Ehud Barak and the Palestinian Track

Avi Shlaim

Published as ‘Avi Shlaim explains his disenchantment with Ehud Barak’, London Review of Books (25.1.2001)

The outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada, following Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the holy Muslim shrine on 28 September 2000, reopened the question of whether the Oslo accord is capable of producing a viable settlement of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Ever since it was signed on the White House lawn and sealed with the hesitant handshake by Itzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on 13 September 1993, the Oslo accord has been a subject of controversy.

The 21 October 1993 issue of the London Review of Books ran two articles about the Oslo accord, one against and one in favour. Edward Said put the case against. First of all, he insisted on calling the agreement by its real name: “an instrument of Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles”. He then proceeded to argue that, in signing the agreement, Arafat cancelled the PLO Charter, set aside all relevant UN resolutions except 242 and 338 which do not have in them a word about the Palestinians, and compromised the fundamental national rights of the Palestinian people. The document could not advance genuine Palestinian self-determination, argued Said, because that means freedom, sovereignty, and equality, rather than perpetual subservience to Israel.

In my article I put the case for the Oslo accord. It was obvious that the document fell a long way short of the Palestinian aspiration to full independence and statehood. The document was not presented as a full-blown peace treaty but, much more modestly, as a Declaration of Principles for Palestinian self-government, initially only in Gaza and Jericho. Despite all the limitations and ambiguities, I argued, the accord represented a major breakthrough in the long and bitter conflict over Palestine. The important point was that the two parties recognised one another, accepted the principle of partition, and agreed to proceed in stages towards a final settlement. I believed that the accord would set in motion a gradual but irreversible process of Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and that it would lead, after the five-year transition period, to an independent Palestinian state over most of the West Bank and Gaza.

Over the last seven years, my mind has often gone back to this early debate about the nature and prospects of the Oslo accord. Who had the right reading, Edward Said or I? Sometimes I felt that the argument was going my way; at other times I thought that the argument was moving  in Edward’s way. It is probably too soon to pass a final verdict on Oslo. When Chou En-lai was asked by a French journalist what was the impact of the French Revolution, the cautious Chines leader replied that it was too early to tell. The same might be said about the impact of the Oslo accord. Edward Said called his most recent book The End of the Peace Process. The judgement implied in this title strikes me as premature. The process started at Oslo is still alive, if only just. The argument I wish to advance here is that the peace process has broken down not because the Oslo accord is inherently unworkable but because Israel has reneged on its side of the bargain.

The Oslo accord did not promise an independent Palestinian state at the end of the transition period. It left all the options open. Similarly, nothing was said about the issues at the heart of the dispute, such as Jerusalem, settlements, borders, and refugees. All these issues were deferred for the final status negotiations scheduled to take place in the last two years of the transition period. The deal between Israel and the PLO was a gamble and Itzhak Rabin knew this better than anyone else. His body language at the signing ceremony revealed what he told his aides in so many words: he had butterflies in his stomach. Yet the prospect of an independent Palestinian state did not frighten Rabin. What mattered to him most, even more than peace, was Israel’s security. Provided Israel’s security was safeguarded, he was ready to go forward in the peace partnership with his erstwhile enemy, as he did by concluding the Oslo II agreement on 28 September 1995. But five weeks later he fell victim to an assassin’s bullet. The Oslo process had suffered its first serious setback.

The second major setback was also connected with internal Israeli politics. This time it was Binyamin Netanyahu’s victory against Shimon Peres in the elections of May 1996. Netanyahu was a sworn enemy of the Oslo accord, viewing it as incompatible either with Israel’s security or with its historic right to the biblical homeland. But he knew that two thirds of the Israeli public supported the Oslo accord and the policy of controlled withdrawal from the occupied territories that it had set in motion. Ever the opportunist, he began to trim his sails to the prevailing wind of public opinion, promising to respect Israel’s international obligations. Once elected, however, Netanyahu proceeded in his maddeningly myopic and transparently dishonest way to evade Israel’s obligations and to destroy the foundations that his Labour predecessors had laid for peace with the Palestinians. He kept talking about reciprocity while acting unilaterally in demolishing Arab houses, opening a tunnel in the old city of Jerusalem, imposing curfews, confiscating Arab land, and building new Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Under intense American pressure, Netanyahu signed the Wye River Memorandum in October 1998, promising to turn over another 11 per cent of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority. But, true to form, he reneged on this agreement. Ironically, it was not the opposition that brought down his government but his own nationalist and religious coalition partners who considered that he had gone soft on the Palestinians and that he had compromised the integrity of the historic homeland.

