Clinton Aide Attacked Over Revisionist' Take on Camp David

Robert Malley is feeling abused these days. A former Middle East expert at the Clinton White House, Malley found himself last month at the center of an international furor after publishing the first of a number of what Israeli and American Jewish leaders call "revisionist" accounts of what happened last year at the Camp David summit.

Marc Perelman
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Marc Perelman

Robert Malley is feeling abused these days. A former Middle East expert at the Clinton White House, Malley found himself last month at the center of an international furor after publishing the first of a number of what Israeli and American Jewish leaders call "revisionist" accounts of what happened last year at the Camp David summit.

Malley says he was trying to "open a debate" over a crucial event that he views as largely misunderstood. Now he has the likes of Mortimer Zuckerman and Abraham Foxman referring to him in vitriolic terms as a "junior bureaucrat" with "pro-Arab" views and "a suspicious agenda."

In Malley's telling, which appeared on The New York Times Op-Ed page July 8 and in a longer essay the following week in the New York Review of Books, the failure of the Camp David summit was not the fault of Yasser Arafat alone, but rather resulted from a "tragedy of errors" by all sides.

Ehud Barak, Israel's former prime minister, pushed too hard for a summit that Arafat feared would fail because it lacked sufficient preparation. President Clinton, after initially siding with Arafat on the timing, went along with Barak's plan out of concern for the Israeli leader's domestic political standing. Barak, fearing political erosion at home, put off implementing signed agreements such as the third withdrawal, which fueled Palestinian suspicions going into the talks.

At the summit, Barak offered far less than later accounts suggested, dangling further concessions as vague promises that only compounded Palestinian suspicions.

"Israel is said to have made a historic, generous proposal, which the Palestinians, once again seizing the opportunity to miss an opportunity, turned down," Malley wrote in the New York Review article, co-authored with Hussein Agha, a British academic with ties to the Palestinian leadership. "As orthodoxies go, this is a dangerous one. For it has a larger ripple effect. Broader conclusions take hold. That there is no peace partner is one. That there is no possible end to the conflict with Arafat is another."

Since its appearance, the Malley-Agha article has stirred up a hornets' nest of criticism from Israelis and American Jews who see it as tantamount to an apology for Arafat's violence and rejectionism. Coupled with a lengthy account of the talks' failure that appeared shortly afterward in the New York Times, the new version of last year's diplomatic debacle has touched off alarm bells among activists concerned for Israel's image.

"This is just revisionist history," said Zuckerman, publisher of the New York Daily News and chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations, in a reaction typical of Jewish communal leaders' responses.

"Rob Malley was the most pro-Arab member of the National Security Council, he wrote his article with a Palestinian adviser and he was in Camp David only in a junior capacity. The facts are wrong and one cannot just look back without taking into account the violence that has erupted since then. There is one truth, period - the Palestinians caused the breakdown at Camp David and then rejected Clinton's plan in January."

Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in an interview from Israel that he saw this "instant rewrite with the body still fresh" as a "distressing and deliberate effort to clean Arafat's slate" and that he had written to Clinton asking him to "get this straight."

"The major players, like Clinton, Barak, [former American ambassador to Israel Martin] Indyk and [former State Department Middle East coordinator Dennis] Ross, all said Arafat was to blame," Foxman said, "and here you have a junior bureaucrat who suddenly says he is an expert and ends up writing a Palestinian account!"

Even more vehement was Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America. "Whether their account is accurate or not is irrelevant because Arafat chose violence," he added. "I reject any discussion of what happened."

In an interview, Malley seemed chastened by his first foray into Jewish communal politics. A New York-born Jew of mixed Sephardic and Ashkenazic background - his father is of Egyptian origin, his mother Russian - he attended the Camp David summit as the National Security Council's Middle East specialist, a post he held from 1998 to 2001. He now works as a consultant to the Center for Middle East Peace, a liberal, Jewish-sponsored think tank in Washington, and is due to join the Council on Foreign Relations in the fall.

"This is not about revisionism," he told the Forward. "This is about having an open and healthy debate about the substance of what happened at Camp David." Malley said he understood his critics' emotionalism, given the year-long Palestinian violence that has followed the summit. "Obviously the violence colors the comments they make about me," he said. Nonetheless, "choosing to refute an argument just by pointing to a person doesn't add anything."

