It's Time to Learn the Lesson'

The official organ of the Palestinian Authority, no less, has published an article sharply critical of Yasser Arafat's policy at Camp David. The author, Nabil Amr, until recently a member of the PA cabinet, blames the Palestinians for the failure of the talks.

For the first time since the outbreak of the intifada two years ago, the official journal of the Palestinian Authority last week published severe criticism of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leadership, and the Palestinian public as a whole - for rejecting the proposals that were put forward by former U.S. President Bill Clinton at Camp David in July 2000.

The paper in question is Al Hayat al-Jadida, the official newspaper of the PA, and the author of the article is the paper's former editor, Nabil Amr, who until recently was a minister in Arafat's cabinet.

In a lengthy article, couched in the form of "an open letter to President Arafat," Amr writes: "Didn't we dance for joy when we heard about the failure of Camp David? Didn't we hurl mud at the pictures of President Clinton, who courageously put on the table proposals for a Palestinian state with minor border modifications? We are not being fair, because today, after two years of bloodshed, we are asking for exactly what we rejected then - except that now we can be sure it is no longer possible to achieve it."

In the entire period that has gone by since the summit meeting at Camp David there has been scarcely a word of criticism or regret from senior Palestinian figures over the fact that the delegation, which was led by Yasser Arafat, did not accept the compromise formula, phrased in very general terms and put forward by the American team under Clinton.

There were a few Palestinian intellectuals and figures who are no longer part of the Palestinian leadership who expressed doubts about whether Arafat and his aides had done the right thing by turning down the compromise discussed at Camp David.

However, their voices were barely heard. The Palestinian leadership, along with the great majority of the public, has spoken since then in one voice, and that voice expressed support for Arafat's policy, which led him to reject the compromise. The impression created was that Arafat and his close staff were viewed as heroes by nearly all Palestinians for having been bold enough to rebuff the pressures on them, and say no to proposals that they believed failed to meet even the Palestinians' minimum national demands.

Against this background, the voice of Nabil Amr, a central figure in Palestinian politics, is of great importance. He is about 50, a journalist by profession, who started out in the publicity apparatus of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and was elected a member of the supreme institutions of the Fatah movement. He also served as the PLO's ambassador to Moscow and was a key adviser to Arafat.

Even though he expressed reservations about the Oslo accords, he returned to the West Bank and took part in establishing the institutions of the Palestinian Authority. (Another critic was Dr. Haider Abdel Shafi, the head of the Palestinian delegation to the 1991 Madrid peace conference, who took offense at the fact that the Oslo agreement was hammered out behind the backs of the Madrid delegation).

In January 1996 Amr was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council (parliament) and Arafat brought him into the cabinet as minister for parliamentary affairs. There were periods in which Amr was considered one of the closest confidants of the Palestinian leader. He resigned from the cabinet about four months ago amid tensions in the leadership.

Low moral level

The platform in which Amr's comments were published last Tuesday is also of no small importance. True, the daily Al Hayat al Jadida has a low circulation, but everyone who works for the paper gets his salary directly from the Palestinian Authority. In other words, this is an official organ whose staff have a status similar to civil servants - as distinct from the two other Palestinian dailies, Al Quds and Al Ayam, both of which are privately owned.

There is no doubt Nabil Amr was afraid to write the unusual critical article. He begins the piece by stating that there is a danger that Arafat's smooth advisers will interpret his remarks "perhaps as a declaration of war or an expression of disloyalty."

However, these fears do not deter him from blaming the Palestinian side for the failure of Camp David: "How many times did we accept [the compromise proposals] and then reject them, and afterward accept them again? And we never wanted to learn the lessons of either the acceptance or the rejection. How many times were we asked to do something that we were capable of doing, but did nothing? And afterward, when the solution was no longer within reach, we wandered around the whole world in the hope of getting once again what had been proposed to us - only to learn that between our rejection and our acceptance the world had already changed and presented us with additional conditions that we did not consider possible."

The article is critical of almost everything that is done in the Palestinian Authority. According to Amr, the various national institutions are "going through the darkest days in their history." All the institutions of the PA, the PLO and Fatah have been voided of content and degenerated. "We failed in the management of the historical process we faced. We failed to established the rule of law in a manner that would order the relations between the government and the people," he writes.

Some Palestinian cabinet ministers treat their departments as though they were their private homes, he says. The Palestinian struggle is a just cause, writes Amr, but that does not justify the chaos, the unprofessionalism and the low moral level that exists in every corner of the Palestinian household. There is also a personal message to Arafat: "You were one of the first to criticize the chaos, but as one of those who supports it, you too must shoulder the blame."

Sit quietly

In the article Amr also looks toward the future and offers advice on how the Palestinians should behave at a time "when the Israeli tanks are in full control of the West Bank and are besieging Gaza - and when every Palestinian militia is operating in the streets without a central command, without supervision and defining the campaign as it sees fit."

Despite these difficulties, he believes that the Palestinian public has the ability to unite and do what has to be done to amend and reform the administration. "The courageous Palestinian public is entitled to a period of calm, a respite in which everyone will contemplate the path to be followed in the future. And even if [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon provokes us, will we not benefit from pushing him into a corner by sitting quietly?"

It is difficult to know whether this is a lone voice or whether there are many who support Amr's approach. His call to the Palestinians to show restraint in the face of Israeli provocations conforms with the declaration of the new Palestinian interior minister, General Abdel Razek Yehiyeh (who is also responsible for the Palestinian security forces). Yehiyeh stated this week that the Palestinians should adopt nonviolent civil resistance against Israel.

Other prominent figures in the PA have issued similar calls. The problem is that, given the circumstances that currently prevail in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, declarations about a cessation of violence are largely wishful thinking which have only the slimmest chance of being translated into reality.

There is no doubt though that the contrition Amr expresses about the Palestinians' stance at Camp David is surprising and highly unusual - and his opinion made a correspondingly powerful impression on public opinion in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.