In the direct election of the prime minister, held on 17 May 1999, Ehud Barak won 56 per cent of the votes to Netanyahu’s 44 -- a landslide victory by Israeli standards. Barak was given an unambiguous mandate for change, a mandate to resume the struggle for comprehensive peace between Israel and its neighbours. There was a strong sense that Barak was the right man at the right place at the right time. I was one of those numerous Israelis who pinned their hopes on the new leader. In the Epilogue to my book The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, I wrote that Barak’s election was more than a political earthquake: “It was the sunrise after the three dark and terrible years during which Israel had been led by the unreconstructed proponents of the iron wall.” In the LRB, on 16 September 1999, I went over the top again with an article on “The Propitious Rise of Israel’s Little Napoleon”. Mea maxima culpa.

What I failed to fathom at the time was that General Barak was simply the latest proponent of the strategy of the iron wall that had guided the Zionist movement from the earliest stages of the struggle for Palestine. The crux of this strategy -- promulgated in 1923 by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism -- was dealing with the Arabs from a position of unassailable strength. But the strategy was also intended by its architect to yield to a further stage where Israel would be secure enough and strong enough to negotiate a satisfactory settlement with the Palestinians and its other Arab neighbours. Menachem Begin, the leader of the right-wing Likud and the disciple of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, took the first step in the second stage by concluding a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979. Itzhak Rabin, the leader of the Labour Party, took the second and highly significant step by negotiating the Oslo accord with the PLO in 1993. Binyamin Netanyahu took Israel back to the first stage of the strategy of the iron wall, that of shunning compromise and relying on force rather than on diplomacy in dealing with the Arabs.

During the election campaign Ehud Barak presented himself as the disciple of Itzhak Rabin, as a soldier who later in life turned to peace-making. He also promised to follow his slain mentor down the Oslo path. Most observers, myself included, took him at his word. The real question was whether Barak, Israel’s most decorated soldier, would be as successful at making peace with the Arabs as he had been at killing them.  His record as prime minister shows clearly that he was not. While donning civilian clothes, he remained essentially a soldier. Barak is what in Hebrew is known as a bitkhonist -- a security-ist. As prime minister, no less than as chief of staff, he had three priorities: security, security, and security. All developments in the region, including the peace process, are viewed by Barak from the narrow perspective of Israel’s security needs and these needs are absurdly inflated, not to say insatiable. And it is only a slight exaggeration to say that Barak approaches diplomacy as if it were the extension of war by other means.

The new prime minister’s preoccupation with military power underlay his long interview with Ha’aretz on 18 June 1999. He made a case for trying to reach an agreement with Syria first on the grounds that Syria was a serious military power whereas the Palestinians were not. “The Palestinians are the source of legitimacy for the continuation of the conflict,” he said, “but they are the weakest of all our adversaries. As a military power they are derisory.” So there we have it straight out of the horse’s mouth: the Palestinians had no military power and posed no threat to Israel’s security, so they could safely be relegated to the back burner. What Barak implied, but did not say, was that a deal with Syria would leave the Palestinians weak and isolated and therefore more likely to accept whatever terms Israel eventually chose to offer them for the final settlement. During the first eight months of his premiership, Barak concentrated almost exclusively on the Syrian track but his efforts ultimately ended in failure.

The Palestinian track, however, could not be avoided altogether, not least because of the written commitments entered into by Barak’s predecessors. His own reservations regarding the Oslo accords and the Oslo process were a widely known secret. As chief of staff in 1993 he was not informed about the secret negotiations with the PLO in the Norwegian capital, and he was highly critical of the accord that was reached there. In 1995 he was Minister of the Interior and he abstained in the cabinet vote on Oslo II. His main objection to the Oslo process was that it put the onus on Israel to divest itself in stages of its territorial assets without producing a definitive resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians. This was a curious objection because the principles of land for peace and of gradualism lay at the very heart of Oslo process. Interestingly, Barak’s first offer to Arafat was to skip the small redeployments stipulated in the Wye River Memorandum and go for the big bargain. But Arafat insisted that all previous commitments had to be fulfilled before proceeding to the final status negotiations.

