Shlomo Ben Ami was Israel’s foreign minister under Ehud Barak and served as the lead Israeli negotiator at the Camp David summit in 2000.
Klein: At Camp David, you presented the Palestinians with most of what they said they wanted. Instead of responding with a counter proposal, Arafat turned you down and started the intifada. How have your views about Arafat changed since negotiating with him at Camp David?
Ben Ami: At Camp David, I thought Arafat was capable of leading his people in a compromise with Israel. It was the essence of the Oslo accords. I mean, he was brought into the territories because Israel believed it could make peace with Arafat.
After Camp David, I came to the conclusion that the man is incapable of making a decision because he simply doesn’t recognize the right of the Jewish state to live in peace in the Middle East. I think he is a major tragedy for the Palestinian people. He is incapable of producing the transition from a revolutionary leader with a keffiyah and a gun to a statesman. That’s the problem.
Initially, you told reporters the aim of the intifada was to internationalize the conflict so Arafat could be offered a better deal brokered in the international arena instead of by the U.S., which Arafat viewed as biased toward Israel. Is this still what you think his strategy is?
Yes, yes absolutely, that is the strategy. You see, Arafat believes there is hardly any room for negotiations because a peace agreement needs to be predicated on what he calls international legitimacy, which according to Arafat is all the resolutions that were passed by the UN Security Council while Israel was internationally isolated. He says they need to be implemented. That is it. And he would not even discard Resolution 181, [the 1947 Partition resolution which called for the split of British-ruled Palestine into Jewish and Arab states]. Israel cannot go into this trap, it is beyond any reasonable possibility.
And Arafat continues not to trust that America is an honest broker. This past American president did more for the Palestinian cause than any other statesman in the world. I mean, [French President Jacques] Chirac can speak until eternity, but he will not compare to what Clinton did for the Palestinians.
If you knew then what you know now, that Arafat is not a peace partner, how would you have handled things differently?
Well, you know the benefit of hindsight is that you see things in perspective. You see there were people in the military intelligence that said then what we know now about Arafat. So the papers about the personality of Arafat are more or less what is my position today. We are not surprised that this is the profile of Arafat.
But what alternative did we have? You always believe when you go to negotiate, whatever it is for, that your counterpart is incapable of taking a position. But you believe that perhaps, perhaps there is a ray of hope, that at the last moment the leader will emerge. What people tell you about the interlocutor is important, but it can?t be an obstacle for going and trying to reach an agreement.
Before Menachem Begin went to Camp David, if [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat would have opened a file about Begin in military intelligence, he would have said “I am not going to talk with this guy. He is not flexible, he is an ideologue.” And by the way, on his way to Camp David, Begin made a pompous declaration that he is planning to buy land in Sinai and build his own house! This should have discouraged Sadat from going there. But in the moment of truth, the leader in Begin emerged. So this is always the hope.
Are you comparing Begin to Arafat? Isn’t there a difference between the prime minister of Israel and a dictator involved in terrorism, who preaches murder of Israelis and violates Palestinian human rights?
You were talking about military intelligence. Do you think Camp David was an intelligence failure? That Israel, with its enormous intelligence capabilities, failed to predict that Arafat would turn down your offer and instead initiate a war? Or maybe you were presented with this data, but decided to ignore it?
Well, if it was a failure, we are in good company - we share it with the United States. Because Camp David was orchestrated by America. By Clinton. But I don’t see it that way. One day we will have some sort of agreement with the Palestinians; this cannot go on forever. And then, the journalists of the next generation, a younger guy like yourself, will see Camp David in the proper perspective. As a visible step toward maturity.
Things were perhaps not ripe at the time. And now after a series of errors – the whole course is trial and error - maybe we paid the price so that future generations of peacemakers will learn from our mistakes and problems, our incapacity to win the battle back then.
Do you, and does Barak, take responsibility for your part in the ‘mistake’?
Barak never takes responsibility for his part in anything. [Laughing.] Barak is the perfect politician, he never takes responsibility. But I really don’t think here there is a question of responsibility at all. You see, why did we go to Camp David? Because we had signed seven years earlier the Oslo Accords. According to the Oslo accords, five years after the signature in 1993, we should have [been] ready to find a deal. So we were forced by international commitments. I mean, we didn’t have much of a choice. We needed to try the possibility of having an agreement. So we said let us put on the table written proposals and see if we can develop a dynamic of give and take, and maybe we can reach an agreement.
There have been a lot of rumors lately that Arafat had a series of heart attacks. That he is dying. Do you have any inside information about this?
Well, not really. I have seen him dozens of times and he was always like that. You know, trembling and a sense of weakness. Part of it is acting, by the way. If Arafat should ever have received a prize, it should have been not a Nobel but an Oscar. He plays with his weak English intentionally. He tries to dodge his interlocutor in all kinds of ways. So some of it is pretending.
But otherwise, he is not the healthiest of people. He has a slight form of Parkinson’s, and presumably, he overcame it. Listen, he has been secluded for two years in conditions that are not easy. He is a tough guy, you should not underestimate him. So the conditions probably have contributed to his weakness.
