WASHINGTON, Aug. 8 (JTA) — As new versions are presented of what went wrong at last summer’s Camp David summit, the Clinton administration’s lead Mideast negotiator is reiterating that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat is primarily to blame for scuttling the talks.
That version generally had been accepted in Washington, Israel and elsewhere since the talks ended in late July 2000. But recent analyses by the New York Times and by one of Dennis Ross’ colleagues on the U.S. negotiating team have sought to shift much of the onus from the Palestinian leader to the United States and Israel.
These reports say that Arafat was pushed into attending the Camp David summit by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Clinton, and went only after receiving assurances that he would not be blamed if the talks failed.
The conflicting observations have led to confusion over what actually happened at Camp David and in talks held in January in Taba, Egypt.
Ross served as Clinton’s special Middle East coordinator and was the administration official most involved in the peace process. While there were reasons for Arafat to be wary of Barak, Ross said, Arafat was the one unwilling to take the steps toward peace.
“Arafat wasn’t thinking in terms of a permanent deal,” Ross said Wednesday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Barak was thinking in historic terms, and Arafat was thinking in interim terms.”
For the process to work, both sides needed to give up things they long had deemed essential — but Arafat was unwilling to do so, Ross said.
Arafat expressed an interest in a permanent peace plan because he believed an interim solution would not be acceptable to his people, Ross said, but made no serious effort to create one.
Instead, Arafat “created new mythologies,” including a version of history that denied the existence of the Jewish temples in Jerusalem during biblical times.
“When you question the core of the other side’s faith, it’s not exactly an indication that you are ready to find an end to the conflict,” said Ross, who is writing his memoirs and serving as an adviser to the Washington Institute.
The frustration over Arafat’s attitude led Clinton to go back on his word not to blame the Palestinian leader for the summit’s failure, Ross said. But, he emphasized, Clinton did not so much criticize Arafat as lavish praise on Barak — leaving listeners to draw their own conclusions.
Ross said the summit was postponed repeatedly at Arafat’s request, but the Palestinian Authority seemed to make no effort to gear up for the meeting in the meantime.
Other Palestinian negotiators, Ross said, were more flexible than Arafat and made key concessions, including setting practical limits on the Palestinian “right of return,” accepting the Jewish neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem as part of Israel, accepting slight modifications to the pre-1967 borders and accepting three warning posts in the West Bank that would contribute to Israeli security.
But a whole week went by at Camp David before Palestinian negotiators came to him and said they were ready for serious discussion of the parameters of a peace plan, Ross said.
While Barak’s team made historic steps toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ross said, Barak himself, fearing for his political future, was reluctant to specify details that he might have difficulty selling to the Israeli public.
In order to sell a final agreement to the public, Barak believed he could not squander political capital in advance, Ross said.
“His mind-set was riveted on an end-game summit, where he could finally talk about issues like Jerusalem,” Ross said.
He also said Barak was unwilling to make a third redeployment of Israeli troops from the West Bank — as specified in interim peace agreements — because the Palestinian leadership likely would dismiss any offer as insufficient.
In addition, Barak was known to believe that the interim redeployments robbed Israel of bargaining chips it could use in final negotiations. Instead, he preferred to go directly to a final agreement, in which he presumably could be more generous with land transfers in exchange for a declaration that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was over.
By the time Clinton offered his own proposal for a permanent peace plan in the fall, the violent Palestinian uprising had begun and the atmosphere in the Middle East had changed immensely.
Arafat told Clinton he accepted the peace plan — but with so many reservations that they negated the terms, Ross said.
“He never formally said ‘no’, but his ‘yes’ was a ‘no,’ ” Ross said.
While the eruption of violence made the situation harder to resolve in the fall, Ross said, the key component remained Arafat’s unwillingness to close a deal. While Arafat was capable of beginning the peace process, he did not have the ability to conclude it, Ross said.
“I do personally feel that it is too hard for him to redefine himself,” Ross said. “It is too hard, as a revolutionary, to give up struggle.”
Ross showed respect for his old boss’ efforts. He said Clinton was an avid reader of Israeli polls and believed that if a final agreement were reached he could sell it to the Israeli public. In fact, polls showed a very high popularity rating for Clinton in Israel.
Faced with recent criticism that the American team doomed the peace process by pushing too hard for a fateful summit, Ross said it was impossible to ignore the possibility of ending the conflict.
“There really was a sense it would not have been responsible,” he said.
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