Washington – Why did it take the Palestinian National Authority a year before it decided to speak bluntly about the inconclusive deliberations at Camp David for which it, and particularly Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, were squarely blamed, as they were for the collapse of Palestinian-Israeli peace process?
Thanks to the blistering statements of former President Bill Clinton and a relentless Israeli media onslaught, the world appeared convinced that the Palestinians missed “the deal of the century” when they reportedly rebuffed former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s “generous” territorial concessions at the tripartite Camp David summit last year.
Whatever was behind the belated Palestinian decision, Lee Hockstader, the Washington Post’s correspondent in Israel, may have hit the nail on the head when he wrote in his opening line: “(The Palestinian effort) may be too little and too late to change minds.”
The Palestinian counter-offensive was somewhat successful in making a dent in the American and Israeli versions, but it would not have attracted much attention had it not been for the unsolicited support of Robert Malley, the White House aide at the talks, who provided a damaging eye-opener that undermined the self-serving views of the American and Israeli participants.
Ahmed Qurei, better known as Abu Ala, who was a key figure at the Oslo peace talks, described the American and Israeli versions as “the biggest lie” since Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967.
Speaking four days later, on July 27, another key Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, joined Abu Ala in acknowledging that undisclosed mistakes were committed by the Palestinians, but he insisted that contrary to the Israeli and American versions, the Palestinians did offer a counter-proposal at Camp David. He went further and accused President Clinton of betraying Arafat by breaking a promise not to assign blame if the American-Israeli-Palestinian summit in the Maryland resort outside the US capital was not able to reach the promised historic peace deal.
This Palestinian failure to come out earlier is attributable to the reluctance of Arafat who, according to one well-placed American observer, was still hopeful that a deal could still be worked out with the Israelis and determined not to take on the US administration.
“I think Clinton was very unprofessional in the way that he blamed Arafat in terms of trying to help Barak (in his re-election bid),” said this former American diplomat who served in the Arab world. “It hurt the American effort very much because it discredited the American in the eyes of the Palestinian.”
“That’s the problem of centralised leadership,” he stressed. It also shows that there is not “a very sophisticated understanding … of how you would influence the United States” despite the advice Palestinians are getting from friends in the United States, he said.
“The Palestinians, in general, simply do not understand the importance of appealing or making their case in an effective way to Western audiences. They are much more inward looking, they are much more concerned about the Palestinian and Arab audiences.”
The Palestinians, it is felt here, lack, and have for years, “a very coherent media strategy, [which] has hurt them.” On the other hand, the Israelis have always been out here, sending people on a regular basis to meet with Congress and the media.
Another part of the problem is that the Palestinians do not have a lot of people who are capable of doing this type of work. Besides, it is costly, “anywhere between $3 to $4 million” annually, according to one estimate.
A crucial shortcoming, in the opinion of this former American diplomat, is the absence of “an active (Arab-American) lobby here, like AIPAC (the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee) and the American Jewish Community.”
It is not that the Palestinians are not having any golden opportunities to expose the bloody appetite of their adversaries. To cite but a few and recent examples: the effort in Belgium to try Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for war crimes and the warnings that Israeli army and government officials may be threatened with prosecution in Europe for their conduct during the Palestinian uprising; charges by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders that 30 journalists have been wounded by Israeli fire during the Intifada; the case against the Israeli ambassador-designate to Denmark who, as a former head of Israel’s intelligence service, had authorised torture of Palestinians.
I believe “it is (still) never too late”.