20 - 26 July 2000
Issue No. 491
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Bars on the window of opportunityBy Hassan Nafaa *
A curious air has settled over the region with the onset of Camp David II, a mysterious mist in which joyous dreams fade into nightmares, flashes of crystalline visions clash with potent myths, clouds redolent of the mysteries of the Orient waft carelessly into the gusts of the Orient's infatuation with Western realism and rationalism. In the midst of this unsettling climate, as fraught as the eve of parturition, people are anxiously anticipating a miracle. They expect President Clinton to appear, today or tomorrow at the latest, waving that long-awaited magical scroll upon which has been penned the text of a treaty ending over half a century of bitter conflict in the Middle East.
Let us clear away the potent fumes and contemplate more soberly the potential results of Camp David II. In so doing, we must pay special attention to the antecedents that generated the impetus for this summit.
It is important to note, first, that of the three parties involved, Clinton, for both personal and objective reasons, was the keenest to hold this summit and to ensure its success. On the one hand, he desperately hopes to efface the image of the Monica Lewinsky scandal that has so marred his term in office. He does not believe his presidency should be remembered for this careless lapse, and in Camp David he sees the opportunity to go down in history as the person who played the most decisive role in ending the most complex, sensitive and potentially explosive conflict in the contemporary world.
On the other hand, this subjective motivation alone could not have furnished sufficient impetus for a summit and given it a chance for success had not concrete US interests pushed in the same direction. The failure of the current peace process, for many years directly sponsored by the US alone, could seriously jeopardise US interests in the region.
Israel, however, has been very wary of Clinton's eagerness for the Israelis and Palestinians to reach an agreement before he leaves the White House. A substantial segment of opinion in Israeli ruling circles has been banking on continued procrastination in the peace process in order to gain more time for Jewish settlement expansion in Jerusalem and the West Bank, thereby generating more formidable de facto realities to impose on the Palestinians. They have also been banking on the victory of Al Gore, the presidential candidate they believe to be the most ardent supporter of Israel and the most willing to comply with Israeli demands.
Nonetheless, another segment of opinion, no less influential, seems to feel that it is possible, particularly given the present circumstances in the White House, to reach an acceptable agreement and that a better opportunity may not present itself in the future. Clearly, Barak has opted to throw in his lot with the trend that favours seizing the unique opportunity Clinton has offered, and using the current US administration to achieve a bold Israeli plan to end the conflict once and for all. Undoubtedly frustrated at the constant threat his coalition faced every time he took the slightest step forward in the peace process, he evidently came to the conclusion that he would have to proceed more recklessly, regardless of the government's fate, if he was to reach a comprehensive settlement. Perhaps this helps to explain why, in the few weeks leading up to the summit, he appeared so enthusiastic at the prospect.
Arafat, on the other hand, has naturally been highly circumspect. Palestinian and Israeli positions on all pending issues are still a long way apart, and the lengthy secret negotiations that took place in Copenhagen did not close this gap significantly, in spite of the progress that was made. Nor does it appear likely that the US administration will pressure Israel into softening its positions in the final status negotiations. After all, since Clinton assumed power in 1993, he has persistently refused to exert any pressure compelling Israel to implement the agreements it has signed -- agreements, moreover, directly sponsored by the US. Furthermore, Arafat has good reason to doubt that Clinton will act in any way that could detract from the Democratic candidate's chances in the forthcoming presidential elections.
In short, Arafat had every reason to be apprehensive of getting caught in the Barak-Clinton vice, even though he agreed to attend the summit under these conditions. Undoubtedly, too, his apprehensions increased when Clinton went ahead with his invitation to the summit, although the Palestinians had demanded that the gap between the Palestinian and Israeli positions should be narrowed before risking a meeting that would be viewed widely as a "last resort."
Yet Arafat could not turn down an official summons from the US president to a closed and extended tripartite summit in Camp David, even if the invitation appeared to be issued in direct response to Barak's demands and regardless of Palestinian concerns. Of course the Palestinians feel that they have been lured into a trap. In fact, the Palestinian delegation to Camp David does, indeed, appear to have been kidnapped, having been cut off from contact with the outside world, including their partners in power. It was certainly astounding to watch Madeleine Albright as she left Camp David in order to intercept a group of Palestinian representatives who had come to meet Arafat at his request.
Does this mean that Arafat has no choice but to make over a blank check to Israel, when the conditions Israel imposes will receive unconditional US support? Not necessarily. In spite of the image that comes readily to mind of Arafat, pen in quivering hand, with Barak pushing an agreement in front of him and Clinton behind him holding a gun to his head, Arafat still holds the most important card. He can refuse to sign.