In the subsequent negotiations Barak put intense pressure on the Palestinians. His diplomatic method could be described as peace by ultimatum. The outcome was an agreement signed at Sharm-el-Sheikh on 4 September 1999. The new accord, dubbed Wye II, gave an extension of time to carry out the redeployments agree to at Wye and put in place a wholly new timetable for the final status talks. Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed to make a “determined effort” to reach a “framework agreement” on the final status issues by February and a fully-fledged peace treaty by September 2000. Like all previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements, Wye II reflected the underlying balance of power between the two parties. Israel’s strong bargaining position was not only used to the hilt in negotiating successive agreements but also in modifying them after they had been reached. Binyamin Netanyahu had reservations about the Oslo accords, so he refashioned them in his own image and the result was the Wye River Memorandum. Ehud Barak had reservations about this Memorandum, so he refashioned it in his own image and the result was Wye II. How did the Palestinians figure in all this? The implicit answer is that beggars cannot be choosers.

All the deadlines written into the Sharm accord fell by the wayside. Barak seemed intent on giving the illusion of progress while avoiding the substance. He repeatedly stated that Israel will leave no stone unturned in striving for a settlement. But his words sounded rather hollow against the backdrop of persistent Israeli violations of the Oslo accords. The third Wye redeployment was not implemented. Arab villages around Jerusalem were not turned over to the Palestinian Authority as previously promised. The safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank was not opened. Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails were not released. Worst of all, the old Zionist policy of creating facts on the ground went forward at full tilt. More Arab land was confiscated on the West Bank, new hilltop settlements were established, existing settlements were expanded, and many more roads were built for the exclusive use of the Jewish settlers. True, the Oslo accord did not explicitly prohibit settlement activity. True, some settlement activity had gone on under all three previous prime ministers. But under Barak the building of settlements proceeded at a frenetic pace and in blatant disregard for the spirit of Oslo. Barak seemed intent on repackaging rather than ending the occupation and on tightening Israel’s control over the Palestinian territories. The vision of coexistence based on equality seemed utterly alien to his whole way of thinking.

One of the clearest illustrations of Barak’s belief that he could impose his own terms on the Palestinians was the summit held at Camp David in Maryland in July 2000. The request for the summit came from Barak and Bill Clinton, “the last Zionist” as one Israeli newspaper aptly called him, obliged. At the summit Barak presented a package which covered all the key final status issues, including a proposal for the division of East Jerusalem. His spokesmen loudly and repeatedly proclaimed that on Jerusalem he had gone further in meeting Palestinian demands than any other Israeli prime minister. This was true but it did not mean much since all previous prime ministers had dodged the question of Jerusalem because it was too hot a political potato to handle. All Israeli leaders since 1967, Labour as well as Likud, routinely repeated the slogan that united Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the State of Israel. What the official spokesmen omitted to mention was that in return for the modest concessions on offer, their leader insisted that the Palestinian Authority renounce any further claim against the State of Israel, including the right of return of the Palestinian refugees. Barak’s great mistake was to insist on an unequivocal statement about the end of the conflict because even if Arafat were to sign such a declaration, it would not have effectively ended the conflict. Arafat was in fact under strong pressure from his own people and from the leaders of some of the Arab states, notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia, not to sign on the dotted line. He was reminded that the entire Muslim world has a stake in Jerusalem, not just the Palestinians. In the end, after two weeks of talks, Arafat rejected the package and returned home to a hero’s welcome.

The collapse of the Camp David summit fuelled Palestinian frustration and deepened the doubts that Israel would ever voluntarily accept a settlement that involved even a modicum of justice. The conviction gained hold that Israel only understands the language of force. Ariel Sharon, the leader of the Likud, went on a much-publicized visit of the Haram al-Sharif in the old city of Jerusalem on 28 September and his visit detonated the powder keg. Barak had personally approved the visit against the advice of his security chiefs. Sharon himself claimed to be carrying a message of peace but, if so, why did he need a thousand security men to accompany him? Sharon is the most reviled man in the Arab world, and his name is indelibly linked to the massacre of the Palestinian refugees in the camps of Sabra and Shatila following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. His visit to the Muslim Noble Sanctuary provoked very angry reactions which quickly snowballed into a full-scale uprising -- the al-Aqsa intifada. The move from rocks to rifles on the Palestinian side and the resort to snipers, tanks, rockets, and attack helicopters on the Israeli side drove the death toll inexorably upwards. In the first three months of almost daily bloody clashes, 298 Palestinians, 13 Israeli Arabs, and 43 other Israelis were killed. The peace process ground to a standstill and many pronounced it dead.

