Barak: Israel a villa in the jungle

By Uri Avnery, Special to Arab News
Publication Date: 
Wed, 2002-07-17 03:00

A well-known Israeli theater critic once left the opening performance of a new play after the first five minutes and then wrote a withering review about it. When his colleagues said that this was unfair, he answered: “I don’t have to eat the whole egg in order to know that it is rotten.”

One does not have to read the whole long interview with Ehud Barak, published in The New York Review of Books (June 13, 2002), in order to know that he is — well, not exactly an enlightened statesman. It is enough to read the following words of his:

“They (the Palestinians, and especially Arafat) are the products of a culture in which to tell a lie...creates no dissonance. They don’t suffer from the problem of telling lies that exists in Judeo-Christian culture.”

This passage speaks volumes.

At one fell swoop, the Great Peace-Maker demonizes the culture of a billion living human beings as well as of 50 generations.

The stereotyping of a whole culture, people, society or race lies at the base of anti-Semitism.

By condemning Islam and identifying himself with Judeo-Christianity (a dubious concept in itself, since Judaism is closer to Islam than to Christianity), Barak is trying to ride the wave of Islamophobia that is currently sweeping the US and the whole Western world.

By asserting that all Arabs lie at all times, Barak also constructs a beautiful defense. Whatever the Palestinians say to disprove his account can be dismissed in advance. They always lie, don’t they?

A monumental ignorance of Arab discourse, coupled with monumental arrogance, created the mixture that turned Barak into the most disastrous prime minister in Israel’s history, surpassing even Golda Meir.

Before going into the details of the interview, one has to mention the interviewer. He is Benny Morris, the former “new historian”, who in one easy jump has turned from the icon of the left into the darling of the right. Morris conducts the interview as a sycophantic devotee, accepting unquestioningly Barak’s most hair-raising statements and refraining from asking any embarrassing questions, obvious as they might appear.

Barak does not expose himself to the questioning of a real, investigative journalist, like Deborah Sontag of The New York Times, nor does he confront an objective eye-witness, like Robert Malley, President Clinton’s assistant at Camp David. These are two of the “revisionists” who evoked the ire of the Barak-Morris team, as well as that of Clinton, who — Barak recounts — called him in Sardinia to rave at Sontag’s excellent and well-researched article about Camp David. “What the hell is this?” Clinton demanded, according to Barak.

Let’s turn now to the interview itself.

According to Morris (who, of course, was not at Camp David and relies on what Barak told him), on July 18, in the middle of the conference, Clinton read to Arafat “a document, endorsed in advance by Barak...”

Let’s stop right here. What does this mean? How come the president of the United States, the honest broker, reaches advance agreement with one side, before even presenting a proposal to the other? Does this not prove that the Palestinians were quite right when they asserted, at the time, that this was in fact Barak’s proposal, wrapped by Clinton in the American flag?

As may be remembered, Arafat did not want to go to Camp David at all. He was afraid that he would be faced there with Clinton and Barak acting like the two arms of a nutcracker. Clinton overcame Arafat’s objections by promising that, in the case of failure, neither of the parties would be blamed. After the conference, Clinton cynically broke his promise and blamed Arafat exclusively. On this point Morris writes:

“As to the charge raised by the Palestinians, and in their wake, by Deborah Sontag, and Malley and Agha, that the Palestinians had been dragooned into coming to Camp David ‘unprepared’ and prematurely, Barak is dismissive to the point of contempt. He observes that the Palestinians had eight years, since 1993 to prepare their positions...”

This is Barak-style obfuscation at its best (or worst). The “charge”, of course, is not that the Palestinians had no time to prepare their positions. The “charge” is that there had been no preparatory work done by joint committees to reach agreement on as many issues as possible and to demarcate the lines of disagreement where this was not possible, so that the leaders could grapple with the remaining bones of contention. This is the usual procedure at summit meetings.

The phrase “Barak is dismissive to the point of contempt” is highly indicative of the man. It’s all there: The overbearing arrogance, the conviction that the other side is vastly inferior, that their arguments need not be answered but can be “dismissed”.

