Since the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at Camp David in the summer of 2000 and the subsequent Palestinian uprising, details have emerged that challenge the Clinton administration's insistence – reiterated by leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties as well as much of the mainstream media – that the Palestinians were responsible for the failure to reach a peace agreement and for much of the violence since then. If such a perception were true, the ongoing U.S. diplomatic, financial and military support for Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip could be justified as a response. The reality, however, is far more complex. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations, along with leading members of Congress from both parties, have deliberately misrepresented what happened in the peace process before, during and after Camp David, as well as what has transpired since the outbreak of the second intifada in late September 2000.
The Palestinians bear some responsibility for the tragic turn of events. There was no effective communication between Arafat and some of his negotiators, which led to some confusion during the peace talks. Arafat's corrupt, inept and authoritarian rule has alienated broad swaths of Palestinian public opinion, making it difficult for him to control much of his population. Similarly, the Palestinian Authority failed to create a sociopolitical base necessary to promote a viable sovereign entity. Arafat refused to disarm Fatah's Tanzim militia, which is now largely beyond his control and has engaged in a number of armed confrontations with Israelis in the occupied territories. Segments of the Palestinian Authority, including some of the media, have encouraged violence against not just Israeli occupation forces, but Israeli settlers as well. The Palestinian Authority has not cracked down sufficiently on armed elements of radical Islamic opposition groups, which have engaged in terrorist attacks inside Israel that resulted in deaths of scores of innocent Israeli civilians. In addition, the Palestinians have not emphasized enough that the intifada is focused upon the ongoing Israeli occupation of lands seized in the 1967 war and is not an attack on the legitimacy of Israel itself.
A careful examination of events, however, appears to indicate that the primary fault for both the failure of the peace process and the subsequent violence lies squarely with Israel and its patron, the United States.
CLINTON’S PREMATURE SUMMIT
From the beginning of the talks subsequent to the Principles of Understanding negotiated in Oslo between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization and signed in Washington in September 1993, both sides saw the process very differently. The Palestinians saw it as a means to end the occupation and establish a Palestinian mini-state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. By contrast, the United States and Israel saw it as a way of maintaining an Israeli occupation of major sections of these territories with the Palestinian Authority in charge of administrating most major Palestinian population centers and cooperating in the protection of Israel and its settlements in the occupied territories.
Throughout the peace process, the Clinton administration seemed to coordinate the pace and agenda of the talks closely with Israel, ignoring Palestinian concerns. Palestinians wanted to address the issue of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and the status of Jerusalem some years earlier, but these were repeatedly postponed by the United States. In a similar vein, the United States has long treated Israeli security as the primary focus of the negotiations. A top Israeli negotiator admitted that Israel and the United States worked closely with each other on their respective proposals; for all intents and purposes, these were largely joint efforts.1
The Camp David summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat hosted in July 2000 by President Bill Clinton failed in large part because neither side was ready for a final agreement. Clinton naively thought he could pressure Arafat to accept Israeli terms even though negotiations up to that time indicated the two sides were still far apart on some key issues.
In the spring of 2000, a series of missteps by both the Israelis and Palestinians, but by President Clinton as well, appear to have doomed the summit. For example, Clinton relayed to Arafat that Barak would transfer three occupied Palestinian villages on the outskirts of Jerusalem to Palestinian control, which Arafat then announced to the Palestinian public. Barak, however, reneged on the promise, and Clinton refused to push the Israeli prime minister to honor his pledge.2
This was part of a growing distrust Palestinians were feeling about the United States and Israel in the peace process. Barak also refused to withdraw from certain Palestinian lands as part of a third phase previously agreed upon by his rightist predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu, nor did he open the four safe passages between Palestinian areas, as promised. Barak also moved forward with the construction of illegal Jewish settlements faster even than his predecessor. Indeed, during his 18 months in office, the number of settlers grew by an astounding 12 percent.3 The Clinton administration did not challenge these policies, nor the closures, expropriation of land or the incarceration of Palestinian prisoners. Barak, throughout his tenure, was also extremely reluctant even to meet with Arafat.
The insistence to then jump to final status negotiations without prior confidence-building measures, such as a freeze on new settlements or the fulfillment of previous pledges to withdraw, led the Palestinians to question the sincerity of both Israel and the United States. Arafat and other Palestinian officials repeatedly warned both Israeli and U.S. officials of the growing resentment among ordinary Palestinians. Furthermore, they argued that the previously agreed-upon withdrawals needed to take place before the more difficult issues of the rights of refugees and the status of Jerusalem were addressed. However, both the United States and Israel insisted on moving directly to a summit on final-status issues, even though they had only begun to be addressed in earnest during the previous eight weeks of what had been a more than seven-year process.4
A series of meetings in Sweden and in Jerusalem that spring produced some substantial progress, but news leaks in mid-May about compromises made by the two sides created political problems for both Barak and Arafat. The talks stalled. Had they continued, there might have been enough groundwork for Camp David to have been successful. However, despite strong Palestinian objections, the United States insisted that the two parties come to Maryland anyway to try to hammer out a final agreement. Arafat pleaded that they needed more time, but Clinton pushed Arafat to come and try anyway, promising, "If it fails, I will not blame you."5
Clinton lied. Not only did he put enormous pressure on Arafat to accept the Israeli proposals, he did blame Arafat and the Palestinians for the collapse of the talks when Barak's peace proposals fell way short of Israel's legal obligations and minimal Palestinians demands.
THE ISRAELI PROPOSAL
Despite initial claims by the mainstream media, repeated to this day by both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, that Barak made an extremely generous offer to the Palestinians at Camp David, an actual examination of the proposal reveals otherwise.
