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When Doves Cry | The Nation

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When Doves Cry

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In July 1999 a new Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Ehud Barak of the Labor Party, came to power. Barak had opposed the 1993 Oslo Declaration of Principles between Israel and the PLO and had voted against its sequel, the 1995 Oslo II accords, in the Cabinet. Nonetheless, his election raised hopes that after three years of stalemate induced by the administration of Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, there would be renewed momentum toward a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement and resolution of the "final status" issues left open by the Oslo accords--settlements, the status of East Jerusalem, refugees, borders and the nature of the Palestinian entity.

About the Author

Joel Beinin
Joel Beinin is the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and a professor of Middle East history at Stanford...

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Those hopes were dashed by the failure of the July 2000 summit at Camp David convened by President Clinton at Barak's request and against the wishes of Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat, who thought the parties were not close enough to conclude an agreement. Israel's proposals at Camp David, while more generous than any previous public position, fell far short of what any Palestinian leader could accept. Barak proposed a barely contiguous Palestinian state on 90 percent of the West Bank (with an additional 10 percent, the Jordan Valley, leased back to Israel for decades) entirely surrounded by Israeli-controlled territory. The Palestinians would have sovereignty over a few suburbs of East Jerusalem, but only a quasi-autonomous civil administration for Arab neighborhoods of the city proper. Barak's refusal to withdraw to the 1967 borders reflected not only his commitment to a limited form of Palestinian sovereignty but his constricted negotiating room. Having lost his parliamentary majority just before the summit, he was terrified of appearing too dovish.

Following Ariel Sharon's provocative visit, flanked by 1,000 Israeli soldiers and police officers, to the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem on September 28, 2000, the second (or al-Aqsa) intifada erupted. Israeli forces immediately deployed extreme violence, firing more than 1 million live bullets in the first three weeks of the uprising, largely against stone-throwing youth and before any act of Palestinian terrorism occurred. Nonetheless, negotiations continued throughout the fall in the hope that a deal could be struck before Clinton and Barak left office.

On December 23, 2000, Clinton proposed "parameters" bridging the differences between the parties at Camp David and the subsequent talks. They were presented as a "take it or leave it" American plan for two states: Israel alongside a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and 94-96 percent of the West Bank. All the exclusively Jewish neighborhoods established in East Jerusalem since 1967 would remain in Israeli hands, as would settlement blocs in the West Bank containing 80 percent of the settlers. Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem would become part of the Palestinian state. Refugees would be able to return to the Palestinian state, but not to Israel.

Both Barak and Arafat accepted the Clinton parameters, although both had reservations. The Israeli public relations machine successfully marketed Israel's position as an unqualified "yes" and portrayed the Palestinian position as an unequivocal "no." Barak needed to do this regardless of his personal opinion of the parameters because adopting a position opposed to that of the United States is the kiss of death in domestic Israeli politics. In contrast, Arafat feared appearing to concede too much to Israel's patron; and the diplomatic effort of the Palestinians to explain their position was clumsy. Negotiations on the Clinton parameters continued until the Oslo process was definitively buried when Barak called off last-ditch Palestinian-Israeli talks at Taba, Egypt, in mid-January 2001. Anticipating Sharon's victory in the prime ministerial election several weeks hence, Barak said he did not want to conclude an agreement that would bind Israel's next government. A few weeks later, Sharon defeated Barak in the most overwhelming electoral debacle in Israeli history. There have been no substantive Palestinian-Israeli negotiations since then.

Shlomo Ben-Ami, the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, a history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, was minister of public security in Barak's government. Born in Tangier, Morocco, in 1943, he immigrated to Israel in 1955 and eventually received a PhD in history from Oxford with a specialty in modern Spain. After a successful academic career he entered politics, serving as Israel's ambassador to Spain from 1987 to 1991 and as a Knesset member from 1996 to 2002. Barak was so impressed by Ben-Ami's performance as a negotiator at Camp David that he awarded him the additional portfolio of foreign minister, which had been vacated by David Levy, one of several defections that led to the demise of Barak's government.

In his official capacities Ben-Ami presided over both the suppression of the second intifada and the continuation of talks with the Palestinians until Sharon became prime minister. He also orchestrated Israel's campaign to blame the failure at Camp David on Arafat's rejection of Barak's "generous offer" and to portray Arafat as personally responsible for the intifada and thus not "a partner for peace." Ben-Ami's political star began to wane because, as minister of public security, he bore heavy responsibility for the deaths of thirteen Palestinian citizens of Israel who were shot dead in October 2000 in the course of demonstrations supporting the second intifada.

