A well-known Israeli theater critic once left the opening performance of a new play after the first five minutes and then wrote a withering review about it. When his colleagues said that this was unfair, he answered: “I don’t have to eat the whole egg in order to know that it is rotten.”
One does not have to read the whole long interview with Ehud Barak, published in The New York Review of Books (June 13, 2002), in order to know that he is é well, not exactly an enlightened statesman. It is enough to read the following words of his:
“They (the Palestinians, and especially Arafat) are the products of a culture in which to tell a lieécreates no dissonance. They don’t suffer from the problem of telling lies that exists in Judeo-Christian culture. Truth is seen as an irrelevant categoryéThe deputy director of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation told me that there are societies in which lie detector tests don’t work, societies in which lies do not create cognitive dissonance (on which the tests are based).”
This passage speaks volumes.
First of all, the Israeli security services do use lie detectors extensively in the interrogation of Palestinian militants. But it is useless to examine facts, because the statement itself is monstrous. At one fell swoop, the Great Peace-Maker demonizes the culture of a billion living human beings as well as of 50 generations, a culture which in its heyday bequeathed humanity some of its greatest scientific and philosophical achievements.
The stereotyping of a whole culture, people, society or race is despicable. It lies at the base of anti-Semitism. It is obnoxious coming from any politician, but when voiced by a politician trying to explain why he failed to make peace with these “products of a culture” it makes further study seem superfluous. It’s all there, the whole rotten egg. However, we shall persevere.
Obviously feeling himself that such a sweeping statement needs some corroboration, Barak provides an anecdote: At some meeting, Arafat agreed to tell his police commanders to implement a truceé
“I interjected: “But these are not the people organizing the violence. If you are serious, then call Marwan Barghouri and Hussein al-Sheikh” (the West Bank Fatah leaders). Arafat looked at me, with an expression of blank innocence, as if I had mentioned the names of two polar bears, and said: “Who? Who?” I repeated the nameséand Arafat again said “Who? Who?” At this, some of his aides couldn’t stop themselves and burst out laughing. And Arafat, forced to drop the pretense, agreed to call them later.”
Anybody who knows Arafat can reconstruct the scene easily. It is typical Arafat humor, designed to evoke laughter, as indeed it did. It was also designed to make a political point é both persons mentioned are prominent leaders, known by everyone to be close to Arafat, who is also their party chief. In a way understandable to every Arab, Arafat was refusing to acknowledge their responsibility. By taking the joke at face value, Barak – himself a humorless person – shows his complete ignorance of Arab discourse.
This monumental ignorance, coupled with monumental arrogance, created the mixture that turned Barak into the most disastrous prime minister in Israel’s history, surpassing even Golda Meir.
Before going into the details of the interview, one has to mention the interviewer. He is Benny Morris, the former “new historian”, who in one easy jump has turned from the idol of the left into the darling of the right, redeeming himself from the stigma of being a “post-Zionist”.
It was a clever choice on Barak’s part. Morris conducts the interview as a sycophantic devotee, accepting unquestioningly Barak’s most hair-raising statements (such as the above) and refraining from asking any embarrassing questions, obvious as they might appear.
Morris has been accused in the past of being a “revisionist” of Zionist history, because of his book revealing how the Palestinian refugees were driven out in 1948. It is rather hilarious to perceive how, in this interview, he freely levels the accusation of “revisionism” at anyone who dares to doubt Barak’s assertions.
Barak does not expose himself to the questioning of a real, investigative journalist, like Deborah Sontag of The New York Times, nor does he confront an objective eye-witness, like Robert Malley, President Clinton’s assistant at Camp David. These are two of the “revisionists” who evoked the ire of the Barak-Morris team, as well as that of Clinton, who é Barak recounts é called him in Sardinia to rave at Sontag’s excellent and well-researched article about Camp David. “What the hell is this?” Clinton demanded, according to Barak.
Let’s turn now to the interview itself.