Malley has received backing - for his integrity, if not always for his views - from other participants at Camp David. "Although I disagree with his presentation, one should not cast aspersions on him," Dennis Ross, the State Department's top Middle East expert from 1989 to 2001, told the Forward. "Rob Malley was a member of my peace team and I have a lot of respect for him."

Malley also received praise from an Israeli negotiator at Camp David, Gidi Greinstein, who said it was "an insult to the intelligence" to call Malley pro-Arab. Part of the significance of Malley's essay lies in the fact that the Palestinian Authority has offered virtually no accounts of the Camp David debacle, except for a single, lopsided account published last summer by Palestinian negotiator Akram Haniye.

The silence has allowed the Israeli rendition - that Barak offered the moon and Arafat rejected it, proving his unwillingness to make peace - to become the sole narrative of events.

In recent weeks the Palestinian Authority has launched what amounts to a public relations offensive, dispatching spokesmen on U.S. and Israeli speaking tours and seeking out journalists to tell their side. Last week a senior Palestinian negotiator, Abu Ala, speaker of the Palestinian parliament, convened a rare press conference in Ramallah to argue that the Israeli offer had been neither fair nor generous.

These developments have added fuel to Israeli and Jewish suspicions of Malley. "The Palestinians had a whole year to come up with their version and they didn't," Foxman said. "It is really strange to have this effort right now. I believe Malley is playing someone's agenda, although I don't know whom. Maybe this was his entry ticket to the Council on Foreign Relations."

Malley, not surprisingly, rejects the suggestion that he is following someone else's agenda. "When I saw all these dangerous views about Camp David taking hold, I just felt it was necessary to open the debate," said Malley. "And I am not only talking about the Israeli-American view, but also about how the Palestinians see Camp David."

The original idea of writing a joint account with Agha, Malley said, came in early March from Agha, a Palestinian who teaches at Saint Anthony's College in Oxford. They proposed the article to several magazines and foreign policy journals. All rejected it except the New York Review of Books.

For Greinstein, the Israeli negotiator, the importance of the Malley-Agha essay lies partly in the fact that Agha, a "prominent" Palestinian, has publicly criticized Arafat's strategy and accepted the notion that Barak made a courageous offer.

Zuckerman and Foxman, while impugning Malley's intentions, both conceded that Barak might have made mistakes at Camp David. Still, as Foxman put it, "I don't think this is the right time to cast doubts over Israel's intentions."

On the other side of the fray, Mark Rosenblum, policy director of Americans for Peace Now, believes that such a discussion is in fact imperative. "I would like the critics to have a truthful discussion instead of engaging in McCarthyism and using the word revisionism against a very serious civil servant," he said. "After Camp David, you had the first draft of history saying Barak offered a generous peace and Arafat responded by a merciless war. You now have the second draft coming out, and it is not black and white anymore. And for American Jewish leaders who are rallying around the flag of this black-and-white interpretation, sharing the blame is less convenient."

Moreover, Rosenblum noted - in a view echoed by several summit participants - Malley and Agha criticize the Palestinians as severely as they criticize the Israelis and Americans. "The Palestinians' principal failing," they wrote, "is that from the beginning of the Camp David summit onward they were unable either to say yes to the American ideas or to present a cogent and specific counterproposal of their own." That failure, they wrote, made it impossible for the Americans to continue mediating, directly precipitating the summit's collapse.

Still, Malley told the Forward that despite Arafat's failings, he "cannot conclude from what happened that Arafat is congenitally incapable of reaching an agreement." Dennis Ross has reached the opposite conclusion. "Arafat is not able to clinch a final deal," he said. "At no point did he show any inclination to seize the opportunities," whether in Camp David or when he rejected Clinton's proposal in January.

Ross, who is writing a book on his tenure, "The Missing Peace," to be published next year, believes the Malley-Agha essay missed the point by equating Barak's "tactical mistakes" with Arafat's "strategic error."

"Barak was prepared to do a deal, Arafat was not," he said. "Barak defied theology and history, Arafat did not. One should not miss the forest for the trees."

Not so, Malley replies. "We did not present a hierarchy of mistakes," he said. "If some believe Arafat's were worse than Barak's or Clinton's, it is their problem."

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