One year ago, Bill Clinton convened a meeting of the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships at the presidential retreat in Camp David to finalise a peace agreement that he thought they were ready for. I emphasise Clinton’s role in all this because it was characteristic of the man that Palestinians had placed their hopes in, had greeted in Ramallah and Gaza like a hero, had deferred to on every occasion, that he rushed together the two opponents, locked together for decades in a convoluted struggle, to be able to say for his own selfish purposes that he had engineered an historic achievement.
Yasser Arafat didn’t want to go. Ehud Barak was there mainly to extract a promise from the Palestinians that would end the conflict and, more important, would end all Palestinian claims against Israel (including the right of return for refugees) once the Oslo process had been concluded. Clinton had always been an opportunist first and last, a Zionist second, and a clumsy politician third. The Palestinians were the weakest party; they were badly led and poorly prepared. Clinton surmised that because his (and Barak’s) terms in office were ending, he could produce a peace ceremony based on Palestinian capitulation, a ceremony that would forever enshrine his presidency by erasing the memory of Monica Lewinsky and the developing scandal of Marc Rich’s pardon.
This great plan, of course, failed completely. Even American sources recently made public supported the Palestinian argument that Barak’s “generous offer” was neither an offer nor generous. Robert Malley, a member of Clinton’s White House-based National Security Council, has published a report on what took place and, although it is critical of Palestinian tactics during the Camp David summit, it shows clearly that Israel wasn’t even close to offering what the Palestinians’ legitimate national aspirations required. But Malley spoke out in July 2001, a full year after the Camp David summit ended and well after Israel’s well-oiled propaganda machine launched the by now standard chorus that Arafat had mischievously rejected the best imaginable Israeli offer. This chorus was abetted by Clinton’s repeated claim that, whereas Barak was courageous, Arafat was only disappointing. And so the thesis has lodged in public discourse ever since, to Palestine’s immense detriment. Unnoticed was the observation made by an Israeli information flunky that after Camp David and Taba, no Palestinians played a consistent role disseminating a Palestinian version of the debacle. Thus, Israel has had the field to itself, with results in exploitation and backlash that have been virtually incalculable.
I was well aware of the damage being done to the Intifada as a result of Israel’s self-portrayal as a rejected peace-lover last autumn and winter. I made phone calls to members of Arafat’s entourage urging them to convince their leader of how Israel was making use of Palestinian silence, which it quickly established was the verbal equivalent of Palestinian violence. Word reached me that Arafat was adamant, that he refused to address his people, the Israelis, or the world, no doubt hoping that fate or his own miraculous powers of non-communication would affect the Israeli disinformation campaign. In any event, my urging did absolutely no good. Arafat and his numerous lackeys remained ineffective, uncomprehending, and of course largely silent.
We must blame ourselves first of all. Neither our leadership nor our intellectuals seem to have grasped that even a brave anti-colonial uprising cannot on its own explain itself, and that what we (and the other Arabs) regard as our right of resistance can be made to seem by Israel like the most unprincipled terrorism or violence. In the meantime, Israel has persuaded the world to forget its own violent occupation and its terrorist collective punishment — to say nothing of its unstoppable ethnic cleansing — against the Palestinian people.
Indeed, we have made matters worse for ourselves by allowing the inadequate Arafat to come and go as he pleases on the question of violence. Every human rights document ever formulated entitles a people to resist military occupation, the destruction of homes and property, and the expropriation of land for the purpose of settlements. Arafat and his advisers seem not to have understood that when they blindly entered Israel’s unilateral dialectic of violence and terror — verbally speaking — they had in essence given up their right of resistance. Instead of making clear that any relinquishing of resistance had to be accompanied by Israel’s withdrawal and/or equal relinquishing of its occupation, the Palestinian people were made vulnerable by their leadership to charges of terror and violence. Everything Israel did became retaliation. Everything Palestinians did was either violence or terror or (usually) both. The resulting spectacle of a war criminal like Sharon denouncing Palestinian “violence” has been little short of disgusting.
Another consequence of Palestinian ineptitude was that it let the so-called Israeli peace activists off the hook, turning that sad collection of camp- followers into silent allies of Israel’s lamentable Sharon-led government. A few brave and principled Israelis like some of the New Historians — Jeff Halper, Michel Warschavsky, and their groups — are an exception. How many times have we heard the official “peaceniks” rant on about their “disappointment” at Palestinian “ingratitude” and violence? How often does anyone tell them that their role is to pressure their governments to end the occupation and not (as they always have) to lecture a people under occupation about their magnanimity and disappointed hopes? Would any but the most reactionary French person in 1944 be tolerant of German pleas to be “reasonable” about Germany’s occupation of France? No, of course not. But we tolerate the hectoring Israeli “peace” proponents to go on and on about how “generous” Barak has been, without reminding them that every one of their leaders has made his name as a killer or oppressor of Arabs, from 1948 to the present. Ben-Gurion presided over the Nakba; Eshkol over the conquests of 1967; Begin over Deir Yassin and Lebanon; Rabin over the bone-breaking of the first Intifada and, before that, over the evacuation of 60,000 unarmed Palestinian civilians from Ramleh and Lydda in 1948; Peres over the destruction of Qana; Barak personally took part in the assassination of Palestinian leaders; Sharon led the massacre of Qibya and was responsible for Sabra and Shatila. The real role of the Israeli peace camp is to do what it has never seriously done, which is to acknowledge all of that and to prevent further outrage by the Israeli army and air force against a dispossessed and stateless people, not to be free and easy with advice to Palestinians or to express hopes and disappointment to the people whom Israel has oppressed for over half a century.
But once the Palestinian leadership had forsaken its principles and pretended that it was a great power capable of playing the game of nations, it brought on itself the fate of a weak nation, with neither the sovereignty nor the power to reinforce its gestures or its tactics. So hypnotised is Mr Arafat with his supposed standing as a president, jumping from Paris to London to Beijing to Cairo on one pointless state visit after another, that he has forgotten that the weapons the weak and the stateless cannot ever give up are its principles and its people. To occupy and unendingly defend the high moral ground; to keep telling the truth and reminding the world of the full historical picture; to hold on to the lawful right of resistance and restitution; to mobilise people everywhere rather than to appear with the likes of Chirac and Blair; to depend neither on the media nor the Israelis but on oneself to tell the truth. These are what Palestinian leaders forgot first at Oslo and then again at Camp David. When will we as a people assume responsibility for what after all is ours and stop relying on leaders who no longer have any idea what they are doing?