According to Morris (who, of course, was not at Camp David and relies on what Barak told him), on July 18, in the middle of the conference, Clinton read to Arafat “a document, endorsed in advance by Baraké”
Let’s stop right here. What does this mean? How come the President of the United States, the honest broker, reaches advance agreement with one side, before even presenting a proposal to the other? Does this not prove that the Palestinians were quite right when they asserted, at the time, that this was in fact Barak’s proposal, wrapped by Clinton in the American flag?
As may be remembered, Arafat did not want to go to Camp David at all. He was afraid that he would be faced there with Clinton and Barak acting like the two arms of a nutcracker. (At the time, I myself used this metaphor.) He had very little trust in Barak, since the Prime Minister had already broken Israel’s commitment under the Oslo agreements to implement the third stage of its withdrawal from the West Bank, freeing all the territory except “specified military locations”.
To reinforce his arguments against a summit conference, Arafat protested that there had been no preparatory work on the issues, as usual before summit conferences. Since Barak insisted, Clinton overcame Arafat’s objections by promising that, in the case of failure, neither of the parties would be blamed.
After the conference, Clinton cynically broke his promise and blamed Arafat exclusively – in order, as he later explained, to help Barak get re-elected (and, one may add, to help his long-suffering wife to win votes in the biggest Jewish city in the world.)
On this point Morris writes:
“As to the charge raised by the Palestinians, and in their wake, by Deborah Sontag, and Malley and Agha, that the Palestinians had been dragooned into coming to Camp David ‘unprepared’ and prematurely, Barak is dismissive to the point of contempt. He observes that the Palestinians had eight years, since 1993′ to prepare their positionsé”
This is Barak-style obfuscation at its best (or worst). The “charge”, of course, is not that the Palestinians had no time to prepare their positions. In an interview on Israeli television, Barak asserted that he did not need to prepare himself, since he “knew every hill” on the West Bank. The “charge” is that there had been no preparatory work done by joint committees to reach agreement on as many issues as possible and to demarcate the lines of disagreement where this was not possible, so that the leaders could grapple with the remaining bones of contention. This is the usual procedure at summit meetings.
The phrase “Barak is dismissive to the point of contempt” is highly indicative of the man. It’s all there: the overbearing arrogance, the conviction that the other side is vastly inferior, that their arguments need not be answered but can be “dismissed”.
So what was Barak’s proposal, as read out “slowly” to Arafat by Clinton? According to Morris, it included:
The establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state on 92% of the West Bank and 100% of the Gaza Strip;
Some territorial compensation for the Palestinians from the pre-1967 Israeli territory;
Annexation of 8% of the West Bank to Israel;
Dismantling of most of the settlements and the concentration of the bulk of the settlers in the 8% to be annexed;
The establishment of the Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem,
Some Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem to become sovereign Palestinian territories and others to enjoy “functional autonomy”;
Palestinian sovereignty over half of the Old City of Jerusalem (the Muslim and Christian quarters, but not the Armenian and Jewish quarters);
“Custodianship,” though not sovereignty, over the Temple Mount;
A return of the refugees to the prospective Palestinian state, with no “right of return” to Israel proper;
A massive aid program to facilitate the refugees’ rehabilitation.
It must be admitted that these proposals of Barak’s, disguised as American, do indeed go further than any made by previous Israeli prime ministers. One cannot blame Barak, being quite ignorant of Palestinian affairs, for considering them extremely generous. However, in fact, they fall far short of the minimum Palestinian requirements.
Morris’ description does not give a full picture. Some salient facts are obscured. For example:
The figure of 92 percent is highly debatable. It does not include the annexed territories of East Jerusalem, which had by then become Israeli neighborhoods, nor the Jordan valley, which Israel insisted on keeping under its control for some considerable time, cutting Palestine off from neighboring Jordan. Palestinians may be excused for doubting that Israel will in the future relinquish territories it keeps “temporarily” under its control. Altogether, Palestinians believed that the real proposed annexation was closer to 20 percent. One has to remember, of course, that the whole West Bank and Gaza Strip amounts only to 22 percent of the land of Palestine, as it existed in 1947. (78 percent was conquered by the Israeli army in 1948 and became Israel.)
