Don't Blame Arafat

From the archive (legacy material)

David Hirst | The Guardian | 17 July 2004

Camp David failed because Israeli hardliners manipulated intelligence.
In his memoirs, the former US president Bill Clinton writes that the Camp David summit, of which this month marks the fourth anniversary, was the greatest failure of his career. And that, he says, was overwhelmingly Yasser Arafat’s doing – for, unlike Israeli premier Ehud Barak, who had been ready for “enormous concessions”, the Palestinian leader couldn’t “make the final jump from revolutionary to statesman”.
There is one reason that, even if he believes this, he should not, even now, be so publicly proclaiming it. Camp David was essentially Barak’s brainchild. Desperate for a breakthrough in the moribund peace process, he conceived the gambit of telescoping both the still unaccomplished “interim phases” of the Oslo agreement and “final-status” issues into one grand, climactic conclave that would “end the 100-year conflict”. Clinton only persuaded a deeply reluctant Arafat to attend at all by pledging not to blame him for an inglorious outcome.
But blame him is precisely what Clinton did at the time. And that he should still be doing so renders his partisanship even more grossly out of place. For the controversy of which it is a part has moved on – and much in Arafat’s favour. It revolves around a second case, almost as momentous as Iraq, where intelligence was politicised and corrupted to serve a preconceived agenda.
The story began with that ill-fated conference; it was the turning point, most agree, that led to the intifada. But who was actually to blame for this is where the disagreement lies. The standard Israeli version, to which Clinton thus lends weight, is that Arafat was. Yet this version, already heavily eroded, has just suffered another damning blow from a quarter more authoritative than Clinton – Amos Malka, the head of Israeli military intelligence at the time.
The chief mantra of this version was that Arafat proved himself “no partner for peace”. He was bent on the destruction of Israel by demographic means. He engineered the failure of diplomacy so as to justify a resort to violence. This theory had enormous consequences that persist to this day. It was bought by just about the entire Israeli public. For the Israeli right, the intifada only showed that Arafat remained the “killer and murderer” they always said he was. But the left also bought Barak’s contention that at Camp David he had “exposed Arafat’s true face”.
For those who self-righteously felt that they had done so much to promote the peace process, the intifada – even before the suicide bombers – betrayed the trust they had placed in him. The genuine “peace camp” dwindled almost to nothing. Before long, both left and right were ready for the “saviour” who promised a simple military solution; Sharon replaced Barak at the head of the most bellicose Israeli government ever.
America bought it too, with the press almost unanimously outdoing Clinton himself in praise of the “most generous Israeli offer ever” and condemnation of the “rejectionist” Arafat. The partisanship came to full fruition under the Bush administration, especially after 9/11. For Bush, Arafat became the “obstacle to peace” who had to be replaced, democratically, by leaders untainted by “corruption and terrorism”.
And this year, agreeing with Sharon that Israel had “no Palestinian partner with whom it is possible to make progress on a bilateral peace process”, he endorsed Sharon’s scheme for “unilateral disengagement” from Gaza, and its quid pro quo: Israel’s right to retain almost all its illegal settlements and the vast swath of the West Bank in which they are located.
Though Arafat did seek to turn the intifada to his own advantage, this in essence was a spontaneous, popular revolt against Israel’s continued occupation, and against the realisation that Oslo could never end it – as well as, implicitly, against Arafat and his insistence that it could.
What the evolving controversy now increasingly confirms is what a few dissident Israelis contended from the outset: the charge that Arafat “instigated” or “orchestrated” the intifada would be more aptly directed at the Israeli officials, politicians and military leaders who levelled it. For these people actually wanted the intifada, were preparing for it and, when it came, fanned its flames with the massively disproportionate use of force against unarmed Palestinian demonstrators and stone-throwers.
Sharon, who held Oslo to be “the greatest misfortune ever to have befallen Israel” and considered the intifada the opportunity to destroy it, was foremost among them. But, his “generous offer” notwithstanding, the “moderate” Barak, Sharon’s political rival but admiring military disciple, was among them too.
In the first place it was not Arafat who blew up Camp David. Robert Malley, Clinton’s adviser at the conference, and others have long since exhaustively debunked this for the almost ludicrously partisan myth it was. In their view, Barak himself contributed more to the collapse than Arafat.
And now comes Malka, the former intelligence chief, who flatly asserts that the evaluations of Arafat’s intentions and actions on which Barak, and later Sharon, relied were “erroneous”, and deliberately so. They were the handiwork of one man, who occupied a key position in the Israeli policy-making process: Amos Gilad, the head of the military intelligence research department. He presented “national security assessments” to the government. Crucially, he only did so orally, because, as he put it, “they [ministers] don’t read”.
But even more crucially, according to Malka, his oral reports were at variance with the written ones of his bureau, an inconsistency he made good by “retroactively rewriting them”. For these written reports just couldn’t support what, via his misrepresentations, became the orthodox, highly negative view of Arafat.
“And who,” asks the peace activist Uri Avneri, “is this man who has had a greater influence than any other person on the policies of Israel over the last few crucial years, and whose ‘concept’ is still directing the path of the state? It is the very same Amos Gilad, who [recently] claimed the benefits due to disabled army veterans. He was not wounded in battle, but claimed that the stress of his difficult job had inflicted on him irreversible mental damage. When did this mental damage start, the first symptoms appear? When he started endlessly repeating that Arafat wants to throw us into the sea? Or was this declaration itself a symptom of his mental problem?”
The controversy has earned little of the Israeli, let alone international, attention it richly deserves. But if the scandal constitutes bad news about the way in which a coterie of generals and generals-turned-politicians increasingly makes the real decisions in Israel, perhaps worse is the way it helps to make them in the US. James Bamford’s bestseller, Pretext for War, is the latest in the torrent of books on the Bush White House. It has long been clear that Israel played a big part in urging America to war in Iraq. Now it seems from Bamford’s account that Israel was deeply involved, too, in supplying phoney intelligence to justify it.
· David Hirst reported from the Middle East for the Guardian from 1963 to 2001