Jerusalem | Prime Minister Ehud Barak returned from Camp David to Jerusalem to face a series of catastrophes. It will be a very hot summer for Mr. Barak’s lame-duck government. His commando-style daring-do at Camp David failed to satisfy the rejectionist and unregenerate Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The right-wing opposition smelled blood, and they ran no-confidence resolutions daily in the Knesset while Mr. Barak and his team negotiated. In a matter of three days after returning from the summit, Mr. Barak suffered several political setbacks. The most wounding was the defeat of former Prime Minister Shimon Peres for the presidency. The most significant setbacks were the 61-53 vote calling for the dissolution of this Knesset and for new elections and the resignation of an ally, Foreign Minister David Levy.
My stay in Jerusalem during the Camp David summit persuaded me that Jerusalem is the cockpit, and the consequences of Camp David for the domestic politics of Israel were more significant than the results of the failed summit. The immediate explanation of the media and the pundits was that Mr. Arafat came home a winner, Mr. Barak came back to a broken coalition and weak government, and President Clinton waits for the parties to come back to final status negotiations during his tenure. My sojourn in Jerusalem demonstrated the reverse where Mr. Arafat is concerned. In the tradition of rejectionist Palestinians in the past, Mr. Arafat again proves the words of statesman-diplomat Abba Eban: “The Palestinians don’t miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
Speaking before his constituency in Gaza, Mr. Arafat proclaimed, “All of Jerusalem is ours, ours, ours.” This, in defiance of his “partner” Ehud Barak, who went the extra mile to accommodate the rejectionist. Mr. Barak is the first prime minister of Israel in the last 52 years who was courageously ready to put Jerusalem on the bargaining table. Mr. Arafat did his best to miss this opportunity. The phony argument on the part of Mr. Arafat that he is the custodian of the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem had no political strength behind it. Except, of course, for President Hosni Mubarek of Egypt, who unwisely advised Arafat to stick to his intransigence. The Egyptians, since Gamal Abdel Nasser, have assumed the patronage of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Mr. Arafat with the exception of Anwar Sadat, for whom the national interests of Egypt came before those of the Palestinians and, therefore, signed the original Camp David Accords despite Mr. Arafat’s opposition.
Why did Mr. Barak fail? He is a courageous general and an amateur politician. Two major reasons for his failure at Camp David are (1) that he did not consult with members of his coalition and (2) that he did not level with the Israeli electorate about his intention to cross the supposedly red lines that he established by putting the Jerusalem issue on the bargaining table.
Menachem Begin, a politician and statesman, went to Camp David with the full support of his coalition and the Israeli people, who had witnessed Sadat’s arrival in Jerusalem calling for no more war. Thus, Begin was free to negotiate secretly. The political folly of the inexperienced politician, Mr. Barak, is that he should have gone to Camp David without public relations spin exercises and should have made Camp David an open negotiation, since the matter was Jerusalem for which he had no mandate to negotiate from the Israeli people.
The Camp David blackout hurt Mr. Barak considerably. Rumors propagated by the opposition in Jerusalem were that he was dividing Jerusalem, surrendering Israel’s territory and in fact bringing an end to Israel as an independent state. The right wing organized a demonstration of 300,000 people in Tel Aviv with banners and flyers announcing these rumors as facts.
The options Mr. Barak failed to follow for dealing with Jerusalem are (1) leveling with the people of his coalition and his own party; (2) an open summit; (3) postpone the issue of Jerusalem to the end in fact, leave it open.
The reason for the last option is that there is no need to negotiate over Jerusalem such a sensitive, irrational symbol for both peoples. By this I mean that Jerusalem is in fact already divided. The 32 Arab villages that were incorporated into Jerusalem after 1967 include 200,000 Palestinians. Why should Israel rule a foreign people? The irony is that the Israeli government pays 200,000 shekels yearly in social security for the Arabs of Jerusalem. It only makes sense that these villages should be part of a Palestine state and that the extension of west Jerusalem known as “the settlements” being a Jewish majority, should be incorporated into Jerusalem. Why does Mr. Barak have to get permission from Mr. Arafat to incorporate Jewish settlements into the larger Israeli Jerusalem?
Unfortunately, Mr. Barak failed to explain the reasons for the so-called division of Jerusalem, which left him at the mercy of the nationalist parties, who blame him for a division that already exists. The opposition, taking advantage of the symbolic nature of Jerusalem, prefer the argument that Mr. Barak is actually a traitor. Why did Mr. Barak put Jerusalem on the table at Camp David II? Because, as a commando, he believed he could settle all the issues in one broad stroke: Jerusalem, settlements, territories, borders, refugees, compensation, water. He was hoping that a compromise on Jerusalem would put him in a better position to negotiate with Mr. Arafat on the issue of refugees. He was wrong on both counts. Why should Israel be morally and legally responsible for the Palestinians, who called for a war of annihilation rather than accept partition in 1948 and lost? Should the allies compensate German refugees from Silesia because Hitler went to war to destroy Poland?
It was Mr. Barak who pushed for the Camp David summit. Mr. Arafat was reluctant, and Mr. Clinton was hoping for a legacy maybe a Nobel Prize. I doubt that the Jerusalem issue will be settled during Mr. Clinton’s term. I do not believe that Mr. Barak’s caretaker government is in a better position to make these existential decisions than before he left for Camp David. Peace must be negotiated between two parties whose level of aspiration and hostility are reduced. Mr. Arafat, still wearing the shabby military uniform of a terrorist, demonstrates that he wants to achieve Palestinian independence in blood and fire, not on a summit silver platter.
• Amos Perlmutter is a professor of political science and sociology at American University and editor of the Journal of Strategic Studies.
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