BEIRUT — At one fraught moment during Camp David, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak reportedly warned Palestinian leader 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, the militant Islamist group.
There was only one way that Camp David II was ever likely to succeed, and it was the same way that Camp David I did: through the virtual surrender of the Arab participant. That is what Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, with his “separate peace,” did in 1978 — and he fell to an Islamist bullet three years later. There had clearly been Israeli and U.S. expectations that Arafat, like Sadat, would “rescue” the marathon parley in extremis: hence the blame that U.S. President Bill Clinton reserved primarily for the Palestinian leader after it was over. But the “rescue” required of him would have dwarfed what Sadat did, and 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 that, before this summit of summits, both leaders swore they would never cross. But, measured against each side’s historical experience and ideology, those expected of Arafat far outstripped those expected of Barak, just as Sadat’s far outstripped those of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
That fundamental disparity was embedded in the history of the 52-year struggle. 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 overwhelming strength and superiority, territorial and strategic advantage. They marked limits on what, as the victor, he was prepared to disgorge. Arafat, by contrast, was striving 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. It was the last service that Arafat — drawing on all the authority and prestige of the legendary freedom fighter turned elder statesman and despot — could perform for them.
Arafat had been ready to oblige, to accept a state on a mere 22 percent of the original Palestine, and probably to acquiesce in any other concessions he felt he could squeeze past his people.
But it was not 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 has been one long tale of retreat from original goals. But in the end he decided that it was one thing — though bad enough, and tactically ruinous, Palestinian critics 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 might 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 4 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 the grassroots level against the Arafat leadership, and its anticipated sellouts, in much the same way that, a generation ago, he himself had done 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 were counting to implement it.
Neither side wishes to pronounce the peace process dead because, as Clinton said, the alternative is “unthinkable.” There is no question, however, that 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 not, at least, 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 there are many credible forecasts that it will eventually take on the dimensions of a new intifada, an armed one this time, and that it will have a 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, “he is not worried about going back empty handed because that is not enough to earn him a lynching or a (Hamas) bullet through the head.” In fact, he 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.”
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