America and Israel, please spare us the sophomoric spin-doctoring


It took a while (about a year, to be precise), but finally the world is hearing more balanced, thorough and accurate reports about what actually happened during the Israeli-Palestinian-American negotiations at Camp David last summer. When those talks failed, the Israeli and American spin machines went into overdrive to portray the Palestinians as the main obstacle to a peace agreement, claiming that Yasser Arafat turned to violence after he turned down a very generous Israeli offer to withdraw from most of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Palestinian and American officials who were at Camp David have now provided information showing that the Israeli offer was nowhere near what was required to achieve a permanent peace based on equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians. The Israelis envisaged significant withdrawals from most of the occupied lands, but without giving the Palestinians territorial contiguity or real sovereignty. Israel’s withdrawals would have left the Palestinians in four chunks of land separated by Israeli apartheid-style roads for settlers, settlement-colonies and security strips; Israel also wanted to retain ultimate control over Palestinian border crossings, airspace and underground water supplies. Israel offered to give the Palestinians control and custody, but not sovereignty, over the key Islamic holy places in Jerusalem, and it showed no significant or serious desire to reach a fair resolution of the Palestine refugee issue.

Israel certainly would have returned to the Palestinians more land than any previous Israeli government had offered, but in its totality, it made a mockery of the principle that negotiations would result in two sovereign states, Israeli and Palestinian, enjoying equal rights. It would have basically reconfigured and repackaged the Israeli occupation and control of the Palestinians, and would not have addressed the core issue of the rights of the Palestinian refugees to be repatriated and/or compensated. We should not judge Barak or any other leader by the standard of how much further than his predecessors he moved, but rather by how much closer he moved to accepting international law and UN resolutions.

The government of Ehud Barak should certainly be acknowledged for moving forward on the terms of a potential peace accord with the Palestinians, but it also proved inept at preparing the domestic political ground for the kind of compromise peace accord that would have to be signed one day with the Palestinians. The Palestinian leadership, similarly, can be criticised for not sufficiently consulting with the Palestinian refugees on acceptable terms for a permanent peace accord with Israel, and for not preparing the refugees for some of the compromises that would have to be made in the end.

The reports now emerging from American and Palestinian sources suggest that all three sides made mistakes, which is probably closer to the truth than the Israeli-American attempt to pin all the blame for Camp David’s failure on Arafat and the Palestinians. The intensity with which the Clinton and Barak spin doctors blamed uniquely the Palestinians probably reflects the fact that Clinton and Barak were both fighting terrible political demons at home; they gambled on a slapdash, hurry-up, throw-all-the-cards-in-the-air-and-see-where-they-land summit, and they lost because the Palestinians would not make one-sided concessions merely to prop up Clinton’s and Barak’s political standings. Blaming the Palestinians was the easy thing to do, but it was clearly not an accurate or honest reflection of the reality at Camp David.

It would be more useful and mature now, especially in view of the fighting that has defined the last ten months, to reflect on two things: first, the reasons why Camp David failed and how those outstanding contentious issues could be resolved in the future; and second, the significant progress that was achieved at the talks and why it was achieved, so that the dynamics that led to progress on some issues could be used to achieve progress on the issues that were not resolved.

It seems a rather sophomoric exercise for Americans and Israelis to expect the world to believe in retrospect that they were right and generous while the Palestinians were wrong and uncompromising. The truth is that the Americans and the Israelis were more competent at stuffing the international mass media with a one-sided, distorted, self-serving and slightly racist (“the Israelis were unbelievably generous, the Palestinians made no offer and planned to use violence all along…”) interpretation of what happened at Camp David, while the Palestinians were woefully incompetent at presenting their side of the story.

It seems appropriate now to stop trying to rewrite and distort history and instead try to learn the hard but useful lessons that recent history offers us. The Oslo process and the Camp David summit were dramatic, daring, controversial and heroic attempts to achieve a permanent peace between Israelis and Palestinians. They made some significant progress, but ultimately they failed for reasons that both sides should document, accept and learn from, so that future negotiations may succeed. Reconfiguring the Israeli occupation, rewarding Zionist colonisation and rewriting historical facts are unworthy objectives. Much more appropriate would be a balanced, fair and permanent peace accord that treats Israelis and Palestinians as equal human beings, with parallel and equal national rights. Camp David did not do that, and that’s why it failed.