Since 2001 Ben-Ami has written books in Hebrew, French and English about the Arab-Israeli conflict. His most recent effort, published four years after his resignation from the Knesset, is a fascinating--and deeply schizophrenic--book, alternating between a soul-searching history of the roots of the conflict, and political score-settling and self-aggrandizement when Ben-Ami turns to the record of the government he served. Ben-Ami's account of the Arab-Israeli conflict from the 1930s until he joined the Israeli government in 1999 largely accepts, and on some matters is even more radical than, the arguments of Avi Shlaim in The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (1999). Shlaim is one of the leading Israeli "new historians," who have shown that Israel bears far more responsibility than is commonly thought for the Palestinian ordeal of dispossession and occupation and for the absence of peace in the region. Ben-Ami's adoption of their perspective is a measure of the triumph of the new history, although arguments about details, rectifications of errors and debates over interpretation will continue.

Zionism, Ben-Ami writes, was both a "movement of national liberation" and "a movement of conquest, colonisation and settlement." This formulation is uncontroversial in many circles and is well supported by numerous serious scholarly publications. Coming from a recent member of Israel's political elite, it is an astonishing statement. Recounting the first Arab-Israeli war, Ben-Ami employs post-Zionist vocabulary, calling it the "1948 War" rather than the "War of Independence." He notes that for Palestinians this was the Nakba (disaster)--again, a daring affirmation for an Israeli with unimpeachable establishment credentials. Moreover, he goes beyond the conclusions of Benny Morris, the foremost new historian of the Palestinian refugee problem. Morris, while documenting instances of expulsion, massacre and intimidation of Palestinians by Israeli armed forces, nonetheless concludes that there was no Israeli plan to expel the Palestinian Arabs--that their flight was born of war, not design. This thesis, according to Ben-Ami, is "not always sustained by the very evidence [Morris] provides." Ben-Ami attributes much more responsibility to Israeli military actions than Morris. He is unconcerned that no comprehensive order to expel the Palestinian Arabs has been found in any open archival collections, because "Ben-Gurion did not have to issue particular orders for expulsion." There was "an ideological predisposition, a mental attitude, a supporting cultural environment within which military commanders initiated or encouraged the eviction of the Arab population."

Despite these and many other valuable conclusions and insights into Israel's hyper-militarized political culture, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace is, in its final chapters, the work of a politician defending the government he served rather than of a historian. In his account of the record of the Barak government Professor Ben-Ami's critical historical analysis gives way to a political brief presented by Israel's foreign minister, with corresponding shifts in tone and perspective. In these chapters Ben-Ami seems to be mainly interested in justifying his participation in the Barak government and the Camp David summit. He reveals a limited understanding of and no empathy with Arab political culture, oscillating between paternalism and contempt for the Palestinian leadership. And he settles scores with Israeli rivals, such as Yossi Beilin and Shimon Peres, whom he obviously detests and considers unworthy of a Nobel Peace Prize.

The positions Ben-Ami espoused as foreign minister are somewhat revised in his new book. The attack on the Palestinians is softened by criticism of Israeli and American policies and negotiating tactics. But he ultimately holds the Palestinians responsible for the failure of the Camp David summit. He stands by his argument that the al-Aqsa intifada was not precipitated by Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount. As he told the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer on November 1, 2000, "Arafat orchestrated these waves of violence, rather surfed on it, because he wanted to avoid the American peace package and be exposed by the President once again as a peace rejectionist." And he maintains that Arafat was psychologically incapable of signing a peace agreement with Israel.

In contrast, the report of former Senator George Mitchell, who was dispatched to the Middle East by President Clinton to investigate the causes of the second intifada, concluded that the Palestinian Authority did not deliberately plan to initiate violence after the failure of the Camp David summit. Mitchell also determined that while Sharon's visit did not cause the second intifada, "it was poorly timed and the provocative effect should have been foreseen; indeed it was foreseen by those who urged that the visit be prohibited. More significant were the events that followed: the decision of the Israeli police on September 29 to use lethal means against the Palestinian demonstrators." (Mitchell's conclusions were seconded by several high-ranking Israeli intelligence chiefs, some of whom had warned that a second intifada was imminent because of mounting Palestinian frustrations with the Oslo process.)

Ben-Ami maintains that Israel accepted the Clinton parameters whereas Arafat rejected them. But in September 2001 Ben-Ami told the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, "We sent the Americans a document of several pages containing our reservations." Nonetheless, he regards Israel's reservations as a "yes" while insisting that Arafat "never formally said no, but his yes was a no." This is clearly not the case, because negotiations over the Clinton parameters continued at Taba in January 2001, although disagreement on the interpretation of some key issues persisted, as might be expected in negotiations of this sort. According to EU Special Representative Miguel Moratinos, who prepared a "non-paper" on the talks that was accepted by both parties as a fair account of the state of the negotiations, both sides accepted the Clinton parameters, and Arafat did not reject the two-state solution.

