- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 25, 2002

One of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's closest advisers, Nabil Shaath, was a participant in the 14-day summit at Camp David in 2000. Trude B. Feldman a White House and State Department correspondent who specializes in Middle East affairs interviewed Mr. Shaath recently to obtain a Palestinian viewpoint on why the talks failed. Mr. Shaath also discussed President Bush's June 24 Mideast policy statement and other current issues.

Question: Looking back two years ago, what might have worked at the summit?

Answer: Well, Camp David might have worked, had it been convened one year earlier, soon after Ehud Barak became prime minister [of Israel]. Also, had he not built settlements during that year, had he continued to implement what had been agreed to from the Wye River Plantation summit [of Oct. 16-23, 1998] and [Israels] other agreements, there would have been no intifada or suicide bombers or anything like that. Then, perhaps, we could have had one year to move from Camp David through steps leading to two or three summit sessions until we finally concluded an agreement.

I tell you, if the kinds of discussions the delegations had at the Taba [Egypt] peace talks [of January 2001] were held prior to Camp David, then the summit at Camp David would have been more productive because the delegations could have closed the gaps before the leaders met with President Clinton.

Q: How were your relations with Mr. Barak at Camp David?

A: Well, I believe he made many mistakes, some which helped push us to where we are today.

Q: What were the mistakes?

A: First, he went to Camp David without being prepared for the summit. Before the leaders were involved, we first needed extensive meetings between the delegations. Mr. Barak refused. Then, we asked for two weeks, during which the parties could narrow the gaps in their positions before the leaders met. He refused.

He also refused to implement any of the agreements we reached before Camp David, saying he would not enter into any more withdrawals or interim agreements until we go to the permanent-status negotiations at the summit level.

Mr. Barak even insisted that only he and Yasser Arafat could reach an agreement. He wouldn't delegate that role to any other Israeli. Even at Camp David, he did not meet alone with Mr. Arafat. Once, they posed together for photographs because President Clinton insisted they do so. They attended one dinner together, but there was not a single negotiating session between the two.

Mr. Barak insisted that what he gave Mr. Clinton to give us was a take-it-or-leave-it statement. Toward the summit's end, when we could not reach an agreement, we pleaded with President Clinton not to blame anybody, but to say that the talks at Camp David were an excellent first step and should be continued.

Instead, Mr. Barak prevailed upon President Clinton to say the talks failed and to put all blame on Yasser Arafat. That precipitated the later confrontation.

Q; You mean the intifada two months later?

A: Yes, the failure of Camp David led to the intifada, which was precipitated by [Ariel] Sharon's visit to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. His visit was a signal to all Palestinians that Mr. Barak, having given us what he termed a take-it-or-leave-it proposal and our having not accepted it in its entirety, would do something that would force "a solution on the ground" of what Mr. Barak could not get at the bargaining table. So we saw that visit as a sign of Mr. Barak's abandonment of the negotiating route.

Q: What are your regrets about the summit, and what could have been done differently?

A: My major feeling of regret is not that the summit took place, but the way it ended. I knew that what was offered could not possibly be accepted by the Palestinian people.

Q: What was offered?

A: Mr. Barak basically offered us 89 percent of the West Bank and Gaza, minus 10 percent to be held by Israel on a very-long-term lease.

What he offered would have created at least four to eight cantons in the West Bank. Each would be totally separated from the others by settlements.

As for Jerusalem, he offered a small portion of the Palestinian-Arab quarters. On the holy sites, he insisted on keeping sovereignty in Israeli hands including the Muslim sites.

It was a state without any sovereignty that he was proposing under full Israeli security control.

But and I emphasize but we did not have to go from that summit trading blame, sending Mr. Sharon to the mosque and exploding everything into the intifada. The cause was the take-it-or-leave-it that ended with Mr. Sharon on the Temple Mount, which, to Palestinians, meant Mr. Barak was abandoning the peace process and trying to create circumstances which might justify continued Israeli control.

Q: What lesson did you learn from the summit?

A: That one cannot put all his eggs in the basket of a single summit whether it is two days or 14 days. You need to prepare very well, so that when you're at the summit, the gaps are narrow. You don't go to a summit with gaps as wide as an ocean.

Also, the personal element is important. You can't allow the leaders to be tucked away in cabins less than five yards from each other but acting, in effect, as if they were hundreds of miles apart. I think President Clinton should have insisted that Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat sit together and work out a solution maybe in his presence. But he should not have accepted to just get proposals from one side to be conveyed to the other. In order to negotiate, people need to talk directly with each other.

Q: Having closely observed President Clinton in action at Camp David, what was your reaction to critics who claimed he pressured both sides to find a solution thereby enhancing his legacy with a victory in the Mideast?

A: Oh, if one is sincere about achieving a solution for another's problem and he also hopes to add to his legacy, that is only human.