First of all, the Israeli government steadfastly refused to withdraw from all of the occupied Palestinian territory, just 22 percent of historic Palestine. In the 1993 Oslo agreement, the Palestinians essentially recognized Israeli control over 78 percent of Palestine; this was a major concession from the longstanding demand for all of Palestine and even the 48 percent of Palestine provided the Palestinians in the 1947 U.N. partition plan. The negotiations since 1993 have been on the fate of this remaining 22 percent, which the Palestinians assumed – rightly, by virtually every international legal standard – should go to them. However, the United States and Israel have steadfastly insisted that the Palestinian demand for that 22 percent was too much and that the Palestinians should give up even more. This is difficult for even Palestinian moderates to accept, since Palestinian Arabs were the majority throughout all of Palestine as recently as 1948 and, counting refugees, today outnumber the Israelis by a three to two ratio.
More fundamentally, Israel took over this remaining 22 percent of Palestine by military force in 1967. The United Nations – in the preamble to U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, long considered the basis for Arab-Israeli peace – underscored a principle of international law reiterated in the U.N. Charter: "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war." It also required Israel to withdraw "from territories occupied in the recent conflict." Palestinian demands for implementation of UNSCR 242 and international law were dismissed by the United States, which instead argued that the talks be based on what it termed "creative ideas," namely a U.S. position paper designed to undercut these longstanding legal principles.6 Robert Malley, special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs and director of Near East and South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, acknowledged last March that Israel stuck to positions clearly unacceptable to the Palestinians in the full knowledge of U.S. support.7 He charges there was a clear bias towards the Israeli negotiating position. The U.S. position substantially departed from 242 and 338, which the Palestinians were promised would be the bases of the negotiations. Malley further charged that instead of judging the Israeli proposals on these terms, the Israelis were instead rewarded for taking extreme positions initially and then tactically backing off from them in part. Because Barak had inched away from the hard line of his predecessors on some issues, Clinton gave these so-called "concessions" undue significance.
Progress was based on relative movement from previously held positions, not on substance or legal requirements or simple notions of reason, equity or justice.
Initial reports, encouraged by U.S. officials and repeated in the media, indicated that Barak was willing to hand over a full 95 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians. Yet Israel presented no maps to validate this claim. Since then, it has been learned that this percentage did not include greater East Jerusalem, which the Israelis consider part of Israel proper, though the United Nations and virtually the entire international community recognize it as part of the occupied territories. Nor did this include much of the Jordan Valley, the Dead Sea coast or parts of the Judean Desert, which Barak insisted on keeping under Israeli control for a supposedly temporary but indefinite period of time, allegedly for “security reasons.” Taking these additional areas into account, this totaled only about 77 percent of the West Bank.
Barak also insisted on holding on to 69 Jewish settlements in the West Bank, where 85 percent of the settlers live. Barak, therefore, offered to evacuate only 15 percent of the settlers, when – according to U.N. Security Council resolutions 446 and 465, based on the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits a country from transferring its civilian population into territory seized by military force – Israel is required to evacuate from all the settlements. These settlement blocs divided up Palestinian territory in such a way that a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank would be impossible. Under Barak's U.S.-backed plan, the West Bank would be split up by a series of settlement blocs, bypass roads and Israeli roadblocks. In some cases, Palestinians would be forced to travel 50 miles between towns only five miles apart. The Palestinians would therefore have been forced to relinquish land needed for development and for the absorption of refugees.
In addition, Israel would have supervision of border crossings between a Palestinian state and neighboring states. Israel would control Palestinian airspace, their seacoast and their aquifers. The Israelis also rejected the right of Palestinian refugees expelled from what is now Israel in the 1948 war to return to their country, despite international treaty obligations.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Arafat would reject such an offer. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any national leader accepting it. Even if Clinton had been successful in forcing Arafat to agree to Israeli terms, there simply would not have been enough support among the Palestinian population to make it viable. The claim by Clinton's team of negotiators that the parties were "so close" failed to acknowledge the substantial gap between them. And seemed designed to discredit the Palestinian side rather than to reflect what had actually transpired.
Indeed, President Clinton decried Arafat's lack of flexibility while praising Barak. Clinton's reaction made the ramifications of this failed summit far worse than it otherwise might have been. According to Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath, "I personally pleaded with President Clinton: ‘Please do not put on a sad face and tell the world it failed. Please say we broke down taboos, dealt with the heart of the matter and will continue.' But then the president started the blame game, and he backed Arafat into a corner."8 Similarly, Israeli negotiator Shlomo Ben-Ami noted, "At the end of Camp David, we had the feeling that the package as such contained ingredients and needed to go on. But Clinton left us to our own devices after he started the blame game."9
In October, the U.S. House of Representatives, with only 30 dissenting votes, adopted a bipartisan resolution declaring Barak's offer "extremely generous" and condemning the Palestinians for rejecting the proposal. Attacks on Arafat's refusal to accept the U.S.-Israeli demands continue to this day. Typical are remarks by Howard Berman (D-CA) of the House International Relations Committee who, near the first anniversary of the summit, claimed that Arafat's turning down the proposal was indicative of the Palestinians' determination to destroy Israel. That same day, Shelly Berkly (D-NV) blamed Arafat's refusal to accept Israeli terms at Camp David for the Palestinians' current suffering in their towns under siege by Israeli occupation forces.10
While Barak's offers did go further than any previous Israeli government’s, they fell well short of what Israel was required to do under basic international standards and a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions. This is significant, since the Palestinian refusal to give in to these demands was therefore completely within their prerogative. Even if Israel had agreed to withdraw from occupied parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including East Jerusalem, and recognized the right of return of Palestinian refugees, it could not be fairly presented as a great act of generosity or even an enormous concession, since Israel is required to do so.
The argument that the breakdown of the Camp David talks was solely the Palestinians' responsibility is buttressed by the equally inaccurate assumption this meant the end of substantive negotiations or the Palestinians' desire for a negotiated settlement. In fact, negotiations continued, with more than 50 meetings in Jerusalem in August and September, where significant headway was made.
When Arafat learned that right-wing leader Ariel Sharon was planning a deliberately provocative visit to what Muslims refer to as the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary, which Jews call the Temple Mount), he pleaded with Barak to block Sharon's plans. Even though this was in East Jerusalem, which is Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory, Barak insisted it was an internal Israeli matter. To support Sharon's move, Barak brought in hundreds of Israeli troops to accompany him, resulting in violent demonstrations by Palestinians, which were brutally suppressed by Israeli occupation forces, using U.S. supplied tanks, attack helicopters and heavy weapons, with no public objection by the U.S. government. (To this day, despite subsequent investigations reporting to the contrary, leading members of Congress in both parties insist that these spontaneous demonstrations were actually pre-planned by Arafat and other Palestinian leaders to destroy the peace process. This accusation is particularly absurd since the demonstrators were primarily Islamists and young people, the two groups most alienated from Arafat's leadership and least likely to obey his requests.) The violence has continued ever since.
Still, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators pressed on. President Clinton issued a proposed settlement in late December, though the details were too vague to be of much use, particularly with the limited time before Clinton's departure from office and the upcoming Israeli elections. His plan, articulated in a major address two weeks before he left office, reiterated his call for the incorporation into Israel of unspecified parts of occupied East Jerusalem as well as large settlement blocs elsewhere in the West Bank. While he reaffirmed the Palestinians' central demand for sovereignty, he did not detail the critical territorial dimensions or the powers such a Palestinian state would have at its disposal. It is noteworthy that Clinton proposed total Israeli sovereignty over the annexed Palestinian lands in East Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank while leaving open the question of Palestinian sovereignty in such areas as water, borders and airspace as well as safe-passage routes. He did not count greater occupied East Jerusalem or the security zones in the Jordan Valley and elsewhere in the 94 percent of the West Bank he claimed his proposal offered the Palestinians.
Clinton produced no maps, which immediately made the Palestinians suspicious, but it presumably paralleled an Israeli proposal of the previous month in which the long fingers of Jewish settlements and surrounding areas would create only a semblance of territorial contiguity for the Palestinians. Clinton's proposal would divide a Palestinian state into three separate cantons connected and divided by Jewish-only and Arab-only roads. Palestinian Jerusalem would be divided into a number of unconnected islands separated from each other and the rest of the Palestinian state. Indeed, neither the United States nor Israel showed maps of Jerusalem, and the complicated arrangements for East Jerusalem and the Noble Sanctuary fell short of achieving real Palestinian sovereignty. As many as 80,000 Palestinian villagers would find themselves annexed into Israel under this plan. It also raised the question of why this plan would allow for at least a transfer of 6 percent of West Bank land outside of Jerusalem to Israel, when the settlements take up less than 2 percent of the land. Indeed, large areas of unsettled land, particularly near Jerusalem and Bethlehem, would be annexed. Underlying the U.S. plan was the Clinton administration's assumption that Israeli territorial contiguity is important but Palestinian territorial contiguity is not. This lack of territorial contiguity on the Palestinian side threatens the very viability of the Palestinian state, isolating Palestinian urban areas and making their natural expansion – particularly around Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jerusalem – virtually impossible. The Palestinians, under heavy
U.S. pressure, had long ago given up their right under international law to the confiscated land, but insisted that there be a territorial swap of equal size and value. However, the Clinton plan rejected that principle. It appears that the U.S. proposal instead would force the Palestinians to give up this valuable West Bank land for a largely desert area less than half its size in southwestern Israel currently used by Israel as major dumping area for toxic wastes.
Clinton's proposal made no reference to Jerusalem’s being an open city for all, a key Palestinian demand. (Currently Palestinian Christians and Muslims from outside the city are routinely denied access to their holy places, a situation comparable to that under Jordanian rule 1948-67 when access to the Old City was routinely denied to Jews.) Clinton also insisted that Israel was under no obligation to Palestinian refugees expelled from what is now Israel in the 1948 war.
The U.S. plan allowed Israel emergency deployment rights in Palestine and a continued military presence in the Jordan Valley, parts of southern extremes of the West Bank, as well as two military posts in more populated areas in the central part of the territory. The Palestinians questioned why the Israelis needed both deployment rights and an ongoing military presence, particularly since they had already agreed to the stationing of an international monitoring force. Also problematic was Clinton’s allowing a full three years for the Israelis to evacuate the isolated settlements and military forces from what would become part of an independent Palestine. In addition, the Palestinians insisted that any permanent-status agreement be truly final rather than subject to further negotiations. The Palestinians knew from previous agreements the United States might bully them into accepting Israeli demands while refusing to challenge Israeli non-compliance.
Despite all this, both sides saw potential in the U.S. proposals and were much closer than they had been at Camp David. Hopes that the United States would convene a summit, however, did not materialize. Still, the two sides resumed talks in Taba, Egypt and the adjacent Israeli town of Eilat in January with Israel presenting new proposals and the Palestinians responding quite favorably. Despite Barak's claims after Camp David that he could go no further, his proposals six months later were a distinct improvement. Barak significantly modified longstanding territorial-based security demands and the settlement-related requirements, effectively separating Israeli security issues from the territorial and settlements issues. For example, the Israelis would restrict their security outposts in the Jordan Valley to more discrete and limited ones that no longer required control of large stretches of Palestinian territory.
The Palestinians made a number of concessions, agreeing to allow for Israel to annex large settlement blocs in return for some Israeli territory in the Negev Desert south of the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians further agreed to Israeli sovereignty over eleven Jewish settlements in and around greater East Jerusalem and surrounding historically Arab-populated areas, including the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter. This was the first time the Palestinians presented a map that acceded to Israeli annexation of West Bank territories. The Palestinians also agreed to a solution to the refugee issue that would not “threaten the Jewish majority in Israel”: Israel would recognize the right of return, but provide financial incentives to entice most of the refugees to settle in the new Palestinian state.11
Barak's proposal was abruptly withdrawn, however, by the Israelis as their election got close and hopes for a follow-up summit in Stockholm in which a final peace agreement could be signed never materialized. So, peace did come tantalizingly close, not at Camp David in July, but in Taba in January, without a strong American presence and nearly five months after the Palestinian uprising began. Indeed, top U.S. officials apparently had never seen the Taba maps, which – despite some remaining obstacles – had the two sides within striking distance of a final agreement.
