Al-Ahram Weekly – 15 May 2003
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s mission since the collapse of the negotiations he led his country into at Camp David and Taba has been to reveal one, and one lesson only, to the world. “I am the person who exposed Yasser Arafat’s true face,” he has repeatedly said. Last summer, raking over the coals of the Intifada for the umpteenth time, he told the Haaretz newspaper: “Even when the results were not desirable, that does not mean we failed, it means that this is the reality in which we live. I clarified the reality in which we live.”
It was a message his own public bought without hesitation, as did many in the international community. The “revelation” that the Palestinians were never serious about making peace with the Jewish state created a new mood of militancy in Israel and, paradoxically, led to Barak’s rejection at the ballot box. He was perceived as too compromising to handle a war with such an intransigent enemy. Instead Barak completed the political rehabilitation of Ariel Sharon, and with it the destruction of the Oslo peace process and its bastard offspring the Palestinian Authority.
Tanya Reinhart, professor of linguistics at Tel Aviv University and a provocative columnist for Israel’s largest newspaper, Yediot Aharanot, has produced a daring reconstruction of this recent period of Israeli history through a detailed analysis of media reports from the time. Although all the information Reinhart draws on is in the public domain, she develops a chilling narrative of an Israeli military- political establishment driven by a dangerously warped logic and consistently successful in deceiving both its own public and the international community.
For Israel’s supporters, the book can be lightly dismissed as paranoid conspiracy theory; for others, it may cast an illuminating light on Israel’s stubborn refusal to engage in serious negotiations with the Palestinians. Reinhart’s premise is that Israel’s most senior military men, including Barak, Sharon and the former and current chiefs of staff Shaul Mofaz and Moshe Yaalon, were not only opposed to the Oslo process, for which there is much evidence, but that they actively conspired in its demise. They regarded as a grave mistake the Oslo political vision, that the Palestinians could be denied a state by endlessly dragging out negotiations, by arguing over every subclause of every agreement.
Barak and others feared that if left in place Arafat and his Palestinian Authority would over time gain legitimacy as the rulers of the occupied territories. Unravelling Oslo and returning the territories to military rule was the only certain way to stop the Palestinians regaining their land and establishing a state. The question was how to do it.
Reinhart argues that there were two views in the military. One, favoured by Sharon, believed that a brutal assault on the territories and continual bloodshed would first subdue the Palestinians and then encourage the much- oppressed population to leave. The other, represented by Barak, viewed Sharon’s plan as too transparent: it would alienate the international community and be rejected by Israelis who had lost the stomach for war. Barak wanted instead to turn the world, and the Israeli public, against the Palestinians, and the Oslo process. Only then could Israel dismantle the Palestinian Authority and regain control of the territories. As it turned out, says Reinhart, Barak succeeded in the first part of the plan but lost the election before he could implement the second.
The electorate had taken his own duplicitous peacemongering publicity at Camp David and Taba at face value. But the demise of Oslo happened anyway. With the February 2001 election between Barak and Sharon — two generals equally committed to destroying the vestiges of Palestinian nationhood — Israel was on a pre-set course to a military solution. Barak had simply set the stage for Sharon to carry out his own savage version of the reinvasion of the territories. It goes without saying that Barak’s generous offers at Camp David, on Reinhart’s interpretation, were a sham. They were a trap laid by Barak for Arafat.
Camp David and the later Taba negotiations were pre-ordained failures: their sole purpose was to convince Israelis and the wider world that Israel had no choice but to seek a military solution to its conflict with the Palestinians. The Intifada was not chosen by the Palestinians; it was engineered by the politician generals. It is not clear, however, from this account whether non-military politicians like Yossi Beilin and Shlomo Ben Ami, both of whom were actively involved in the negotiations, were aware of Barak’s true intentions. If they were, why did they help him effectively kill the Oslo process they were committed to, and why have they kept quiet subsequently? If they were not, how was Barak able to keep them so completely in the dark? These questions are not addressed.