I think President Clinton's motivation was to do good, and I saw that he gave the summit valuable time, his determination and all of his efforts.

Q: Was he fair, neutral?

A: Yes, I think he was both fair and neutral. As you well know, it's difficult for an American president to be totally neutral. But despite all his sympathies toward Israel, he started to develop sympathy for the Palestinians.

Q: Now that President Bush supports a Palestinian state, side by side with Israel, how will that make a difference?

A: A Palestinian state with full borders, and a viable state that is helped in rebuilding its economy and its prosperity regains its self respect, independence, and freedom and liberty for its people will guarantee the successful solution of Arab-Israeli problems.

If solved, it will put all Arabs on the side of peace with Israel, as well as with the U.S.

Q: How is Mr. Arafat now proving that he is committed to peace and attempting to end the violence?

A: For the first time, he is re-forming his Cabinet with the appointment of an interior minister, who will unify all security forces under his command. Also, he signed the Independence of Judiciary Act creating a separate judiciary. He signed the Basic Law, a constitution for the Palestine Authority, which puts many restrictions on his own authority. He picked new Cabinet ministers capable of handling matters, and he declared elections for January.

Q: When will he appoint a prime minister and make him responsible to the Legislative Council?

A: He is now seriously looking into that.

Q: How are you and other advisers now helping Mr. Arafat to reform?

A: We are constantly encouraging him to stay the reform course. That's what we do. But others like Prime Minister Sharon can help him immensely. Mr. Sharon could help by abandoning his policy that violence can only be dealt with by greater violence, and he could help by giving Mr. Arafat a chance to rebuild his security force.

Q: How can "the Quartet" (the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union) help at this time?

A: The Quartet is a very important mechanism. It was created in April by Secretary [of State Colin L.] Powell when he was in Madrid. It is an excellent idea, because it ends an isolationist trend in America's Mideast policy and brings on board other players from the international community.

Q: Why isn't Mr. Arafat willing to use his leadership position to end the violence? Wouldn't that be the best proof that he does want to restart serious negotiations?

A: I can tell you that he is absolutely committed to doing what you are suggesting. I know he means it. But there is a big difference between meaning something and getting it implemented. He has the will to do it. He doesn't have the ability, because the Israelis are robbing him of that ability by their occupation and siege and curfews.

Also, every time there was an operation against them, the Israelis targeted Mr. Arafat's policemen, rather than those who might have done it. His police stations, prisons, barracks and vehicles were destroyed or confiscated as Israel moves to occupy the whole West Bank.

So Yasser Arafat needs to be helped to regain his ability to operate. His police force needs to be equipped and trained. Perhaps some international troops will be needed for a short period. All this will help, together with a peace plan, to win greater political support and give him greater ability to deal with violence.

Q: What is your current strategy to end the violence?

A: Our commitment to peace, including the security of every Israeli, is genuine. We consider this the road to our own peace and security. I worked on this peace with Israel, not only since the Madrid conference in 1991, but even when I was a Ph.D. student at Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Our engagement in reconciliation and in discussions with American-Jewish groups and Israelis even when it was illegal for the Israelis to talk to us has been important. I have a lifetime commitment to help make peace based on justice and security for all.

You know, if the Israelis would end the occupation, everything else becomes simple. We now need to return to a political process.

Q: Do you still have a problem with the existence of Israel?

A: No, of course not; that era has ended.

Q: Which Arab countries still have the problem?

A: I don't know, because all the Arab countries voted unanimously last March at the summit in Beirut to accept the Saudi plan, which not only accepts Israel's existence, but commits them to making peace treaties with Israel, to live as neighbors and to pursue normal relations.

Q: What else does the Saudi plan include?

A: It includes for Israel to withdraw to the borders of 1967 and for the establishment of a Palestinian state on that border with East Jerusalem as its capital. It also calls for a fair and just solution of the refugee problem, to be agreed with by Israel, based on United Nations Resolution 194.

Q: What about Egypt?

A: Egypt has been involved in helping to formulate the Saudi plan from its beginning, and the Saudis want Egypt to have a leading role selling it to the rest of the world.

Q: What did you expect President Bush to include in his June 24 statement of policy?

A: We wanted him to define the outline of the peace process maybe by making use of the Saudi plan the 1967 borders and the solution of all problems in the negotiating arena. We wanted a timeline no more than one year for negotiations, one year for elections, and one year for implementation.

We hope Mr. Bush will be more active in negotiations and that he will lead the Quartet into greater support for Palestinian reform and the rebuilding of our security apparatus.

Q: How has the Arab world changed since the attack on the United States last September?

A: There has been a greater sense of urgency as a result, and there is much fear about the consequences for what happened. That attack has been traumatic for the whole world, and there is much sympathy for Americans.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide