- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 11, 2006


By Shlomo Ben-Ami

Oxford University Press,

$30, 354 pages


In President Bill Clinton’s cabin on the last night of the Camp David summit, as the hopes of a peace agreement crashed around them, the Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami took the floor and warned his Palestinian counterpart Saab Erekat that Yasser Arafat’s refusal to make a deal meant “this is the defeat of the peace camp in Israel for many years to come.”

With hindsight, it seems also that the failure of that broadly reasonable compromise offered by the Israelis (with a lot of Clinton prodding) was the beginning of the end for Arafat’s Fatah party and the old guard of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. If the future for the Israelis seemed to lie with the hard-liners of Likud led by Ariel Sharon, the future for the Palestinians lay with the young militants like Marwan Barghouti who had emerged from the first Intifada while Arafat and the old men were stuck in Tunisian exile, and with the Islamic militants of Hamas.

And yet the prospect of a stable and manageable Israeli-Palestinian modus vivendi, if not a peace settlement, based on unilateral Israeli withdrawals and the new security fence, seems more promising now than at any time since the first high hopes of the Oslo agreement some 13 years ago.

In part, that is because of another warning that Mr. Ben-Ami delivered to Arafat in person during that abortive Camp David summit in the summer of Mr. Clinton’s last year in office. Arafat was by then a regular visitor to the White House who had come to consider his personal relationship with Mr. Clinton as a permanent diplomatic asset.

“Your relations with the US are good, but skin deep,” Mr. Ben-Ami told him. “They will not survive the failure of Camp David.”

Mr. Ben-Ami was right. The subsequent refusal of the Bush administration to deal with Arafat, accepting the Israeli argument that they had no reliable negotiating partner and thus no realistic prospect of a peace agreement, paved the way for the unilateral Israeli decisions that have broken the logjam of a “peace process” so tortuous and so hollow that it had become a diplomatic farce.

It is for revealing anecdotes such as these, the intimate details recorded by one who was there, that books of this kind are useful. But Mr. Ben-Ami, a professional historian and diplomat, has written something far more valuable than another book of diplomatic memoirs.

He brings a long historical perspective to the Israeli-Palestinian encounter that began at the start of the 20th century, when the Ottoman Empire still ruled the place, and traces the origin of the dream of Greater Israel to the Avner Plan devised by the Field Battalions of the underground army in 1937. It called for the expansion of Jewish-ruled territory to the West Bank and Jerusalem, a strategic objective that still inspired the young Haganah commanders of the 1948 war against the invading Arab armies. The Avner Plan’s ambitions led to what Israeli historians now concede was the program of ethnic cleansing that saw so many Palestinians evicted from their lands in what became Israel and turned into refugees.

Mr. Ben-Ami’s book, “Scars of War, Wounds of Peace,” is packed with informative nuggets. He relates the threat of a military coup being weighed by Israel’s generals when the dovish politician Levi Eshkol hesitated to authorize their plans for a pre-emptive war in 1967. He also records Ariel Sharon’s crucial telephone call to Prime Minister Menachem Begin during the first Camp David summit with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, to encourage Begin to dismantle the Israeli settlements in the Sinai. Without that phone call, the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt might never have been agreed.

But in this detailed and elegant narrative of the long conflict, its tone elegiac with regret at so many opportunities lost, what stands out is Mr. Ben-Ami’s account of the disastrous failure at Camp David. He delivers the bitter verdict of an Israeli dove at the stubborn refusal of Arafat to make the decision for a peace agreement to which he had supposedly been committed since Mr. Clinton’s first year in office and the famous handshake on the White House lawn. And standing out most of all is Mr. Ben-Ami’s sadness at the pitiful performance of Mr. Clinton and his team.

“Brilliant, passionate, humane and hardworking, proverbially patient, tolerant and good-humored, always shunning confrontation and with his days in the White House numbered, Clinton was not a President who was capable of browbeating the parties,” Mr. Ben-Ami writes. “Clinton did not lack (President Jimmy) Carter’s messianic zeal, but he lacked his capacity to intimidate.”

Mr. Clinton, Mr. Ben-Ami concludes, “left the summit to run itself without direction, without a compass, without leadership … At Camp David, America looked like a diminished and humbled superpower, unable to assert its will.”

Martin Walker is The Editor of United Press International and a senior fellow of the World Policy Institute at New York’s New School University.

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