Another problem, though one Reinhart does address, is how to persuade the reader that Barak the negotiator was not the peacenik of common perception but a cynical warmonger ready to bypass the democratic process? Looking into the soul of anyone is no easy task but Reinhart, like many other Israeli observers, is sure profound flaws can be detected running through Barak’s character. A key piece of evidence is a private letter sent by Barak in March 1982 to his military mentor, the then Defence Minister Sharon, during preparations for the invasion of Lebanon. In it Barak, then an ambitious major- general, suggests engineering a “terrorist attack” on the northern border to justify a “comprehensive strike against the Syrians”, dragging Damascus into a full-scale war and giving Israel the chance to crush the Syrian army.
Barak admits there is no consensus for such an operation and so recommends keeping the Israeli public, the army and Washington in the dark. Initially it would be “enough for five or six officers to know the full extent of the plan”. He also suggests that given the sensitive nature of his proposals it might be difficult to discuss the operation explicitly “even within the political echelon”. Unlike most Israelis who interpreted the letter, after it was leaked years later to Haaretz, as a youthful folly, Reinhart fears that it represents something rooted much deeper in the psyche of Barak and other senior officers. Though perceived as a political polar opposite to Sharon, Barak, she says, shares with him a vision that the land conquered by Israel in 1967 should never be given up, whether in the Golan Heights, the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. Both subscribe to the core Zionist idea of “redeeming the land” by bringing it into Jewish possession, a view they trace back to the military founders of Israel (hence the book’s title).
Reinhart observes: “Barak, Sharon’s disciple and former subordinate, was mentored on this vision. In 1993 as the army’s chief of staff, Barak, like Sharon, was a vocal opponent of the Oslo agreements. But Barak also understood that this vision could no longer be achieved in Sharon’s way. One of the lessons of Sharon’s war in Lebanon was that it was no longer possible to drag the Israeli people into wars of choice.
“Did Barak renounce Sharon’s vision, or did he simply decide that another strategy needed to be found to fulfil it?” (p82). The answer, she says, can be found in the way Barak handled the two peace initiatives he launched after his election in 1999. Both were similarly prompted by his decision to abandon Rabin’s strategy of endless procrastination with Syria and the Palestinians. The strategies were running out of steam in any case. The Syrian leadership, promised the return of the Golan Heights if it proved it could control Hizbullah in Lebanon, had tired of Israel’s games; and it was starting to dawn on the Palestinians that Israel would never fulfil its side of the Oslo deals. So Barak devised bogus “end of conflict” negotiations with both groups.
The goal was to appear committed to a final peace and ready to make big concessions; the reality was that both processes were doomed from the outset. In each case Barak was playing to the gallery. Israel would be able to bask in the glow of international approval for its willingness to bring peace. And with that approval, it could then wage war. Rheinhart suspects that even Barak’s pullback from Lebanon was factored in: after withdrawing, a terrorist incident of the type described in Barak’s letter to Sharon could be engineered to justify a dual strike against Syria and Lebanon. Only Syrian President Hafez Al- Assad’s death a few weeks after the withdrawal scuppered the plan.
Certainly it is hard to explain Barak’s behaviour towards the Syrians at the Shepherdstown negotiations. Embarrassing documents were leaked, ambiguities were introduced into the negotiations, and all the while Israel offered financial benefits to developers to expand the settlements in the Golan Heights. When Assad finally stormed out of the negotiations he was universally portrayed as the inflexible party, rejecting Israel’s generous initiatives. Precisely the same fate was later to befall Arafat.
