The history we remember

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When Bill Clinton appeared on television last year to announce that the Camp David summit had ended without agreement, he blamed Arafat for the failure and praised Barak for what he called his willingness to make compromises. Although this version of events was taken up by the media and repeated so often that it became a “historical fact,” I remember feeling at the time it rang false.

My impression was vindicated with the publication last week of an insider’s account of what really took place at Camp David. In an article to be published in the New York Review of Books, Robert Malley, who served as President Clinton’s special assistant for Arab-Israeli affairs, disputes the widespread view that Arafat was solely to blame for the collapse of the summit. According to the article, which is co-authored by Hussein Agha, a scholar who occasionally advises the Palestinian leadership, Barak’s mistakes contributed to the breakdown.

Malley and Agha report that, public eulogy notwithstanding, behind the scenes Clinton was exasperated by Barak. When the Israeli prime minister reneged on a promise to transfer three villages in the Jerusalem area to Palestinian control, Clinton was furious. They quote him as saying that he had never before been made out to be a false prophet to a foreign leader. He also chided Barak for not being more forthcoming in earlier negotiations with Hafez Al-Assad, and warned him that he would not tolerate having his credibility compromised again: “I went to Geneva and felt like a wooden Indian doing your bidding. I will not let it happen here.”

According to the authors, Clinton counselled Barak to show some flexibility and to take Palestinian sensitivities into account. At the same time, they say that Clinton was troubled by Palestinian unwillingness to respond to some of the far-reaching ideas that he and Barak put on the table. Apparently he wanted Arafat to offer counterproposals so that Israel’s stated desire for a deal could be tested. But the authors believe that Arafat and his team were paralysed by fear of being tricked by Barak. When Abu Alaa, the chief Palestinian negotiator, refused to bargain over a map proposed as part of a solution, Clinton vented his pent-up frustrations: “Don’t simply say to the Israelis that their map is no good, Give me something better!” When Abu Alaa demurred, Clinton told him “I won’t have the United States covering for negotiations in bad faith. Let’s quit!” and stormed out of the meeting.

It was on this note that the summit ended, this that coloured the announcement we heard Clinton make on television. The wording of the announcement betrays his bitterness at the failure of what was in effect his swan song, his last chance to carve out a place for himself in history as the architect of peace in the Middle East. In lashing out at Arafat, Clinton broke a pledge he had made to the Palestinian leader who, reluctant to attend what he believed was a premature meeting, had agreed on condition that he would not be held responsible for its likely failure. Worse, the slant Clinton chose to give to his version of events, in contradiction with what we now know to be the real story, has firmly established Arafat’s responsibility for the failure of the talks in people’s minds. That this distorted version has become the accepted historical truth is thanks in no small measure to the media which, until the Malley- Agha article, were content to repeat it without question.

Commenting on the article, the well-known British journalist Robert Fisk notes that although it reveals only two of the reasons why Arafat failed to reach a peace agreement, it has already severely damaged Israel’s repeated assertion that the Palestinian leader “turned to violence” after “massive concessions” from Israel.

He recalls that immediately after the Camp David talks broke down, Israel mounted a huge public relations exercise to convince the international community that it had made unprecedented offers to Arafat which amounted to the return of almost the entire occupied Palestinian territories. Israeli embassies put forward to Western reporters stories of the supposed 96 per cent of land which was offered to Arafat, repeating the epithet that the Palestinian leader “never lost an opportunity to lose an opportunity.”

But in reality, Fisk says, Palestinian and American sources (the latter avoiding Israeli condemnation by talking anonymously) have pointed out that the figure of 96 per cent represented the percentage of land over which Israel was ready to negotiate — not 96 per cent of the entire West Bank and Gaza strip. Left out of the equation was Arab East Jerusalem, illegally annexed by Israel after the 1967 war, the huge belt of Jewish settlements around the city and a 10-mile wide military buffer zone around the Palestinian territories. Palestinian land from which Israel was prepared to withdraw came to around 46, not 96, per cent! Arafat failed to explain the details, preferring to concentrate on Israel’s refusal to grant Palestinians sovereignty over East Jerusalem.

There is an important lesson to be drawn here. History is not an account of what actually happened but of how what happened is reported. When there is a discrepancy between an event and the way it is made known to us, what we retain is the image, not the reality. The real becomes virtual, the virtual real. While the subjective element has never been absent from the chronicles of history — which Napoleon disdainfully called “a set of lies agreed upon” — the lines of demarcation between fact and fiction, or real and virtual, are becoming ever more blurred in the age of the information revolution.

Nowhere is this confusion more apparent than in the current showdown between Israel and the Palestinians. The history now being written is not about the sufferings of the Palestinians under siege but about the “violence” they are perpetrating, while the reign of terror to which they are being subjected by the occupying power is presented as necessary to restore order and security.

Even if the writing of history has always been informed by the personal inclinations of the writer, advances in information technology mean that we are no longer distanced from events by time. We are living in an age of instant history, as it were, in which the way an event is portrayed by the media is instrumental both in shaping public perceptions and in establishing the portrayal as a historical fact. Of course, an event can only be credibly portrayed if it has some basis in fact. Even virtual reality must have a counterpart in actual reality, albeit one that bears little resemblance to the truth. The weapon of disinformation is highly potent and is used with great effect in conflict situations in general and in the Arab-Israeli conflict in particular. For Sharon and his cohorts, it is an essential weapon to justify conduct that would otherwise be totally unjustifiable.

The time it has taken for the truth about the Camp David summit to come to light merely confirms that disinformation is a tool American diplomacy itself is not loathe to resort to, despite the United States’ reputation as the most democratic state on earth. How else to explain that it took a full year for the Malley-Agha account of what actually transpired at Camp David to reach the big news corporations in America, at a time when Sharon’s excesses threaten US interests over the entire span of the Arab and Muslim worlds.

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