It is not only a question of percentages, but also of location. The “settlement blocs” that Barak wanted to annex to Israel are like daggers tearing into the flesh of the future Palestinian state, cutting it up into what could easily be turned into disconnected enclaves.
Territorial compensations were not to be on a 1-to-1 basis, as demanded by the Palestinians, but something like 1-to-9.
The Arab parts of East Jerusalem which Barak agreed to transfer to Palestinian sovereignty were outlying suburbs (like Shuafat and Beith Hanina), while the central Arab neighborhoods (like Sheikh-Jarakh, Silwan and Ras-al-Amud) were accorded only “functional autonomy” under Israeli sovereignty. This was totally unacceptable.
Worse, the Palestinians were granted only “guardianship” over the compound of the holy mosques (Haram ash-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, in Arabic and Har ha-Bayit, the Temple Mount, in Hebrew), which meant that Israel would retain sovereignty. No leader in the Arab world could have accepted that.
Palestinians could possibly have agreed to the annexation of the Jewish quarter of the Old City, including the Western Wall, to Israel. Annexation of the Armenian quarter, which is closely connected to the Christian quarter, is something else.
Barak’s insistence that “not one single refugee” could return to Israel proper is totally unacceptable to the Palestinians, both symbolically and practically.
Morris does not mention in this connection the most important part of the proposal: that the Palestinians formally agree that this would be “the end of the conflict”. Barak’s proposal might perhaps have been acceptable as another interim agreement é but it was quite impossible for the Palestinians to accept it, and especially the parts concerning the Temple Mount and the refugees, as “the final settlement”.
As Morris, who was not there, described it graphically:
“Arafat said ‘No.’ Clinton, enraged, banged on the tableé”
If Barak had been compelled to face some real investigative journalist, instead of a devotee disguised as a historian, he would have been cross-examined about his own frame of mind. What did he think of the Palestinians when he came to power? Did he have any preconceived ideas, any prejudices that might have influenced his way of thinking?
Barak himself, in domestic discussions, often used a telling metaphor: Israel is “a villa in the middle of a jungle”. Meaning: we are an island of civilization surrounded by savage animals. This is remarkably similar to old-established colonial attitudes, and, indeed, a variation of Herzl’s metaphor of the “wall against barbarism”.
In his mind, Barak had a picture of the devious Arafat, forever plotting the overthrow of Israel. This, by the way, is a standard Israeli concept which has deep psychological roots. It may stem, partly, from unconscious guilt: we have driven half the Palestinian people from their homes, how can they ever really accept us and make peace with us? According to Barak, quoted by Morris, Arafat was:
“Secretly planning Israel’s demiseéWhat they [Arafat and his colleagues] want is a Palestinian state in all of PalestineéThey are willing to agree to a temporary truceéArafat sees himself as a reborn Saladiné(Arafat believes) that Israel has no right to exist, and he seeks it’s demiseé”
Needless to say, there is not a shred of evidence for any of this. It says nothing about Arafat, but it says a lot about Barak. The famous general, the brilliant thinker (as he sees himself), is repeating the most hackneyed of stereotypes resorted to by the proverbial vendor of pickled cucumbers in an Israeli market.
He even sets forth the way Arafat thinks Israel will disappear as a Jewish state: first Israel will turn into a “state of all its citizens” (a basic democratic concept, based on the American constitution, supported by quite a number of liberal Jewish Israelis), then there will be a “Muslim majority”, then the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state. As these are all domestic Israeli issues, it is not quite clear what they have to do with Arafat, Camp David and Israeli-Palestinian relations.
An old Israeli myth, code-named “the plan of stages”, alleges that the Palestinians believe in “Salami tactics” é accepting what they can get at any stage and then demanding more, until the Jewish state is destroyed. Barak repeats this. Morris:
“Barak today portrays Arafat’s behavior at Camp David as a “performance” geared to exacting from the Israelis as many concessions as possible without ever seriously intending to reach a peace settlement or sign an “end to the conflict”.
This is strange. If Arafat (like every Arab) is indeed a “serial liar”, as Barak alleges, why for God’s sake did he not accept the proposal? The logical thing for him to do would have been to agree to all the wonderful concessions Barak was ready to make, sign everything demanded and then, after a few years, come back and demand more.