The social and economic cost of the intifada, as well as the cost in human lives, has been staggering. The closure imposed by Israel on the territories is the most severe since 1996. Israel closed the borders of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, consigning 2.3 million people to an open-air prison. Some 110,000 Palestinians who work in Israel are idle. Unemployment  rose to 40 per cent as a result of the blockade. The economic punishment meted out by the Israeli occupation forces has been savage. Acres of Palestinian olive groves and farmland have been bulldozed by the Israeli army. The Palestinian economy lost more than £345million in the first 60 days of the crisis. Three years of progress were wiped out in two months of conflict.

On the diplomatic front, however, the conflict worked against Israel and in favour of the Palestinians. The brutality with which Israel tried to put down the popular uprising drew widespread condemnation. In the twilight of his presidency, Bill Clinton launched a vigorous initiative to broker a final peace deal between the two estranged parties. His peace plan shifted significantly in favour of the Palestinians on Jerusalem, borders, and refugees in comparison with the American “bridging proposals” tabled at Camp David. The crux of Clinton’s plan was that Israel would concede most of East Jerusalem (with the exception of the Jewish Quarter in the old city and a corridor leading to it), and in return the Palestinians would give up the UN-supported right of return of the 3.7 million refugees. On top of that, the Palestinians would get a state of their own on 95 per cent of the land of the West Bank and the whole of the Gaza Strip.

Ehud Barak accepted Clinton’s plan as a basis for negotiations, probably on the assumption that Yasser Arafat would reject it and he himself would score a propaganda victory. But Arafat confounded his calculations by accepting the American plan, albeit in a heavily qualified fashion. Electoral considerations also pushed Barak to change tack and to start sounding much tougher and much more pessimistic about the prospects of a US-brokered deal. An election of the prime minister will take place on 6 February, and the opinion polls show that Barak is trailing behind Ariel Sharon by as much as 20 points. While Sharon, the hardliner, is trying to soften his image to woo votes from the centre, Barak adopted hawkish rhetoric in the hope of recapturing the middle ground. He said he would not go to Washington to discuss peace until the Palestinians ended the violence. He also warned that the uprising could deteriorate into a full-scale confrontation in the region and raised the prospect of Israel annexing unilaterally large chunks of the West Bank. Once again, as so often in the past, the peace process is held hostage to the vagaries of the Israeli political system.

The Oslo accords did not fail; it was Ehud Barak, following in the footsteps of his undistinguished predecessor, who undermined them. The Oslo accords are about identifying and cultivating common interests; Barak’s behaviour all but destroyed the faith of the Palestinians in the possibility of cooperation and coexistence with Israel. Itzhak Rabin was in the construction business; Barak, despite the move he made from the army into politics, appears to have stayed in the destruction business. What is at stake in this conflict is not Israel’s security, let alone its existence, but its 1967 colonial conquests. Under the leadership of General Barak the Israeli army is waging a colonial war against the Palestinian people. Like all colonial wars it is savage, senseless, and directed in the main against the long-suffering civilian population. Small wonder that a growing number of IDF recruits and reservists are refusing to serve in the occupied territories.

Palestinian disenchantment with the so-called peace process is much more widespread and it goes much deeper. When the Palestinians embarked on the Oslo track they made a strategic choice: they assumed that they could advance towards a state of their own only by diplomacy and not by violence. Now they are not so sure. The al-Aqsa intifada seems to demonstrate that to make any impression on the Israel of General Barak, diplomacy must be backed by violence and the threat of violence. In other words, they learnt from bitter experience that the only language that Israel understands is the language of force. Ever since the first Oslo accord was signed, Yasser Arafat has been calling for the peace of the brave. Seven years on, he confronts an opponent who seems determined to impose the peace of the bully. But, in the long run, bullying cannot solve the Palestinian problem. The only sure way to end the conflict is by ending the occupation. What is more, by ending the occupation Israel would be doing itself a great favour. For, as Karl Marx pointed out a long time ago, a nation that oppresses another cannot itself remain free.