—   The sharp point of dissent   —

Section: Middle East
14 August 2005

Fuming for Israel: the Case of Alan Dershowitz

9. The Camp David denouement

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A constant refrain throughout Dershowitz's book is that a historic final settlement offer - unprecedented in its generosity - was proposed by prime minister Ehud Barak at Camp David in July 2000 and obstreperously rejected by Yassir Arafat, who shortly thereafter responded with mass violence. In fact, a notion broadly disseminated in the American media at the time was that Arafat chose 'war'. Thus we are asked to believe that the PA (who had no army to speak of and virtually no security forces) opted for 'war' against the regional superpower, a military force outranked on a world scale only by America, Russia and China. This myth of 'Arafat's war' (Thomas Friedman's phrase) persisted right through the period when the all-conquering Napoleon of the Levant was supposedly directing his campaigns from a half-demolished building in Gaza, deprived of electricity and telecommunications, surrounded by Israeli tanks, and unable to budge.

Nevertheless, let us analyse the lead-up to, and unraveling of, the Camp David/Taba negotiations in order to determine if Barak made an offer that could reasonably be accepted by the Palestinians, and to answer Dershowitz's question 'Was Arafat right in turning down the Barak-Clinton peace proposal'?[1]


Following a wave of commendable Israeli displeasure with the obstructionism of Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak was elected to office in May 1999 with a reassuring security-first track record and an apparent will to end the regional conflict on the three remaining fronts: Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian. Yet even though the Palestinian issue is at the core of the tension in the region, he chose to deal with it last. Moreover, he had declared that Israel would retain the settlements on the West Bank; that there would be no return to the pre-June 1967 borders; that Jerusalem (including Arab east Jerusalem) would remain undivided under Israeli sovereignty; and that Israel's eastern border would remain the de facto one of the Jordan river.[2] It's hardly astonishing to learn, therefore, that such a loudly advertised position on the main issues of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, coupled with placing the Palestinians at the back of the peace queue, did little to engender an atmosphere of trustworthiness prior to the Camp David summit.

It might also be supposed that a prime minister who is serious about reaching a point where he can offer the Palestinians an acceptable peace proposal would do nothing in the meantime that might risk torpedoing it. In fact, under Barak's premiership, quite the opposite happened: illegal settlements expanded at a rate that surpassed even that of his Likudnik predecessor.
During Barak's first year in office, his "peace cabinet" authorized 1,924 housing starts across the Green Line, a full 65 percent more than the 1,160 approved by the Netanyahu government in 1997. Similarly, Barak permitted construction to resume in eleven of the seventeen unauthorised settlement outposts established immediately after the Wye agreement (in response to the then-Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon's public appeal to settler so "grab every hilltop") but frozen by Netanyahu in 1999.[3]
This hurried placing of obstacles in the path of a final settlement is a curious way in which to approach a peace conference. Nevertheless, despite great reluctance from Arafat - apparently because of the precedent Barak had set of not implementing prior agreements - both parties made it to the bargaining table in July 2000, the same month in which 'contracts were awarded for 522 new dwellings in Israel's Har Homa, a project on land expropriatiated from an Arab enclave in southeast Jerusalem that has lost 90 percent of it's land since Israel's takeover in 1967 through "town planning"'.[4] Such was the backdrop for the Camp David talks. Note that Glenn E. Robinson's simple observation about the talks - which applied even before they had taken place - seems to have escaped much of the media:
On each issue, Israel held the power on the ground to decide what to implement. No refugee could return without Israel allowing him to do so; no settlement could be dismantled without Israel's say-so; no land could be returned to the Palestinians without Israeli consent. While Palestinians may have wanted these things to happen, only Israel could make them happen. The peace process should be understood more as an internal Israeli debate about how much to concede of all that it controlled, rather than as negotiations between Israel and Palestine.[5]
Or as Chomsky pithily phrased it some years ago when discussing Israel's resolution of the water issue by the promise of 'cooperation' with the Palestinians, 'the outcome of cooperation between a flea and an elephant is not hard to predict.'[6]


So what was proposed? According to Robert Malley, a US delegate who attended the talks, '[t]he final and largely unnoticed consequence of Barak's approach is that, strictly speaking, there never was an Israeli offer.'[7] It seems that Barak, oblivious to the Palestinian mistrust his time in office had helped to engender, hoped to bludgeon his opponent into a more accommodating position from which it would then be possible to move toward Israeli concessions. This position was never arrived at, thus casting Arafat as the 'rejectionist'.

