Opinion |

Are the Palestinians Really Still 'Plotting to Destroy Israel'?

Will Ehud Barak, a founder of Israel's 'pro-peace' party, renounce his infamous 'no [Palestinian] partner' remarks, a myth that's now doctrine for the Israeli right, U.S. Jewish groups – and the Trump administration?

Abe Silberstein
Abe Silberstein
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Abe Silberstein
Abe Silberstein

No recent poll has shown the Democratic Union - the product of a merger of the left-wing Meretz and the centrist Democratic Israel party - coming close to breaching double digits. With the election only days away, there is no reason to believe their fortunes will improve dramatically.   

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 40

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The Democratic Israel party’s leader, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, holds the tenth spot on the list. Chances are he will not be in the next Knesset. His age (77) and the likely humiliating result for Democratic Union will all but rule out another comeback.

Barak, through rather uncharacteristic statements, has begun to acknowledge he has reached the end of his career.

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For instance, when he agreed to take that tenth spot, he did so to advance an agreement with Meretz after it became clear his old party, Labor, would not join him. A former prime minister and defense minister agreeing to such a low spot in order to facilitate a merger with a small leftist party takes more than a modest suppression of ego.

But what was more remarkable was Barak’s willingness to candidly address those aspects of his past that proved problematic in the formation of the Democratic Union. Nowhere was this more courageous than in his belated apology for the killing by Israeli police of 12 Arab demonstrators in 2000. Barak’s apology, which came at the behest of Meretz MK Esawi Frej, paved the way for the agreement with Meretz. 

Now, in the twilight of his political life, Barak should once and for all put to rest the enduring myth of his premiership - that the 2000 Camp David peace talks failed as a result of abject Palestinian rejectionism and a determination on their part to ultimately destroy Israel. In the United States, this myth remains the dominant narrative of the Washington establishment and major American Jewish organizations.  

Barak played no small part in perpetuating this myth and he has a responsibility to correct the record. I was disappointed when he declined to do this in his memoir, "My Country, My Life," but that was written at a time when he was still seriously mulling a political campaign. Perhaps now is the time for clarity. 

To be sure, I am not the first to make this request. Naomi Chazan, a former member of the Knesset and former president of the New Israel Fund, recently called on Barak to promote a new peace process as amends for his infamous remark about having no partner, which has reverberated until this day as an excuse for maintaining a dangerous status quo. 

But as an American deeply engaged in discussions about Israel in the Jewish community, one constant frustration has been the widespread acceptance of distorted history about what happened at Camp David. In Israel, the debate has already long moved beyond Camp David - but it remains a heavy millstone for the American Jews who, like Barak, want Israel’s future to be that of a democracy living peacefully alongside an independent Palestinian state.  

U.S. President Bill Clinton walks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat on the grounds of Camp David during peace talks, July 11, 2000Credit: REUTERS

There are three specific untruths related to Camp David that I would like to see Barak address (it would be impossible to address all the untruths at op-ed length). They do not require him to accept any blame for the collapse of the talks; in fact, coming to terms with the lessons of Camp David arguably requires transcending the sophomoric blame game for which the summit has become notorious.  

The first is the most simple: that then-PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat rejected a "generous offer" or "the best they were ever going to get," in the words of former American negotiator Dennis Ross. 

Israel’s final proposal at Camp David was unprecedented, an excellent step off which to build, but it was objectively not generous or even adequate. While there are disagreements about precisely how much territory Barak was willing to concede to the Palestinians, it did not exceed 92 percent of the West Bank; no less a proponent of the pro-Israel narrative than Benny Morris has suggested it could have been as low as 84 percent

Additionally, it did not provide for Palestinian sovereignty, only functional autonomy, in core areas of East Jerusalem. Israel’s subsequent qualified acceptance of the Clinton parameters, which required Israel to withdraw from an equivalent of 97 percent of the West Bank and allow for Palestinian sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, is evidence enough that Barak at the time understood the Camp David offer was far from meeting the Palestinians’ minimum stipulations. 