Let’s say he dies tomorrow. How would that affect the Middle East, and how would that affect Israel?
Well, if he dies from natural reasons, that’s one thing. If it becomes clear that Israel had a hand in his death, this will make him into a martyr. These are two things. I think given that he is being held under difficult conditions by Israel, my fear is that even if he passes for natural reasons, it will be perceived as because of the conditions and he will become a sort of martyr. I am afraid this will unleash an outburst of violent demonstrations. Israel would have it very, very tough.
Would his death a leadership vacuum? Are you afraid that maybe Hamas would take over?
Absolutely, absolutely. I think you can see the possibility of a transition period of turmoil. Because there is no mechanism of succession. You have all kinds of warlords. There is a difference between Gaza and the West Bank, and of course Hamas could fill the vacuum.
Sharon seems to have ruled out killing Arafat, or sending him into exile, but do you think he should be arrested and tried? No. Of course not. I don’t think it would be productive. I really don?t understand why the idea of getting rid of Arafat crossed Sharon’s mind. It seems to me Arafat is his best card. I mean, the reason Sharon has such popularity is because he maintains the cause of Arafat.
Let’s say you were in charge of handpicking the new Palestinian leader, is there anyone you particularly trust?
There are some good people around. Abu Mazen is a very good man, but he is no leader. I predicted his downfall from the very beginning. Abu Ala is a political animal, but with no charisma and with no personal political power base. [Former Gaza security chief Mohammed] Dahlan has both charisma and a power base, and a sort of coalition with the younger leaders, those who didn?t come from Tunis. I think those who came from Tunis were the disaster of the Palestinian cause. And the leaders from the next generation are those who can be trusted.
Let’s say one day there’s a Palestinian leadership that actually wants peace with Israel. What kind of agreement do you foresee?
Well, I think it would be based on the Clinton perimeters – it’s more or less the 1967 borders with modifications created by the parties. Those perimeters, you should know, were not the Southern wind of a lame-duck president. I mean the man did not just invent the ideas. The perimeters of Clinton were at the point of equilibrium between the positions of the parties as they stood at that particular time. So he was acting as an honest broker. And I believe the Clinton perimeters can liberate.
When you were at Camp David, was it your intention that the Israeli offers – which included East Jerusalem – were to be binding to future Israeli governments, that they should be used as the starting point for future negotiations, or was it a one-time deal?
Proposals are not meant to be binding unless they are signed. But there is a collective memory, and you cannot go back to things from scratch, there is no way to start from zero.
What are your views about the fence Israel is building?
The fence is the result, in a way, of a sense of despair. Everything else was tried to stem this avalanche of terrorism into Israel proper. Are you aware that we never had suicide terrorists coming from Gaza because we have a fence there? And that fence is elementary, not like the sophisticated one they are building in the West Bank.
So after we have tried just about everything to stop suicide terrorism, Sharon came to the idea of the fence, which by the way is not his idea, it’s an idea of the left, not the right. To the right the fence is a political defeat, because to them there is no difference between the state of Israel and the land of Israel - Judea and Samaria.
The idea to build a fence says we can’t control all of Israel….So it is as a last resort that Sharon came to this conclusion to erect the wall and protect the citizens. Another thing is that if Sharon believes this is the final border, I don’t think the Palestinians will accept it, and I don’t believe the international community will accept it.
Israel recently bombed what it says is an Islamic Jihad training camp in Syria. Will this open up a second war front?
Not for the time being, because I think the Syrians are not interested in engaging us and they are not capable of facing Israel. Syria is a country that did not move from the Eastern bloc military doctrine to a Western situation, so they just aren’t capable. So Israel’s action against Syria was an isolated incident that will have no further consequences.
America and Israel are worried about possible nuclear activity in Iran. Let’s say Israel has accurate intelligence that Iran is defying the international community and building a nuke. Should Israel bomb the Iranian reactor as it bombed Iraq’s in 1981?
Well, you see I am afraid that the nuclearization of the Middle East is a process that cannot be stopped, and the problem is not nuclearization, the problem is the regime. We are in a competition against time and space between democratization and nuclearization. And we are agreeing to the nuclearization of Pakistan and India. We?ll find it difficult to stop the nuclearization, but what needs to happen is that democratization must happen first.
In the last Israeli elections, Labor lost pretty much half its seats, and many people are saying your party will continue to decline. What is the future of the Labor party?
I think the future of the Labor party lies in the future of the Sharon government. It is connected. Whenever the [ruling] government sees its powers eroded, this favors the opposition. It’s very important that Labor is in the opposition. It was a huge mistake for Labor to have joined the Sharon government because they discredited themselves as the alternative. I really believe things are improving for Labor and we’ll have elections in June. If we have a new and dynamic leadership, things can change.
Do you plan to run?
For the time being, I don’t see it as an immediate possibility, but in the future it could happen.
Aaron Klein, former editor of the Yeshiva University undergraduate newspaper, previously conducted interviews with Yasir Arafat, Benjamin Netanyahu and leaders of the Taliban. His account of his experience interviewing members of Osama bin Laden’s organization, ‘My Weekend With the Enemy,’ appeared in The Jewish Press in 1999.