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.
Posts Tagged ‘Camp David’
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.
One reading Deborah Sontag's front-page article in the July 26th issue of The New York Times could well understand the calls one hears lately for Jews to suspend their Times subscriptions over its outrageous coverage of the Middle East. Ms. Sontag's piece is transparent revisionism which well serves the seeming omnipresent effort to shift the blame for the collapse of Camp David from the Palestinians to something systemic to the Middle East conflict. It almost seems that Ms. Sontag and others now hawking the same line are following a scenario scripted by Arafat lieutenants intent on minimizing Israeli concessions at Camp David and thereby set the stage for the next phase of negotiations.
It will be recalled that several weeks ago, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Manhattan's Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and the Ramaz School announced a campaign for a 10 day suspension of subscriptions to the Times during the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. More recently, the president of Brooklyn's Yeshiva of Flatbush wrote to parents informing them that the school was “suspending all of the school's subscriptions to The New York Times and notifying the paper that we are doing so as a direct result of the distortions.” Similar calls abound on the Internet.
Ms. Sontag's piece was entitled “Quest For Mideast Peace: How And Why It Failed,” and carried the sub-heading, “Many Now Agree That All The Parties, Not Just Arafat, Were to Blame.” Early on in the article, she fleshes out what she is about:
During the largely ineffectual cease-fire now under way in the Middle East, peace advocates, academics and diplomats have begun excavating … to see what can be learned from the diplomacy right before and after the outbreak of violence. Their premise is that any renewal of peace talks, however remote that seems right now, would have to use the Barak-Clinton era as a point of departure or as an object lesson ? or both.
In the tumble of the all-consuming violence, much has not been revealed or examined. Rather, a potent, simplistic narrative has taken hold in Israel, and to some extent in the United States. It says: Mr. Barak offered Mr. Arafat the moon at Camp David last summer. Mr. Arafat turned it down, and then “pushed the button” and chose the path of violence. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is insoluble, at least for the foreseeable future.
But many diplomats and officials believe that the dynamic was far more complex and that Mr. Arafat does not bear sole responsibility for the breakdown of the peace effort.
Sontag's reference to “peace advocates, academics and diplomats” and her use of the phrase “many diplomats and officials believe” should have been fair warning of what was to come. But after all, her story was on the front page of The New York Times and surely we were to be given newly discovered facts.
Unfortunately, in her article, which runs over three pages and is longer than anything in memory since the Pentagon Papers story almost thirty years ago, Ms. Sontag offers up a one-sided pastiche of amateur psychology, anecdotes, dinner stories, opinion, speculation, innuendo and conclusions from an array of second and third tier officials apparently chosen because of their support for her thesis. The public statements of Messers. Clinton and Barak are cavalierly dismissed. That Arafat offered no counter proposal to the Israeli offer is not addressed. Nor is the fact that Palestinian violence erupted promptly after the collapse of the talks. Nor does she mention the public statements of Palestinian officials which confirmed that resort to violence was a calculated Palestinian tactic.
In an editorial several days later, “Looking Back At Camp David,” The Times continued the outrage even as it implicitly acknowledged the shortcomings of the Sontag article:
An article by The Times's Deborah Sontag this week reported on some newly revealed aspects of last year's failed search for a negotiated agreement. The story suggests that both Ehud Barak, who was then the Israeli prime minister, and Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, made political and diplomatic miscalculations, as did President Bill Clinton and his aides….
Mr. Arafat did not offer any proposals of his own at Camp David. When the talks failed, he condoned the violent uprising that broke out in late September. (Emphasis ours.)
Suggests? A news report deemed worthy of the front page of The New York Times suggests? There is nothing to remark about the intentions and motives of someone who does not even respond to an offer? And in context, was the choice of the word condoned really an honest one?
In giving prominence to Sontag's astonishing contrivance and attempting to make it more digestible, The Times, perhaps more vividly than ever before, revealed its pro-Palestinian partisan agenda. So it should not be surprised at the growing feeling in the Jewish community that The Times should not be supported while it pursues that agenda.Editorial Board
Is it even the least bit shocking that Deborah Sontag has so eagerly jumped aboard the revisionist bandwagon that seeks to blame former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak for the collapse of last year’s summit at Camp David?
After all, the one thing she’s demonstrated throughout her regrettable stint as New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief is that she’s an absolute sieve through which flows any pro-Palestinian argument or viewpoint.
Sontag’s extraordinarily long July 26 apologia on behalf of the poor, misunderstood statesman Yasir Arafat, which began on the Times’s front page and sprawled across two inside pages, was actually the latest salvo in a new campaign to restore some luster to the Palestinian Authority chairman’s tarnished image.
As Daily News columnist Zev Chafets noted (providentially, his piece appeared the same day Sontag’s did), this all started last month with a New York Times op-ed piece by former Clinton adviser Robert Malley, who complained that the deal proffered by Barak to Arafat at Camp David was not “the dream offer it has been made out to be, at least not from the Palestinian perspective.”
Malley, together with Palestinian academic and activist Hussein Agha, also wrote a lengthy essay on the same theme in the current issue of the liberal-left New York Review of Books, which arrived at newsstands just days before the unveiling of Sontag’s magnum opus.
(In a prime example of left-wing networking, the anti-Israel London Guardian carried a brief adaptation of the Malley-Agha essay two weeks ago, and Americans for Peace Now immediately gave it prominent placement on its website.)
That the Times chose to devote the sheer amount of space it did to Sontag’s seemingly endless editorial disguised as a news story should silence any of the holdouts who still harbor any doubts concerning the newspaper’s political agenda.
All of which brings us to the odd phenomenon of a competing New York Jewish newspaper’s media critic – an uncommonly talented writer, let the record show – who recently began to qualify his critiques of the media in general and the Times in particular, scolding those who in his view mistake the honest reporting of Israel’s shortcomings for out and out media bias.
A nadir of sorts was reached in mid-July, when this critic extended his benefit of the doubt to Washington Post correspondent Lee Hockstader and none other than the horrid Sontag. In a column in which he actually did a great service by exposing the hate-filled rhetoric of the recently deceased Palestinian official Faisal Husseini, the newly de-clawed critic had this to say about Sontag’s and Hockstader’s puff-piece eulogies to Husseini:
“It would be somewhat unfair…to accuse the Times and Washington Post of ‘bias’ for their glowing Husseini obituary. Yes, they missed Husseini’s underlying fraud, but so did half of Israel. Hockstader and Sontag accurately reflected a respect and faith in Husseini that was widely and sincerely held in Israel’s peace camp.”
The critic went on to ask whether the fact that the Israeli government had permitted Husseini’s remains to be interred on the Temple Mount meant that Ariel Sharon was biased against Israel – since that’s what critics would have labeled the Times had it urged such an honor on Husseini.
Now hold on a minute here. It’s the Monitor’s (perhaps misguided) understanding that it’s not up to Sontag, Hockstader and other reporters to have their news coverage “reflect” the views of a segment of the society they’re covering, no matter how “widely and sincerely held” those views might be.
If a media critic fails to point that out, who will?
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgJason Maoz