By Yossi Klein Halevi, Los Angeles Times, July 26, 2000
JERUSALEM — Barely two months ago, the notion that Israel would offer
the Palestinians sovereignty over parts of East Jerusalem and virtually
the entire West Bank (and compensatory territory within Israel proper for
those West Bank areas that would remain under Israeli control), as well as
accept some form of refugee return to pre-1967 Israel, was considered
utopian. Yet that is precisely the deal that Palestinian leader Yasser
Arafat has just rejected. In fact, he has been consistent since the peace
process began: For Arafat, it has always been all or nothing.
According to an Israeli press report, Arafat told President Clinton
during the summit that he wouldn’t agree to any compromise that would
place him at risk of being assassinated by an Arab. Imagine Prime Minister
Ehud Barak declaring that he wouldn’t sign any deal that Yigal Amir, the
assassin of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, couldn’t live with.
For Arafat, the risks must always be taken by Israel; his scenario
isn’t reconciliation based on mutual compromise but Israeli surrender.
Indeed, he fully expected to emerge from Camp David an Arab hero who
conceded nothing, while Barak would violate every Israeli bottom-line
negotiating position, embitter half the Jewish people and be forced to
augment his personal bodyguard.
The Palestinians justify their intransigence by insisting that they
are the blameless victims of the Middle East conflict and that the burden
of concessions rests entirely on aggressor Israel. A Palestinian spokesman
once explained to me why he refused to accept any responsibility for
creating the conflict or for resolving it: “When the Jews and the Germans
negotiated the issue of reparations after the Holocaust, no one expected
the Jews to offer concessions to the Germans. The Germans were the
aggressors; the onus was entirely on them. It’s the same between
Palestinians and Israelis.”
An Israeli colleague, sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, told me
about a recent dialogue group she attended between Israeli and Palestinian
journalists. Each participant was asked to state what he or she required
from the other side to make peace. “I expect Israel to apologize for
existing,” one Palestinian journalist told the stunned Israelis.
Palestinian leaders insist that they cannot compromise on the 1967
borders because they have already conceded the three-quarters of historic
Palestine that became Israel after the 1948 war.
In fact, the Palestinians have conceded nothing; instead, they have
consistently brought tragedy on themselves. The Palestinian leadership
rejected the U.N. partition plan in 1947 and then joined the Arab world’s
attempt to destroy Israel; and not until nearly half a century later did
the PLO finally accept the fact, if not yet the legitimacy, of Israel’s
existence. That is the reason why Israel exists in its current borders.
Ironically, the uncritical sympathy that the Palestinian cause has
enjoyed in the international community has only encouraged Palestinian
self-righteousness, making compromise that much more elusive. Perhaps if
the Palestinians had been called to account for at least partly creating
their own refugee problem–a direct result of the Arab attempt to destroy
Israel at birth–Palestinian leaders might have displayed less self-pity
and more responsibility at Camp David.
Like the late Syrian leader Hafez Assad, who dismissed Barak’s offer
to withdraw from almost the entire Golan Heights, Arafat will accept
nothing less than everything. Barak, who set out to end the 100-year
conflict between Arabs and Jews, has instead proved that, at least for
now, the Arab world isn’t prepared to offer the most minimal compromise
In fact, Barak inadvertently contributed to Arab intransigence by
revealing an eagerness for peace that the Arab world interpreted as
weakness. His withdrawal from Lebanon was widely seen among Arabs as proof
that Israel was losing its nerve and could be extorted to make concessions
once considered inconceivable. Barak failed to understand that, in trying
to make peace with dictators, he needed to couple flexibility with
firmness. The Camp David failure, then, is partly his fault.
In the coming weeks, Arafat may well initiate mob violence, and
journalists will once again earnestly and foolishly speak of the
“frustration of the Palestinian street.” Yet, unlike the original
intifada, which expressed genuine outrage against the Israeli occupation,
this round will be an orchestrated farce. Once again, the Palestinians, in
Abba Eban’s memorable phrase, haven’t missed an opportunity to miss an
opportunity. And while the tragedy of the Palestinians will continue and
perhaps deepen, they have finally forfeited the role of blameless victim.