The Day Barak’s Bubble Burst


Were a student to present Professor Shlomo Ben Ami with the paper that was published in his name in the HaAretz supplement (14.9.01), the professor would have handed it back with the comments: “Grade: 50%. Large holes in the argument. Many internal contradictions. No connection between the facts and the conclusions. No support for the main argument. Try again!”

The article, presented as an interview, must be read several times before the weaknesses become apparent. As it extends over 8 long pages, it can be assumed that most readers were satisfied glossing over the headlines and the highlighted quotations, phrased like campaign slogans. Thus Ben Ami further augments the damage that he and Barak wreaked when their short and catastrophic political term of office crashed to its end.

From between the lines, scattered unintentionally, emerges a true picture. He says of himself and of Barak: “We were not really members of the ‘in-group’ of the left. Neither of us were members of the peace industry. Neither of us is a true peace industrialist.” His words, ironically intended, can be translated more simply: neither of them knew anything about the Palestinians, the traumas, the historical narrative, the fears and ambitions of the designated partner. Ben Ami and Barak shared the staggering audacity to approach this historical peace-making task equipped exclusively with ignorance and pride � military bravado in Barak’s case, and intellectual bluster in Ben Ami’s.

The ignorance worked against them as they did not understand the internal code of the Palestinians but were entirely imprisoned in that of ours. Hence they simply did not understand the other side. All its positions were incomprehensible and all its actions unanticipated. Those who understand the Palestinian issue, who have spent long years studying the subject and thousand of hours of personal dialog, with some degree of empathy, with Palestinians were not surprised by any of the moves made. (Allow me to remind you that I myself predicted and published in advance most of the steps taken by the Palestinians.)

History and the coming elections

Ben Ami’s main conclusion is: “For Arafat, Oslo was a huge diversion which allowed him to conceal the political pressure and the terrorism he was activating to undermine the very idea of two countries for two nations.” I would be willing to allocate a substantial prize to anyone who can find any proof for this assertion in the 8 pages of the Ben Ami article. The illustrious professor is presenting his personal opinion as a conclusion based on factual evidence. He demonizes the leader of the other nation in a vulgar manner in order to justify his own monumental failure and shift the burden of blame for this disaster. It is true that Arafat and Barak are very different, as different from each other as David Ben Gurion was from Avrum Burg. As the American saying goes: “a statesman thinks of future generations, a politician thinks of the future elections.” Arafat is a historical leader who led his people from the brink of total annihilation to the verge of independent statehood (although not yet visible). Barak, as Ben Ami describes him, was persistently preoccupied with the coming elections. The third man in the game, Clinton, could not be re-elected but he was concerned about Barak’s re-election and the electoral race of his wife in the world’s largest Jewish city.

Arafat gave up nothing

Two very crucial facts, which cast a dark shadow on Barak and Ben Ami, are missing from Ben Ami’s story: a) Israel refused to fulfill its obligation according to a signed agreement to complete the third phase of the withdrawal, which was supposed to encompass the entire West Bank with the exception of predefined military sites, and b) at every phase of the negotiation, Barak progressively expanded the settlements and the by-pass roads at a frantic pace. To this the Palestinians response was: “While you are arguing with us about how to slice the pizza, you are eating it.”

Ben Ami’s main contention is that at every stage of the negotiation, from Stockholm in the spring of 2000 to Taba at the beginning of 2001, Arafat agreed to not one compromise. The Israeli side gave and gave, “kvetsch after kvetsch” in the Yiddish of Ben Ami, and Arafat never presented a single plan of his own. Arafat’s calculations were unobtainable. In Ben Ami’s words: “Arafat did not participate in the game.”

This description is not substantiated by the facts that Ben Ami himself presents. The facts show a) that Arafat had a clear plan throughout the negotiation process and b) that Arafat made far-reaching compromises beyond his initial position.

From the start, the Israeli and American approach was based on an erroneous assumption, which was the result of not listening to (or underestimating) the other side. They thought of compromise in terms of trade: the buyer offers 10 dollars, the seller demands 20 and they compromise on 15. The buyer (Israel) offered 11, then 12, then 13. The seller (the Palestinians) insisted on 20 and, reluctantly, came down to 19.50. This is tantamount to proof that he wants to destroy Israel.

The Palestinian interpretation is very different. They made their historical compromise at Oslo, when they formally relinquished 78% of their homeland that was captured by the Israelis in 1948, and accepted the remaining 22%. Israel now comes (assisted by the Americans) to demand a compromise on these 22%. For the Palestinians, this is out of the question.

