Ending the Death Dance
But the problems of US leadership cannot all be laid at the feet of the Bush presidency. Just as crucial was the insufficiency of the Oslo peace process, and the blame game that has been played ever since the outbreak of the second intifada in late September 2000. It has been endlessly repeated, without any demonstration, that the Israelis under Prime Minister Ehud Barak made a generous offer at Camp David in the summer of 2000. It is then alleged that Arafat rejected an offer he should have accepted, and resumed armed struggle. Further, it has been alleged that Arafat's rejection was tantamount to saying that the struggle was not about establishing a Palestinian state but about ending the existence of the Jewish state. It was this one-sided assessment, alongside others, that led to Sharon's election, which meant that Israel would henceforth be represented by a man with a long record of uncompromising brutality toward Palestinians and a disregard of their legitimate claims for self-determination.
But was Arafat to blame for the failure of the Oslo endgame? I think it was a most unfortunate failure of leadership by Arafat not to explain to the Palestinians, Israelis and the world why Barak's Camp David proposals were unacceptable. It should be remembered that Arafat at one point seemed on the verge of accepting them but backed away only when confronted by the unhappiness of a large proportion of his own people with the sort of Palestinian state that would result. It should also be remembered that the entire negotiation concerned 22 percent of the original British mandated territory of Palestine, about which the Palestinians were expected to strike compromises while leaving the 78 percent that was Israel out of account. Further, the future of the settlements in the occupied territories was to be addressed by Israeli annexation of half of them, including 80 percent or more of the settlers, despite the settlements' illegality and the degree to which their existence was a daily irritant to Palestinian sensibilities. And on refugees, there were evidently some signs of a compromise in the making at the supplemental negotiations at Taba in January 2001, but nothing was written down, and it was far from clear that Barak could have delivered on what was offered even if re-elected, so strong were Israeli objections to any return by Palestinians to pre-1967 Israel. Beyond this, it was expected that the security of Israel was to be maintained in such a way as to put any emergent Palestine in a permanent position of subordination, thus denying the fundamental message of any genuine peace: insuring equivalence between the two states for the two peoples. The Palestinians would sooner or later challenge such a solution even if their leaders could be induced to sign on the dotted line. Many have forgotten that a widespread fear among Palestinians at the time of Camp David was that Arafat would sell his soul and that of his people (especially the more than 50 percent who were refugees) for the sake of a state, any state, as this was thought to be his sense of personal mission.
Similarly, the widespread contention in American circles that Arafat opted for terrorism is also seriously misleading. Such thinking deforms perceptions of what is reasonable. Arafat was up against more militant forces in the Palestinian movement throughout this period, and was generally viewed as the most moderate voice among the Palestinian leadership, and had even shown an early willingness to incur the wrath of Hamas and Islamic Jihad militias by taking seriously his duty to prevent the territories under the administration of the Palestinian Authority from being used against Israel and Israelis. Beyond this, it was Sharon's own provocative visit to the Al Aqsa Mosque that started the second intifada. This visit proceeded despite fervent warnings about the explosion likely to happen, given privately to the Barak leadership by the most respected Palestinians, including the late Faisal Husseini, head of Orient House in Jerusalem.
The Palestinian demonstrations that followed were notably nonviolent at the outset. Israel countered from the beginning by using excessive force, killing and seriously wounding demonstrators in large numbers, and by its practice of extrajudicial assassination of a range of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. At this point the escalatory spiral was initiated, with Israel acting with ever more force at each stage, ratcheting up the stakes to such a level that the Palestinians were being attacked with among the most sophisticated weapons of warfare, including very modern tanks and helicopter gunships. It was in the course of this process that Palestinian resistance gradually ran out of military options, and suicide bombers appeared as the only means still available by which to inflict sufficient harm on Israel so that the struggle could go on. I was a member of a human rights inquiry appointed by the UN Human Rights Commission a year ago; our report fully supported this line of interpretation in its study of the second intifada, as did the overwhelming majority of the Security Council membership. The basic conclusion of these efforts at impartial understanding was that Israel was mainly responsible for the escalations, and that its tactics of response involved massive violations of international humanitarian law.
There is the closely related matter of continued Israeli effective occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, a reality that has been fully re-enacted in the past few weeks. It poses the question of what sort of right of resistance is enjoyed by an occupied people when the occupying power ignores international law and refuses to withdraw. Such a right of resistance does not permit unrestricted violence, but it certainly would seem to legitimize some armed activities. It puts in a different light the furor raised in January by the intercepted arms shipment that was evidently intended for Palestinian use. Should the opposition, in the context of the sort of struggle that has gone on for decades, have no right to gain the means of self-help while the occupying power can arm itself to the teeth, all the while denying international accountability and refusing UN authority?