But will Arafat dare to say no? Does he have the courage to stick to established Palestinian principles, even as he hears the key turning in the lock? Finally, at what point should he say no?
Before proceeding further with this rather alarming scenario, it is important to point out that the gap between the Palestinian and Israeli positions is not as great as the media would have us believe, particularly in the Arab world. True, Barak went to Camp David carrying with him his famous five negatives. He refuses to return to the pre-1967 borders, and he means what he says. However, there are indications that he is now willing not only to withdraw from more than 90 per cent of the West Bank, but also to accept the principle of land swapping, whereby Israel would concede portions of land within Israel proper. He says that Jerusalem will remain the united, eternal capital of Israel. Yet he is now prepared to place the Arab neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem under autonomous government and to permit the Palestinian flag to be raised over holy sites, and above all Al-Aqsa Mosque. Barak also rejects the principle of the return of the Palestinian refugees, and, again, he means what he says. In fact, he continues to maintain that Israel does not bear any moral or legal responsibility for their plight. On the other hand, he seems ready to allow the return of a small percentage of Palestinian refugees within the framework of an extended "family reunification" scheme, and may not mind footing a significant portion of the amount compensation and repatriation will cost.
If reports of these new Israeli positions are true, they are still not sufficient to serve as a solid basis for a lasting settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis. At the same time, however, some analysts feel certain that these positions are not final, that they could develop through the dynamics of the negotiating process, particularly if this process is conducted in total isolation. Under such conditions, they believe, it is not impossible for the two sides to converge upon some middle ground that would permit for a compromise at the end of the summit.
It is precisely here, however, that the crux of the Palestinian dilemma resides. With the very initiation of the negotiating process, Resolution 242, of which the Palestinians and Israelis still have divergent interpretations, becomes the negotiating ceiling. Any compromise is almost certain to fall below that ceiling, for under the current balance of power, it is impossible to imagine that the Palestinians could succeed in obtaining all their declared demands.
Given this reality, the Palestinians in Camp David II are faced with few choices, all bitter. The furthest Barak can go is to try to strike a deal based on what he considers concessions on the issues of land, settlements and Palestinian statehood, in exchange for Palestinian concessions on Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees. If Barak is truly sincere, he may go so far as to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state on 94 per cent of the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967 (withdrawing, perhaps, from some 80 per cent of this land upon signing the agreement, with the remainder to be staggered over three or five years). He may also agree to annex the settlements near Jerusalem in exchange for land to the northeast of Gaza. But these concessions will come at a price: Palestinian recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and relinquishing the demand for the return of refugees.
If the Camp David talks produce a proposed deal of this sort, Arafat will have three options. First, he could adhere to the fundamental Palestinian demands and reject the proposal outright. By choosing this option, he would face US and Israeli accusations of being the party responsible for the failure of the negotiations. Conceivably, too, certain Arab countries eager for a hasty conclusion to the conflict at any cost would mount a vicious campaign against the Palestinian leadership, attacking it as "the leadership of lost opportunities."
His second option would be to accept the deal, gaining control over most of the territory lost in 1967. In this case, the Palestinian leadership would risk a confrontation with several Palestinian factions, whose attention would be focused on the half-empty portion of the cup, a situation that could plunge the nascent state into immediate turmoil.
The third option is to seek to defer the resolution of the issues of Jerusalem and the refugees until more propitious circumstances present themselves, but without jeopardising an agreement, even a partial one. However, there is a major risk involved here, too. If such an agreement does not include a provision that certain Palestinian demands remain pending and guarantees that nothing will be changed on the ground, postponement could be interpreted as an implicit backing down on fundamental principles, and could jeopardise the credibility of the Palestinian leadership among other Palestinian groups.
If these are bitter alternatives for the Palestinians and, indeed, all Arabs and Muslims to contemplate, they are no more palatable to broad segments of Israeli opinion. Exacerbating the situation further is the fact that none of the participants in the negotiations want to pay the price for the failure of the Camp David summit and the frightening prospect of the collapse of the entire negotiating process. Consequently, it seems that the only way out is to resort, once again, to magical formulas that hold such great promise without committing anyone to anything. "Constructive ambiguity," to me, is a grossly inaccurate term. "Ambiguity," as Oslo has so tangibly demonstrated, can only serve the stronger party.
It will not surprise me to see Clinton emerging from the woods of Camp David clutching a document filled with eloquently phrased "constructive ambiguity" of the sort that some US officials craft and market so well. Unfortunately, that piece of paper will not end the tragedy of the Palestinian people, or curb the arrogance of the Israeli state.
* The writer is the chairman of Cairo University's political science department.