Ben Ami claims that: “they refused to give us any clue regarding the end of their demands�. a black hole of one demand followed by another demand, with no clear view of the finish line.” But the real problem was the hearing difficulty of the professor himself. If only the daring duo Barak-Ben Ami had listened to what “this character” (in Barak’s words) repeated over and over, they would have known there was a very clear finish line. It had been on the table the entire time: the establishment of a Palestinian State in all the occupied territories beyond the green line and the achievement of a true peace between Israel and Palestine. We heard this position hundreds of times over the years. There is no shred of evidence to refute its sincerity. It is stable and solid, as opposed to the infinite series of sophistries produced by Ben Ami and Beilin that were designed as “new offers”.

As an aside, if there were any truth to the stock Israeli assertion that the Palestinians employ the “slice method” (take what is offered and ask for more, until Israel is destroyed) then Arafat surely would have grabbed Barak’s generous offer in both hands and left the demand for more to his heirs. The fact that Arafat turned down the offers proves his sincerity. He regarded the agreement as “the end of the conflict” and therefore required the minimum necessary for the Palestinians to establish an independent State. It was precisely this insistence by the Palestinians that so infuriated Ben Ami, which demonstrates their willingness to recognize Israel and end the conflict.

Even according to Ben Ami, Arafat did in fact make some far-reaching compromises from the Palestinian perspective. Among these:

He agreed to changes in the green line and to the annexation of 2% – 3.5% to Israel.

He agreed theoretically to settlement blocs, which are an anathema to the Palestinians.

He agreed to the annexation to Israel of Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, which for Palestinians are, in every respect, the equivalent of settlements set up in land taken by Israel in 1967.

He agreed to hand over to Israel the Western Wall and the Jewish quarter in the Old City.

He agreed to relinquish the historical claim of the refugees to return to their homes and accepted, in principle, that Israel will only allow the return of an agreed-upon limited number.

Anyone who knows even a little about the Palestinian subject knows that these are enormous compromises. How can this be reconciled with the conclusion that they want to destroy Israel?

Camp David: Deranged Behavior

And now for the facts, (I am not comparing Ben Ami’s description with those of the Palestinians, but relying solely on Ben Ami’s own description):

When Barak set forth early in 2001, he offered the Palestinians 65% of the territories (which represent 14.5% of mandatory Eretz Israel).

In the spring of 2000, when the negotiations began in Stockholm, the Israelis demanded 12% of the territories (with no land substitutions) in addition to “security holdings” in the Jordan Valley (effectively an annexation of an additional 10%) and Israeli control over the Jordan boundary (effectively a separation of the West Bank from Jordan). Barak objected to any discussion of Jerusalem and refused to raise the name of Jerusalem as a topic of discussion. The refined Abu-Ala said to Ben Ami: “Shlomo, take the maps back.”

The next stage was Camp David in July 2000. According to Robert Malley, Clinton’s aide, we know that Arafat was coerced against his will by Clinton to attend. He believed (correctly) that he was walking into a trap. Barak and Clinton were like the two arms of a nutcracker who intended to crack him open (as I wrote at the time). Arafat’s sole purpose was to emerge unscathed and whole. Barak, whose government had already begun to fall apart, intended to force Arafat into an agreement that would help him get reelected. Clinton wanted to reward his long-suffering wife with Jewish votes for her election to the senate.

The Israelis placed the map of 12% annexation on the table. Orally they hinted that they would be willing to accept 8 � 10%, in addition to their claim of “temporary” control over the Jordan Valley. The Palestinians had already learned the value of spoken promises from the third withdrawal that has, to this date, not been carried out.

Gradually Jerusalem surfaced as a central topic. Barak’s offer was very different from the impression it created in Israel. He was willing to grant the Palestinians control only on the “outer rim” (Abu-Dis, which he had previously promised to hand over but never did, El-Azariah, Beit-Hanina etc.). But he intended to keep the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem (Sheikh-Jarah, Abu-Jouz, Ras-El-Amud, Sillouan etc.) under Israeli control, handing over only “functional autonomy” to the Palestinians. He insisted that the Temple Mount be kept under Israel’s control in “enduring trust” for the Palestinians. No Arab or Muslim leader in the world could have accepted such a “generous” offer.

The accounts of percentages do not tell the true story. More important than the number of dunams, was their location. The Israeli map effectively chopped up the West Bank into three unconnected enclaves, each one surrounded by settlements and soldiers. The fragile territorial continuity shown in the map does not change this fact.

When the Palestinians rejected this offer, Barak sank into a deep depression � according to Ben Ami. For two days he did not even speak to any of his aides. During a formal dinner he sat stiff “like a pillar of salt”. He avoided Arafat throughout the conference. Anyone who knows Arafat the man, knows that personal contact is very important to him. This may not have changed the substance of the talks but it could have prevented avoidable conflict. Barak’s refusal to talk to him directly and to acknowledge him at official dinners, certainly confirmed his worst suspicions. Ben Ami attributes this deranged behavior of Barak to “Cartesian logic” (pure logic, named after the French philosopher Rene Descartes). Arafat, being only a simple Arab, could not aspire to such an elevated quality. “They (the Palestinians) lacked the greatness that was in Ehud”, enthused the professor.

