By Michael Hirsh, June 27, 2001
Nearly a year after he failed to achieve a deal at Camp David, former president
Bill Clinton gave vent to his frustrations this week over the collapse of peace in
the Mideast. And Clinton directed his ire at one man: Yasir Arafat.
On Tuesday night, Clinton told guests at a party at the Manhattan
apartment of former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke and his wife, writer
Kati Marton, that Arafat called to bid him farewell three days before he left
“You are a great man,” Arafat said.
“The hell I am,” Clinton said he responded. “I’m a colossal failure, and
you made me one.”
Clinton said he told Arafat that by turning down the best peace deal he was
ever going to get – the one offered by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and
brokered by Clinton last July – the Palestinian leader was only guaranteeing the
election of the hawkish Ariel Sharon, the current Israeli leader.
But Arafat didn’t listen. Sharon was elected in a landslide Feb. 6 and has
gradually escalated his crackdown on the Palestinians despite a shaky ceasefire
negotiated two weeks ago by CIA chief George Tenet.
Clinton has refused most interview requests since he left office Jan. 20. But at
the party – which was held jointly by Holbrooke and the International Crisis
Group to celebrate a new book, ‘Waging Modern War,’ by former NATO
commander Gen. Wesley Clark – Clinton captivated guests for nearly an hour
with an insider’s tale of the Camp David talks. Among the listeners, who
gathered around the former president as he cheerfully downed Diet Cokes and
hors d’oeuvres, were Holbrooke, Clark and John Negroponte, who has been
nominated by President Bush to replace Holbrooke as U.N. ambassador.
Clinton said, somewhat surprisingly, that he never expected to close the deal at
Camp David. But he made it clear that the breakdown of the peace process and
the nine months of deadly intifada since then were very much on his mind. He
described Arafat as an aging leader who relishes his own sense of victimhood
and seems incapable of making a final peace deal.
“He could only get to step five, and he needed to get to step 10,” the
former president said. But Clinton expressed hope in the younger generation of
Palestinian officials, suggesting that a post-Arafat Palestinian leader might be
able to make peace, perhaps in as little as several years.
“I’m just sorry I blew this Middle East thing,” Clinton said shortly before
leaving. “But I don’t know what else I could have done.”
Clinton also revealed that, contrary to most conventional wisdom after Camp
David ended on July 25, 2000, the key issue that torpedoed the talks in their
final stages was not the division of East Jerusalem between Palestinians and
Israelis, but the Palestinian demand for a ‘right of return’ of refugees to Israel.
On Jerusalem, he said, the two sides were down to dickering over final
language on who would get sovereignty over which part of the Western Wall.
But Arafat continued to demand that large numbers of Palestinian
refugees, mainly from the 1967 and 1948 wars, be allowed to return – numbers
that Clinton said both of them knew were unacceptable to the Israelis.
Clinton said he bluntly contradicted Arafat when, in one of their final
conversations, the Palestinian leader expressed doubts that the ancient Jewish
temple actually lay beneath the Islamic-run compound in Jerusalem containing
the holy Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.
This was a critical point of dispute, since the Western Wall, a remnant of
the temple’s retaining wall, is the holiest site in Judaism and one the Israelis
were intent on maintaining sovereignty over.
“I know it’s there,” Clinton said he told Arafat.
The so-called Al Aqsa intifada began after Ariel Sharon made a
controversial visit to the disputed compound on September 28, 2000.