At Thursday night’s Democratic debate, presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders shared their wildly different views concerning American relations with Israel and Palestine. Two questions highlighted the hawkish candidate and the one who is even-handed. The first question to Sanders asked: “What do you say to those who believe that Israel has a right to defend itself as it sees fit?”, and the second to Clinton: “Do you agree with Senator Sanders that Israel overreacts to Palestinians attacks, and that in order for there to be peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel must, quote, end its disproportionate responses?”
Clinton’s response simply fell short of being true. At one point, during a performance of Israeli rightwing talking points, she said: “If Yasser Arafat had agreed with my husband at Camp David in the late 1990s to the offer then Prime Minister Barak put on the table, we would have had a Palestinian state for 15 years.”
To understand just how plainly false is the idea these words suggest, that Arafat and Palestinians turned down an “unprecedented” and “generous” Israeli offer, it is important to revisit coverage and first hand accounts of the failed Summit. Most importantly, that Clinton would propagate such an understanding gives a hint of where her presidency is likely to stand on the issue, if she wins.
According to an account coauthored by Robert Malley, now a senior adviser in the National Security Council, then a Special Assistant for Arab-Israeli affairs to President Bill Clinton from 1998 to 2001 and a member of the American peace team at Camp David: “[T]he ideas put forward at Camp David were never stated in writing, but orally conveyed.”
This is to say, no formal presentation of an offer by the Israeli side was presented to Palestine, be it generous, unprecedented, or otherwise. There were just no formal presentations — and it’s the drawing boards and the paperwork that make or break peace summits, not fluffy talk and hot air.
In any case, what were those ideas? And what was missing from them?
- Large parts of East Jerusalem would remain under Israel sovereignty.
- The discussion of land-swaps, based on a 9-1 ratio favorable to the Israeli side, fell short of committing to Palestinian contiguity and development needs, let alone of accounting for the extreme difficulty Arafat would have had in selling this unbalanced arrangement to his people.
- Palestine was not guaranteed freedom of movement, nor control of its own airspace and territorial waters
- The negotiations were effectively silent on Palestinian refugees.
As Omar Dajani, Amjad Atallah and Nisreen Haj-Ahmad — legal advisors to the Palestinian Negotiation Support Unit — put it during a 6 April 2001 briefing for the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine in Washington D.C. amidst the initial months of the Second Intifada:
“Palestinians want viability, independence, and choice, all of which were missing from Barak’s proposals.”
An edited partial transcript of the briefing, available on Electronic Intifada, along with other commentary on the failure of Camp David notes:
According to Dajani, viability involves “development potential and [territorial] contiguity.” This would result in more “predictability,” allowing Palestinians to make arrangements for travel and the transfer of goods without worrying about checkpoints and closures. This element of predictability has been absent under occupation, resulting in a “tremendous psychological” and “economic cost.” Barak’s offer disregarded these concerns. It would have led to Palestinian islands in East Jerusalem within a “sea” of Israeli settlements and Israeli annexation of land all the way to Jordan. The Palestinians’ shortage of water resources and agricultural land was neglected by Barak’s proposals. Annexation of “large swaths of the territory” over the Western Aquifer would increase Israel’s proportion of water under international law, thus reducing the Palestinians’. This aquifer primarily lies under West Bank land and is the “best” and “most abundant” Palestinian water source. As for their agricultural needs, the only area left for development is the Jordan Valley, which Israel sought to keep under long-term lease.
On the topic of independence, the Palestinians asked Israel to “cede overriding authority” over air, water, and other key issues, to them. Israel was willing to recognize Palestinian “sovereignty” in these areas, but wanted to maintain overriding control.
On Dajani’s third point, he said the “dominant feature” of refugee life has been “an absence of choice.” Some refugees may choose to stay in Jordan, some may choose third country resettlement, some may move to the Palestinian state, and some may wish to return to their homes in what is now Israel, but he argued they must have a choice.
Amjad Atallah then discussed how the current crisis arose. The first Intifada ended not because the Declaration of Principles (DOP) was signed, but because of the promise that within five years, final status issues would be settled, there would be Palestinian statehood, and the situation would gradually improve along the way. Yet the “opposite” has occurred. For example, Palestinians were led to believe that settlement building would cease or at least lessen, but the settlement population doubled since Oslo.
The “Israeli presence and the occupation” intensified. Settlements and settlement roads “bisected” the West Bank into dozens of sections. There is “less freedom of movement” now than before the signing of the Declaration of Principles. Add to this Israel’s decision to “wean” itself from Palestinian labor, and “you have an economy that [was] collapsing” even before the Intifada. The current closures are “the nails in the coffin of the economy.”
In addition, Israel has ignored interim agreements-the release of Palestinian prisoners and the third stage of redeployment have not occurred. By two and a half years ago, Israel should have withdrawn from 90 percent of the West Bank. Instead, the PA controls just 18 percent of it.
Some have asked Atallah: But why now? Atallah’s answer is this: The deal at Camp David was put forward as a “take it or leave it” offer. As a result, the Palestinians on the street believed that this deal was the final offer–it was the best they would get. They believed the peace process was over. Then came Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Haram al-Sharif with “over 1,000 [members of the] Israeli occupation forces” and Israel’s use of live ammunition against Palestinian protesters the next day. The Intifada erupted in response.”
Robert Wright, an award winning journalist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation, concluded in a piece published in April of 2002 that:
“these negotiations don’t justify what they’re now being used to justify: the claim that the Palestinians will never accept a two-state solution, so Ariel Sharon’s search-and-destroy policy is the only option Israel has left.”
Today, as we have watched numerous parts of Israel’s ideas at the Summit take shape in reality and all along without regard for Palestine, watched previous agreements yet to be fulfilled, let alone subject to international law, we can reach a similar conclusion concerning Clinton’s propaganda: neither Arafat nor Barak were perfect. But, for Clinton to suggest that a failure dating back to 15 years ago justifies Israel’s criminal behavior, its occupation, and much more recent disproportionate disasters is not only false, but also politically and ethically untenable as tectonic shifts on these issues continue to take hold across the country.
Several other statements by Clinton invite scrutiny:
“…but even the most independent analyst will say the way that Hamas places its weapons, the way that it often has its fighters in civilian garb…”
“…remember, Israel left Gaza. They took out all the Israelis. They turned the keys over to the Palestinian people. And what happened? Hamas took over Gaza. So instead of having a thriving economy with the kind of opportunities that the children of the Palestinians deserve, we have a terrorist haven that is getting more and more rockets shipped in from Iran and elsewhere…”
“… and I was absolutely focused on what was fair and right for the Palestinians. I was absolutely focused on what we needed to do to make sure that the Palestinian people had the right to self-government…”