Ariel Sharon’s visit has highlighted the difficulties facing the US as it seeks to mediate a peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. During the height of the Israeli military incursion, President Bush called Sharon a "man of peace." Last week, with Sharon at his side, Bush put the blame for the violence on Yasser Arafat, saying that he "had let his people down." He overlooked Israel’s failure to comply with his demands that it withdraw immediately from the West Bank, or to allow UN inspectors into the ravaged refugee camp of Jenin. Following up on Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the Capitol, in which he said that Israel was being unfairly pressured to cut short its campaign against Palestinian terror, the Congress and the Senate passed resolutions with overwhelming margins supporting the state of Israel, further alienating the Arab and Muslim world from the US.
After the latest suicide attack near Tel Aviv, Sharon responded with indignation to a reporter who asked whether the US had counseled Israel to act with restraint. Israel was an independent nation, he retorted, and was not obliged to inform the US about what actions it might take. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer echoed Sharon, and said the US could not give directives to a sovereign state. Both sides overlooked the $100 billion that US taxpayers have contributed to Israel’s economic and military security, most of it since the Six Day War in 1967. Notwithstanding its poor track record on human rights, and its possession of weapons of mass destruction, the US continues to provide Israel with state of the art weaponry. In January 2000, Israel signed a $2.5 billion contract for 50 F-16C/D fighters, with deliveries to begin in 2003. The contract also included an option to buy another 60 fighters for an additional $2 billion, which Israel is currently evaluating. Israel already has 250 F-16s, the world’s second largest inventory, and also flies 100 F-15 air superiority fighters.
When the Saudis presented their peace plan at the Arab League Summit, Israel responded by threatening to exile Arafat. Having completed their incursion, they are now talking about participating in a peace conference. At the same time, they have reiterated that Israel will not retreat to its pre-1967 boundaries, the sine qua non of the Saudi plan. Such a stance in peace negotiations has long been a hallmark of Israeli diplomacy, and it reached its apex at Camp David in 2000.
Ehud Barak made an offer that has since become an icon of Israeli generosity. Policy wonks in the Bush and Clinton administrations, writers on editorial pages, and leaders of the American Jewish community have argued that Arafat’s failure to accept this offer betrays an underlying rejection of Israel’s right to exist.
But how generous was the Clinton-Barak plan to the Palestinians? According to Ewen MacAskill of the Guardian, Barak made more concessions in the deal than any prior Israeli leader. However, contrary to media characterizations, Barak did not offer to give up 96 percent of the West Bank. With Clinton’s full knowledge, he offered a dysfunctional state to Arafat.
The Palestinian state, according to Israeli writer Gush Shalom, would have consisted of five cantons. Four of these cantons would have been located in the West Bank and one in the Gaza strip. The two million Palestinians living in 200 scattered areas around the West Bank would have been consolidated into three cantons. The Israeli army would have controlling the eastern border, the Jordan Valley. A fourth canton would have been created around East Jerusalem but the al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest shrine in Islam, would have remained under Israeli control. Robert Malley, a member of the American team at Camp David, feels that neither Arafat nor any other leader of the Palestinians could have justified a compromise of this magnitude to his people.
In the Clinton-Barak proposal, Israel would have annexed 69 of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, containing 85% of the 200,000 settlers that have stayed in the West Bank a violation of the Oslo Accords. The settlement blocs would have continued to intrude into the existing road network and this would have severely disrupted Palestinian road traffic in the West Bank. To compensate the Palestinians for the loss of prime agricultural land, representing about nine percent of the West Bank, Israel offered stretches of desert adjacent to the Gaza Strip that it currently uses for dumping toxic wastes. Such a state would have resembled the Bantustans of South Africa under apartheid.
Arafat may be inept as an administrator, but he did sign the Oslo Accords in 1993, accepting Israel’s right to exist and conceding to Israel 78% of historic Palestine. In February, he wrote in the New York Times that Palestinians are ready to end the conflict, and to sit down with the Israelis and discuss peace. "But we will only sit down as equals," he said, "not as supplicants; as partners, not as subjects; not as a defeated nation grateful for whatever scraps are thrown our way."
The Clinton-Barak plan was one such scrap, and no Palestinian leader-even one who had been awarded the Noble Peace Prize–could have accepted it. If it wants to succeed in the Middle East, the Bush administration will have to bring forward a more realistic plan at the upcoming peace conference, one that pressures both sides equally to abjure violence and make peace.
Ahmad Faruqui is a fellow with the American Institute of International Studies. A native of Pakistan, Faruqui has lived most of his adult life in the United States. He holds a Ph. D. in economics from the University of California at Davis. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org