One of the most telling moments during Bill Clinton’s public inquisition over his relationship with Monica Lewinsky came, as I recall, when he was asked point blank whether he had had sex with his young assistant. His answer was, “it depends what you mean by sex.” The man’s bold evasiveness and his capacity to override reality with a sudden new manoeuvre of his own (especially after what had already been revealed to the whole world about his dalliance with Lewinsky) were also typical of Clinton’s approach to Middle East peace at Camp David. By virtue of his position as American president he had an opportunity to do what no one else could, that is, really bring both Israelis and Palestinians (but especially Israelis) to a genuine recognition of what the issues were and then perhaps face the stronger and more culpable party with some real choices. Such a procedure would of course have required that he make an effort to go beyond the clichs and biases of his Middle East team, nearly every one of them a known pro-Zionist and/or former Israeli lobby employee, and get at the essence of the problem, which, simply put, is that one people has dispossessed another. This is a dateable historical fact (1948) and not, as the poorly informed Mrs Albright put it, a “biblical” contest “going back thousands of years.”
After all, Clinton might well have asked himself why it is that even so pliant a man as Yasser Arafat has hesitated so long in agreeing to Israeli terms for the final status. Could it be that there is a genuine people here with a genuine grievance, one that can’t go away simply by bringing a couple of leaders to Camp David and making them sign an agreement that effectively obliterates one people’s rights so that the other would basically get off with the whole pie and no responsibility for anything that happened?
The shallowness of Clinton’s approach was further demonstrated by his acquiescence to Ehud Barak’s position that Israel might consider “understanding” and “noting” the suffering of the Palestinian people but would assume no part of the blame for causing it. Did it ever occur to Clinton that there is no such thing as suffering without cause or blame? And is it not a scandal that in all the media and governmental posturing about the failure of the talks, no one said a word about Clinton’s moral villainy? Wasn’t it perfectly clear that the whole misguided attempt to get himself and his lacklustre vice president (already in trouble with his flagging presidential campaign) a cheap boost was an effort that was doomed to fail, precisely because Clinton’s evasion of the truth led him to a “bold” theatrical coup that then blew up in his face? How could he imagine that the entire Muslim and Arab world, to say nothing of every single Palestinian, would accept Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem as well as over most of historical Palestine in return only for Israeli and American approval for a mere scrap of a sham state? Was it necessary to treat Arafat and the people he claimed to represent not only as contemptible little creatures but as morons as well? And in addition to stripping them of their history as residents of Palestine, how did Clinton and Barak expect Palestinians to give up their right of return after having gone to war a year ago on behalf of the Kossovan Albanians’ right of return? Was there no limit to the flagrantly double standard and the hypocrisy?
The fault is not entirely Israel’s or Clinton’s. In the 22 July issue of The Guardian a senior Palestinian official at Camp David was quoted as saying that for “us the friendship with America is everything. Without it, we are nothing.” Never were more dishonourable and craven words ever spoken, words that typify everything that is wrong with the Palestinian position during the entire peace process. First of all, they denigrate the Palestinian struggle to nothing, reducing all the efforts and sacrifices made on behalf of Palestine by people who genuinely and, one might even say fervently, believed in the truth and justice of their cause. That is the opposite of nothing. Secondly, it places Palestinians at a fantastic disadvantage by consigning them essentially to the position of slaves begging for mercy. How can one expect such merchants of power as Barak or Clinton to respect people who do not respect themselves? Third, it further demoralises Palestinians by revealing that their leaders have a very low opinion of them. Lastly, it gives the US carte blanche to say or do anything it may wish with the Palestinians. For if a leadership sees itself only as a tool of the antagonist, the struggle is over, and the winner can work his will without the slightest concern for the loser. I might also add that so abject a sentiment can also fill our adversaries (or “peace partners” as the revolting euphemism has it) with a kind of disgust at us.