So what was Barak’s proposal, as read out “slowly” to Arafat by Clinton? According to Morris, it included:

The establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state on 92 percent of the West Bank and 100 percent of the Gaza Strip;

Some territorial compensation for the Palestinians from the pre-1967 Israeli territory;

Annexation of 8 percent of the West Bank to Israel;

Dismantling of most of the settlements and the concentration of the bulk of the settlers in the 8 percent to be annexed;

The establishment of the Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, Some Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem to become sovereign Palestinian territories and others to enjoy “functional autonomy”;

Palestinian sovereignty over half of the Old City of Jerusalem (the Muslim and Christian quarters, but not the Armenian and Jewish quarters);

“Custodianship,” though not sovereignty, over the Temple Mount;

A return of the refugees to the prospective Palestinian state, with no “right of return” to Israel proper;

A massive aid program to facilitate the refugees’ rehabilitation.

It must be admitted that these proposals of Barak’s, disguised as American, do indeed go further than any made by previous Israeli prime ministers. One cannot blame Barak, being quite ignorant of Palestinian affairs, for considering them extremely generous. However, in fact, they fall far short of the minimum Palestinian requirements. Morris’ description does not give a full picture. Some salient facts are obscured. For example:

The figure of 92 percent is highly debatable. It does not include the annexed territories of East Jerusalem, which had by then become Israeli neighborhoods, nor the Jordan Valley, which Israel insisted on keeping under its control for some considerable time, cutting Palestine off from neighboring Jordan. Palestinians may be excused for doubting that Israel will in the future relinquish territories it keeps “temporarily” under its control. Altogether, Palestinians believed that the real proposed annexation was closer to 20 percent. One has to remember, of course, that the whole West Bank and Gaza Strip amounts only to 22 percent of the land of Palestine, as it existed in 1947.

It is not only a question of percentages, but also of location. The “settlement blocs” that Barak wanted to annex to Israel are like daggers tearing into the flesh of the future Palestinian state, cutting it up into what could easily be turned into disconnected enclaves.

Territorial compensations were not to be on a 1-to-1 basis, as demanded by the Palestinians, but something like 1-to-9.

The Arab parts of East Jerusalem which Barak agreed to transfer to Palestinian sovereignty were outlying suburbs (like Shuafat and Beith Hanina), while the central Arab neighborhoods (like Sheikh-Jarakh, Silwan and Ras-al-Amud) were accorded only “functional autonomy” under Israeli sovereignty. This was totally unacceptable. Worse, the Palestinians were granted only “guardianship” over the compound of the holy mosques (Haram Al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, in Arabic and Har ha-Bayit, the Temple Mount, in Hebrew), which meant that Israel would retain sovereignty. No leader in the Arab world could have accepted that.

Palestinians could possibly have agreed to the annexation of the Jewish quarter of the Old City, including the Western Wall, to Israel. Annexation of the Armenian quarter, which is closely connected to the Christian quarter, is something else.

Barak’s insistence that “not one single refugee” could return to Israel proper is totally unacceptable to the Palestinians, both symbolically and practically.

Morris does not mention in this connection the most important part of the proposal: That the Palestinians formally agree that this would be “the end of the conflict”. Barak’s proposal might perhaps have been acceptable as another interim agreement — but it was quite impossible for the Palestinians to accept it, and especially the parts concerning the Temple Mount and the refugees, as “the final settlement”.

As Morris, who was not there, described it graphically:

“Arafat said ‘No.’ Clinton, enraged, banged on the table...”

If Barak had been compelled to face some real investigative journalist, instead of a devotee disguised as a historian, he would have been cross-examined about his own frame of mind. What did he think of the Palestinians when he came to power? Did he have any preconceived ideas, any prejudices that might have influenced his way of thinking?

Barak himself, in domestic discussions, often used a telling metaphor: Israel is “a villa in the middle of a jungle”. Meaning: We are an island of civilization surrounded by savage animals. This is remarkably similar to old-established colonial attitudes, and, indeed, a variation of Theodor Herzl’s (the father of modern Zionism) metaphor of the “wall against barbarism”.

