Myths and Disasters

I was in Washington DC recently to attend a conference on regional security. The intended region for security was of course the Middle East and much of the discussion focused, as expected, on the situations in Palestine and in Iraq.

There was no lack of consensus that these are two major sources of insecurity in our region. What was quite hard to achieve was agreement on how to deal with them, though this should in no way be considered as an indication of the meeting’s failure. Obviously, neither resolution of these conflicts nor elimination of the region’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD), another conference concern, could be accomplished in a single meeting.

But what was both discouraging and disappointing was the recurrence of an old and powerful myth relating to the deadlocked situation between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

The myth is the widely believed Israeli propaganda that the eruption of violence in the occupied Palestinian territories was the direct result of the decision of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to reject the generous offer made to him at Camp David in July 2000 by the then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. According to this propaganda, Barak went further than any Israeli prime minister in history, offering the Palestinians a state of their own on 97 per cent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. No less dramatically, Barak is alleged to have crossed all Israeli red lines by offering to divide Jerusalem and give the Palestinians a capital in half of the city.

During the past two-and-a-half years, all the elements of this myth were convincingly refuted, not just by the Palestinians but by independent American and Israeli sources as well. Barak offered not a peace plan with clear parameters and maps, but ideas conveyed only verbally. These ideas were anything but generous and simply repackaged old Israeli ideas for limited Palestinian autonomy in the framework of continuing overall Israeli control and sovereignty. Barak floated his ideas through the Americans, so that he could later disavow them, which in fact he did.

The figure of 97 (or 95 per cent or 96 per cent, depending on who is speaking) was utterly false on two counts. First, the Israelis were always vague about what they were measuring. Did their definition of the West Bank include or exclude the parts which they intended to keep? Nobody knew. Barak himself claimed he had offered as little as 85 per cent, while Peres claimed that Israel had offered 100 per cent of the occupied territories, something that few of Israel’s most devoted apologists claim.

Israel’s skill in playing with words during negotiations is well-known. Israeli acceptance of a principle or peace plan often means in reality outright rejection once all the demanded alterations and exceptions are taken into account. What the West Bank means in international law and what it means to Israeli negotiators may be two completely different things.

So, 97 per cent of the West Bank for Israel may be much less in reality, once Israel excludes the unilaterally enlarged area of Jerusalem and the settlements over whose fate it has so far refused to negotiate.

The Jewish-only bypass roads linking the settlements to Israel and various security areas, including the vast Jordan Valley, were debited in advance from the Palestinian account, before any measurement even began. Thus, 97 per cent might in reality be 45 per cent, spread into bits and pieces.

Israel is good at floating vague ideas that grow in their generosity and magnanimity if they are rejected but quickly prove empty of any meaningful content if accepted. Hence, the Jerusalem which the Palestinians have been severely blamed for not accepting from Barak as their capital was no more than the dusty village of Abu Dis, which was never a part of Jerusalem. Israel simply took this village and with the complicity of some Palestinian officials renamed it Al Quds.

The name Al Quds (the holy) is the Arabic synonym for Jerusalem, and it refers to all Jerusalem within its historic boundaries. It is absolutely untrue that Al Quds only refers to the Arab part of Jerusalem, let alone a mere village, Abu Dis, which existed throughout history as a separate entity from the city itself, just like other villages near the city, such as Silwan (biblical Siloam), Al Tur and Azariyyah.

Long before Camp David, and again at the Taba talks that followed that summit, Palestinian negotiators had already accepted most of these humiliating terms. The Oslo Accords and the ensuing Abu Mazen-Beilin agreement of 1995 laid the ground for a possible settlement, according to which the Palestinians accepted Abu Dis instead of Arab Jerusalem as their capital, accepted the annexation of the settlements by Israel, and tacitly agreed that the issue of refugees would be solved entirely at the expense of the refugees’ inalienable rights. These were only a few of the dozens of disastrous concessions the Palestinians made, so none of these issues were sticking points.

The real problem was Barak’s inability to commit himself to any final deal with the Palestinians at a time when his reelection chances looked precarious. His goal was to prolong the process of extracting concessions from the Palestinians, exploiting their weakness and isolation, just as Sharon is doing now. The real deal breaker was Barak’s attempt to convince the Palestinian leaders to sign at Camp David a document declaring the end of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict before even knowing the terms of the conflict termination. This would have meant for the Palestinians relinquishing the legal and international basis of their rights and claims with precisely nothing in exchange. Tanya Reinhart’s masterful account of the Camp David negotiations in her book `Israel/Palestine: how to end the war’, of 1948, is a must read for anyone who wishes to understand what truly happened there and in the period leading up to the summit.

Those who still feed and nurture this myth cannot claim they do not know the truth. Rather, their goal is to obscure the causes of the ongoing conflict and violence, and hence to make any peaceful resolution impossible. Added to this is the newly fashionable claim that through some undefined process, a war in Iraq will somehow create a better climate to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. The proponents of this idea base their theory on the precedent of the Gulf War, which led to the launching of the so-called peace process at the October 1991 Madrid conference.

It is true that the United States did, at the time, commit itself to turning to the Arab-Israeli conflict after dealing with Iraq, having been accused of applying double standards — using force to secure Iraqi compliance with the UN resolutions and Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, while allowing Israel to continue to do more with full impunity even with full support. What is also true is that the Madrid peace process has dramatically failed to precipitate the ongoing violence. Its failure can be directly attributed to the very reasons which the proponents of the current fallacy point to as guarantees for success this time around.

The 1991 Gulf War weakened the Arab world and brought it into direct negotiations, just as Israel had always wanted. Israel took this as a licence not to settle the disputes that existed, but to use negotiations as a chance to continue expansion, occupation and colonisation by other means. Those who continue to spread the Camp David myth are trying to discredit the very idea of negotiation, in order to open the way for endless Israeli aggression and US inaction.

Rather than benefiting from the costly lessons of the past, that any settlement of this historic conflict should be based on justice and legality, or at least some justice, it unfortunately seems that the plan this time is to repeat and deepen rather than avoid past failures. This time, the US war plan, backed by Israel, envisages destroying Iraq, isolating and weakening Syria and Iran, and attempting to eliminate any form of resistance to the Israeli occupation. This might, through sheer devastation, provide Israel with a temporary breathing space. But this will not lead to peace, nor will it cause the Palestinians or Arab people to relinquish their rights.

Just as Israel’s attempt to lay waste to Lebanon gave rise to Hizbollah, which later defeated Israel in battle, so will the effort to do to the whole region what was done to Lebanon generate new forms of resistance. This will ensure that a conflict which could have ended years ago if Israel had seized the generous offers its neighbours made will continue for generations and bring about unimaginable disasters to all, not least to those in Israel who are now celebrating victories they think are coming.

Hasan Abu Nimah is former Ambassador, Permanent Representative of Jordan at the United Nations