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Myths of the Intifada

Yasser Arafat has propagated three myths about the deals he turned down. Now Dennis Ross has set the record straight.

12:00 AM, Apr 25, 2002 • By FRED BARNES
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PALESTINIAN and other apologists for Yasser Arafat have propagated three myths about his failure to reach peace with Israel. And only now--two years after Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed because of Arafat's intransigence--is the truth becoming known. This is mostly thanks to Dennis Ross, the Middle East negotiator for both the first Bush administration and President Clinton.

The first myth is that the final deal offered to Arafat would have created a new Palestinian state fragmented into four "cantons" on the West Bank, each surrounded by Israeli territory, none connected to Gaza. It was understandably unacceptable to the Palestinians. The second is that Arafat actually accepted a later, more generous peace settlement, only to have it nullified by the election of Ariel Sharon as Israeli prime minister in February 2001. And the third is that this final offer, an official United States proposal made by Clinton, was never put on paper, making it a matter not to be taken seriously, then or now. (Yes, the myths conflict. Arafat is said to have turned down one final deal but accepted another, later, final offer.)

Myth number one has an element of truth. Indeed, the terms of the peace settlement offered by then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak at Camp David in July 2000 involved four separate clusters of territory on the West Bank and no land link to Gaza. Arafat said no and didn't make a counteroffer. Instead, in September, he started a violent new intifada, or insurrection, against Israel. But the myth, persistently voiced by such Arafat sympathizers as James Zogby of the Arab American Institute and the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, is that this was the final peace proposal. It wasn't.

Following the Camp David summit, Arafat asked for another meeting, according to Ross, and was told he would need to be prepared to accept a deal before a new summit would be set up. So Arafat "agreed to set up a private channel between his people and the Israelis," Ross told Brit Hume on "Fox News Sunday" on April 21. Arafat knew the United States was "poised to present our ideas" when he ordered a new intifada. The United States asked Arafat to prevent violence from erupting after Sharon's provocative visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and he said he would. "He didn't lift a finger," Ross said.

In December 2000, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were brought to Washington. And on December 23, President Clinton presented a new plan to them. The Palestinians would get 97 percent of the West Bank, Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem would become the capital of the new Palestinian state, refugees would be allowed to return to Palestine but not Israel, and a $30 billion fund would be established to compensate refugees. This was the final offer: The cantons were gone and a land link to Gaza was included.

And that leads into myth two, that Arafat accepted the fresh and far more generous proposal. True, he said yes when he met with Clinton on January 2, 2001, in the Oval Office. "Then he added reservations that basically meant he rejected every single one of the things he was supposed to give," Ross said. He rejected the idea Israelis would have sovereignty over the Western Wall in Jerusalem and other religious sites. He rejected the scheme for refugees and what Ross called "the basic ideas on security . . . So every single one of the ideas that was asked of him, he rejected." How can Ross be so sure of that? He was in the room with Clinton and Arafat when it happened.

As for myth three, Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi and others have dismissed the U.S. offer, which the Israelis under Barak were willing to accept, as so inconsequential it wasn't even written down and publicly announced. But by late 2000, Ross said, Americans had learned Arafat's negotiating style. Any formal offer would be taken as the floor for further negotiations requiring more Israeli concessions. But with the Clinton administration soon to leave office, there wasn't time to allow Arafat to prolong talks. "We wanted them to understand we meant what we said," Ross said. "You don't accept it, it's not for negotiation, this is the end of it, we withdraw it . . . It couldn't be the floor for negotiations. It was the roof." So for Arafat, it was take it or leave it. He left it, and soon the negotiating environment changed with the election of Sharon and George W. Bush.

In truth, the offer was written down when it was initially presented by Clinton in December. "He went over it at dictation speed," Ross said. After Clinton left the meeting, Ross stayed behind to make certain the Palestinian negotiators had gotten "every single word." They had. A footnote: Ross insists the Palestinian negotiators were ready to accept the offer. They "understood this was the best they were ever going to get. They wanted [Arafat] to accept it." He refused. Why? Ross believes Arafat simply doesn't want to end the conflict with Israel. His career is governed by struggle and leaving his options open. "For him to end the conflict is to end himself," Ross said.

What's important about the history of peace talks in the Middle East is what it tells us about Arafat. The inescapable conclusion is that he will never reach a settlement with Israelis leading to two countries, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace. The Israelis? An honest recounting of the Clinton-led peace talks shows they were willing, though hardly eager, to make substantial concessions to reach a settlement. Had Arafat gone along, Ross believes Barak could have sold the deal to the Israeli people, even as Palestinian terrorism continued and Sharon's election victory loomed. Maybe so, but that was a moment in time that, because of Arafat, has now passed away.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.