|On publishing his memoirs, former US President Bill Clinton told The Guardian that Yasser Arafat was responsible for the failure of the Camp David conference of July 2000, because, unlike then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who was ready for "enormous concessions," the Palestinian president couldn't "make the final jump from revolutionary to statesman."
There is one reason why, even if Clinton believes that to be the case, he should not, even now, publicly proclaim it. Camp David was essentially Barak's brainchild. Desperate for a breakthrough in the moribund peace process, he conceived the fantastic gambit of telescoping the still-unaccomplished "interim phases" of the Oslo Accords and "final-status" issues into one grand, climactic conclave that would "end the 100-year conflict." Arafat was deeply reluctant to attend. And Clinton only persuaded him to do so by pledging that he would not blame him for an inglorious outcome.
Yet that is precisely what Clinton did at the time. But that he should still be doing so, four years on, renders his partisanship peculiarly out of place. For the controversy of which it is a part has moved on - and much in Arafat's favor. And in its latest incarnation, the controversy revolves round another case - akin to Iraq - where intelligence was politicized and corrupted to serve a preconceived agenda.
The story began with that ill-fated conference, the turning point, most agree, that led to the intifada. Who was actually to blame is where the disagreement lies. The standard Israeli version, to which Clinton thus lends weight, is that Arafat was responsible for the failure. Yet only this month, this version, already heavily eroded, has suffered another damning blow from a person who, all things considered, must be deemed more authoritative than Clinton: Amos Malka, who was the head of Israeli military intelligence in 2000.
The mantra in the "blame Arafat" version is that the Palestinian president proved himself "no partner for peace." His insistence on a "right of return" for Palestinian refugees meant that he was bent on the destruction of Israel by demographic means. He engineered the failure of diplomacy so as to justify a resort to violence. The theory has had enormous consequences that persist to this day.
It was bought by just about the entire Israeli public. Of course, for the Israeli right, the intifada only showed that Arafat remained the "killer and murderer" they always said he was. But the left also bought Barak's contention that at Camp David he had "exposed Arafat's true face." For those who (self-righteously) felt that they had done so much to promote the peace process, the intifada - even before the suicide bombers - was a betrayal of the trust they had placed in Arafat. Israel's peace camp dwindled almost to nothing. Before long, both left and right were ready for the "savior" who promised them a simple military solution: Ariel Sharon, who replaced Barak at the head of the most extreme and bellicose government in Israel's history.
America bought it too, with the press almost unanimously outdoing Clinton in its praise of the "most generous Israeli offer ever" and condemnation of Arafat's contemptuous spurning of it. The partisanship came to full fruition during the Bush administration, especially after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and the start of the "war on terror." For President George W. Bush, Arafat became the "obstacle to peace" who had to be replaced, democratically, by leaders untainted by "corruption and terrorism." And this year, agreeing with Sharon that Israel had "no Palestinian partner with whom it is possible to make progress on a bilateral peace process," Bush endorsed Sharon's scheme for unilateral disengagement from Gaza, and its quid pro quo - and repudiation of decades of official US policy: Israel's right to retain almost all its illegal settlements in the West Bank.
Though Arafat did seek to turn the intifada to his advantage once it had started, it was, in essence, a spontaneous, popular revolt against Israel's continued occupation, and the realization that Oslo could never end it. It was also, implicitly, directed against Arafat and his insistence that Oslo could end it.
What the evolving controversy now confirms is what a few dissident Israelis contended from the outset: that the charge that Arafat "planned," or "instigated" the intifada could more aptly be directed at the senior Israeli officials, politicians and military leaders who leveled it. These people actually wanted the intifada to break out, were preparing for it and, when it came, fanned its flames with the massively disproportionate use of force against unarmed Palestinian demonstrators. Sharon, who held Oslo to be "the greatest misfortune ever to have befallen Israel" and saw the intifada as an opportunity to destroy it, was foremost among these people. His offer notwithstanding, Barak, Sharon's political rival, but admiring military disciple, was among them, too.
In the first place it was not Arafat who undermined Camp David. Robert Malley, a Clinton adviser at the conference, and others have long since exhaustively debunked that partisan myth. In their view, Barak contributed more to the collapse than Arafat.
And now comes Malka's testimony, which flatly asserts that the negative evaluations of Arafat's intentions and actions on which Barak, and later Sharon, relied were "erroneous," and deliberately so. They were the handiwork of one man who occupied a key position in the Israeli policymaking process: Amos Gilad, the head of the military intelligence research department. He was the person who conveyed "national security assessments" to the government. Crucially, he only did so orally, because, as he put it, "they (ministers) don't read." But even more crucially, according to Malka, his oral reports were at variance with the written ones emanating from his bureau, an inconsistency Gilad resolved by retroactively rewriting the reports to square with his oral presentations. For these reports couldn't support what, via his misrepresentations, was to become the orthodox, highly disapproving view of Arafat.
"And who," asks peace activist Uri Avneri, referring to the final, bizarrely damning twist in this tale of intelligence abuse, "is this man who has had a greater influence than any other person on the policies of Israel over the last few crucial years, and whose 'concept' is still directing the path of the state? It is the very same Amos Gilad who some days ago claimed benefits due to disabled army veterans. He was not wounded in battle, but claimed that the stress of his difficult job has inflicted on him irreversible mental damage. When did this mental damage start, the first symptoms observed? When he started endlessly repeating that Arafat wants to throw us into the sea? Or was this declaration itself a symptom of his mental problem?"
The controversy has earned very little of the Israeli, let alone international, attention it deserves. But if all this constitutes bad news about the way in which a coterie of Israeli generals and generals-cum-politicians increasingly makes the real decisions in a country that calls itself "the only democracy in the Middle East," perhaps worse news comes in the way these Israelis also help make decisions in the US, the greatest democracy of all. It has long been clear that, via the Bush administration's neoconservative hawks, Israel played a big part in encouraging America to go to war in Iraq. Now it seems that it was deeply involved, too, in supplying phony intelligence to justify this.
David Hirst was a Middle East correspondent for The Guardian. He is the author of "The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East." He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR