Home / Articles / The Middle East: Clarifying Acts of Violence
Horror and surprise have characterized recent events in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Thanks to CNN, the horror entered living rooms worldwide— notably the scenes of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy killed in a crossfire, two Israeli soldiers lynched by a mob, and, closer to American hearts, the death of seventeen U.S. sailors when a suicide blast disabled the USS Cole in Aden harbor. The surprise was equally widespread, for the violence came after seven years of ardent Arab-Israeli peacemaking and only two months after the Camp David summit under U.S. auspices. It was as if the entire structure of the “peace process” contained some inner flaw that required only pressure on the right point to collapse it.
These “clarifying acts of violence” promised the birth of a Palestinian state without Israeli or American agreement, and a traumatic future for a region awakened by the hope of peace ever since the end of the Gulf War. At the very least, the crisis has seriously diminished the American mediating role and at the very worst, threatens large-scale Arab-Israeli conflict. How could this have happened?
The Three-Bluff Summit
The immediate diplomatic backdrop to the violence was the Camp David Summit of July 12-26, 2000. Unlike most such meetings, the parties had not reached agreement beforehand on a minimum achievement. Instead, each participant brought his own bluff: Clinton, that he was the best possible mediator of an agreement because he wanted the legacy and he had a budget surplus; Barak, that he was the best possible Israeli prime minister, prepared to take great risks to reach an agreement, which was the only way for him to fight an impending election because he had lost his Knesset majority; Arafat, that the other two needed his consent and, failing that, he could blow the whole process up by declaring a state unilaterally on September 13, the deadline he and Barak had agreed upon for a final-status agreement the year before. Of the three, Barak, in the worst political shape, wanted the meeting the most, and Arafat the least, a point he made to Secretary of State Albright on June 28.
When the leaders emerged exhausted from their ordeal on the mountaintop, each of the bluffs had been called. Barak had gone far, but not far enough for Arafat, and Clinton had not been able to bridge the gaps. While the discussions remain largely secret, there was apparently some movement by both sides: on security, the Palestinians seemed agreeable to an Israeli military (but not civilian) presence in the Jordan Valley, although not on a long-term basis. On territory and settlements, the Israelis seemed agreeable to giving the Palestinians areas near Gaza in exchange for a border that would encompass 80% of the existing Israeli settlements that lay beyond the pre-1967 line. These details largely preserved the Palestinian insistence on Israel’s return to the pre-1967 lines, the Israeli insistence that they would not, and the American position that UN Security Council Resolution 242 allowed for “minor changes” in the interest of a secure peace.
On refugee issues, the parties agreed on a compensation fund. The Israelis rejected the “right of return” to pre-1967 Israel but accepted that a small number might be accepted in the name of family reunification. The Palestinians insisted on the “right of return” but argued that few refugees would do so.
That left Jerusalem. Abdullah, King of Jordan, had advised before the summit that the city should not be tackled, in line with the old diplomatic wisdom that all other issues should be decided before this one, because of its volatile blend of politics and religion. But neither Barak nor Arafat would do a deal omitting Jerusalem. For Barak, this would leave the conflict unsettled, defeating his main objective.
As for Arafat, he was determined to press claims that would earn him the broadest Muslim support. Denying that the Jewish temples had ever been on the Haram es Sharif or Noble Sanctuary, as the Muslims call the Temple Mount, the Palestinian leader effectively foreclosed any compromise based on religious rights. He would offer the traditional formula: Muslim control of the city, with the Jews allowed their own Quarter and access to the Wailing Wall, as befitted the Dhimmi, the non-Muslim but protected religious minorities — a position offensive even to a secular Zionist. Barak had thus encountered a Palestinian stance insistent on the two most neuralgic issues: the Palestinian Right of Return, which, if exercised, could end the Jewish majority; and Muslim sovereignty over Jerusalem, which was the equivalent of taking Zion out of Zionism.
Arafat left the summit to the acclaim of his people for having resisted both Israel and the U.S. In contrast, Barak returned to an uproar: he had apparently been willing to breach some of his own self-declared red lines, including a division of authority if not sovereignty in the Old City, but had received no comparable offer from Arafat. Most serious of all, however, was the stark reality that the American president had convened the summit yet failed to broker even a minimal agreement. For a diplomatic process that had always counted on Washington’s ability to move the parties forward this was a signal defeat. If Arafat and Barak could not agree themselves, and could not be brought to agree by Clinton, then the ultimate stalemate had been reached. There was no obvious way out.
