In July 2000, US President Bill Clinton called Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to the Presidential Retreat at Camp David, Maryland. Clinton sought to work out a final agreement and end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Like President Jimmy Carter before him in 1979, Clinton decided that in order to do so he needed to call the leaders together in a secure place and hammer out the final details of a deal that would reshape the Middle East for generations.
Barak was determined to reach an agreement. Arafat, however, could not bring himself, his Authority or his people to make the concessions necessary for peace. Twenty years after the summit failed, the extent of both the Palestinian missed opportunity and the “nakba” (catastrophe) Arafat set in motion have become clearer. Forsaking Barak’s maximalist offer, Arafat set his people upon a path of terror and confrontation. It could not have worked out worse.
Two weeks ago, almost exactly 20 years after Arafat gave his final rejection to Palestinian-Israeli peace, the United Arab Emirates made a separate peace with Israel. With very few exceptions, the reaction from the Arab world was inaudible. Indeed far from being embarrassed by its actions, the UAE seemed almost brazen, at times going further in normalizing relations than Israel anticipated.
Last week it was Sudan, for decades one of the leaders of the Arab rejectionist front, that announced it too was exploring peace with Israel (although the Sudanese Foreign Ministry subsequently backtracked). Other Arab nations seem likely to follow, leaving the Palestinians increasingly isolated.
It didn’t have to be this way. At Camp David Barak offered the Palestinians everything they realistically could have hoped for. Israel’s offer included approximately 97% of the West Bank the land swaps making up most of the difference) and the entire Gaza Strip, 3/4 of the Old City of Jerusalem and shared sovereignty over the Western Wall and the Muslim “Noble Sanctuary”. So extreme was Barak’s offer that the majority of Jewish deputies in the Knesset were prepared to oppose it. The future of the Jewish State likely could have been determined by Arab MK’s. Civil war in Israel could not be ruled out.
And still Arafat said no. His goal was to internationalize the conflict. To gain a Palestinian State at Camp David he had to agree to an “End of Conflict” with Israel. This was a bridge too far. Having spent his life as a revolutionary, Arafat could not translate that into tangible gains for his people, especially if it meant real compromise. Instead, Arafat counted on the international community becoming so tired of the conflict that it would pressure Israel back to the pre-1967 cease fire lines and would recognize a Palestinian state unilaterally without the Palestinians having to make the ultimate compromise.
Arafat was half right. The international community did tire of the conflict. Instead of collectively pressuring Israel to unilaterally withdraw, however, it chose to ignore the Palestinians. First Arafat and then his successor Mahmoud Abbas misjudged one thing very badly. The Palestinians had little to offer.
The world did not stop when Arafat said no. Iran, Hezbollah and ISIS all rose. Each was a danger to most of the Arab states. Israel, so long the source of Arab enmity, became instead a potential partner, with shared interests and threats. Unlike the Palestinians, the Israelis have tangible benefits to offer. If the Palestinians did not seem to care about the advancement of their own people, why should the Sudanese or Emiratis?
Perhaps no one personifies the price paid by the Palestinians for their obstinance more than Marwan Barghouti. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, respected for his lack of corruption, concern for human rights and for the daily lives of the Palestinian people, considered in 2000 a worthy and honorable successor to the leadership of the PA, Barghouti instead threw in his lot with Arafat and joined in the terror war that the PA launched in Camp David’s aftermath. The man who should have been planning Palestinian economic and educational achievement instead planned the massacre of Israeli civilians.
Arrested and jailed for murder in 2002, he languishes in Israeli prison to this today, almost two decades later. A truly able man in the prime of his life when jailed, Barghouti now is over 60 years old. Like Palestinian society as a whole, his talents and productivity have been wasted for a generation.
Frustrated and fed up, the rest of the Arab world is moving on. They have removed themselves from responsibility for people who won’t help themselves. Twenty years after a viable Palestinian state was theirs for the taking, the Palestinian people have nothing to show for the time since, and no one to blame but themselves.