Bruited about in the media shortly after the collapse of the talks were two significant misconceptions: (I) that Barak had offered a Palestinian state which included 90% or more of the West Bank, and (II) that he had offered Palestinian sovereignty over east Jerusalem. Few of these reports were accompanied by maps: had this been so, the maps would have immediately belied the specious largesse of Barak's concession. And they would have made clear why the Palestinian plea for a state is now a plea for a 'viable state' - a pitiful qualification made necessary in light of the Camp David machinations which we will now examine.


Since 1995, on foot of the Oslo accords, the West Bank has been divided into three types of areas: in areas designated A, Palestinians have full control; in areas B, the Palestinians exercise civil control or 'autonomy' while Israel exercises control over security; and area C comes under full Israeli control. Area C consists of large tracts of land with some Arab populations and large settlement blocs. Area B features settlements planted into large Arab-populated areas linked by Jewish-only bypass roads which further fragment the areas which they traverse. Settlements in these areas are largely high-maintenance: given the hostile population they have been implanted in, the residents must be shuttled to and from their homes in armoured buses, or with a military escort. Israel takes on this burden because the settlements were deliberately placed in such areas in order to frustrate any final peace settlement that will involve handing back conquered territory. All settlements constructed outside of the Green Line are in violation of the Geneva Convention and the provisions on UN 242, both of which rule out the acquisition of territory by force.

Barak's proposal for the West Bank ran as follows: in contravention of international law,[8] all of area C was to be annexed to Israel (including the Arab population centres between the large settlement blocs - consisting of some 120,000 people); and areas A and B were to come under full Palestinian control. The whole of the Jordan valley and the outer rim of the southern Arab bantustans were to come under 'temporary' Israeli control for 'security purposes'. It appears therefore that the '90%' figure emerges as what is left behind once the 10% annexation is effected. Plainly, however, what is left behind is hardly a full 90%. Areas A and B alone, for example, make up only about 60%. This begs the question of what is to happen to the Jewish population of area A, whose settlements (and concomitant infrastructure) are to remain untouched. It appears - incredibly - that the settlers were to be given the choice of remaining under Palestinian sovereignty, and there was to be no inducement prompting them to leave. Quite the opposite, according to Israeli scholar Tanya Reinhart:
The policy since Oslo has been to refuse all requests of settlers to relocate with compensation for the property they have left behind. ... Based on past experience, not only will the settlers stay, but the settlements will be expanded. And if the settlements stay, of course the Israeli army will stay as well to protect them, and thus the situation will remain as it is now - namely, the Palestinian "state" will consist of 42 percent of the West Bank.[9]
If a ceramic tile were dropped to the ground from a height, it might look something like the planned 'state' Barak had in mind for the West Bank - shattered into different pieces which were themselves further broken up by roads linking settlements which Barak stated he had no intention of dismantling. Worse, the new state would be phagocytically swallowed within the territory of Israel proper; would have no control over its own airspace; no external borders; and limited control of its water resources. To ponder the fairness of the proposal, we have only to ask ourselves how the Israelis would respond if they were presented by the Arabs with a proposal for such an unworkable 'state', entirely surrounded by land held by its historical enemy, and continuing to be settled by its enemy's citizens.


Arab east Jerusalem did not fare any better at Camp David: its fate was impaled on some verbal legerdemain. Note firstly, however, the history of the slow, creeping annexation, which over the years has been implemented through the construction of approximately 60,000 Jewish-only housing units:[10]
Since 1967 East Jerusalem has been systematically Judaized, its borders inflated, enormous housing projects built, new roads and bypasses constructed so as to make it unmistakably and virtually unreturnable and, for the dwindling, harassed, Arab population of the city, all but uninhabitable. As Deputy Mayor Abraham Kehlia said in July 1993, "I want to make the Palestinians open their eyes to reality and understand that the unification of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty is irreversible."[11]
Barak, it seems, had no intention of effecting a reversal either - as per his election promise. His offer of a Palestinian capital was based on slippery terminology conceived in the Yossi Beilin / Abu Mazen plan, the precursor to Camp David. In this document, the region defined as 'Al Quds' which 'exceeds the area annexed to Israel in 1967, will be the capital of the Palestinian state [my italics] ...'. 'This whole formulation', as Reinhart has pointed out, 'rests on a verbal trick':
The municipal borders of Jerusalem, under Jordanian rule, were broader on the southeast side than the municipal borders defined by Israel when it annexed east Jerusalem. They also included the village Abu-Dis and two neighbouring villages. It is in fact this neighboring village of Abu-Dis that is designed in the Beilin - Abu Mazen plan to serve as the capital of a Palestinian state. The verbal trick was that Abu-Dis would be named Al-Quds - the Arab name of Jerusalem, meaning "the holy city."[12]
In fact, Malley and Agha report that early in the Camp David process, 'Barak discarded a number of interim steps, even those to which Israel was formally committed by various agreements - including ... the transfer to Palestinian control of three villages abutting Jerusalem'. This could only mean Abu-Dis and its pair of conterminous neighbourhoods. Barak also 'warned the Americans that he could not accept Palestinian sovereignty over any part of East Jerusalem other than a purely symbolic "foothold."'[13] With a starting point like this, there was nowhere to go but home.


