Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 2   No. 7 Table of Contents
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5 August 2000 

The Peace Process After Camp David
by Gary. C. Gambill

Jerusalem and the Old City
Throughout the seven years that have elapsed since the 1993 Oslo Accords, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Yasser Arafat repeatedly emphasized in public statements that he would never settle for anything less than complete Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem. From the very beginning, American and Israeli officials operated under the assumption that Arafat's position on Jerusalem was subject to negotiation. After all, Arafat is famous for making grandiose public declarations of principle one day only to retreat from them the next. Moreover, it was reasoned that Arafat, an avowedly secular Palestinian nationalist, was not particularly attached to the Old City. His many declarations to the contrary, it was thought, stemmed mainly from his keen awareness of the importance Israelis attach to Jerusalem. Like the Arab merchant caricatured in countless Hollywood films who declares that he could never part with the "priceless" trinket that has caught the eye of a customer, it was assumed that Arafat's adamant refusal to abandon Jerusalem indicated not his unwillingness to compromise, but his intention to compromise at the end of the day for the right price.

Or so it was thought until the Camp David Summit. In Hollywood, when the customer turns to leave, the merchant drops his pretense and tries to cut a deal, often following the departing visitor through the streets of the souk and into the next scene, offering him progressively better and better deals. At Camp David, to the surprise and consternation of Israeli and American officials, Arafat offered no last-minute compromises when Barak got up to leave the table. The future of the Israeli-Palestinian track of the peace process largely hangs on whether the merchant analogy is still valid.

While the conventional wisdom in Washington and Tel Aviv remains centered around the view that Arafat's refusal to compromise stemmed from a strategy of brinkmanship, there are no indications that Arafat arrived at Camp David with any intention of backing down from his stance on East Jerusalem. In fact, he conspicuously left behind the team of experts assigned to this issue, insisting that negotiations should first focus on a third Israeli interim withdrawal from areas of the West Bank before an agreement could be reached on final status issues such as Jerusalem. Only after persistent pressure from his American hosts did he summon them to the talks, but with clear instructions to make no significant concessions.

Prior to the summit, Israel had long insisted that no part of Jerusalem would be conceded to Arafat, while holding out the possibility of yielding control of several predominantly Palestinian suburbs. In the face of Arafat's recalcitrance, Barak crossed the Rubicon with a proposal that would grant the PA 1) full sovereignty over several Arab neighborhoods on the outskirts of Jerusalem (Beit Hanina, Kalandia, and Shuafat, according to Israeli press reports); civilian and administrative autonomy over Palestinian districts inside the Old City, including the Muslim and Christian quarters, and 3) symbolic sovereignty over the Dome of the Rock and the right to display the Palestinian flag. The Israelis also offered unprecedented concessions regarding the fate of Palestinian refugees.1 Despite the unprecedented scope of these concessions, Arafat rejected the offer, even after it was repackaged as an American "bridging proposal."

The Israelis pointed out that the 1995 "document of understanding" drawn up by Yossi Beilin and Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas)2 contained similar, though far less favorable (from the Palestinian perspective) proposals regarding Jerusalem, to which Arafat replied that they should go negotiate with Abu Mazen. When PA Legislative Council Speaker Ahmad Koray (Abu Ala'a) tried to show Arafat the minutes of the secret Beilin-Abu Mazen talks in Stockholm in order to brief him on the issue of Jerusalem, Arafat angrily demanded that he put the transcripts away. He is said to have told his negotiating team: "Listen. Let me say it clearly. Jerusalem burns the living and the dead; it burns the past and the present. Even if my stand on Jerusalem leads to me being killed, let that be at the hands of a fanatical Israeli and not a Muslim Arab."3

In an effort to break the deadlock, President Clinton spoke with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, and King Abdullah of Jordan, pleading with them to call Arafat and ask him to compromise, but only the latter was willing to even pick up the phone (and there are no indications that he told Arafat to compromise). U.S. officials also tried to convince the Egyptians to send a delegate to the talks, but were rebuffed. Second-tier American allies, such as President Zine al-Abideen Ben-Ali of Tunisia, were contacted but were conspicuously unwilling to intervene.

Mubarak and Arafat
Arafat and Mubarak share a smile two days after Camp David [AP/Amr Nabil]
Arafat, it turns out, had pulled off a brilliant feat of diplomacy prior to the summit by winning commitments from Mubarak not only to back his position on Jerusalem, but to help secure the ironclad support of other Arab leaders.4 Mubarak, who had promised the Americans that he would not call an Arab summit meeting, did so discretely until the Camp David talks collapsed, after which he lobbied openly through bilateral meetings with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Libya, as well as representatives of other Arab states. White House and State Department officials were said to be fuming with outrage at Mubarak (although, technically speaking, he kept his promise). After his return from Camp David, Arafat promptly embarked on a whirlwind tour of the Middle East, stopping in nearly all of the Arab states (Syria and Iraq being the notable exceptions) to pose before the cameras with heads of state and personally receive their official declarations of support for his defiant position on Jerusalem. On August 1, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Edward Walker was dispatched on a 14-stop regional tour in a last-minute attempt to persuade its Arab allies to withdraw their support for Arafat's position, but by then it was too late.