Ben Ami’s descriptions are replete with psychological reflections about Arafat as he appears in the imagination of this professor of modern Spanish history. Anyone who knows Arafat knows there is no similarity between “this character” (in Barak’s words) and the real man. Ben Ami simply has no clue. It appears that the students of Descartes could not cross the cultural gap and simply could not understand the language of the Arab leader. This phenomenon is known also in relations between Americans and Japanese, for one example. When Arafat politely indicated refusal, in a language that would be clear to any Arab, they understood that he had accepted and were shocked to discover the following day that the answer was “no”.

Ben Ami’s ignorance reaches a climax when he says “at that moment (the moment does not matter) I understood that they (the Palestinians) were not Sadat”. Sadat? The Egyptian leader demanded and received every last inch of his territories, with all the settlements in it dismantled, including the town of Yamit. He would never have conceded to any of the compromises made by Arafat.

Taba: the last alibi

After Camp David exploded over what seemed to the Palestinians to be the humiliating offers of Barak and his total disregard for the far-reaching compromises they had made and brought to the table, the Intifada broke out. This completely changed the rules of the game. Nevertheless Clinton presented his own plan. He had less than one full month in office and no way to ensure that the Israelis would keep their side of his offer.

What did he offer? Annexation to Israel of 2% – 3% of the West Bank in exchange for Israeli territory equal to 1% of the West Bank. Alternatively, annexation of 6% to Israel in exchange for 3%. Division of Jerusalem: all that is Jewish � to Israel, all that is Arab � to Palestine. The Temple Mount to Palestine, the Western Wall and the Holy of Holies (in other words, part of the Temple Mount) to Israel. A minimal number of refugees to return to Israel, “in accordance with the Israeli Law”. Military control in the Jordan Valley for three years, military presence for an additional three years.

Both sides submitted several pages of reservations. With great verbal agility, Ben Ami claims that the Palestinians effectively rejected the offer and the Israelis actually accepted it. Nothing of the kind! Barak persisted in his entirely unacceptable demands that the West Bank be detached from Jordan and that Israel have a degree of sovereign control over the Temple Mount. The Palestinians, of course, rejected the idea of “Holy of Holies” and submitted their own demands.

Then there was Taba. This is Ben Ami’s last alibi. The myth of “Barak’s generous offers” was exposed following the disclosures of the American Robert Malley and others. A new myth was born: although no generous offers were made at Camp David, at Taba they were offered everything, and they refused. This proves that�. etc.

At Taba there was, indeed, significant progress. It was agreed in principle that the number of refugees allowed to return to Israel would be limited by an agreement. This was a very significant Palestinian and Israeli compromise. What remained was the argument over the numbers: the Palestinians opened the negotiations at 150 thousand per year for ten years. According to Ben Ami,Yossi Beilin offered 40 thousand (per year? In total?). The Israeli delegation presented a new map with an annexation of 5.5% to Israel. The settlement blocs were reduced in size and the topic of territorial substitution was raised. Locations were not discussed.

For the first time, Ben Ami confessed, the Palestinians presented a counter-map, which relinquished 2.34% and left the large settlements and the bypass roads to them in Israel, but without the Palestinian villages around them.

The Palestinians already knew at this stage that there was no support for the Israeli offer as elections were to take place in Israel in a few days and, according to all the polls, Barak was about to suffer a momentous defeat. But they did not reject the Israeli offers, as Ben Ami claims. On the contrary, since then they insist that every negotiation begin at the point that Taba ended.

Ben Ami does not take the trouble to remind his readers how the negotiations at Taba ended: Barak instructed that they end and that all offers be retracted. This fact does not prevent him saying, ever since, that he turned over every stone and offered everything while the wicked Arafat responded with war.

The road to Hell and good intentions

The road to Hell is sometimes paved with good intentions. There is no doubt that Ben Ami had good intentions but he led us to the current hell.

To cover up his awful failure, he created the legend that there is no one to speak to, that the Palestinians intend to destroy Israel, that “for them the negotiation ends only when Israel collapses.” This is said while Israel uses brutal oppressive force in the occupied territories, kills Palestinian activists and refuses to freeze the settlements.

Ben Ami’s term as Minister of Police gave us the October 2000 catastrophe, which ruined, possibly for generations to come, the good relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel. His short term as Foreign Minister ended in disaster that destroyed large sections of the Israeli peace camp and guaranteed the election of Sharon.

Such results might lead another man to regretful contemplation and to a measure of humility. Not Ben Ami who in his own eyes is a political genius.

Someone gave the interview with him the title “the day the peace died”. It should have been called “the day we killed the peace”.