It is hard to believe that the former foreign minister believes his own arguments in the final chapters of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, given what the historian says in the preceding chapters, which offer elements of a cogent explanation for the breakdown of the peace process well before the 2000 Camp David summit. The Oslo accords, Ben-Ami declares frankly, could not meet the minimum Palestinian expectations because they reflected the balance of power. He admits that the Oslo process was all but dead when the Barak government came into office. Moreover, the collapse of the peace process was "not exactly an unexpected accident; rather it was a failure written into the genetic code of Oslo."

Ben-Ami's attacks on Arafat in his official capacity are also flatly contradicted by the portrait he draws in his book. Here, Arafat is soberly depicted as "a difficult partner" who was "at the same time...the ultimate defender of the two-state solution." Ben-Ami also understands that "no Israeli leader, including Rabin, really imagined how painful and how far-reaching the concessions would have had to be in order to come close to meeting the expectations of Israel's Palestinian interlocutors." Exactly correct. And the fact that Ben-Ami speaks in terms of Israeli "concessions" rather than acknowledgment of Palestinian "rights" expresses the gap between the two parties and is the underlying reason for the failure of the Oslo process.

One complication reducing the Israeli government's willingness to turn over the entire West Bank to the Palestinians in any peace settlement is that since 1967 some 145 "officially recognized" settlements and more than 100 "outposts" have been established in the area, including more than a dozen exclusively Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. The total population of these settlements today is about 440,000. Every US administration until the current one has considered the settlements "an obstacle to peace," although this policy has rarely had any teeth in it, especially after President Reagan declared the settlements "not illegal."

The birth of Israel's settlement project from 1967 to 1977 is the subject of Gershom Gorenberg's The Accidental Empire, an absorbing narrative with extensive references to archives, private papers, oral histories, books and articles. The outlines of Gorenberg's story have been known since the 1983 publication of Occupation: Israel Over Palestine, a collection of essays edited by Naseer Aruri. But there is no comparably detailed history.

Gorenberg is an American-born Israeli journalist who writes regularly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for The American Prospect. Like Ben-Ami, he is a liberal Zionist who accepts (albeit less robustly) many elements of the new historians' critique of Israeli policies. He acknowledges that the Israeli army deliberately provoked Syria for years before the 1967 war. And he agrees with Ben-Ami and Yoram Meital, the leading Israeli scholar on the subject, that despite the famous three "no's" of the September 1, 1967, Khartoum Arab summit--no recognition, no direct negotiations and no peace treaty with Israel--the statement issued by the Arab states implicitly signaled that they accepted Israel's pre-1967 borders and were prepared for indirect negotiations over the territories occupied in the war. "Decoded as its authors intended," writes Gorenberg, the Khartoum declaration "meant that these Arab countries were aiming only at getting back the land lost in the last war, not at erasing Israel from the map, and that they would use diplomatic means, not tanks and troops, to accomplish their goal."

In Trapped Fools: Thirty Years of Israeli Policy in the Territories (2003) Gen. Shlomo Gazit, Israel's first coordinator of government operations in the administered territories (1967-74) and head of military intelligence (1974-79), notes that the leading American dailies recognized the diplomatic overture concealed by Khartoum's face-saving bellicose rhetoric, while their Israeli counterparts did not. Gazit wonders if anyone in the Israeli intelligence community informed the government of the American assessment of Khartoum so as to be sure that an opportunity for a dialogue was not missed. In any case, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and his Cabinet failed to read between the lines of Khartoum, preferring to decry the summit as yet another example of Arab rejectionism. Ignoring the nuances of Khartoum allowed Eshkol to postpone relinquishing the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights, where Israelis had begun settling in July 1967.

"For Eshkol, Khartoum was the tipping point," Gorenberg argues, unconvincingly. "Whatever the intent of the Khartoum decisions," he writes, "their bellicose language convinced Israel's government that peace was out of reach" and "encouraged the growth of the settlements." This thesis, however, is undermined by Gorenberg's own reading of Khartoum, as well as by his account of the eagerness with which Eshkol and other Israeli officials sought to establish "facts on the ground" before the Khartoum summit even took place. The evidence is corroborated and elaborated on by Ben-Ami and by Tom Segev's 1967: And the Land Changed Its Face (so far available only in Hebrew; an English translation will be published by Metropolitan next year). The "accidental empire" did not develop in a fit of absence of mind.

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