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Nicholas Kristof: Arafat and the Myth of Camp David



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Saturday, May 18, 2002

Nicholas Kristof: Arafat and the Myth of Camp David

NEW YORK: So does Yasser Arafat really want peace? In several columns I have sneered at the Palestinian leader and reiterated the common view that he had rejected very generous peace deals proffered by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel. That is a nearly universal understanding in the West, expressed by everybody from Henry Kissinger to the cocktail party set.

But, prompted by various readers, I've been investigating more closely and interviewing key players. This is what I found:

It is clear that in July 2000 at Camp David, Barak and President Bill Clinton suggested a courageous, path-breaking peace plan permitting a Palestinian state with a capital in Jerusalem. But, equally clearly, it still would have left the Palestinian state shorn of at least 9 percent of the West Bank, crippled by the loss of water and good land, and (even in the best version) nearly divided by an Israeli annexation running east from Jerusalem. It is reasonable to question whether it would have created a viable state.

The notion that the failure of Camp David was completely Arafat's fault arose when Clinton publicly said as much, partly in an effort to bolster Barak's re-election prospects.

"The mistake was to put all the blame on Arafat, not only because he did not deserve it," said Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli negotiator. "Maybe he deserved part and maybe it is true that the Palestinians did not initiate ideas, but it was a tactical mistake to put all the blame on one side."

Arafat foolishly never bothered to offer a counterproposal. But in a tactical sense he was right to say no, for the Israelis and Americans came back with much better proposals. In late December Clinton offered new terms - a detailed peace plan that would have given the Palestinians a workable state with all of Gaza and (after a land swap) territory equivalent to about 97 percent of the West Bank.

This is the moment when Arafat should have leaped. Instead, he dithered and then went to the White House on Jan. 2, 2001, to deliver a final answer - which was so murky with reservations that when the Palestinians had left the room, Clinton and his advisers huddled to try to figure out what Arafat had said.

"Arafat was the way he always was - you can't pin him down - but he wanted to continue negotiating," recalled Robert Malley, a Clinton aide in the room. He adds: "There's a theme out there that because the Palestinians rejected Camp David and afterward didn't clearly accept the president's proposals, therefore they reject any peaceful two-state solution. I think that's an unfair and incorrect characterization."

Soon afterward, Shlomo Ben-Ami, then Israel's foreign minister, met Arafat in Cairo. He agrees that Arafat didn't exactly reject the Clinton plan - but didn't unequivocally accept it either. "The problem with Arafat is that he's never clear," Ben-Ami recalled. "He says things like, 'If there's a will, there's a way.' All kinds of slogans that don't mean anything."

Talks continued at Taba, Egypt, and by all accounts made considerable progress. Ben-Ami says the Israelis even kept a helicopter standing by to rush the Palestinian negotiators to Gaza in case a deal was reached.

Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian negotiator, says "we were very close to an agreement." That may overstate the situation, but notes of a European diplomat who was present suggest movement on everything from territory to Palestinian refugees.

"Progress was made at the Taba talks," Arafat said this week, and he referred to the joint statement on Jan. 27, 2001, when the negotiations were suspended because of the imminent Israeli election. In the statement, the two sides declared that they "have never been closer to reaching an agreement and it is thus our shared belief that the remaining gaps could be bridged" after the election. But (mostly because of Palestinian violence) Ariel Sharon won, and is unwilling even to consider such a deal.

It is fair to fault Arafat for lacking the courage to strike a deal at Taba; for being a maddening, vacillating, passive negotiator; for condoning violence that unseated the best Israeli peace partner the Palestinians could have had. But the common view in the West that Arafat flatly rejected a reasonable peace deal, and that it is thus pointless to attempt a strategy of negotiation, is a myth.

The New York Times

keyword: Negotiations and the Peace Process

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