Imprisoned by their own prejudices, Barak and Morris do not even see the contradiction. Indeed, Arafat’s behavior at Camp David, his stubborn refusal to sign an agreement that did not meet his minimum demands, proves once and for all that “the plan of stages” is utter nonsense.
Barak and Morris say that Arafat “kept saying ‘no’ to every offer, never making any counterproposals of his own.” The record does not bear this out.
While it is true that Arafat, coming to Camp David against his will, was in a defensive mood, ready to withstand the double onslaught of Barak and Clinton, he made concessions that were very far-reaching from the Palestinian point of view. The fact that Israelis and Americans took these in their stride, hardly even noticing them, only shows the immense gap between the perceptions of the parties. Palestinian propaganda could not have bragged about these concessions either, since they were inimical to the wishes of many Palestinians.
As a matter of fact, Arafat made the following explicit and implicit concessions at Camp David, and later at Taba:
– He agreed to change the almost sacred Green Line by accepting the
principle of land swaps;
– He accepted the concept of settlement blocs, which is anathema to all Palestinians;
– He ceded the Jewish neighborhoods built on Arab land in East Jerusalem, breaking another Palestinian taboo;
– He was ready to give up the Wailing Wall and the Jewish quarter of the Jerusalem Old City, which were parts of Arab East Jerusalem before 1967.
– He indicated his readiness to reach a compromise on the Right of Return, sacred to all Palestinians, by accepting that the implementation should be subject to Israeli agreement.
Barak ignores all these. According to Morris, he charged
“Arafat with ‘lacking the character or will’ to make a historic compromise, as did the late Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat in 1977-1979, when he made peace with Israelé”
Barak would have been well advised to drop this comparison. Sadat got all his territory back, to the very last centimeter. Arafat would have easily agreed to the same terms é as would have Assad.
Barak, so it seems, is furious with Arafat because the Palestinian leader denies Zionist axioms, indeed, because Arafat is not an orthodox Zionist like himself.
“(Arafat) does not recognize the existence of a Jewish people or nation, only a Jewish religionéThis, Barak believes, underlay Arafat’s insistence at Camp David (and since) that the Palestinians have sole sovereignty over the Temple Mount compoundéArafat refused to accept even the vague formulation proposed by Clinton (in December 2000) positing Israeli sovereignty over the earth beneath the Temple Mount’s surface area.”
Arafat could easily turn the tables and claim that Barak does not recognize Islam by denying Palestinian sovereignty over the holy Islamic shrines on the mount. As a matter of fact, Barak, obfuscating to the last, offered “guardianship” é but not sovereignty – over the mosques. His abysmal ignorance of Islamic affairs made it impossible for him to comprehend that no Muslim leader in the world could possibly agree to this. If Arafat had agreed, he would have turned himself into a mortal enemy of every devout Muslim.
The quaint demand for Israeli sovereignty “beneath the surface” é a diplomatic curiosity, for sure é was the brainchild of Yossi Beilin and Shlomo Ben-Ami, two minions of Barak at the time. Far from evoking laughter from the Palestinians, it caused panic among many of them. Being by then convinced that the Israelis had secret designs in everything they proposed, they believed that the Israelis intended to dig beneath the mosques in order to bare the remnants of their ancient temple, thus causing the mosques to collapse. They may be excused for believing this, because some years ago an armed Israeli terrorist organization indeed planned to bomb the mosques.
Arafat countered by claiming that “there is nothing there”, enraging Barak and even Clinton, who responded that “not only the Jews but I, too, believe that under the surface there are remains of Solomon’s temple.” Clinton may not be aware of the fact that most contemporary (non-Jewish) experts believe that Solomon was not a historical figure and that the first Judean temple on the site was nothing more than an insignificant local structure. In any case, if there are remains, they would not be of “Solomon’s temple”, but of the building erected by King Herod nearly a millennium later.
Be that as it may, this whole intermezzo shows the utter lack of seriousness of the Camp David discussions.
