Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 July 2000
Issue No. 490
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Demons no longer deferred

By David Hirst

David Hirst It will be something less than a miracle if President Clinton does achieve the high purpose he has set himself in summoning Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to Camp David: an end to conflict between Arab and Jew in Palestine. After all, it won't be the first of its kind. When President Jimmy Carter brought Prime Minister Menahim Begin and President Anwar Sadat together in November 1978, he did so in conditions of high risk and low expectations just like those that prevail today; he himself called the chances of success "very remote," and the US press deemed it an "almost desperate gamble." There was much the same sense of foreboding about the consequences of failure: this last-ditch summit of summits, it was said, would "determine the fate of the region for many generations, either by peace or endless struggle."

In the event, Camp David I led to the first great breakthrough, an Egyptian-Israeli treaty, of the Middle East peace process. And many people believe that, with Camp David II, the region has now reached another, even more momentous, turning point. "The hundred-year, bloodstained struggle could come to an end in a few weeks," wrote a commentator in the Israeli newspaper Maariv last week, "or reach new heights of violence soon afterwards."

It will be less than a miracle because the self-same circumstance, the weakness and desperation of one of the protagonists, which rescued Camp David I from highly probable disaster may very well do the same for Camp David II. Today, that is Arafat's predicament. In 1978, it was Sadat's. It took thirteen days, tantrums, threatened walk-outs, and the resignation of his foreign minister, but, in the end, he yielded. True, Begin had to yield up the settlements which, since the 1967 war, Israel had established in Egypt's Sinai desert, and, rightwing expansionist that he was, he didn't like it. But, it was a small price to pay for the fundamental, existential gain which he secured for Israel in return.

Sadat had gone to Camp David proclaiming his undying loyalty to the orthodoxy of the time: in going alone, Egypt would never make a "separate peace," never abandon its Arab, and above all, its Palestinian brethren. Any deal he reached would serve the larger, "comprehensive" peace to which all the others could eventually adhere. But he did get a separate peace. He fiercely denied it at the time, and brandished in his defense the so-called Framework for Peace in the Middle East that accompanied the peace treaty proper. This provided for 'autonomy' for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. But not only was this 'autonomy' a purely Israeli concept, it never even came into effect anyway, because there was absolutely no obligation imposed on Israel, under the treaty, to ensure that it ever would; negotiations conducted between Israel and Egypt on the Palestinians' behalf came to nothing. The truth is that, with this false promise, Camp David I pioneered the one great, indispensable stratagem that has sustained the "peace process' to this day: the deferral of the most intractable issues to the end.

On the face of it, the difficulties of Camp David I pale before those of its successor. For now, at last, the protagonists really are face to face with the consequences of the stratagem in which they all connived, face to face with those fundamental, so-called "final-status" issues, which the earlier breakthroughs -- from Camp David itself, to the Madrid Conference of 1991, to the Oslo agreement of 1993 and its many sequels -- systematically, pusillanimously pushed into the indefinite future.

Barak's difficulties are far greater, 22 years later, than Begin's were. Begin did not have to yield an inch of what, in terms of Zionist ideology and history, ranked as the inalienable, God-given Land of Israel, or, in terms of security, as territorially indispensable for the defence of the state. But Barak will have to yield up a goodly portion of it. And whereas Begin had a firm grip on power, an assured majority in parliament, Barak is close to losing his altogether.

But the real, surpassing dilemma is Arafat's; what he will be called upon to do dwarfs, in its enormity, what even Sadat conceded. His official goal is a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital. In terms of the Palestinian national struggle, let alone his own career as "revolutionary" and "liberator," it is a very modest aim indeed: the West Bank and Gaza constitute a mere 23 per cent of the historic Palestine which Palestinians deem rightfully theirs. Arafat has doggedly preserved the fallacy that even this modest aim is an attainable one.

And fallacy it surely is. For the deferment stratagem which kept the peace process in being at all was always deferment at his, never the Israelis', expense. The "interim" solutions which, under Oslo, were supposed to advance his conception of "final status" only advanced the Israelis' conception of it instead. Obeying the logic of "take what you can now and seek the rest later" which weakness thrust upon him, he acquiesced in accumulating concessions that only widened the gulf between what he was actually achieving and what he assured his people he would achieve, by this method, in the end. Now, with Camp David II, the fallacy is about to be brutally and definitively exposed.

Even if he gets his state, and all-important US recognition of it, it will be a travesty of what it is supposed to be: without real sovereignty, without East Jerusalem as its capital, without the return of the refugees, without most of the territories on which Israeli settlements have arisen.

Above all, its very birth will be a conditional -- conditional upon his solemn termination of the Palestinian struggle, the renunciation, in his people's name, of all the historic rights and claims which the struggle embodied.

That, at bottom, is what, for the Israelis, Camp David II is all about. That is the basic, existential gain -- the completion of Camp David I -- which they expect from it. It is the last service that Arafat -- with all the authority and prestige of the legendary freedom fighter turned elder statesman and despot -- can perform for them. As the newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi put it, "they want Arafat to play the part of the male bee which fertilizes the queen -- and then dies."

Doubtless, such a terminal cave-in will be tricked out in some new artifice of deferment that enables him to say that the "state" he is accepting now is but an embryonic version of the one into which it will eventually grow.

But, even so, will he really cave? And thereby risk going down in history not as his people's liberator, but as their great betrayer? That is the question. And one wonders whether, even now, as the choice draws nigh, he himself is any more sure of the answer to it than all those whose future hangs upon it.


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