowed Ariel Sharon to make his famous visit to Haram al-Sharif, which many observers consider the spark that ignited the current intifada. Given the only deepening mistrust between Arafat and Israel, America was, more than ever, a vital guarantor of any deal. Yet President Clinton was by then a lame duck, and comments from President-elect Bush had made clear his limited enthusiasm for Middle East peace brokering. 

Arafat may also have been troubled by the fact that Barak seemed doomed to lose upcoming elections to Ariel Sharon, who probably wouldn't honor a Barak-negotiated deal. Maybe Arafat can be blamed here. Assuming he realized that a deal at Taba was the only thing that could save Barak's government, thus keeping Sharon out of office, maybe he should have decided that, for the sake of his people, he would seize the moment, notwithstanding the shaky foundation of an America-less deal. But the question before us isn't whether Arafat is a humane, creative, visionary leader—he's roughly the opposite along all three dimensions. The question is whether Arafat's behavior at Camp David and afterward are incomprehensible unless we assume he never really wanted a two-state solution. This is the interpretation favored by Ariel Sharon and many others on the right—as well as such former peaceniks as Rabbi Weiner. And, in my view, this interpretation just doesn't survive close scrutiny of the facts.

So, how did it arise?

In late 1988, during the first (and essentially nonviolent) intifada, I was in Israel. One afternoon I had a drink with the legendary Teddy Kollek, mayor of Jerusalem. I asked Kollek what he thought the Palestinians would accept in the way of territory. He looked at me with a conspicuous lack of concern and said knowingly, "Whatever they can get."

Ideologically, Kollek was no Ariel Sharon. So, I'm guessing that he was reflecting a mainstream Israeli view: that Israel was in the catbird seat and could eventually cut a nearly painless deal with the Palestinians. That would explain why, when Camp David hit the airwaves, the papers were full of stories about how a taboo had been broken in Israel: There was now serious discussion of ceding parts of Jerusalem! Never mind that the parts of East Jerusalem Barak was willing to cede didn't constitute nearly what had been under Arab control before 1967. The idea of actually returning to anything like the much-discussed "pre-1967 borders" simply hadn't been taken seriously in Israel before.

So, it's natural that many Israelis would share Rabbi Weiner's view of Barak's offer as "so generous." They had never looked at things from the Palestinian point of view. Barak's proposals were, in the context of Israeli politics, path-breaking and courageous. But, as Malley wrote in a New York Times op-ed that is a CliffsNotes version of his NYRB piece, "[T]he measure of Israel's concessions ought not be how far it has moved from its own starting point; it must be how far it has moved toward a fair solution."

Of course, the bias was symmetrical. Palestinians, by and large, had never looked at things from Israel's point of view. One of many valid criticisms of Arafat is that he had never tried to change that—never paved the way for the various compromises that would ultimately be necessary; he had never really been a leader. Still, if many Israelis were shocked in the summer of 2000 to hear that parts of Jerusalem were on the bargaining table, it would seem that Israel's succession of leaders hadn't done much road-paving, either.

You can call Yasser Arafat many bad things and can use the Camp David negotiations to justify a number of them. But so far as I can tell, these negotiations don't justify what they're now being used to justify: the claim that the Palestinians will never accept a two-state solution, so Ariel Sharon's search-and-destroy policy is the only option Israel has left. If it's true that negotiations are now hopeless—and I genuinely don't know if it is—that is largely due to things that have happened since the beginning of the second intifada. And here, as with Camp David, it would be naive to place the blame on either side alone.

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