In summary, the Camp David summit followed precisely the trajectory plotted by Barak's election promises: full retention of the settlements on the West Bank; no return to the pre-June 1967 borders; all of Jerusalem undivided under Israeli sovereignty; and the Jordan river as Israel's border. This 'state', as Ali Abunimah put it, was simply 'a maintenance of the occupation by other means.'[14] It is alleged that the February 2001 Taba negotiations made more progress, but they were not high-level; neither the Israeli nor Palestinian premier attended; and Barak (who, inexplicably, had resigned by that time, disruptively forcing new elections) abruptly called them off. (A mooted meeting with Arafat in Stockholm was also abandoned.) As for Ariel Sharon's September 2000 stroll around the Haram al-Sharif, we are apparently asked to believe that a sincere peace negotiator like Barak saw no potentially deleterious effect on an ongoing peace process in picking precisely this sensitive time to allow the Arab world's public enemy number one to strut about the Muslim world's holiest site number three. I have to say that Israel's persistent habit of insulting of the world's intelligence is one of the most rebarbative features of this conflict.

Despite all this, Dershowitz shows no hesitation in entirely blaming Arafat for rejecting a patently unacceptable and clearly non-final settlement, triggering the failure of talks which he attended very reluctantly owing to both their poor timing and a political atmosphere poisoned by Barak's arrogant sidelining of the Palestine issue. Arafat himself had forewarned Clinton about the strong potential for failure at Camp David, and had only been coaxed there by Clinton's promise to him (swiftly broken after the talks) that he would not be blamed if they failed.

And the ensuing violence? Machiavelli, watching the Florentine monk Savonarola being burned in his own bonfire of the vanities, is said to have observed that one should never start a revolution in the belief that one can later control it or turn it off at will. Yet this is precisely the magic touch which the Israelis (and Dershowitz) attribute to Arafat during the period when the Al-Aqsa Intifada was raging out of control. In the words of Glenn E. Robinson:
Besides showing a breathtaking ignorance of history and Palestinian politics, this line of argument contains within it what I call the "microwave" theory of political violence. That is, Arafat could simply push a button and immediately create a rush of frenzied energy, and then push another button to immediately stop it. The notion of Palestinians-as-automatons would rightly be dismissed as ludicrous, perhaps even racist, if applied to nearly any other people in the world.[15]

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1 Dershowitz, p. 117
2 See Shlaim, p. 608, Masalha, p. 1
3 Mouin Rabbani, 'A Smorgasbord of Failure: Oslo and the Al-Aqsa Intifada', in Roane Carey (Ed.), The New Intifada, Verso, New York, 2001, p. 76
4 Noam Chomsky, Introduction to Carey (Ed.) The New Intifada, p. 15
5 Glenn E. Robinson, 'The Peace of the Powerful', in Carey (Ed.) The New Intifada, p. 112
6 Noam Chomsky, Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians, (Updated Edition), Pluto Press, London, 1999, p. 538
7 Robert Malley and Hussein Agha, 'Camp David: the Tragedy of Errors', New York Review of Books, August 2001
8 It appears that Barak 'specifically demanded that the new agreement legally replace UN Resolution 242' (Tanya Reinhart, Israel/Palestine: How to End the War of 1948, Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2003, p. 31)
9 Reinhart, p. 46
10 See Chomsky, p. 547
11 Edward Said, 'Palestinians under Siege', in Carey (Ed.) The New Intifada, p. 39
12 Reinhart, p. 35
13 Malley & Hussein. 'Camp David: The Tragedy of Errors'
14 Democracy Now, 12 April, 2002
15 Robinson, p. 111