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Camp David Exposes `Final Status' Fallacy

By David Hirst, Daily Star, 07/28/2000

At one fraught moment during Camp David, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak reportedly warned Yasser Arafat: "If we don't finish the job now, at the next meeting I will no longer be prime minister." To which the Palestinian leader retorted: "If I give in on Jerusalem, I will be killed and then you will have to negotiate with Ahmad Yassin," leader of Hamas, his militant, Islamist opposition. There was only one way that Camp David II was ever going to succeed, and it was the same way that Camp David I did: through the virtual surrender of the Arab participant. That is what President Sadat did in 1978 -- and he fell to an Islamist bullet three years later. There had clearly been Israeli and US expectations that, like Sadat, Arafat would "rescue" the marathon parley in extremis: hence the blame which Clinton reserved primarily for him after it was over. But the "rescue" required of him would have dwarfed what Sadat had done, and, as his retort made clear, this one-time "liberator" of his people had no desire to go down in history as their great betrayer.

To be sure, as in 1978, there would have to have been compromise on both sides, reciprocal retreats from the so-called "red lines" which, before this summit of summits, both leaders swore they would never cross. But those expected of Yasser Arafat far outstripped those expected of Barak, just as Sadat's far outstripped Menachim Begin's.

That fundamental disparity was embedded in the history of the 100-year struggle which Clinton, with amazing audacity, had presumed to end in one climactic confabulation. It is a struggle from which, on any true historical reckoning, the Israelis have long since emerged as overwhelming victor; and the balance of power at the negotiating tables has always reflected that. Barak drew his red lines from a position of overweening strength and superiority, territorial and strategic advantage. They marked limits on what, as the victor, he was prepared to disgorge. Arafat strove, by contrast, merely to palliate the extent of Palestinian defeat, loss and humiliation.

The Israelis sought a fundamental, existential gain, the completion of what Camp David I -- and the subsequent Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty -- had begun. They wanted a solemn renunciation of the Palestinian struggle, and all the claims it embodied. Only Arafat, Mr. Palestine himself, had the power and prestige to "legitimize" in his people's name such a dismal outcome of all their strivings. They would have permitted it to be enshrined in a Palestine state, symbol of permanence and finality. Arafat had been ready to oblige, to accept a state on a mere 22 percent of original Palestine, and to acquiesce, no doubt, in any other concessions he felt he could somehow squeeze past his people.

But none of it was enough for the Israelis. The state they would accept was, in Palestinian eyes, a state virtually stripped of the basic ingredients of statehood, without true sovereignty, without an army, without control of frontiers, without Arab East Jerusalem as its capital, without most of the land on which illegal Israel settlements had arisen.

Nonetheless, a Sadat-style surrender was never an entirely fanciful expectation. Arafat's entire career had been one long tale of retreat from original goals. And since the Oslo agreement of 1993, with the "interim" negotiations supposedly paving the way for "final status" ones, he had made concession upon painful concession simply to keep the negotiations in being at all. Even as Camp David dragged into its fifteenth day, many a Palestinian was as fearful that he would go the whole, desperate hog as Israelis and Americans were hopeful of it. But, in the end, he didn't. Evidently he decided that it was one thing -- though bad enough, and tactically ruinous, Palestinians have long been warning -- to cede historic goals temporarily; quite another to cede them for all time, in the context of a final settlement. He may well be Mr. Palestine but, as the exile Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi put it, he had "no Palestinian, Arab or Islamic mandate for ceding sovereignty over Jerusalem or abandoning the rights of four million refugees for a fistful of dollars." It was exceedingly unlikely that he could have pulled it off anyway. Inside the occupied territories, not just Hamas would have been gunning for him. Members of his own organization, Fatah, have been demonstrating against any retreat.

In the Palestinian diaspora, refugees have begun to mobilize at grassroots level against Arafat's leadership, and its would-be sell-outs, in much the same way that, a generation ago, he did against an entirely discredited, earlier leadership. In pushing Arafat down his capitulationist course, Israelis and Americans might have ended up with a beautiful document -- but one that would have destroyed the very instrument on which they counted to implement it.

The Camp David collapse is a mighty blow to the peace process. A notion has grown up, especially in the US, that the process is irreversible, that, starting with Camp David I, one achievement leads in the fullness of time to the next. But that notion is rooted in the highly dubious methodology of peace-making which Camp David I pioneered and which has sustained it ever since: the deferral all the most intractable issues to the end. At Camp David II all the protagonists came face to face, at last, with the stratagem in which they had all connived, but none more self-defeatingly than Arafat; face to face with all those fundamental, "final status" issues which earlier breakthroughs had pushed into the indefinite future. With its collapse, the fallacy has been definitively exposed.

As a result, the Middle East to which Barak and Arafat have returned is one where a much greater number of people, in Israel, Palestine and the Arab world, now believe that peace simply is not possible -- or at least not without another, and presumably massive, outbreak of violence. The Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are in such a state of agitation that violence will certainly erupt. And many are the very credible forecasts that it will eventually take on the dimensions of a new intifada, an armed one this time, and that it will have contagious effect outside Palestine -- in the refugee camps of Lebanon, first of all.

If so, Arafat will face a stark choice: either to suppress the violence, in conjunction with the Israelis, or, reverting to the role of "liberator," to join, and thereby attempt to manipulate it. The Israelis have made little secret of the ferocity with which they would strike back if he did. As the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat put it yesterday: "he is not worried about going back empty-handed because that is not enough to earn him a lynching or a bullet through the head." Far from it, in fact, he has returned home to a hero's welcome, his flagging prestige enormously enhanced. But he surely has to worry about something else: the impact on public opinion, of the Hamas leaders' insistence that "the only solution, now, is for Arafat and his negotiators to announce the failure and futility of the peace talks and return to the path of struggle and jihad."

David Hirst, a veteran Middle East correspondent, wrote this commentary for The Daily Star

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