Clearly angry at Arafat, Clinton fingered him as the obstacle, threatening a reassessment of U.S. relations with the Palestinian Authority and the long-delayed movement of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Anger soon became anxiety over the loss of America’s mediating role, and the White House retreated into a call for more diplomacy. Clinton tried again with Arafat and Barak at the Millennium UN Summit on September 6 and later that month, low-level negotiating teams talked in Arlington, Virginia. National Security Advisor Samuel Berger was the most inventive: “The good news” he said on September 8, “is that it is no longer just an iceberg, it’s a hundred pieces of ice. Can this be reassembled into something like a bridge? I don’t know.” But Clinton’s public blaming of Arafat, and the extent of Barak’s concessions also called the Palestinian bluff about September 13. A quick globe trot convinced Arafat that he could not get much international support for a unilateral declaration of independence. On September 10, the Palestinian parliament voted to delay.
Arafat had been caught in this kind of a bind once before, in the summer of 1996, when newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had made the case successfully in Washington, Cairo, and Amman that Israel could remain committed to Oslo only if Arafat did more to fight terrorism. But Netanyahu was slow to engage Arafat in serious negotiations and, amid impending stalemate, on September 24 the Israelis opened the exit to an archeological tunnel along the Western Wall. Arafat’s Palestinian Authority then led massive and violent protests over the purported threat to Al Aqsa mosque, during which PA police killed fifteen Israeli soldiers. A stunned Netanyahu embraced Arafat at the White House; the Palestinian leader thereafter became a welcome guest, eventually seeing Clinton a dozen times over the course of his presidency, more often than any other foreign guest. Jerusalem was thus a card Arafat had played before to good effect. This time, instead of a tunnel dig, he got the sudden visit of the leader of the opposition, Netanyahu’s last foreign minister, General Ariel Sharon, to the Temple Mount on September 28, 2000, the very day the Israeli and Palestinian delegations ended their talks in Virginia.
Sharon’s motive was to demonstrate Israel’s hold on the Mount. His timing was apparently a function of his political rival Netanyahu’s release from the threat of legal action on charges of bribery and Barak’s acknowledgment the day before that there would be two capitals in Jerusalem. Politically vulnerable, the Israeli leader would not heed Palestinian warnings about the hated Sharon, along with their implied veto on Israeli visitation rights.
Sharon’s hour-long tour of the area, under the watchful escort of hundreds of police, was immediately followed by protests, but the most violent episode, including stones hurled at the Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall, occurred on Friday afternoon, the 28th, following an incendiary sermon at the mosque. Six Palestinians were killed and hundreds injured when the police cleared the plaza. According to the Palestinian version, Sharon’s “invasion” of the Haram and then Israel’s deadly use of force against the “peaceful protestors” called forth the “Al Aqsa Intifada.” According to the Israelis, Arafat used the visit as an “excuse” to launch well-organized violence, the planning for which was “evident” during the summer when a September 13 confrontation over Palestinian independence seemed possible.
The Palestinian protests, while expressing a genuine outrage and pent-up frustration, often reflected careful organization. Large crowds of civilians, many of them young boys, moved toward Israeli army checkpoints or settlements, throwing rocks and fire bombs. There were also snipers. These were often members of the Tanzim, a paramilitary under the control of Arafat’s own political party, the Fatah, and they were armed in violation of the Oslo Accords. The resulting crossfires were bound to create civilian casualties and during one such clash, the Israelis killed 12-year-old Mohammed Aldura, who became the poster boy for the new intifada. Throughout, Arafat remained remote, often not even in the country, while the PA and the Tanzim clearly encouraged the violence.
On October 2, a new front opened when Israeli Arabs rioted, many adopting the slogan of the PA, and disrupted major highways leading north. Long angry over what they regarded as second-class status within Israel, many in the crowds now shouted for the end of the state and death to the Jews. The police killed eight. This episode shocked the Israeli government and dealt another devastating blow to the political left, many of whom had also seen in the peace process a way to mend relations with the Arab minority.
Fingers in the Dike: Egypt to the Rescue
The Aqsa Intifada “sanctified” Arafat’s political struggle, magnifying his international support and allowing him to join forces with his rivals, the Islamic Hamas. As part of the new unity, the PA released many jailed Hamas activists, who promptly threatened a wave of terrorism against Israel. Arafat’s complicity in the violence was a further blow to Barak, who had hosted him at a private dinner only days before the explosion, as part of a new effort to repair personal relations. Barak looked the fool: he had now been treated as if he were his Likud predecessor. Clinton, too, had seen his long cultivation of the Palestinian leader turn into nothing. Initially, however, both the Israeli and American leaders behaved as if this new test of strength was still within the framework of negotiations, and that if only the violence could be halted, the search for a solution would regain momentum.
It took two weeks of effort to dislodge the notion that a cease-fire could be obtained. On October 4 in Paris, amid stormy scenes, Albright could not obtain Arafat’s signature to an agreement, but both sides issued “stand down” orders. Two days later, the Israelis allowed Palestinian police to control the entrance to the Temple Mount and, on October 7, withdrew from the embattled Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, but these moves did not prevent either a riot in the Old City or the sacking of the tomb. Barak was further embarrassed when the U.S. abstained from a UN resolution condemning Israel for excessive use of force and Hezbollah abducted three Israeli soldiers from a stretch of the Lebanese border— despite the presence of UN forces nearby. Barak’s reaction was to threaten a 48-hour ultimatum— that would culminate in harsher military action and a unity government that would include Sharon— but he was put off of his deadline by U.S. and UN diplomatic intervention.
On the 12th, however, the media had a new horror to take its place alongside Mohammed Aldura’s death. Two Israeli reservists, captured by the Palestinian police after taking a wrong turn, were lynched and mutilated by a mob at a Ramallah police station. After due warning Barak launched missile attacks on selected police targets in Area “A,” that part of the West Bank and Gaza entirely under the control of the Palestinian Authority and heretofore untouched.
This escalation seems to have galvanized Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. He had incurred Clinton’s anger for supporting Arafat’s position on Jerusalem during the Camp David summit, and had in turn been angered when the Americans went to Paris for their cease-fire effort rather than to Sharm el Sheikh under his auspices. Egyptian demonstrations in Cairo against Israel had turned ugly. Now Mubarak feared that the emergency Arab League meeting scheduled for October 21st might pressure Egypt to take actions against Israel that he did not want to take. He, rather than Arafat, had to get control of the diplomatic tide if Egypt’s interests were to be served. Mubarak therefore reversed his opposition to any more summits after the Paris fiasco and on October 16, brought Arafat, Barak, and Clinton to the Sharm el Sheikh resort.
Sharm, U.S. Mediation, and the Arab League
That same day, Marwan Barghouti, the head of the Tanzim and by all accounts Arafat’s confidante, told the New York Times that the “real reason [for the violence was] the disappointment of the Palestinian public in the peace process and continuation of the occupation.” At Sharm, it became clear that a simple cease-fire was only part of a larger tactic: the “Al Aqsa Intifada” and the “independence intifada” were Arafat’s way of channeling the violence into attainment of his objective, an independent state with international support but no end to the conflict except on terms Israel could never accept. Clinton, who only two months before had been cajoling the parties to compromise on Jerusalem, was now reduced to announcing that Arafat and Barak would each call for an end to the violence, that he would chair a “fact finding” study into its causes, and that the parties would seek a way back to negotiations.
None of the parties liked the Sharm transaction. Arafat had wanted an international commission under UN auspices not only to condemn the Israelis but perhaps, as the UN had done in 1947-48, to reach a “partition” resolution— no doubt under more favorable terms than those offered by Barak or advocated by the United States. Barak, in turn, was persuaded to accept a “study” that included U.S. consultation with Kofi Annan and the European Union and also to agree that negotiations under the old framework might continue. This last provision barred easy entry by the Likud opposition into an “emergency” national unity government because Sharon could not bring his party along unless the Camp David concessions were shelved.
Still, this unsigned barely acknowledged agreement was enough for Mubarak. The harsh, threatening words of the subsequent Arab summit in Cairo (including a call for war crimes trials) were still couched within the framework of peace negotiations and did not require Egypt to take any specific action. Thus, the “firebreak” held. Arafat would get sympathy, some money (or the promise of it), and breaking of ties between some Arab states (notably Morocco) and Israel but no guns and no threats of war. Mubarak still affirmed Sadat’s decision not to put Egypt into a military confrontation with Israel over the Palestinian cause, at least not yet.