Morris, the ex-revisionist historian, asserts that
“One senses that Barak feels on less firm ground when he responds to the ‘revisionist’ charge that it was the continued Israeli settlement in the Occupied Territories during the year before Camp David and under his premiership, that had so stirred Palestinian passions as to make the intifada inevitable.”
This is an understatement. The fact is that furious settlement activity continued unabated all through the weeks Barak was talking about peace at Camp David. When asked to explain this, Barak says:
“Immediately after I took office I promised Arafat: No new settlements é but I also told him that we would continue to honor the previous government’s commitments and contracts in the pipeline, concerning the expansion of existing settlementsé”
This is vintage Barak. With his parliamentary majority, he could have easily passed a law terminating all contracts, with fair compensations. There was talk of this at the time. “Existing commitments” served as a pretext for the ongoing activity all over the territories, which every Palestinian saw daily with his own eyes. It helped to convince the settlers that Barak did not intend to really give back any territory é in fact, the settlers kept ominously quiet while news from Camp David seemed to foreshadow an agreement providing for the evacuation of dozens of settlements. It seems that they knew better.
Understandably, the Palestinians were far more impressed by the action on the ground that by the diplomatic double-talk. They saw the new settlements springing up and the new by-pass roads cutting through their land, and were not deceived by the fact that they were always disguised as “extensions” of existing ones. (I myself have taken part in a demonstration in front of Barak’s private home in Kochav Ya’ir, hard on the Green Line, protesting against a new settlement disguised this way going up just a few miles away.)
Palestinians also noticed that the new settlements followed a plan cutting their territories to pieces. Barak denies this:
“I ask myself why he [Arafat} is lying. To put it simply, any proposal that offers 92 percent of the West Bank cannot, almost by definition, break up the territory into noncontiguous cantonsé”
This is simply not true. And, indeed, Barak hastens to correct:
“éexcept for a razor-thin Israeli wedge running from Jerusalem thorough Maaleh Adumim to the Jordan River. Here, Palestinian territorial continuity would have been assured by a tunnel or bridge.”
All the “settlement blocs” were planned in advance é mostly by Ariel Sharon é precisely for this purpose: to create several such wedges, secured by settlements, by-pass-roads and army installations. Their effectiveness is being proved these days by the operations of the Israel Defense Forces. Based on the settlements, the army cuts the Palestinian territories into ribbons, creating disconnected cantons everywhere.
An effective wedge does not have to go all the way from the Green Line to the Jordan river in order to create cantons or “Bantustans”. Three-quarters, or even half the way is enough to allow the Israeli army to complete the wedge within minutes. Such a situation would leave all the Palestinian territory at the mercy of the Israeli army at all times.
One salient fact overshadows this dispute: at no time at Camp David did Barak produce a map of his famous “92 percent”. No such official map exists to this very day.
Camp David was not the end. Both Clinton and Barak shifted their positions a lot during the following months. In December 2000, Clinton made another proposal that came much closer to the Palestinian position, and in January 2001, at Taba, Barak’s emissaries, too, moved forward a great deal.
However, a lot of things had changed in the meantime. The failure of Camp David created an upsurge of rage and frustration on the Palestinian side, leading to the almost unanimous popular conclusion that “the Israelis understand only the language of force”. (This, by the way, is precisely what the Israelis say about the Palestinians é “they only understand force”.) Following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, seen by many in the Arab world as an Arab military victory, this mood led to the outbreak of the second Intifada.
The immediate cause é the match thrown into the barrel of oil – was Sharon’s visit to the compound of the mosques on the Temple Mount. This “visit” was approved by Barak. His police minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami (who at the time doubled as foreign minister), sent more than a thousand police officers to accompany him.
His clear responsibility for the most calamitous act of the year induces Barak to deny the undeniable. According to Morris, Barak says that
“We know, from hard intelligence, that Arafat intended to unleash a violent confrontation, terrorism. [Sharon’s visit and the riots that followed] fell into his hand like an excellent excuse, a pretext.”