Second is the preposterous idea that the Palestinian refusal to submit a substantive counteroffer to Barak was evidence they were not interested in a two-state solution but rather engaged in a phased assault against Israel’s very existence. In a two-part interview with Haaretz in 2002, Barak said that this showed him that "Arafat's obsession is not to establish Palestinian sovereignty in part of the land but...to destroy the State of Israel."  

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak jokingly pushes Palestinian President Yasser Arafat into the Laurel cabin in Camp David as U.S. President Bill Clinton watches during peace talks, July 11, 2000Credit: \ REUTERS PHOTOGRAPHER/ REUTERS

It was certainly a grave error for the Palestinians not to make a full counteroffer short of referencing UN resolutions on the core issues. This is perhaps indicative of their bargaining strategy or evidence they feared the political repercussions of certain concessions. Yet that hardly meant they were engaged in a deceptive gambit to "destroy" Israel, which by all serious strategic measurements they are incapable of doing.

As Jeremy Pressman pointed out in his landmark 2003 study of the disputed narratives of Camp David, Barak’s offer was sufficient if the Palestinian intent was to use two states as a sovereign launching pad to attack Israel; if anything, turning down the offer showed they were thinking that whatever two states resulted from the negotiations would be the permanent solution.

Lastly, while significant differences remained between the two sides on the issue of Palestinian refugees, the Palestinian position was not as rigid as previously suggested - and certainly not part of a plot to "destroy" Israel.

According to reports from the January 2001 Taba summit, which built off the Bill Clinton Parameters and progress made at Camp David, Palestinian negotiators were willing to concede an actionable right of return for most Palestinian refugees in favor of monetary compensation and a public expression of regret for what happened to them.

As Barak’s foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami said in a 2001 interview with Haaretz, the Palestinians "showed readiness to enter into substantive talks and to discuss numbers."  

It would be unreasonable to expect Israel to simply accept a Palestinian "concession" of only 350,000 refugees returning, just as it was unreasonable for Palestinians to simply accept autonomy in East Jerusalem. However, the Palestinian position on refugees should be seen as a willingness to negotiate on the issue, just as Barak’s offer on East Jerusalem should be viewed as an important milestone in the Israeli negotiating position.

Had the second intifada not occurred and discredited the Palestinian national movement in the eyes of Israelis through suicide bombings and targeting of civilians, it is conceivable that further progress on the refugee issue could have been made. 

Israeli politicians from left, Nitzan Horowitz, Stav Shaffir, Ehud Barak, Benny Gantz, Miri Regev, David Bitan and Avigdor Lieberman on an elections billboard in Tel Aviv, Israel. Aug. 21, 2019Credit: Sebastian Scheiner,AP

To this day, Barak is rightly proud of his unsuccessful efforts to reach peace agreements with both Arafat and then Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. His offer at Camp David was the first time since 1967 when an Israeli government acknowledged it would need to compromise on Jerusalem. This was no small feat and it earned Barak his place in the annals of diplomatic history.

However, it is time he expressly sets the record straight: The Camp David offer represented important progress but not a generous denouement to the conflict; the objections Palestinians raised at Camp David were about their vision for a two-state solution; and the discussion of the refugee issue at Camp David and Taba provided for the possibility of compromise.

By clarifying what happened at Camp David, Barak could also potentially help himself.

The Democratic Union should be the obvious beneficiary of Kachol Lavan moving to the right and the Labor Party's rudderless campaign. Instead, it finds itself in competition with the Joint List for the precious votes of left-wing voters who could make the difference between a respectable eight seats in the Knesset and a mortifying five or six seats. If Barak times it right, the Democratic Union could capture the attention of these voters in the final days of the campaign - and win them over. 

That could make a difference in the coalition calculus, as ammunition against a hard right annexationist government.

Barak would also be performing a great service for supporters - not least within the U.S. Jewish community - of the two-state solution, as they await the release of the Trump administration's peace plan.

With reports suggesting the plan will not be based on the two-state solution, a dose of reality about what it will truly take to reach a peace agreement from someone of Barak's stature could help prevent the Trump-Kushner fantasy from becoming a nightmare.

Abe Silberstein writes on Israeli politics and U.S. - Israel relations from New York. Twitter: @abesilbe