Despite Palestinian participation in negotiations and some major concessions on their part, and despite the Israeli failure to follow through on the dramatic breakthroughs at Taba, a series of resolutions and statements by a majority of both parties in Congress during this period insisted that the Palestinians were not interested in a negotiated settlement but only in pursuing their demands through violence.
THE PEACE PROCESS UNDER BUSH AND SHARON
Current Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rejects the previous Israeli government's premise that it is important to make territorial sacrifices to end the conflict with the Palestinians. Sharon has made clear that any Palestinian state would have to be limited to just 42 percent of the West Bank and 80 percent of the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has dismissed Clinton's proposals, which would have returned around 85 percent of the occupied territories to the Palestinians, and has simply said that the two parties should work it out themselves.
This may not be possible. For most of the year, the Palestinians have called for a resumption of negotiations, but the Israeli government has refused. The Israelis insist – with American support – that there be a total end to Palestinian violence for an extended period before they resume talks. This gives extremist groups beyond the control of the Palestinian Authority and opposed to the peace process an incentive to use violence to make sure that the talks will not resume. Similarly, it buys time for the Israelis to further expand settlements. Even if the negotiations were to reconvene, the Israeli government has made it clear that they would take an even more uncompromising position than the previous government of Ehud Barak. Despite all this, the administration, Congress and most of the U.S. media are placing the bulk of the blame for the breakdown of the peace process on the Palestinians.
The Bush administration has made a number of contradictory statements regarding Israeli policies. Secretary of State Colin Powell has on several occasions made criticisms of Israeli policies only to have them soft-pedaled by the White House and openly defended by both Republican and Democratic congressional leaders. The administration position seems to be to leave the two parties to work it out themselves, ignoring the gross asymmetry in power. Bilateral negotiations between a government representing the strongest economic and military power in the region with the weakened and corrupt leadership of an occupied people can hardly be considered fair, yet the Bush administration acts as if the two sides were coming together as equals with "both sides needing to compromise." Such inaction favors the status quo: continued Israeli occupation, repression, colonization and the ongoing cycle of violence. Furthermore, the United States has continued the policy of the previous administration of undercutting the legitimacy of any party – such as the United Nations or the European Union – that might take a more evenhanded approach and challenge the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation.
Despite Sharon's opposition to the U.S.-brokered peace treaty with Egypt in 1978, his abstaining on the U.S.-brokered peace treaty with Jordan in 1994, his opposition to the 1993 Oslo accords and the 1997 agreement on Hebron, as well as his objections to Israel's partial withdrawal from Lebanon in 1985 and total withdrawal in 2000, the Bush administration and congressional leaders insist he is interested in pursuing a peace agreement. While President Bush has welcomed Sharon to Washington, he has refused to meet with President Arafat, yet another indication of U.S. support for Sharon's negotiating position.
There is little question that the chief obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace is the Israeli settlements, reserved for Jews only, established by Israel in the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. It is illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention for any country to transfer its civilian population onto lands seized by military force. Under U.N. Security Council Resolutions 446 and 465, Israel is required to withdraw from these settlements. The United States initially supported these resolutions but has since blocked the United Nations from enforcing them.
Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan acknowledged that, although the settlements did not help Israel's security situation, they were needed since without them Israel could not justify having the army in the occupied territories. Ariel Sharon, who served as housing minister and in other cabinet posts in previous rightwing governments, played a major role in the expansion of these illegal settlements. He bragged back in 1995 that these settlements were "the only factor" that had prevented Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin from agreeing to withdraw from the occupied territories and was proud of the fact that this had "created difficulties" in the negotiations with the Palestinians.12
With Clinton insisting that the settlement blocs be incorporated into Israel, the United States was essentially vindicating the Israeli right's plan to create a demographic transformation which – however illegal – could then become the basis for later territorial claims. This U.S. policy, unchanged under the Bush administration, can only lead Sharon to assume that future settlements will likewise become the basis for further U.S.-approved annexations of Palestinian land.
U.S. administrations through the presidency of Jimmy Carter acknowledged the illegality of the settlements. By the senior Bush administration, they were labeled only as an "obstacle to peace." Under Clinton, they were simply considered "unhelpful." Carter thought he had promises of a five-year freeze from Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin through the Camp David agreement with Egypt. When the prime minister resumed construction after only three months, Carter refused to act, even though the United States was a guarantor of the peace treaty. The senior President Bush insisted on a settlement freeze as a condition for granting a controversial $10 billion loan guarantee to Israel, but pressure from Democrats in Congress and 1992 Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton led him to capitulate: Israel only had to limit construction to the "natural growth" of existing settlements. The number of settlers in the West Bank has more than doubled in the ensuing nine years.
When the Oslo Accords were signed the following year, the Palestinians tried to address the settlement issue immediately, but the United States insisted that such discussions be delayed. Indeed, making the settlements a "final-status issue" gave the Israelis a full eight years to create facts on the ground, which the Clinton Administration knew would make a final peace agreement all the more difficult. At no point did Clinton insist that Israel stop the expansion of Jewish settlements and the confiscation of land destined to be part of a Palestinian state. It is only because of these settlements that the boundaries for a future Palestinian state envisioned by Clinton and Barak took on its non-viable geographic dimensions. Indeed, even Robert Malley, Clinton's Middle East specialist at the NSC, acknowledged that the United States had not been tough enough on Israel for its settlement drive and that this failure was a major factor in the collapse of the peace process.13
Between 60 and 100 settlements lie outside that area that most observers think realistically could be annexed to Israel. Between September 1995, in the Oslo II accord, and March 2000, successive Israeli governments were envisioning maintaining all but the most isolated of these settlements and dividing the new Palestinian state into a series of non-contiguous cantons. What the Israelis presented at Taba in January largely abandoned this strategy, reducing them to a small number of settlement blocs. Under Sharon, however, they have reverted to the old strategy without apparent U.S. objections.
