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Arafat's Got the Real Problem

By David Hirst (Daily Star, 12 July 2000)

It will be rather less than a miracle if President Clinton achieves the high purpose he's set himself in summoning Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to Camp David: agreement on the core issues that fueled a half-century of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

After all, it won't be the first of its kind. When President Jimmy Carter brought Prime Minister Menachem Begin and President Anwar Sadat together in November 1978, he did so in much the same conditions of high risk and low expectations that prevail today; he himself called the chances of success very remote, and the US press deemed it an almost desperate gamble. There was the same sense of foreboding about the consequences of failure: this last-ditch summit of summits, it was said, would determine the fate of the region for many generations, either by peace or endless struggle.

In the event, Camp David I led to the first great breakthrough -- the Egyptian-Israeli treaty -- of the Middle East peace process, a process which, many believe, has now brought the region to another, even more momentous, turning point. The 100-year, bloodstained struggle could come to an end in a few weeks, wrote a commentator in Israel's Maariv newspaper last week, or reach new heights of violence soon afterward.

It will be less than a miracle because the self-same circumstance -- the weakness and desperation of one of the protagonists -- which rescued Camp David I from highly probable fiasco may very well do the same for Camp David II. Today, that is Arafat's predicament. In 1978, it was Sadat's. It took 13 days, tantrums and threatened walkouts but, in the end, he caved in completely.

True, Begin had to yield up something, the settlements Israel had established in Egypt's Sinai Desert, and, right-wing expansionist that he was, he didn't like it. But that was a small price to pay for the fundamental, existential gain he secured for Israel in return. Sadat had gone to Camp David proclaiming his undying loyalty to the orthodoxy of the time: Egypt would never make a separate peace, never abandon its Arab, and, above all, its Palestinian brethren. Any deal he reached would serve the larger, comprehensive peace to which all others could adhere. But abandon them he did: therein lay the cave-in.

He fiercely denied it of course, brandishing in his defense the so-called Framework for Peace in the Middle East that accompanied the peace treaty proper. This provided for autonomy for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. But not only was this autonomy a purely Israeli concept, it was never going to come into effect anyway, because there was absolutely no obligation imposed on Israel, under the treaty, to ensure that it would; pro-forma negotiations between Israel and Egypt on the Palestinians' behalf duly came to nothing.

The truth is that with this false promise, Camp David I pioneered the one great, indispensable strategem that has sustained the peace process to this day: the deferral of all that is most intractable to the end.

That is why, on the face of it at least, the difficulties of Camp David I now pale before those of its successor. For now the protagonists are face to face, at last, with the consequences of the stratagem in which they all connived, with those fundamental, so-called final-status issues, which earlier breakthroughs from Camp David itself to the Madrid Conference of 1991 to the Oslo agreement of 1993 and its many sequels, systematically pushed into the indefinite future.

To be sure, Barak's problem is far greater than, 22 years ago, Begin's was. Begin had to yield not an inch of what, in terms of Zionist ideology and history, ranks as the inalienable, God-given Land of Israel, or, in security terms, as indispensable for the defense of the state. But Barak will have to.

And whereas Begin had a firm grip on power, Barak's coalition has crumbled around him. But the real, almighty problem is Arafat's; what he will be called upon to do dwarfs what Sadat acquiesced in. His official goal is a Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza. In terms of the Palestinian ideology and history, let alone his own career as revolutionary and liberator, it is a very modest aim indeed: the West Bank and Gaza constitute a mere 23 percent of the land which Palestinians deem rightfully theirs.

But even this modest goal has become patently unattainable. For the deferment stratagem that kept the peace process in being at all was always deferment at the Palestinians', never the Israelis', expense.

The interim solutions which, under Oslo, were supposed to advance Arafat's conception of final status only advanced the Israelis' conception of it. Bowing to the logic of take what you can now and seek the rest later, he acquiesced in accumulating concessions that only widened the gulf between what he was actually achieving and what he assured his people he would achieve in the end.

Now, with Camp David II, the fallacy is about to be brutally and definitively exposed. Even if he gets his state, and all-important US recognition of it, it will be a travesty of what it is supposed to be: without real sovereignty, without Jerusalem as its capital, without the return of refugees, without most of the territory on which Israeli settlements have arisen. Its very birth will be conditional upon his termination of the Palestinian struggle, the renunciation of all the historic rights and claims the struggle embodied.

That is what, for the Israelis, Camp David II is all about. That is the basic, existential gain -- the completion of Camp David I -- that they expect from it. It is the last service that Arafat -- drawing on all the authority and prestige of the legendary freedom fighter turned elder statesman and despot -- can perform for them. As the exile Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi put it, they want him to play the part of the male bee that fertilizes the queen and then dies.

Doubtless, such a terminal cave-in will, like Sadat's, be tricked out in some new artifice of deferment, letting him say the state he is accepting now is but an embryonic version of the one it will become. But however deft the disguise, will he really cave and risk going down in history, not as his people's liberator, but as their betrayer? That is the question.

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