There is no doubt that Peter Beinart’s widely acclaimed, powerfully argued, and eloquently written article in the May 12 issue of the New York Review, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” is a major contribution to the growing effort within the American Jewish community to help save Israel from itself—and, for that matter, to help save true liberal values within American Jewry itself from the ignorance, moral blindness, or outright dishonesty of the Jewish “Establishment,” otherwise known as the Israel Lobby.
There is also little doubt that the power and influence of Beinart’s essay derives in good part from the fact that it amounts to a dramatic and public renunciation of his previous views—after all, little more need be said than that he was the managing editor and editor in chief at Martin Peretz’s New Republic for nearly ten years. It is good that after dwelling in that darkness for so long, Beinart has finally seen the light—or rather, some of it. The problem, however, is that Beinart is not an historian or scholar of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and so he has still not fully freed himself from crucial parts of the conventional Israeli-American mythology that no serious and unbiased student of the conflict would accept today.
I refer, in particular, to his acceptance of the myth—in both his original article and even more so in his subsequent exchange with Abraham Foxman in the June 24 New York Review-- that it was Yasir Arafat and the Palestinians, not Ehud Barak and the Israelis, who were primarily responsible for the breakdown of the last serious efforts to negotiate a two-state peace settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the Camp David negotiations in the July 2000, and Bill Clinton’s later compromise proposals.
Indeed, Beinart’s error may be especially damaging, precisely because it comes from someone who in other respects is severely critical of Israel and its yes men in the United States. It is evident that Beinart is unfamiliar with the extensive journalism, scholarship and memoirs by key participants on what really happened in 2000 (see here for an early analysis, subsequently confirmed and extended by many others)
According to Beinart, Barak was “apparently” willing to “relinquish much of the West Bank” and that Arafat “deserves history’s scorn for not responding more courageously to the chances for peace at Camp David and the much better ones put forward by Clinton in December 2000.” There is indeed a case that Arafat erred, particularly in his initial response to the Clinton proposals; however, Barak’s alleged willingness to reach a fair compromise was, precisely, more “apparent” than real.
Camp David. Most studies and memoirs about what really happened at Camp David agree that Barak appeared to be willing to consider offering the Palestinians a small demilitarized state in most of the West Bank. However: Barak refused to negotiate with or even personally meet with Arafat at what was supposed to be a “summit” conference (!); he put nothing into writing and therefore at the end of the day he had made no concrete or verifiable offers; meanwhile, he continued to expand the Israeli settlements and military occupation in the occupied territories; he intended to maintain Israeli sovereignty and control over all of Jerusalem, including Arab East Jerusalem and the major Muslim mosques on the Temple Mount; he intended to retain most of the West Bank water aquifers; and he intended on continuing direct Israeli military control over the Jordan Valley.
Thus, if Arafat had accepted Barak’s apparent notion of a fair compromise, the Palestinians would have gained only a tiny, impoverished, and water-starved Palestinian “state,” divided into at least three regions separated from each other by Israeli territory, armed forces, roads and settlements, and denied a capital in East Jerusalem.
The Clinton Plan. In a last-ditch effort to save the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from complete collapse, in December 2000 Bill Clinton suggested a number of principles, or “parameters,” as he called them, to settle the conflict. Beinart is correct that Clinton’s broad proposals offered a “much better” chance for peace than Camp David, but his placing the blame for their failure solely on Arafat sorely misreads the much more complicated reality.
To begin, the Clinton plan, while more forthcoming to the Palestinians than Barak’s offer, or non-offer, at Camp David, was still vague and problematic for both sides. The key features were these:
*The Palestinians would get 94-96% of the West Bank, but it was widely understood that what would remain in Israel’s possession included the largest Jewish settlements beyond the 1967 borders, located on some of the best agricultural land and largest water aquifers in the West Bank.
*Jerusalem would be divided, with the Palestinians gaining sovereignty over the Arab sections of East Jerusalem, especially the Temple Mount mosques; the Israelis would have sovereignty over all the Jewish areas of Jerusalem, including Judaism’s main religious sites.
*There would be no “right of return” to Israel for Palestinian refugees from the 1948 conflict. Instead, they would be offered economic compensation, the right to return to the new state of Palestine, or settlement elsewhere.
Arafat’s initial response to Clinton was certainly a blunder, for it was generally negative, especially in its continued insistence on the right of return. However, that was not Arafat’s final word, for he softened his position in the ensuing months and made it clear that he was willing to resume negotiations on the basis of Clinton’s ideas.
Barak was smarter—though in reality no more forthcoming than Arafat and probably less: he wrote to Clinton “accepting” his principles but adding a great deal of fine print: namely a 20-page list of “reservations,” especially over Jerusalem. Within a short while Barak’s true bottom line became clear, for he insisted that he would never accept Palestinian/Muslim sovereignty over the Temple Mount plateau and its crucially important mosques—a deal breaker in itself. Had Barak agreed to Clinton’s Jerusalem compromise, the overall evidence and subsequent developments strongly suggest that Arafat would have compromised—in practice, even if not in principle—on the right of return issue.
Let’s give Barak himself the last word about what really happened during 2000; a few years later he wrote—boasted, actually-- that he had given less to the Palestinians—in fact, “not a thing”—than did his predecessor as Israeli prime minister, none other than Benjamin Netanyahu. In short, the major obstacle to a two-state settlement was—and remains--Israel, not the Palestinians, even under Arafat.
None of this is to deny the importance of Beinart’s transformation and his contribution to the improving discourse within the American Jewish community over Israeli policies. But it is too bad that he apparently is unfamiliar with the serious studies of the 2000 breakdown of the peace process, the consequence of which is that in this respect he has perpetuated rather than challenged the conventional mythology.