The Oslo accords referred to the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a “single territorial unit, the integrity and status of which will be preserved during the interim period.” They also prohibited either side’s taking steps that could prejudice the permanent status negotiations. The Palestinians assumed that this would prevent the Israelis from building more settlements. Furthermore, as the principal guarantor of the Oslo Agreement, the United States was obliged to force Israel to cease new construction. However, since the signing of the Oslo accords the number of settlers has grown by nearly 150,000. Since the Oslo accords were signed, Israeli settlers on the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem) have more than doubled to 200,000, some within 30 new settlements and the rest in expansions of existing settlements. Settlers in greater East Jerusalem have increased by at least one-third. It is very difficult to believe Israel and the United States are sincere about reaching a negotiated peace as Israel's settlement drive has continued unabated. Palestinians watched as their land was confiscated and Jewish only highways were constructed under the cover of a U.S.-sponsored "peace process." Ironically, much of the U.S. money designed to “implement” the 1997 Wye River Agreement has been diverted to build these so-called bypass roads, placing the United States in violation of article 7 of U.N. Security Council Resolution 465, which prohibits member states from assisting Israel in its colonization drive.
Much of Israel's violence against Palestinians has been justified as necessary to protect settlers who have no legal right to be in the occupied territories. The Mitchell Commission report called on the Israelis to consider evacuating the more isolated settlements, which have been flashpoints for conflict, but the United States has failed to endorse the idea. The Mitchell Report also explicitly calls for a total settlement freeze, including roads and so-called "natural growth." Sharon's offer of a "settlement freeze" in June excluded new roads and so-called "natural growth" of existing settlements, which can be liberally interpreted. While the current Bush administration has termed Israeli settlement expansion "provocative," they have not repudiated the Clinton administration's support for "natural growth" of the settlements.
Even with the recent swing of Israeli public opinion to the right, a large majority of Israelis support a total freeze on the settlements in return for a cease-fire. However, Sharon has refused and the United States appears to be backing him.
THE ONGOING VIOLENCE AND REPRESSION
International law recognizes the right of people under foreign military occupation to armed resistance against occupying forces. Yet the U.S. government has repeatedly condemned the Palestinians for their use of violence while refusing to call for an end of the Israeli occupation. The Bush administration has spoken only of stopping "the cycle of violence," as if the violence of occupation and the violence of resistance to that occupation were on the same moral level. Ironically, leading Democrats, such as Gary Ackerman, the ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on the Middle East, have criticized the administration from the right, claiming "It is not a cycle of violence. It is Palestinian violence and Israeli response."14
Human Rights Watch has been among a number of human-rights groups that have issued reports on the violence and repression. While they have noted that the Palestinian Authority has "failed to prevent Palestinian gunmen from firing on settlements from civilian areas and does not appear to have investigated or prosecuted cases where Israeli civilians have been killed or seriously injured," their report emphasized that "Israeli security forces have committed by far the most serious and systematic violations." It documents "excessive and indiscriminate use of lethal force, arbitrary killings and collective punishment, including willful destruction of property and severe restrictions on movement that far exceed any possible military necessity." The report also criticized the Israeli government for failing to protect unarmed Palestinians from attacks by right-wing settlers.15
Despite this and similar reports from Amnesty International, the Palestinian human-rights group Al-Haq and the Israeli human-rights group B'tselem, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright claimed that Palestinian rock throwers had placed Israel "under siege" and that Israeli occupation forces were simply defending themselves.16 Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the majority of the Human Rights Caucus in the House of Representatives has supported a series of resolutions supporting the Israeli government and blaming the Palestinians exclusively for the violence. Indeed, the chairman of the caucus, Democrat Tom Lantos of California, has been one of the most outspoken defenders of the rightist government of Ariel Sharon.
More than 40 percent of those killed by the Israelis have been children. However, leading members of Congress have blamed the Palestinians for the deaths of their own children by allowing them to participate in the demonstrations. Indeed, a bipartisan resolution sponsored by Democratic Congressman Eliot Engle blames the Palestinian Authority for the deaths of children at the hands of Israeli occupation forces.17
Human Rights Watch joined U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson, Amnesty International and other human-rights groups in calling for the U.N. Security Council to "immediately establish a permanent international presence in the West Bank and Gaza to monitor and report regularly on the compliance by all parties with international human rights and humanitarian law standards."18 However, the same week the report was released, the United States cast the lone dissenting vote in the Security Council authorizing the establishment of just such a force, thereby vetoing the measure. Subsequently, the Bush administration supported a vague reference by Western leaders at the G-8 summit in Genoa for some kind of international monitoring presence, but emphasized – as had the Clinton administration – that it could only be established with the consent of Israel. However, since this force would be within Palestinian areas outside of Israel's jurisdiction, no such consent would be required. As a result, any hope for such monitors has been blocked by the Bush administration. Ironically, leading Democrats in Congress have criticized the administration for even giving lip service to the concept of international monitors.19
Soon after the intifada began, the Clinton administration approved the largest sale of military helicopters to Israel in the past decade, equipment that had been used in some of the worst Israeli atrocities of the preceding weeks, including an attack just the day before on an apartment complex in Gaza. A Pentagon official was quoted as saying that U.S. weapons sales do not carry a stipulation that the weapons cannot be used against civilians and that the United States would not second guess an Israeli commander who orders such attacks.20 An October 19 report from Amnesty International criticized the United States for providing these new military helicopters.21 The following week, after a series of scathing human-rights reports criticizing Israeli actions, Congress approved a foreign aid bill of $2.82 billion, essentially awarding Israel for its repression. Not a single amendment was even offered that would have linked the aid with an end to the human-rights violations.
Dozens of small isolated Palestinian enclaves are blocked off and strangled by Israeli occupation forces, where the civilian population has experienced severe food shortages, lack of medical care and over 50-percent unemployment. The Israelis have erected 91 new military posts surrounding Palestinian population centers in a series of multiple sieges.
