Worse Than No Deal At All

 Speaking in Los Angeles last month, Al Gore argued that the cycle of violence between the Israelis and Palestinians began when Yasir Arafat rejected an “extremely generous” peace settlement that Bill Clinton and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had offered him in 2000 at Camp David.

Characterizing Israel’s offer as “generous” has been a tenet in U.S. policy-making circles and punditry. Many in the Bush and Clinton administrations, on editorial pages, and in the American Jewish community have argued that Arafat’s failure to accept this offer betrays an underlying rejection of Israel’s right to exist.

Moreover, the assumption Arafat spurned Israel’s best offer has lead to further pronouncements in policy-making and pundit circles, such as a recent column by The New York Times’ William Safire, saying Israel has done the Palestinians a big favor by using its military to destroy the infrastructure of terrorism in the West Bank. And last week, President Bush hailed Sharon as “a man of peace” while calling on Arafat to live up to his words and contain terrorism.

But how generous was the Clinton-Barak plan? This is a critical question, because this proposal is a historic baseline for any new ‘progress’ or ‘hope’ in resolving the conflict.

While Barak made more concessions in the deal than any prior Israeli leader, he did not offer to give 96 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians, as has been suggested by the Israelis — and reported as such in the U.S. and international press. With Clinton’s full knowledge, he offered what can only be described as a dysfunctional state to Arafat. In the waning years of a tarnished presidency, Clinton was so eager to push Camp David that he forgot the ABCs of political science.

The Palestinian state, according to diplomats and academics familiar with the details, would have consisted of five cantons, four of which would be 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 control of the eastern border of the state, the Jordan Valley, for an indefinite period of time. A fourth canton would have been created around East Jerusalem. Much of the water infrastructure would have remained under Israeli control. Most importantly, the al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest shrine in Islam, would have remained under Israeli control.

For its part, Israel would have annexed 69 of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, containing 85 percent of the 200,000 settlers that have stayed in the West Bank — a violation of the Oslo Accords. The settlement blocs 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, 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 formerly white South Africa, or perhaps American Indian reservations, a series of enclaves still dependent on the colonial power.

Arafat may be authoritarian and inept as an administrator, but on one issue there can be no doubt. He wrote in The New York Times in February 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 proposal was one such scrap, and no Palestinian leader could possibly have accepted it.

Ahmad Faruqui is an economist and a fellow at the American Institute of International Studies in California. He is author of Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan, to be published later this year by Ashgate Publishing in the UK.

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