Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 July 2000
Issue No. 490
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Dark at the end of the tunnel

By Gamil Mattar

Gamil Mattar Camp David is back in the limelight. This is the second time that the presidential retreat has been privileged with a starring role in the course of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The first time, the Arab struggle emerged with its wings clipped. This time, many -- pessimists and optimists alike -- believe that Camp David heralds the end of the struggle.

Camp David I radically transformed the scope and magnitude of the Arab-Israeli conflict by eliminating certain alternatives, though without bringing about a final resolution. The same is expected of Camp David II, now that pressure, or despair, has sapped the most important forces in the struggle and closed off the options for peaceful resistance, just as Camp David I effectively eliminated the option of armed resistance. In fact, now, 22 years after Camp David I, many feel that the Arab-Israeli conflict has been reduced to a question of outstanding differences. These differences, moreover, will never again threaten to escalate to the point of conflict, and anyone who attempts to foster such an escalation will have to pay a heavy price for that grievous transgression.

This is precisely what Camp David II is intended to set in stone. Israel has a very ambitious objective here. It wants a formal declaration that the struggle is over and that all "outstanding differences" between the conflict's two main protagonists -- the Palestinians and the Israelis -- can be channeled into the framework of a final status agreement. In other words, the Israelis (along with the Americans, of course) want to ensure that by the time negotiators leave Camp David they will have reached an agreement in principle that there is no more cause for conflict -- that the final status issues may be open to differences in interpretation, but that these differences are not necessarily mutually exclusive or incompatible and can, therefore, be resolved through diplomatic channels.

Just before the Camp David summit convened, there was much strident drawing of lines and adamant digging-in of heels from all quarters. Somebody is going to have to make some very big concessions indeed if there is ever to be a solution to this problem, they were saying. And it is not going to be us, was the message that Barak wanted to convey to the Israelis. The PA hoped to convey much the same to the Palestinian people. When officials indulge in this kind of posturing, entrenching themselves in a number of positions from which they are ostensibly unable to budge, their purpose is to create a kind of negotiating standoff. On the ground, such a standoff can only be broken when one side can be convinced to compromise.

But which side will back down? What will be the nature of the compromise and what form will it take? Will it be fair and equitable? If not, who is to compensate the side most damaged by the compromise?

Camp David II differs from its predecessor in at least one fundamental respect. This time, the three parties involved will be seeking a formula whereby real and substantial concessions can be exacted from one side yet packaged as though they were only concessions in form. The aim of Camp David II is to co-opt Palestinian demands under the umbrella of Israel's inflexible conditions. It is from this perspective that we should view the suggestion of furnishing $40 billion in compensation for the Palestinian refugees. The proposal on the surface appears fair because it meets one of the principles stipulated under international resolutions. In essence, however, it fails to recognise the Palestinians' right of return. Proposals to resolve the status of Jerusalem -- whether they read as "Abu Dis," or "the three villages," or a Palestinian flag on some religious site in Jerusalem, or "Jerusalem without Jerusalem" because portions of Palestinian territory have been ceded on a long term lease -- are all intended to gloss over some major recanting on established principles. Similarly, an independent state lacking territorial integrity and deprived of sovereignty over its access points is independent in name only. In the eyes of the world, and particularly its Arab neighbours, independent status posts a sign prohibiting intervention in its domestic affairs, but with Israel standing sentinel to keep out undesirables.

There are many ways to package substantial Palestinian concessions. There are just as many ways to package compromises on Barak's famous "negatives." But the US, Israeli and, sometimes, Arab media has sought to caution the Palestinian and Arab people that those "negatives" are out of bounds, that to attempt to chip away at this barrier might, in fact, be harmful. Barak has staked his reputation and the stability of his government on these positions, so the argument goes. If they fall, he falls, reviving the spectre of Netanyahu or the breakdown of negotiations, which in turn means that the Palestinian state, with or without Jerusalem, will not be declared on schedule, or that if the Palestinians go ahead and declare statehood, military confrontation is inevitable.

Camp David I achieved the end for which it was intended. This was to eliminate the possibility of full-scale military escalation in the region, or the tactical use of such escalation. What many at the time did not realise was that a conflict sapped of its potential to escalate, even theoretically, is a conflict that cannot be resolved fairly and equitably. The proof of this now presents itself palpably in Camp David II, where the crux of the conflict will continue to defy a just and honourable solution and where true peace has become the hostage of the religious and secular right in Israel.

It appears that Israel and the US want Camp David II to seal a counterfeit peace in an unfinished conflict. Whatever the results of the negotiations, no matter how long they take, I am certain that the Palestinians will emerge in the end, if not with a very prejudicial agreement, then at least with fewer fixed principles than when they entered the process. Furthermore, if the US fails to persuade the parties to issue the desired declaration that their conflict is over, the Palestinian president will receive the same reward as that which was meted out to the late President Hafez Al-Assad -- i.e. the explicit charge that he, alone, was directly responsible for the failure. Israel, meanwhile, will come out smelling like a rose. They will say that Barak did everything in his power to reach an agreement, even alienating his partners in power and exposing himself and all of Israel to mortal peril. In return for such selfless sacrifice, of course, the US will feel obliged to offer all financial assistance possible to augment Israel's security, strategic superiority and reputation as a peace-seeking nation.

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