Backing is needed – and not just over the phone

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As more and more books and articles are written about the collapse of the political process in 2000, the importance of the Camp David summit held that July between United States President Clinton, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, becomes increasingly apparent. One of the reasons for the failure of that summit, even if not the main one, was the fact that the leaders of the Arab countries were not willing to give their backing to Yasser Arafat to reach historic compromises at a moment which was critical for the negotiations.

Clinton believed that a round of phone calls would be sufficient for the moderate Arab leadership (mainly Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia) to bombard the Palestinian leader with calls of support and to push him into making an agreement: after all, the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict strengthens the opposition to these regimes and threatens their stability, and there is no one quite like their leaders to demand the cessation of the conflict against the backdrop of a fair compromise!

Clinton received hesitant answers over the telephone. Some leaders told him that they could not get involved because they were not familiar with the details of the political process, and they could not take upon themselves the responsibility of putting pressure on Arafat in a direction that could ultimately be dangerous for him. Others told Clinton that they would try to talk with Arafat and with the other members of the delegation. And indeed they did. Some of the members of the Palestinian delegation told me that in these telephone conversations, the Arab leaders expressed great interest in the success of the summit and encouraged them to make an additional effort to reach understandings.

One of the Palestinians told me that in light of such enthusiasm, he asked the Arab foreign minister who had called him to repeat what he had said in the phone call–on television. There was a long silence at the other end of the line, broken by a question posed by the minister: “Are you serious?”

“Of course,” replied the Palestinian negotiator. “After all, that is the meaning of support: the fact that you believe in the need to end the conflict is no news to me, but it’s important that it doesn’t remain a secret in the Arab street!” The minister responded: “You do understand that you’re not being realistic.” A short while after this encounter, the minister appeared on TV, declaring how well he understood the Palestinians for not being prepared to relinquish their principles ….

We cannot make light of the internal constraints in the Arab countries, or of any matters that are perceived by the leaders of those countries to be such constraints. The leaders weigh up the meaning of their media appearance against the dissatisfaction likely to ensue from among the opposition groups, and the conclusion of their deliberations is to refrain from giving public support to Palestinian compromises. From this point of view, the non-inclusion of the Arab leaders in the details of the political dealings is an excuse rather than a reason.

In June 2000, I was asked by Prime Minister Ehud Barak to meet with President Mubarak of Egypt, to ask him to persuade Arafat to participate in the Camp David summit. One of the things I was authorized to tell him was that Israel would agree to make do with the annexation of 13 percent of the area of the West Bank. Mubarak asked me about the solution for Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, and after hearing my reply, he told me that it was important to reach an agreement with the Palestinians on these issues as soon as possible, and that the agreement needed to be political, and not religious. Any agreement between the two parties–so he promised–would be received positively by the Arab countries.

On July 23, a national holiday in Egypt known as Revolution Day, two days before the end of the Camp David Summit, Mubarak made a trip to Saudi Arabia, where he appeared with Crown Prince Abdullah before the media and announced that the Muslim world would not accept a concession concerning sacred principles. There is no doubt that Mubarak was greatly interested in the success of the summit, and I am certain that the highly publicized meeting in Saudi Arabia was held solely because he felt that he had no other choice. But the cost was high.

The Saudi Initiative, proposed in spring 2002, was a change that truly inspired hope: a totally Arab initiative, that won the support of the Arab League, to set up normal relations with Israel once it made peace with its neighbors. If an initiative like this had been proposed at the Camp David Summit, the summit might, perhaps, have had very different results.

Today, it is patently obvious that without intensive Arab involvement, it will be extremely difficult to achieve a solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Egyptian involvement in the appointment of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) as the Palestinian prime minister, the Egyptian efforts with Hamas to achieve a ceasefire, the Sharm al Sheikh summit and the Aqaba summit–all are encouraging signs, even in these troubled times, for the peace process. If a way can be found to combine the resolute American determination to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian agreement with the willingness of the Arab countries to support such an agreement, it would contribute a great deal toward the current situation, in which there is not much chance of the parties themselves surprising the world with a peace agreement that they pieced together while the rest of the world slept….

Yossi Beilin was Justice Minister in the government of Ehud Barak, 1999-2001, and an architect of the Oslo peace process.

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