And it is in Reinhart’s devastating critique of the Camp David negotiations that the book gains its backbone. Here lies the core of her case against Barak. She analyses each of his offers in turn before exploding the myth of their “generosity”. Barak’s starting point at Camp David was a plan agreed by Yossi Beilin and Abu-Mazen in 1995, shortly before Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin’s assassination, that offered the Palestinians minimal sovereignty over Gaza and an enclave-ridden West Bank. Barak wanted to make the plan’s already dismal terms even less appealing to the Palestinians and introduce a wholly new demand: that in return for Israel agreeing to most of the 1995 plan, Arafat would make a “final agreement” and declare an “end of conflict”. In effect, the Palestinian leader was expected to renounce his people’s historic rights as enshrined in a series of UN resolutions in return for limited sovereignty over a pseudo-state.
So what were the terms? On the question of settlements, Barak demanded not only that the largest blocks be annexed to Israel along with 150,000 settlers but also areas between the blocks, which included some 120,000 Palestinians. These Palestinians were to be denied any citizenship rights. On the issue of Jerusalem, Barak used a verbal sleight of hand. The Palestinians were offered sovereignty over Al-Quds (the Arabic name for Jerusalem), which would become the capital of their new state. The only problem was that the generous offer was founded on a straightforward lie: Israeli negotiators decreed that a village some distance from Jerusalem called Abu Dis would be renamed “Al-Quds” and the capital be established there. In the real Jerusalem, the Palestinians would have only “autonomous control” over their own areas, in effect management of municipal affairs.
Another supposed “generous offer” was the handing over of some 90 per cent of the West Bank to the Palestinians. Again Reinhart examines the verbal trickery in this formulation. In fact, because Israel insisted on a large proportion of the settlers remaining in the West Bank, the negotiators demanded that these areas be designated off-limits to the new Palestinian government and kept under Israeli military control. The Palestinians were offered a state comprising 90 per cent of the West Bank but they were allowed sovereignty over only 50 per cent of its land. Israel would annex 10 per cent and the remaining 40 per cent, confiscated and controlled by the army, would be only nominally Palestinian. This, far from improving their position, set in stone the situation the Palestinians found themselves in as they entered the negotiations.
It is even harder to characterise Barak’s proposals as generous in relation to the right of return of Palestinian refugees. Israel agreed to take only a few thousand, mainly elderly refugees. Otherwise, it was supposed to fall to the international community to solve the problem. Although Israel agreed to allow refugees to return to the future Palestinian state, in practice it is doubtful, says Rheinhart, that this could have been realised as Israel insisted on supervision of the new state’s borders. Of course, these terms were never meant to be accepted. Barak knew Arafat could not sell them to his people or the Arab states. The goal was to persuade the West that Arafat was the villain of the piece. This Barak and President Clinton did with gusto.
The most revealing evidence of Barak’s bad faith, argues Rheinhart, can be found in his treatment of the Temple Mount issue. In modern Judaism the Mount had had only a symbolic significance, apart from for a few extremist Jews. Its return to a central place in Jewish life had to await the arrival of the Messiah. But, according to Reinhart, Barak was determined to make the Mount the key stumbling block, with him and his foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami declaring it “the holy of holies”. Even though Israel was to have total sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Old City (with only local municipal control going to the Palestinians), Barak turned the symbolic issue of Temple Mount into an insurmountable hurdle in the negotiations.
In September 2000, in the aftermath of Camp David, Barak was able to heighten tensions still further over Temple Mount and light the touchpaper of the Intifada. Against the warnings of the Palestinian leadership and his own advisers he approved an incendiary visit there by Sharon backed by some 1,000 policemen. When, predictably, the Palestinians protested, Barak approved his security forces firing live ammunition into the crowd.
Reinhart’s conclusions are depressing. Despite surveys showing that the Israeli public wants peace, the military and politicians are stuck in a mindset that offers only two unappealing alternatives: continuing the destruction of the institutions of the Palestinian people to encourage them to leave the territories (the military and rightwing’s plan); or a return to the path of endless negotiations represented by Olso (the left’s plan). The Palestinians’ future, it appears, rests with apartheid or transfer.