There have been a series of terrorist attacks by underground Palestinian Islamic groups inside Israel that have killed dozens of civilians. Ironically, following several acts of terrorism by radical Islamic groups, Israel has attacked political offices, police headquarters and other buildings belonging to the Palestinian Authority, which has repeatedly condemned the attacks against Israelis. There have been some attacks against Israeli settlers by Tanzim militia, which grew out of the Fatah movement. Even though Arafat is the founder and leader of Fatah, he does not control the entire organization. Indeed, the uprising has pushed younger more militant leaders to the forefront. In addition, much of the Palestinian violence has come from Palestinians under direct Israeli control, not from areas administered by the Palestinian Authority. Yet there has been widespread support on Capitol Hill and, to a lesser extent, from the Bush Administration for Israeli attacks against Palestine. The Israeli position, backed by the United States, is that if force does not work, just use more force.
There is a total refusal by U.S. officials and much of the media to recognize that Israeli forces firing missiles into inhabited homes, shelling civilian towns, and firing live ammunition against protesting children are also acts of terror. The Palestinians are gravely mistaken to believe that violence will lead Israel to end the occupation or the United States to end its support of the occupation. It has simply hardened Israeli and American attitudes. Not only is such violence – particularly when directed towards civilians – morally wrong; it is politically counterproductive as well.
What has led so many Palestinians to delude themselves is the success of the radical Islamic Hizballah militia in forcing Israel out of its 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon. Indeed, there are few Palestinians engaged in the violence who do not cite Lebanon as a model. The United States bears great responsibility for this shift in perception. The United States refused to enforce U.N. Security Council Resolution 425 and nine subsequent resolutions demanding Israel's immediate and unconditional withdrawal from southern Lebanon. Indeed, even when a solid majority of Israelis polled expressed their desire for Israel to withdraw, U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk publicly registered his opposition to any such withdrawal, and the United States blocked enforcement of the U.N. Security Council resolutions and refused to push for a negotiated withdrawal. Israel pulled out only when their casualties mounted in what Hizballah could claim was a military victory. As a result, Palestinians see a lesson: it is naive to think that negotiating with Israel, relying on U.N. Security Council resolutions, or believing that the United States can be trusted as a mediator will get them their freedom. Like the Lebanese, many are coming to see that the only solution is through armed struggle under the leadership of a radical Islamic movement.
The Israeli government has dispatched assassination squads, ranging from individuals with rifles to U.S.-supplied helicopter gunships with missiles, to murder Palestinian activists. Some of these have been wanted terrorists associated with radical Islamic groups. Others have been civilian political leaders of Islamic organizations and activists in Arafat's Fatah party. One target was a teacher at a Catholic school who had been working closely with Israeli teachers on developing a conflict resolution curriculum. There have also been a number of innocent bystanders murdered, including children. Indeed, Princeton international law professor Richard Falk, an American Jew who served on the U.N. Fact Finding Commission, criticized their "seemingly random hit list." The commission noted that such assassinations "are grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 147, and of international humanitarian law."22 To their credit, some Bush administration officials have criticized the assassination squads. However, Vice-President Dick Cheney, in an interview this summer, appeared to be supportive of the practice, though he later backtracked. However, Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Democrats’ chief foreign-policy spokesman, has unambiguously defended the Israeli use of these extrajudicial assassinations.23
The very idea that the Palestinians should unilaterally halt their uprising in order to return to a negotiation process where the occupying power has declared up front that it will offer even less palatable terms than its predecessor is ludicrous. Indeed, most Palestinians strongly oppose ending the uprising without anything concrete in return from the Israelis, such as a settlement freeze, which was explicitly called for in the Mitchell Report. Further crackdowns would play into the hands of Palestinian militants who claim the PA is essentially serving as a proxy force for the Israeli occupation.
Much could be said condemning terrorist action by Palestinian groups against innocent civilians inside Israel and other acts of Palestinian violence. Yet the Israeli violence towards the Palestinians has both been far greater in scope, and – unlike the Palestinian violence – leading U.S. political figures have actively defended it, and the United States supplies much of the weaponry used in carrying out these acts of violence. While the United States has little direct control over Palestinian violence, it could stop the Israeli violence by turning off the spigot of military and economic aid to the Israeli government. It has chosen not to do so.
As a means of short-circuiting a U.N. commission to investigate the causes and possible solutions to the ongoing conflict, President Bill Clinton last fall appointed a U.S.-led team to put forward its own report. It was led by former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-ME) who could hardly be expected to provide an unbiased perspective: As a senator, Mitchell had attacked the senior Bush administration on its policy towards Israel and Palestine, particularly when then-Secretary of State James Baker accurately declared that Israeli settlements ringing eastern Jerusalem were in the occupied territories. In effect, Mitchell argued the United States should have recognized Israel's unilateral annexation of a huge swath of the West Bank, which would have challenged international law, U.N. Security Council resolutions and the policies of every U.S. administration since Israel seized the territory in 1967. Mitchell received a large amount of campaign funding from rightwing political-action committees supportive of the Shamir government, then in office in Israel, and was a strong supporter of unconditional military and economic aid to that government.
Other members of the commission included former Senator Warren Rudman, also a strong supporter of Israel's earlier right-wing governments, as well former Turkish president Suleyman Demirel, a strong ally of Israel. They outnumbered the more moderate members, Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorbjorn Jagland and European Union representative Javier Solana. The United States determined that the commission would operate out of Washington and have no local headquarters and would not carry out any investigations on the ground. Israeli journalist Meron Benvenisti, a critic of the Sharon government, wrote that "the committee will become one more instrument for stifling any initiative for examining the actions of Israeli security forces and for uncovering the truth lurking behind the propaganda smokescreen."24
The commission's report, released at the end of April, refused to hold either side solely responsible for the breakdown of the peace process or the ongoing violence. The report recognized that the Palestinian Authority needed to do more to curb violence from the Palestinian side and called on Israel to end its widespread use of lethal force against unarmed demonstrators. Yet its failure to call for an international protection force underscored the commission’s unwillingness to support the decisive steps necessary to actually curb further bloodshed.
The report correctly recognized that the violence was not solely a result of Prime Minister Sharon’s provocative visit to the Haram al-Sharif last fall and that it was not a part of a preconceived plan by the Palestinians to launch a violent struggle. It recognized that the root of the uprising was in Palestinian frustrations in the peace process to get their land back, fueled by unnecessarily violent responses by both sides in the early hours and days of the fighting. However, the report refused to call for Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories in return for security guarantees, which Israel is required to do under UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338.
