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Ending the fiction
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 28 - 12 - 2000


By Graham Usher
The first year of the new millennium began with Israel and Syria supposedly on the verge of one agreement. It ended with Israel and the Palestinians supposedly on the cusp of another. The first turned out to be a fiction.
It also led to Israel's first military withdrawal from an Arab country under force of arms, and a region more prone to war than at any time in the previous decade, according to the assessments of Israel's military intelligence. The outcome of the second process is as yet unclear, but comes with Israel gearing up for its second prime ministerial elections in as many years and against the bloody landscape of the most ferocious Palestinian revolt in the West Bank and Gaza since Israel occupied them in 1967. Such are the itineraries and detours of the Middle East "peace process."
Ehud Barak's first road was to Damascus, via ending the war in south Lebanon and an agreement on the occupied Golan Heights. Negotiations to resolve both started in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, on 3 January. Angered by Israel's leaking of a US draft agreement that showed extensive Syrian concessions on normalisation and security, Syria ended the talks inconclusively on 11 January. They never resumed. Hizbullah upped the military ante in south Lebanon, and Israel -- in one final fit of useless and disproportionate violence -- bombed Beirut on 8 February.
But the quiet consensus then was that if Shepherdstown had been diplomacy as war, then these skirmishes were war as diplomacy, especially as both Barak and Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad signalled that an agreement was there for the signing.
It was eventually unveiled in Geneva on 26 March courtesy of Israel's main emissary to the Arabs, President Bill Clinton. It turned out to be less than the unofficial "non-papers" "deposited" at the White House by former Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Barak was prepared to "withdraw" from the Golan but not to the 4 June 1967 lines. Rather, peace was to be conditioned on Israel keeping sovereign control over not only the waters and shoreline of the Sea of Galilee, but also of the tributaries from the Jordan River that led to it.
It reportedly took Assad about 20 minutes into his meeting with Clinton to realise the game and also, very nearly, his reign, were up. Sniffing mortality, he accelerated the passage to the throne of his son and heir, Bashar, and readied both Syria and Lebanon for the "dangerous consequences" of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon.
That came prematurely on 24 May, following of the collapse of Israel's proxy South Lebanon Army militia and Hizbullah's smart marshalling of thousands of Lebanese civilians, who poured into the liberated south, some for the first time in 22 years. Less than three weeks later, Assad was dead, bequeathing to the son a Golan as occupied and a region as turbulent as the father had found them when he assumed leadership in Syria in November 1970.
The debacle with Syria had two consequences. First, it concentrated Israeli and American minds on the Palestinian track as the sole agreement possible this side of the US elections. Second, Hizbullah's example demonstrated to Palestinians -- including cadres belonging to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement -- that there was indeed an alternative to negotiations. Both were to have their effect in the second half of 2000.
Following of the "revised" Wye agreement of September 1999, Barak deliberately allowed the negotiations with the Palestinians to fester. This was partly due to his belief that peace with Syria was the real prize, since it would cement Israel's strategic preeminence in the region, buttressed by massive and extra amounts of US aid. Peace with the Palestinians would grant Israel legitimacy, but to Barak's military cast of mind this was always the lesser god.
But it was also because Barak -- just like Binyamin Netanyahu -- never had any intention of implementing Oslo's interim agreement, especially its third West Bank redeployment. Barak's preferred route was rather to skip the interim stage altogether and ensconce the Palestinian leader in a secluded setting so that he and Clinton could "cook up" a final status agreement palatable to the Israeli consensus rather than the terms of international legitimacy.
With the negotiations (official and "secret") going nowhere and his own presidency growing lamer by the day, Clinton eventually agreed to Barak's gambit, calling for an "open ended" summit at Camp David on 11 July that would "make or break" an agreement once and for all. Visibly and publicly reluctant, Arafat heeded the president's call, though more out of protocol than conviction.
For the next two weeks Arafat and the Palestinian delegation were grilled on a low flame, with Barak drafting proposals to "solve the 100-year conflict" that Clinton would then pass off as "American ideas." The double act -- where the Americans were less the "honest broker" than Israel's chief negotiator -- was partly to allow Israeli deniability and partly as a source of extra pressure on the Palestinians.