“Hard intelligence” is a convenient excuse for everything in Israel. It is secret, cannot be disproved and needs no further proof. However, this does not relieve Barak and Ben-Ami of their responsibility. Quite the contrary. If such intelligence really existed, it should have prevented Barak from handing Arafat such an excellent “pretext”.
Barak says that the visit was coordinated with the Palestinian security chief, Jibril Rajoub, who was recently dismissed, partly because some Palestinians believed that he had too close a relationship with people like Barak. Morris does not mention a far more important fact: On the eve of Sharon’s visit, Arafat met Barak and personally warned him that the visit would lead to disaster.
Clinton’s December 2000 proposals came much closer to a solution. On the eve of leaving office, his wife by now securely installed as junior Senator from New-York after winning a big majority of Jewish votes, Clinton could think of his last remaining ambition: to win the Nobel peace price. However, his standing amongst the Palestinians had been severely eroded by his cynical breach of trust when, contrary to his solemn promise, he placed the sole responsibility for the Camp David failure on Arafat.
As Morris puts it,
“Arafat dragged his feet for a fortnight and then responded to the Clinton proposals with a ‘Yes, buté’ that, with hundreds of objections, reservations and qualifications was tantamount to a resounding ‘No”.
This is sheer demagoguery. Such a response is a normal negotiating stance. Morris calls on Dennis Ross, Clinton’s special envoy, to corroborate his statement, but Ross, one of the many Jewish officials who constituted Clinton’s team, has since turned out to be too staunch an advocate of Israeli policies to be a reliable witness.
As a matter of fact, there was no perceptible difference between the answers of the two parties. Israel also responded, as usual, with a “Yes, buté” Who is to judge where “Yes, buté” means Yes or No? Morris? Barak?
After this new – and positive – Clinton proposal of December 2000, the Taba talks took place in January 2001. Morris:
“The ‘revisionists’, Barak implies, completely ignored the shift é under the prodding of the intifada é in the Israeli (and American) positions between July and the end of 2000. By December and January, Israel had agreed to Washington’s proposal that it withdraw from 95 percent of the West Bank with substantial territorial compensation for the Palestinians from Israel proper, and that the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem would become sovereign Palestinian territory. The Israelis also agreed to an international force at least temporarily controlling the Jordan river line between the West Bank and the Kingdom of Jordan instead of the IDF.”
Remarkable. Why did Barak not make these “concessions” at Camp David, when the whole world was looking on and where they could have done the power of good? Why only “under the prodding of the intifada”?
Morris concedes grudgingly that “at Taba, the Palestinians seemed to soften a little.” (A wonderful word, “seemed”.) “For the first time they produced a map.” (Since Barak never produced a map at all, this is sheer Chutzpah.) “Seemingly,” (again this word) “conceding 2 percent of the West Bank. But on the refugees they, too, stuck to their guns, insisting on Israeli acceptance of ‘the right of return’é”
This is flatly contradicted by two of Barak’s emissaries at Taba. Yossi Beilin, the chief of the delegation, asserts unequivocally that at Taba the two sides were close on all issues é including the refugees. The Palestinians indeed insisted on the recognition of the “right of return” in principle, and on Israel assuming responsibility for its part in creating the problem. But they also agreed that the practical implementation é the number of refugees to be allowed to return to Israel proper é would be subject to agreement by Israel.
This was an historic breakthrough. For the first time, numbers were mentioned, and while the gap remained large, the very fact that the terrible problem had boiled down to haggling over numbers is extremely important.
Barak would have nothing of this:
“We cannot allow even one refugee back on the basis of the ‘right of return’éand we cannot accept historical responsibility for the creation of the problem.”
This is rather ironical, considering that it was precisely Morris, in his former incarnation as a “revisionist” and “new historian”, who, in his one important book, “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949”, proves that a substantial number of refugees were driven out under a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing. A pragmatic compromise is possible, but only after Israel accepts responsibility for its part in creating the problem and recognizes the right of return “in principle”.