While the Mitchell Commission Report failed to call for Israel to withdraw from its illegal settlements, it did emphasize there was no hope to an end of Palestinian violence unless there was a freeze on settlements. However, the United States – spearheaded by CIA Director George Tenet – followed up the Mitchell Report by pushing for a cease-fire agreement from the Palestinians even as the Sharon government pledged to continue building more settlements. The Bush administration and Congress essentially put forward the Mitchell Report only in terms of getting a cease-fire, conveniently dropping the report's insistence on a settlement freeze and other Israeli responsibilities. In effect, it put the pressure on the Palestinians to cease their resistance to Israeli occupation forces without anything in return from Israel. The U.S.-brokered cease fire, which technically went into effect in June but never fully materialized, left the situation on the ground with no changes that would provide the Palestinians any incentive to end the uprising. Not only was there no halt in building settlements, there were no international monitors or verifiers and no buffer zones separating the two sides. The United States essentially let Israel be the monitor as well as the decision maker regarding its implementation and subsequent steps. Within days of the agreement, Israel launched its assassination squads into Palestinian Authority areas, claiming these were not cease-fire violations but self-defense against what it called terrorists. Nor did the Israelis end their siege of Palestinian towns and cities or the closures.
PALESTINIAN RIGHTS AND ISRAELI SECURITY
The big Palestinian compromises – ending the armed struggle and recognizing Israel – were made up front in the 1993 Oslo accords, with the naive assumption that the United States would pressure Israel to make needed compromises later. The Palestinians have few bargaining chips left except their violence, though this more likely will set back their cause than advance it. Since the Palestinian demands are well-grounded in international law and human-rights covenants, calls for greater compromises by the Palestinians means endorsing the denial of these basic rights. While the United States has been largely successful in forcing the Palestinians to scale down their long-held aspirations, the Palestinians have been unwilling to give up fundamental rights.
It is noteworthy that for nearly 20 years the United States barred the PLO from participating in the U.S.-sponsored peace process on the grounds that Resolution 242 had to be the basis of negotiation. The resolution did not recognize Palestinian national rights, but it did call for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories in return for security guarantees, allowing for only very minor territorial adjustments to straighten some of the lines from the 1949 armistice that formed the borders of Israel, and insisting that such adjustments had to be mutual. Once the Palestinians formally accepted the resolution in 1988 and were allowed into the peace process five years later, the United States essentially dropped it while the Clinton administration was in office. The current Bush administration appears to be returning to the policy from the Nixon through the senior Bush administrations of paying lip service to 242 while granting the diplomatic, financial and military means to ignore it. Israel has never defined where its borders are, which exacerbate Arab fears that it is an expansionist power. Indeed, as Sharon told Secretary of State Colin Powell during his visit in February, "We learn a lot from you Americans. We saw how you moved West using this method."25
A cornerstone of the U.S.-led peace process has been to keep the United Nations out. A 1991 Memorandum of Understanding between the United States and Israel explicitly stated that the United Nations would not have a role. Then-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke claimed that a U.N. Security Council resolution from October 2000 criticizing the excessive use of force by Israeli occupation forces put the United Nations "out of the running" in terms of any contributions to the peace process.26 The even more strongly worded congressional resolutions against the Palestinians passed that same month, apparently, did not similarly disqualify the United States from its leadership role, however.
According to Resolution 242, the quid pro quo for Israel's complete withdrawal from the territories occupied in the 1967 war is a security guarantee from Israel's Arab neighbors. Unfortunately, this has been dramatically expanded in recent years by the United States and Israel to somehow guaranteeing the physical safety of every Israeli from suicide bombers and underground terrorist groups beyond the control of any government.
Temporarily seizing the territory of hostile neighbors to create a buffer zone pending the establishment of security guarantees made some strategic sense 30 years ago when troops of Arab states were massing on Israel's borders and guerrilla groups were engaged in cross-border raids against civilians. Today, however, Israel is at peace with Egypt and Jordan, and peace with Lebanon and Syria would be forthcoming once Israel withdrew from the occupied Syrian territory in the Golan. The Palestinians have offered guarantees that their future mini-state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip would be largely demilitarized and that no foreign forces hostile to Israel would be allowed in. Like Egypt and Syria, they have agreed to international monitors and have even gone a step further by allowing Israel to station some of its own monitors in Palestinian territory.
There are no more attacks by the Palestinian Authority or former PLO factions within Israel; attacks from Fatah and other groups have been limited to Israeli occupation forces and Israeli colonists inside the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The terrorist attacks inside Israel have involved radical Islamic groups outside the control of the PA and have generally involved individual suicide bombers, who do not require a territory from which to operate. Indeed, many if not most of the terrorist attacks within Israel since the Oslo accords have come from operatives within areas of Israeli control.
The archipelago of illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territory essentially constitutes a 2000-mile border, ten times longer than Israel's 1967 borders. Israeli armed forces have deployed more divisions protecting these 200,000 colonists outside of Israel than its six million citizens within Israel. A majority of Israelis has expressed support for removing settlers, by force if necessary.27 Dozens of Israeli conscripts have been killed defending Israeli settlements in isolated areas far removed from the U.S.-Israeli supported settlement blocs, creating enormous resentment within the Israeli population.
Israel would be far more secure with a clearly delineated internationally-recognized border than with the current patchwork of settlements and military outposts on confiscated land amidst a hostile population. Despite claims of being concerned about Israel's security, Clinton's peace proposal presented in December would have left Israel with narrow indefensible peninsulas of territory within the West Bank. With an Israeli withdrawal, the terrorist attacks inside Israel would be reduced, since it is the occupation and the Palestinian Authority's inability to negotiate an independent state which primarily motivates the radical Islamists who commit their acts of terrorism. This is why it is incorrect to accuse U.S. policy as being "too pro-Israel": U.S. support of Ariel Sharon's rightist policies actually endangers Israel's legitimate security needs.