All of this, of course, strongly suggests that the merchant analogy is invalid. If Arafat had any intention of settling for less than complete sovereignty over East Jerusalem, the last thing he would have done is push for every Arab state to officially declare its opposition to a compromise with Israel on the matter (when the Arab world speaks in unison on an issue like this, there's really no going back). While it has been suggested by some that the development of a unified Arab stance was designed to elicit a more advantageous compromise, it is difficult to imagine that Arafat is not acutely aware that Barak's proposal was as good as its going to get given the domestic constraints of Israeli public opinion. Indeed, Barak's unique dual status as protégé of Yitzhak Rabin and the most decorated soldier in Israeli history has allowed him to push beyond the parameters of public consensus to a much greater degree than any conceivable successor. It appears inevitable now that Barak's governing coalition will either collapse in the coming weeks or expand to include hardliners. Either way, Arafat seems to have passed the point of no return.

Toward September 13

In an August 1 interview with a prominent Saudi newspaper, Arafat clearly stated for the first time that he intends to declare an independent Palestinian state on September 13. "There is no retreat on the fixed timetable of the declaration of the state," said Arafat. "It will be declared on the fixed time which is September 13, God willing, regardless of those who agree or disagree."5 However, just days later a source close to the PA told MEIB that "no decision" had been reached.

Nevertheless, the PA ministry of planning has begun training twenty-five diplomatic representatives to be dispatched abroad in the event that the a state is declared. It appears that most of the Arab states are prepared to recognize a Palestinian state immediately after its establishment is announced (Egypt, in fact, has already made public its commitment to do so). Arafat also received a commitment of diplomatic recognition earlier this month from South African President Thabo Mbeki, which is likely to have a big impact on the decisions of many other Third World states. It appears, however, that most if not all European states will refrain.

Israeli sources have indicated that Barak will respond to any unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state by annexing several of the largest Israeli settlements in the West Bank and sealing off the territories to put economic pressure on Arafat (the 140,000 Palestinians who work as day laborers in Israel are the largest source of income for the PA). The Israeli military has already begun reinforcing and provisioning key outposts in the territories, as well as providing weapons and ammunition to Israeli settlers.

The Palestinians, though heavily out-manned and out-gunned by IDF, have undertaken an ambitious program to prepare for the possibility of a large-scale conflict with Israel. PA security forces (officially numbered at 22,000, but probably exceeding this) have been staging battalion-level training exercises for several months now, clearly geared toward preparation for military operations rather than police duties. According to Israeli press reports, most top PA security officers are being sent through military training courses in countries such as Egypt, Yemen, Algeria and Pakistan to prepare for a conflict. Several PA security positions have been heavily reinforced with sandbags, and even trenches.6 In addition, the PA has recently integrated all-terrain vehicles with its limited number of armored personnel carriers to create highly mobile mechanized brigades. Although PA forces are prohibited under the Oslo agreements from possessing heavy weaponry, there have been unconfirmed reports over the last few years that they have acquired anti-tank weapons.7

The main difficulty facing Palestinian security forces is the fact that Israel still controls around 60% of the West Bank and most PA-controlled towns are located on topologically inferior terrain within view of IDF observation posts. However, in any future confrontation with the Palestinians, Barak will have to weigh carefully the political implications of using tanks, artillery and air power against Palestinian forces in densely populated areas in light of the negative media publicity likely to ensue.

If a unilateral state is declared, neither Barak nor Arafat is likely to unilaterally initiate an armed conflict. It is, however, considered quite probable that Israeli settlers or armed members of militant leftist and Islamist Palestinian groups will provoke a confrontation that could easily erupt into a full-scale military crisis, leaving the near-term horizon of the peace process uncertain.

  1 The Israelis, who had previously objected to the return of even token numbers of Palestinians to Israel proper, offered a proposal whereby Israel would accept the return of "hundreds" of refugees to areas within Israel for "family reunification" and "humanitarian" reasons, while the nascent Palestinian state would be permitted to absorb the rest of the refugees and receive "international" (rather than Israeli) compensation. The proposal would also stipulate that Israel has complied with UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which provides for the right of refugees who wish to return to do so and for compensation to be paid to those who choose not to return for lost property and other assets.
  2 This was a nonbinding document drawn up by Israeli cabinet minister Yossi Beilin and PA representative Abu Mazen on November 1, 1995, intended to be a blueprint for the broad contours of a future final status agreement. On the issue of Jerusalem, the document proposes that Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif) be declared an extraterritorial zone and that the Arab neighborhoods on its outskirts (but not within the city) be transferred to Palestinian control. Although Beilin and Abu Mazen strongly endorsed the document, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres objected to several specific proposals in it, while Arafat was noncommittal. See Ha'aretz, 22 February 1996.
  3 Al-Hayat 28 July 2000.
  4 Al-Hayat 28 July 2000.
  5 Saudi Gazette (Riyadh), 1 August 2000
  6 See Ha'aretz, 10 July 2000, Ha'aretz, 12 July 2000.
  7 see Jane's Defence Weekly, 2 July 1997 and 15 July 1998.

2000 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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