Clarifying Acts of Violence
Both sides seem now to be settling in for a fundamental test of strength. Lost is the notion that either the Madrid formula of American supervised talks or the Oslo formula of direct (and secret) understandings between Israel and Arafat’s PLO will resolve the conflict. Instead there is a deepening crisis punctuated by rounds of violence that have already cost both sides heavily. (147 have been killed, among them 10 Israeli Jews and 13 Israeli Arabs, and thousands injured— most of them Palestinians.)
Despite its best efforts, the United States will find itself increasingly at odds with its Arab friends. This is a direct consequence of Arafat’s decisions to “go for broke.” Certainly after the Camp David summit but perhaps as long ago as 1997-98 (critics of Oslo would argue even earlier) the Palestinian leader apparently concluded that he would never get his conditions — Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, including Palestinian control of East Jerusalem (and the Old City) — under American-mediated diplomacy. No Israeli prime minister is ready to offer such an outcome. And Arafat himself has certainly been unwilling, even under heavy American pressure, to make the compromise on those points that would also “end the conflict.” In this sense, the Palestinian resembles his arch foe, the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, who would likewise accept no less than Sadat (i.e., full withdrawal to the 1967 lines). As for what he, Arafat, would give, his terms for ending the conflict meant to the Israelis no real end at all, especially on the refugee issue and Jerusalem.
The violence has thus clarified Arafat’s position following Camp David. He prefers to be the father of the Palestinian state rather than a partner for peace with Israel. The only question is whether he can get the state without Israeli agreement.
The answer may very well depend on the United States, for the violence has also clarified the American role. U.S. mediation depends on leaders who want to deal and can deliver despite political sacrifices. Barak was prepared to sacrifice, although it was not clear whether he could deliver. Arafat, to judge by comments he made at Camp David, thinks additional sacrifice on his part would be fatal. He has always preferred the political benefits of martyrdom without having to undergo the rigors of the actual experience. Since September 28, he has again reaped those benefits. A compromise peace might bring him the actual experience.
The United States thus faces the loss of both the mechanism and the Palestinian partner to conduct the diplomacy that might resolve the conflict. In this ferocious stalemate, each side is awaiting the other’s move. The Palestinians will try to bring the war closer to Israeli homes in the hopes of provoking heavier Israeli force and the accession of Sharon to the government, which would give Arafat an excuse to declare independence. The Israelis will attempt to counter the violence by exacting a higher toll on Arafat’s Tanzim and police while Barak and Sharon live apart for a while longer, hoping that Arafat will declare independence and thereby justify a unity government. Both sides will try to assess the outcome of the U.S. elections; thus far, both Bush and Gore have indicated that the Palestinians will not get a better deal from them.
This is a very dangerous game. If it goes on long enough, the “firebreak” — Egypt’s resolve to stay out of a confrontation with Israel— will surely come under renewed pressure. Should Cairo (or Amman or Riyadh) decide that once more a crisis should be risked with Israel on behalf of the Palestinians, then the Middle East would be pitched back into the perilous conditions that gave rise to the 1967 war. That is the worst case.
Big trouble could also come from the north. An inexperienced Syrian leader might be drawn by Hezbollah and Iran into a military smash with Israel. Barak, whose unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in conformity with UN resolutions is attributed by many Arabs to Hezbollah’s guerrilla tactics, cannot afford to put Israel’s northern communities under new risks.
A troubling but perhaps more hopeful scenario is that under heavy pressure from Mubarak, Arafat takes up what Sharon— oddly enough— proposed two years ago during his brief time as Netanyahu’s foreign minister (when he negotiated the Wye Plantation agreement with Arafat). This would not be an “end of conflict” agreement but rather a modified status quo whereby Israel and a Palestinian state find a more or less peaceful modus vivendi— an extended “interim” agreement. The Oslo formula of piecemeal dealings would be prolonged on a purely functional basis.
Thus, a decade of American peacemaking in the Middle East, derived from Washington’s sole superpower status and the defeat of Saddam has not come to a good end. And to make matters worse, recent months have seen the reappearance of a tight, high priced oil market and an Iraq loosening previous constraints. The Clinton Administration will be handing to its successor a full and unappetizing plate.
In the longer term, diplomats will be seeking lessons to learn from this sudden turn of events and historians will be wondering whether it had to turn out this way. The crucial lesson is also the easiest to state: American domination of the Middle East may be a necessary condition for peace but not a sufficient one. Above all peace requires the strength and judgment of the would-be peacemakers. Clinton and Barak reached a meeting of minds. As the violence has revealed, Arafat did not join them.