Barak postpones any compromise until the year 2048. A typical passage é the style is the man é says:
“(Barak) hesitatingly predicts that only ‘eighty years’ after 1948 will the Palestinians be historically ready for a compromise. By then, most of the generation that experienced the catastrophe of 1948 at first hand will have died; there will be ‘very few ‘salmons’ around who still want to return to their birthplaces to die.’ Barak speaks of a ‘salmon syndrome’ among the Palestinians é and says that Israel, to a degree, was willing to accommodate it, through the family reunion scheme, allowing elderly refugees to return to be with their families before they die.”
The cynicism belongs to Barak, who, at the time, mentioned the absurdly low number of 4000 refugees who would be allowed to return every year in the framework of family reunions. But is has always been Zionist dogma that at some time in the future the Palestinians will be ready for a “compromise” (meaning accepting Israeli terms) while in the meantime Israel goes on dispossessing them by creating “facts on the ground”.
The Taba talks came to an end when Barak unilaterally ordered his delegation to break them off. The pretext, this time: elections were too near. One wonders if Barak could have avoided his monumental election defeat if he had come to the voters, even at the very last moment, with a draft agreement in his hands.
Beyond these issues lurks the mystery of Barak’s peculiar behavior at Camp David. After insisting on holding the summit conference without any preparations by sub-committees, he assiduously avoided any real contact with Arafat, neither visiting him at his near-by cabin, nor inviting him to his own cabin for informal conversations.
His closest adviser, foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, recounts that during a state dinner Barak sat “like a pillar of salt”, not exchanging a word with Arafat, who was seated next to him. At another, similar occasion, when Barak was seated between Arafat and young Chelsea Clinton, Barak demonstratively talked only with the teenager, ignoring the Palestinian leader. Says Morris:
“Barak appears uncomfortable with the “revisionist” charge that his body language toward Arafat had been unfriendly and that he had, almost consistently during Camp David, avoided meeting the Palestinian leaderéBarak says that they met ‘almost every day’ at Camp David at mealtimeséDid Nixon meet Ho Chi Minhéor did De Gaulle ever speak to Ben-Bellah? The right time for a meeting between us was when things were ready for a decision by the leadersé”
Here, In a nutshell, is the whole argument against having the conference at all, exactly as put forward by Arafat when he refused to come.
But in the circumstances, after the conference had started, this argument is specious. Everybody familiar with Arafat’s style, and indeed with Arab culture in general, knows that personal contact and gestures play a big part. Avoiding any real contact with Arafat, even “at mealtimes”, shows that even before the conference Barak could not abide Arafat and was convinced, as he tells Morris, that there could be no peace “so long as Arafat and like-minded leaders are at the helm on the Arab side.” It seems that this is not his conclusion from the Camp David failure, but rather a reason for the failure.
Neither Morris nor Barak mention the most curious incident of the conference. As attested by all his own people, Barak “freaked out” during the conference for two whole days, not shaving, not talking with anyone and refusing to see even his closest assistants.
I believe that this brings us close to the heart of the enigma called Barak. Even today many Israelis are puzzled by the question: What did Barak really want? Did he really intend to achieve peace, failing only because of his ignorance and arrogance, or did he intend right from the outset to bring about the failure in order to put the blame on the Palestinians? Quite possibly, he had both aims in mind, intending to discard one or the other as political expediency dictated.
Barak himself has publicly boasted of both. Speaking to left-wingers, he asserted that he has offered the Palestinians the most generous terms, which were rejected. Speaking to right-wingers, he made the point that he gave the Palestinians absolutely nothing, not one inch of territory, contrary to the Likud-leader Binyamin Netanyahu, who gave the Palestinians most of the town of Hebron and several bits of territory.
Recently, Barak bragged in an interview on Israeli TVs that by making his generous offers to the Palestinians and the Syrians he unmasked both Arafat and Assad, who rejected them. Together with his withdrawal from South Lebanon, these are é to his mind é the three major achievements of his short term in office.
So where does Barak stand now?
Clearly, Barak shares the deep Jewish paranoia and existential angst. While he was prime minister, he saw himself in command of the Titanic, “headed for the Iceberg”. He spoke in terms of terrible dangers approaching, Iran and/or Iraq obtaining nuclear weapons, Islamic fundamentalists taking over states bordering on Israel. This should have led Barak to make peace in time, and to call upon the nation even now to pay the necessary price.
