The Brilliant Offer Israel Never Made

by David Clark
guardian unlimited

Yesterday's carnage in the West Bank provided a bloody illustration of the limits of Ariel Sharon's military strategy. Armed force cannot provide his people with the security they crave because the terrorist infrastructure he has set out to destroy consists of little more than the willingness of ordinary Palestinians to kill themselves while taking as many Israelis with them as possible. This week, the hatred on which it is built burns deeper than ever. In the absence of a meaningful peace
process, further atrocities are inevitable, and when they happen, the consequences may be far worse than anything we have so far seen.

Israeli leaders are trapped in a mindset in which further military escalation appears to be their only option. Yet it is difficult to see how much further they can go without triggering a wider regional conflagration that might threaten the state of Israel itself. The "ethnic cleansing" of Palestinians from large tracts of the occupied territories? The murder of Arafat? The consequences are unthinkable. Left to his own devices, Ariel Sharon may yet turn out to be the ultimate suicide bomber.

Into the maelstrom steps Colin Powell on a mission that could represent the best hope of avoiding such a catastrophe. His task is clear: to secure a ceasefire and persuade both parties to return to the negotiating table. To succeed, however, he will need to do more than indulge in hand-wringing. He will need to come armed with some harsh truths and some even harsher consequences.

With Israel, it will be necessary to challenge some deeply held illusions about the peace process and why it broke down. Chief among these is the assertion that the Palestinians rejected a "generous" Israeli offer at Camp David two years ago. It is a view that spans the Israeli political spectrum, uniting the hard right with born-again rejectionists like Ehud Barak, confirming all in their belief that political dialogue has been exhausted and that Arafat is an inveterate terrorist. It is time for some constructive revisionism.

Barak's proposal for a Palestinian state based on 91% of the West Bank sounded substantive, but even the most cursory glance at the map revealed the bad faith inherent in it. It showed the West Bank carved into three chunks, surrounded by Israeli troops and settlers, without direct access to its own international borders.

The land-swap that was supposed to compensate the Palestinians for the loss of prime agricultural land in the West Bank merely added insult to injury. The only territory offered to Palestinian negotiators consisted of stretches of desert adjacent to the Gaza Strip that Israel currently uses for toxic waste dumping. The proposals on East Jerusalem were no better, permitting the Palestinians control of a few scattered fragments of what had been theirs before 1967.

Barak offered the trappings of Palestinian sovereignty while perpetuating the subjugation of the Palestinians. It is not difficult to see why they felt unable to accept. The only surprise is how widely the myth of the "generous offer" is now accepted.

For this, Bill Clinton must accept responsibility. With the end of his presidency in sight, Clinton saw time running out along with the hope that he might be remembered in history for something more dignified than blow jobs in the Oval Office. He needed a quick deal rather than a just deal and chose to attempt to bounce Arafat into accepting Israel's terms. When this failed, Clinton vented his wrath at the Palestinian leader.

Maladroit diplomacy played its part, but the failure at Camp David was the product of a deeper problem for which the Palestinians must also accept their share of blame. With the benefit of hindsight, the 1993 Oslo agreement that embodied the land-for-peace compromise was a mirage. Although both sides signed up to a two-state solution, neither was completely sincere in accepting its implications. The Palestinians clung to maximalist demands on refugee returns in the hope that
demographics would allow them to rewrite the past. The Israelis insisted on territorial demands that made a mockery of the idea of a viable Palestinian state.

It is here that the Saudi peace initiative has come to play such a critical role in getting the peace process back on track. In calling for Israel's withdrawal from all of the occupied territories and holding out the prospect of a compromise on the refugees that would meet Israeli concerns, it forces both sides finally to come to terms with each other's existence.

Tony Blair's call for the Saudi plan to be enshrined in a new UN resolution is a tacit acceptance that Camp David was a botched job. Progress will now depend on Colin Powell's willingness to spell that out to Sharon and Arafat this week.

· David Clark was a special adviser at the Foreign Office until May 2001.