Myths vs. Truths: The Middle East

With Yasser Arafat dead, peace in the Middle East supposedly has a new chance. It is time to revive the ‘road map’, leading to the creation of a ‘viable’ Palestinian state. This presupposes that Arafat was the main obstacle to peace. He was the terrorist leader who never made the transition to being a statesman.

If you tell a lie frequently and boldly enough people come to believe it. The lie in this case goes as follows. At the Camp David conference in July 2000, sponsored by President Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered to return to the Palestinians 92 per cent of the territory on Gaza and the West Bank of the Jordan the Israelis had occupied since the 1967 war. Yasser Arafat rejected the offer because he wanted to destroy Israel, not make peace. He unleashed a war of terrorism against Israel two months later.

And the truth? According to Jeremy Pressman, a serious researcher, the Israeli offer, while unprecedented –Israel had never before accepted a two-state solution – was ‘neither as generous nor as complete as Israel has since suggested’. First, it demanded security guarantees which would have restricted Palestinian sovereignty. Second, temporary and permanent subtractions reduced the Israeli territorial offer from 92 per cent to 70 to 80 cent of the occupied territories. Third, the Israeli offer would have broken up the new state into two, if not three, non-contiguous areas, bisected by fortified Israeli roads and settlements. Finally, Barak presented his ideas as a final offer, to be accepted or rejected immediately. Arafat was no saint, but it is hardly surprising that he concluded that he could not sell a deal which fell far short of minimum Palestinian aspirations, and which would most likely lead to his own assassination.

However, he did not give up negotiations. Less than a month after Camp David, he contacted US Middle East envoy Dennis Ross to ask for a follow up. This request was rejected. Ross complains: ‘What were we supposed to do? Arafat at Camp David indicated no readiness to do anything. If we were to chase after him at that point then you would tell him that that kind of negotiating behaviour was fine’. Despite this, further talks did take place on the so-called ‘Clinton Parameters’ and had greatly narrowed differences between the two sides before they were abruptly ended by Ariel Sharon when he became Israeli prime minister in February 2001.

Israeli propaganda has it that Arafat deliberately unleashed the Palestinian uprising against Israel which followed Camp David. Most impartial observers believe that it was triggered off by Sharon’s provocative visit to the Muslim sanctuary of Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem on 28 September 2000.

Avi Schlaim, the respected Oxford University expert on the Middle East, argues that the main obstacle to peace all along has been the Israeli policy of planting settlers in the occupied territories as part of a Greater Israel project. There are now an estimated quarter of a million of them. This policy is incompatible with the creation of a ‘viable’ Palestinian state. Sharon has made this inconsistency even more glaring by building a security wall,higher than the Berlin Wall, which runs deep into the West Bank, reducing the area available for the Palestinian state by up to 50 per cent, and cutting it up into 16 isolated enclaves. ‘In short’, Schlaim writes, ‘the wall is paving the way to the de facto annexation of a substantial part of the West Bank to Israel thereby undermining the possibility of a genuine two-state solution’. Moreover, Sharon has got President Bush to accept the ‘facts on the ground’ he has created. Until the United States, or Israeli voters, repudiate Sharon and his policies, the road map will lead nowhere.