And the proposals and ideas came thick and fast, most of them aired already at the "secret" Stockholm talks that had preceded the summit or rehashed from the unofficial "understandings" reached between Israel's Yossi Beilin and the PLO's Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) in the autumn of 1995.
The Palestinians would get a de-militarised, truncated state in 88 per cent of the West Bank and all of Gaza and varying degrees of authority in East Jerusalem, including within the Old City and at the Haram Al-Sharif. In return, Israel would annex the vast West Bank settlement blocs of Gush Ezion, Maale Adumim and Ariel and receive recognition of its sovereign claim on or under the Temple Mount. Together with some slivers of land near Gaza but within Israel, the Palestinians were expected to bless this as an "end of conflict, end of claims" deal, including (above all) renunciation of the Palestinian refugees' right of return as specified in UN Resolution 194.
As a package, Barak certainly offered more at Camp David than had any previous Israeli government. But as a final agreement it was one that no authentic Arab leader could possibly accept. And Arafat refused, even though certain members of the Palestinian delegation were tempted.
Seeing his stratagem and most of his coalition unravel before his eyes, Barak declared that the Palestinian leadership was not yet ripe to take the "necessary, historical decisions." Clinton went even further, explicitly blaming Arafat for the failure of the summit and threatening to relocate the US embassy to West Jerusalem, a move tantamount to recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
The same pattern of accusation and blame repeated itself over the next two months, as Arafat trotted the globe in a vain attempt to restore what had been an international consensus on the Palestinian issue and muster support for a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood. He got nowhere. The European line was that, while Israel could be more generous territorially on the West Bank, the deal on Jerusalem (in the words of one junior British minister) was the "best" Arafat could expect from Israel and he was a fool to refuse it.
Nor was Arafat's reception much warmer among the Arabs. Effectively abandoning him at Camp David, the various Arab states remained loath to do anything -- such as convening an Arab summit -- to give flesh to the rhetoric that "East Jerusalem must be the capital of the Palestinian state" and the refugees must be granted the right to return.
The upshot was that on 13 September -- the formal end of Oslo's already extended interim period -- Arafat was forced to defer on a declaration of statehood for the second time in two years amid the open disenchantment of Fatah and enormous cynicism of his own people. As for Barak, he was about to return to the 120-seat Knesset with a coalition numbering no more than 30 members.
Coincidentally or otherwise, it was at this moment that Likud leader Ariel Sharon -- with Barak's agreement and despite Arafat's explicit warnings -- decided to "demonstrate Jewish sovereignty" over the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. The next day -- 29 September -- Israeli Border Police shot dead seven Palestinians and wounded 120 on the Al-Aqsa mosque compound. Thus was born the Intifada of Al-Aqsa.
It has been raging ever since, at a toll of 343 Palestinians dead and over 10,000 injured and fought less between stones and live ammunition than between helicopter gunships and Kalashnikovs. But it too has so far remained a war as diplomacy by other means, confirmed by the Israeli and Palestinian presence in Washington in December to resume negotiations "on the basis" of the ideas raised and rejected at Camp David. The difference this time is that battle will not only be fought out between the two national leaderships, but also within them.
On the Israeli side, the opposition is led by Sharon and the "national camp" for an Israel that will bury the Camp David ideas once and for all and replace them with a long-term plan of "non-belligerency" -- rather than peace -- with the Palestinians and the Arabs.
On the Palestinian, the challenge -- aired by much of Fatah and the other Palestinian factions -- is for negotiations with new sponsors and grounded on the implementation of UN Resolutions 242, 338 and 194. It is also, increasingly, for some form of national unity government and against the "new class" of negotiators, compradors and security chiefs that promised their people "peace" via Oslo and delivered them war, blockades and assassination over the bloodstained walls of Al-Aqsa.
It remains to be seen what these battles will bring come 2001. The only sure thing is that the immediate fate of Palestine will be decided as much by the domestic national struggles within Israel and the occupied territories as by what is or is not agreed in Washington.
Related stories:
Deciding not to decide - twice 14 - 20 September 2000
Eyeball to eyeball 7 - 13 September 2000
The greater Jihad 8 - 14 June 2000
Hizbullah's rising star 29 June - 5 July 2000
Focus:Liberating the South 1 - 7 June 2000
Demons no longer deferred 13 - 19 July 2000
Dark at the end of the tunnel 13 - 19 July 2000
Camp David II 13 - 19 July 2000
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