Instead, according to Morris, he supports Sharon’s massive incursions into the Palestinian territories, which have almost destroyed the last vestiges of the Oslo agreement and re-instituted the Israeli occupation in a much more brutal form. He supports Sharon’s policy of assassinating Palestinian militants é called “targeted liquidations” é that had already started during his premiership. He does not believe in peace as long as Arafat is around, a basic Sharon premise. He believes that Israel should “begin” to “prepare” for a pullout from “some 75 percent” of the West Bank, while allowing a Palestinian state to emerge there and talk about the other 25 percent later. Meanwhile Israel should begin constructing a “solid, impermeable fence around the evacuated parts of the West Bank”. In practice, all this is very close to Sharon, who has turned peace into some vague dream for the very remote future, and is already building the fence as a substitute to peace.
At the beginning of the second intifada, after the failure of Camp David, Barak’s police, under the control of Shlomo Ben-Ami, killed 13 Arab citizens of Israel during solidarity demonstrations with the Palestinians. Barak does not express any regrets, but, quite to the contrary, says that
“Israeli Arabs will serve as [the Palestinians’] spear pointéThis may necessitate changes in the rules of the democratic gameéin order to assure Israel’s Jewish character.”
This approximates to an apartheid mentality, as does his obsession with “demographic sense” and “demographic threats”.
One positive result of all this is that at least in retrospect he bemoans the fact the Israel did not give up the occupied territories for peace immediately after the 1967 war. Since, at the time, I was the only member of the Knesset who demanded that Israel should leave the territories and turn them over to the Palestinians, I am glad to hear this é even if I have never heard it from Barak before.
In a recent biography of Barak, entitled “Hara-kiri”, Raviv Drucker, a reporter for the army radio station, gives a detailed, thoroughly researched account of Barak’s reign. The overall picture is of a severely disturbed human being, whose mindset and emotional limitations have caused him to fail in so many of his relationships and endeavors. According to this account, his failure to establish contact with Arafat was no different from his failure in his dealings with everybody else, including his closest assistants.
My own theory é which, of course, cannot be proved is that on assuming power, Barak believed that he had the right formula for ending the historic conflict. Knowing absolutely nothing about the Palestinians, indeed, never having had a serious discussion with Palestinians, he believed that if he offered them a state, they would accept all his conditions and gratefully kiss his hands. When this did not happen, he was furious and accused them of all possible crimes. The prejudices and stereotypes, born of 120 years of conflict and which exist in the conscious or unconscious mind of almost every Israeli, came to the fore and determined his reactions.
At Camp David he got to the point were the real terms of the solution became apparent to him. These conflicted with all his traditional Zionist convictions, causing a severe case of cognitive dissonance. Consequently, like a person looking into an abyss, he drew back in panic at the last moment. This is the cause of his “freaking out” incident in Camp David. This is also the reason for his calling off the Taba talks unilaterally, on the eve of the final breakthrough.
The same thing had already happened to him before, when he came very close to a final deal with Syria. At the eleventh hour, when he realized that he was about to sign an agreement under which he would have to evacuate the powerful settlers on the Golan heights and to return the territory that had already officially become a part of Israel, he drew back. The pretext was that he would not let the Syrians reach the waters of the Sea of Tiberias é a distance of a few hundred yards from the line he had agreed to – in spite of the Syrians’ undertaking not to use the water. Also, as he told Morris, “had we made the required concessions, we would have been seen as weak, inviting depredation.”
In order to hide his catastrophic character weaknesses, Barak invented the historic lie of Arafat’s rejectionism, now accepted by almost all Israelis and the world at large. By doing so, he paved the way to the premiership for Sharon and also caused most Israelis to despair of peace.
A wise old Hebrew adage says: “He who finds fault (with others) finds his own fault.” By branding the Arabs as habitual liars, this self-appointed paragon of Judeo-Christian culture is actually branding himself.
[The author has closely followed the career of Sharon for four decades. Over the years, he has written three extensive biographical essays about him, two (1973, 1981) with his cooperation.]