Having said all that, it remains the case, I believe, that Arafat did the right thing by not signing. A revealing article by Belal Al-Hassan in the Al Hayat 28 July issue gives a very useful background of the Palestinian and Arab context out of which Arafat was working, and this of course was totally neglected by the media (as well as by Clinton of course) in their ill-tempered attacks on the Palestinians for not being willing to compromise, and the gushing praise for Barak because he was so “courageous,” a word in this context that has no possible relevance. Having already annexed Jerusalem, expanded its boundaries, stuffed the place with new Israeli settlements, Israel doesn’t require much courage to express a willingness to give back Beit Hanina and Abu Dis to partial Palestinian sovereignty. As for Israel’s much vaunted magnanimity in being willing to challenge longstanding “taboos” about Jerusalem by talking about them, that too is the rankest nonsense. The facts are that Jerusalem is still divided, and that 200,000 Palestinians live there, and without Arab and Islamic backing, Arafat was simply in no position to compromise on East Jerusalem as well as the settlements as well as the right of return, all for nothing more than a pat on the back and a phony state that couldn’t fool even as ardent a claimant for the illusion as Arafat. As I predicted in an article two weeks ago, Barak really wanted Arafat to sign a termination of the Arab-Israeli conflict (my view has been supported by most of the Israeli press reports on the Camp David meetings, which the Israelis admit were really designed to wring the ultimate concession out of the hapless Arafat), and in effect to get away without making fundamental changes in the Israeli situation. That is, Israel can continue to possess 78 per cent of Mandatory Palestine as its own, plus strategic parts of the 22 per cent that remain, maintain a rigid separation between Jews and non-Jews, keep all of Jerusalem, go on with the invidious Law of Return, continue to control water, borders, security, and never have to deal with its historical responsibilities as having forcibly displaced an entire people in order to come into existence.
Well then, what now? I worry that having returned home to a hero’s welcome Arafat will then turn around, assured of his domestic support, return to Camp David and capitulate to Israel and Clinton. But he has one last chance to redeem himself and the misguided path he adopted in secret at Oslo seven years ago. And that is, finally, to tell the truth to his people, openly and honestly, something he has never done. The question of Palestine and, for that matter, the question of Israel constitute together one of the most colossal, unimaginably complex issues in all history: there are massive religious, political, social, cultural and historical issues involved which no individual leader (certainly none of the calibre of Barak, Clinton and the others) can possibly comprehend; none of them has either the moral conscience or the intellect or the soul to encompass what is at stake. The only recourse for Arafat is to turn to his people, and not just the group of sycophants and pygmies with whom he has surrounded (and isolated) himself. What he must do for the first time since 1982 is to mobilise his people, call on their talents and endowments, summon their resources, mobilise them to commit themselves to the task ahead, which is nothing less than remaining firm to our collective vision as a dispossessed people requiring serious redress for our grievances and claims. With his people, and only with his people, can Arafat become not only the conscience but also the vision of the peace process, both of which it now lacks.
By doing so he can offer the Israelis a real peace with justice, and not a cold peace with injustice rankling in every Palestinian breast. Israel and the US are too strong for him to take on alone and, since he has discovered that throwing himself on their mercy can only produce more demands from them, he must rely on all the other, unused resources at his command. There is no doubt that in the end Palestinians must compromise and must be absolutely clear in saying that we fully intend to recognise a secure Israeli-Jewish presence in our midst, but only as a result of the basic issues having been resolved to our minimum satisfaction. This is not a matter of whim: it is consolidated in every known international and legal resolution. The South African model is additionally useful here: as Mandela did, we must be inclusive in our vision, and we must require that an end be put to the invidious idea that one people has all the rights whereas the other people must accept inferior status. In addition, something like a Truth and Reconciliation Commission made up of Israelis and Palestinians who have substantial moral status in their societies would be a good idea too. Equality is the core principle, however, and even though it cannot be mathematically precise it has to address the fundamental discrepancy that now obtains between Jew and Arab.
I have no illusion at all that this will be easy, or that the absence of real democracy in the Arab world is anything but a hindrance to the real contest in Palestine. But I do not believe that there is any other way for Arafat if he wishes to avoid the dismal logical end to the Oslo peace process, which he barely escaped at Camp David. This is a moment for vision, principle and courage. If he wants my support in such a task, he will have it.