The Bush administration and both the Republicans and Democrats in Congress have made clear that they will not link U.S. military and economic aid to Ariel Sharon's government and its occupation forces with Israeli adherence to international law, U.N. Security Council resolutions, international human-rights standards or a willingness to make the necessary compromises for peace. As a result, the Sharon government has little outside incentive to make peace.
With the United States arming and financing Israel's occupation and colonization drive and blaming the Palestinians exclusively for the violence, Sharon can essentially do as he pleases. This buying time is disastrous for Israel since the ongoing occupation and the dimming hopes that the Palestinians will have a viable state of their own is just what breeds extremists prone to commit acts of terrorism. It further isolates Israel from other Middle Eastern countries and much of the rest of the world and creates a greater dependency on the United States. The United States is clearly willing to help Israel buy time, but it will not be the Americans who will pay the price. That will be for the Palestinians and, ultimately, the Israelis as well.
Israeli commentator Uri Avnery observed, "We are in their territory, not they in ours. We settle on their land, not they on ours. We are the occupiers, they are the victims. This is the objective situation, and no minister of propaganda can change that."28 Yet both the Clinton and Bush administrations, the vast majority of Congress in both parties and the mainstream media have done their best to convince the American people otherwise. Though the fundamental issue at stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the right of self-determination, the bipartisan consensus in the United States is that the fate of the Palestinians is up to their Israeli occupiers. Statements by both the Clinton and Bush administrations and congressional resolutions passed by huge bipartisan majorities have made clear that the U.S. position is that there can be no Palestinian independence except on Israeli terms. Given that the Israeli government is under the leadership of the far-right Ariel Sharon, who has long opposed Palestinian self-determination, the United States is essentially endorsing continued Israeli military occupation and the violent reaction and repression which inevitably results. Eighty-three years after President Woodrow Wilson helped establish the principle of national self-determination as a cornerstone of international law and U.S. foreign policy, and ten years after the senior President George Bush declared a New World Order based on such principles, both the Democratic and Republican parties appear to have now abandoned these ideals in favor of the right of conquest.
The problem for the U.S. position is that a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions, supported by every U.S. administration between Israel's 1967 conquests and Clinton's inauguration, have recognized the West Bank and Gaza Strip as occupied land. As a result, the Clinton administration decided to unilaterally declare that such resolutions were no longer relevant, having been superseded by the Oslo accords. However, no single member of the Security Council has the authority to rescind any Security Council resolution; that can only be done by a majority vote of the full council with no permanent member voting no. Indeed, Secretary General Kofi Annan is on record insisting that these resolutions are still very much in effect, and no other member of the Security Council has questioned their standing. In any case, no bilateral agreement can supersede a Security Council resolution, particularly if one of the two parties – in this case, the Palestinians – insists that the resolutions are still valid.
The Palestinians' strongest asset is international law, which is given teeth through UN Security Council resolutions. Indeed, Security Council resolutions have already addressed many of the outstanding issues of the negotiations, including Israel's illegal settlements and its unilateral annexation of greater East Jerusalem. Previous administrations had used their veto power to block resolutions or to prevent enforcement of existing ones. The Clinton and current Bush administrations have gone a step further by calling into question the resolutions themselves in an effort to give the Palestinians no diplomatic option other than capitulation. It is not surprising that so many Palestinians have given up on the peace process and resorted to violence in their quest for self-determination.
1 Background Briefing, Department of State, July 25, 2001.
2 Deborah Sontag, "And Yet So Far: A Special Report; Quest for Mideast Peace: How and Why It Failed," The New York Times, p. A12, July 26, 2001.
3 Gideon Levy, Haaretz, June 17, 2001, "Just when we were about to give them so much."
4 Edward Cody, "Israel's Grinding Presence Fueled a Festering Palestinian Rage," The Washington Post, October 27, 2000, p. A30.
5 Sontag, op. cit.
6 Background Briefing, Department of State, July 25, 2001.
7 Robert Malley, lecture at the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine, March 7, 2001.
8 Sontag, op. cit.
10 Hearings of the House International Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, July 26, 2001.
11 Sontag, op. cit.
12 "Ariel Sharon Moves to Center Stage," Report on Israeli Settlements in the Occupied Territories, Foundation for Middle East Peace, Vol. 11, No. 2, March-April 2001, p. 1.
13 Sontag, op. cit.
14 Hearings of the House International Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, July 26, 2001.
15 Human Rights Watch, "Question of the Violation of Human Rights in the Occupied Arab Territories, Including Palestine," Human Rights Watch Oral Intervention at the 57th Session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, March 28, 2001.
16 Interview, NBC: "Meet the Press," Sunday, October 8, 2000 (further info at miftah.org/keyissues/english/ oct092k.html).
17 U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, House Concurrent Resolution 202, 107th Session.
18 Human Rights Watch, "Independent Inquiry Needed in Israeli-Palestinian Bloodshed," October 7, 2000.
19 Hearings of the House International Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, July 26, 2001.
20 Cited in Noam Chomsky, "The Current Crisis in the Middle East: What Can We Do?" lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, December 14, 2001.
21 Amnesty International, "Israel/Occupied Territories: Findings of Amnesty International’s Delegation," October 19, 2000.
22 U.N. Commission of Enquiry, March 16, 2001.
23 Richard Falk, symposium "The Israel/Palestine Predicament: How to End an Occupation. Israeli Psychological Warfare," April 20, 2001.
24 Meron Benvenisti, "A Committee of Moral Disgust," Ha'aretz, December 14, 2000 (http://shamash.org/ listarchives/pjml/001214).
25 Haaretz, February 26, 2001; cited in Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories, Foundation for Middle East Peace, Vol. 11, No. 2, March-April 2001, p. 2.
26 Richard Holbrooke, United Nations Security Council debate, October 7, 2001.
27 Cited in Gershon Baskin, "Surprise, Surprise: Some More Political Observations and Thoughts," Israel/ Palestine Center for Research and Information, July 5, 2001.
28 Uri Avnery, October 21, 2000 (http://home.mindspring.com/~fontenelles/avnery.htm).