In his mind, Barak had a picture of the devious Arafat, forever plotting the overthrow of Israel. This, by the way, is a standard Israeli concept, which has deep psychological roots. It may stem, partly, from unconscious guilt: We have driven half the Palestinian people from their homes, how can they ever really accept us and make peace with us? According to Barak, quoted by Morris, Arafat was:

“Secretly planning Israel’s demise...What they (Arafat and his colleagues) want is a Palestinian state in all of Palestine...Arafat sees himself as a reborn Saladin...(Arafat believes) that Israel has no right to exist, and he seeks its demise...”

Needless to say, there is not a shred of evidence for any of this. It says nothing about Arafat, but it says a lot about Barak. Morris writes:

“Barak today portrays Arafat’s behavior at Camp David as a “performance” geared to exacting from the Israelis as many concessions as possible without ever seriously intending to reach a peace settlement or sign an “end to the conflict”.

This is strange. If Arafat (like every Arab) is indeed a “serial liar”, as Barak alleges, why for God’s sake did he not accept the proposal? The logical thing for him to do would have been to agree to all the wonderful concessions Barak was ready to make, sign everything demanded and then, after a few years, come back and demand more.

Barak and Morris say that Arafat “kept saying ‘no’ to every offer, never making any counterproposals of his own.” The record does not bear this out.

While it is true that Arafat, coming to Camp David against his will, was in a defensive mood, ready to withstand the double onslaught of Barak and Clinton, he made concessions that were very far-reaching from the Palestinian point of view. The fact that Israelis and Americans took these in their stride, hardly even noticing them, only shows the immense gap between the perceptions of the parties. Palestinian propaganda could not have bragged about these concessions either, since they were inimical to the wishes of many Palestinians.

As a matter of fact, Arafat made the following explicit and implicit concessions at Camp David, and later at Taba:

- He agreed to change the almost sacred Green Line by accepting the principle of land swaps;

— He accepted the concept of settlement blocs, which is anathema to all Palestinians;

— He ceded the Jewish neighborhoods built on Arab land in EastJerusalem, breaking another Palestinian taboo;

— He was ready to give up the Wailing Wall and the Jewish quarter of the Jerusalem Old City, which were parts of Arab East Jerusalem before 1967.

— He indicated his readiness to reach a compromise on the Right of Return, sacred to all Palestinians, by accepting that the implementation should be subject to Israeli agreement. Barak ignores all these. According to Morris, he charged “Arafat with ‘lacking the character or will’ to make a historic compromise, as did the late Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat in 1977-1979, when he made peace with Israel...”

Barak would have been well advised to drop this comparison. Sadat got all his territory back, to the very last centimeter. Arafat would have easily agreed to the same terms — as would have Hafiz Assad of Syria.

Barak, so it seems, is furious with Arafat because the Palestinian leader denies Zionist axioms, indeed, because Arafat is not an orthodox Zionist like himself.

“(Arafat) does not recognize the existence of a Jewish people or nation, only a Jewish religion...This, Barak believes, underlay Arafat’s insistence at Camp David (and since) that the Palestinians have sole sovereignty over the Temple Mount compound...Arafat refused to accept even the vague formulation proposed by Clinton (in December 2000) positing Israeli sovereignty over the earth beneath the Temple Mount’s surface area.”

Arafat could easily turn the tables and claim that Barak does not recognize Islam by denying Palestinian sovereignty over the holy Islamic shrines on the mount. As a matter of fact, Barak, obfuscating to the last, offered “guardianship” — but not sovereignty — over the mosques. His abysmal ignorance of Islamic affairs made it impossible for him to comprehend that no Muslim leader in the world could possibly agree to this. If Arafat had agreed, he would have turned himself into a mortal enemy of every devout Muslim.

(Uri Avnery, award-winning Israeli journalist and writer, three-time member of Knesset and a columnist for the Ma’ariv daily is a founding member of the Gush Shalom peace movement.)

(To be continued)

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