Memo To: Bill Clinton, former President of the U.S.
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: The Camp David Offer to Yasir Arafat
I've been thinking a lot about you lately, Mr. President, in connection with the billowing crisis in the Middle East. Specifically, about the attempt you made in your last days in the Oval Office to put together an historic deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. It is now 15 months since then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak put the final offer on the table before he went to face re-election defeat the following month. At the time, I could see no way Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat could have accepted it, unless he might see if it could be made the basis for further negotiation. Barak came a long way at Camp David, and was heavily criticized by his right-wing in Tel Aviv for "giving away too much." I really have to agree with Ari Fleischer, President Bush's Press Secretary, who inadvertently said that as you were running out of time, you tried to "shoot the moon," a betting term for winning it all. Why not? In retrospect, we can now say you failed, but we also can say you succeeded in showing how far an Israeli Prime Minister thought he could go to achieve a solid settlement. I'm only sorry that in your final comment, you praised Barak for his concessions and chided Arafat for not trying hard enough. That's what people remember and I do not think it was fair.
The big problem is that as days and weeks and months have gone by, the Barak offer is cited again and again by the friends of the current Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, as proof positive that Arafat has never been serious – or he would have grabbed the offer. The fact is, Mr. President, that Arafat never rejected the offer outright. As Deborah Sontag reported in her excellent account in The New York Times last July: "Mr. Arafat did eventually authorize his negotiators to engage in talks in Taba [Egypt] that used the Clinton proposal as a foundation. Despite reports to the contrary in Israel, however, Mr. Arafat never turned down '97 percent of the West Bank' at Taba, as many Israelis hold. The negotiations were suspended by Israel because elections were imminent and 'the pressure of Israeli public opinion against the talks could not be resisted,' said Shlomo Ben-Ami, who was Israel's foreign minister at the time." The last session at Taba, remember, was January 21, 2001, the day after you turned the Oval Office over to Mr. Bush.
It is said again and again that Barak offered the Palestinians 95% of the West Bank and a position in Jerusalem. As far as I can tell, Mr. President, Barak's generous offer of the West Bank looks like a slice of Swiss cheese. Israel would continue to count the 40 settlement areas as its own and count the highways connecting them up as sovereign territory. They would also keep control of the border crossings on those highways, which would mean Palestinians who needed to travel a few miles from one spot in Palestine to another might have to drive 50 miles to make the trip. Just imagine if the United States permitted New Jersey to secede from the union and establish itself as a sovereign state, but the federal government would keep control of 40 towns across the state, keep control of the borders, and maintain the Garden State Parkway, the New Jersey Turnpike, and Interstate 80 as federal highways that could not be crossed without Uncle Sam's permission, and then only at specified checkpoints.
As for Jerusalem, as far as I can tell, Arafat was offered control of the Islamic holy places, but Israel would keep control of the surrounding streets and avenues. Like permitting Catholics to get into St. Patrick's Cathedral if they could maneuver through the Israeli tanks and artillery surrounding it on Fifth Avenue and the adjoining streets.
Don't get me wrong, Mr. President, I am still saying this was progress, and could now provide the basis of a settlement. The difference is the intervening year of violence, which has sickened the ordinary people of the region, and prompted the Arab League into making its historic offer last month in Beirut. For the first time since the creation of Israel by the United Nations in 1947, the entire Arab world has decided it will normalize relations with Israel and guarantee its perpetual sovereignty. Imagine if you had this offer with you at Camp David? Barak would not have had to ask for the security measures throughout the West Bank, as they would no longer have to control highways, settlements and checkpoints. Barak would not have to take Arafat's word. He would have the word of the entire Arab League, which would secure the borders long after Arafat's departure. As for Jerusalem, I think President Bush can speak for all Americans.... Protestants, Catholics, Jews and Muslims... in recommending that it be an open city, the capital of both Israel and Palestine... with security forces comprised of men and women of all faiths.
If you would speak out along these lines, Mr. President, I think it would make life a lot easier for everyone concerned, here and in the Middle East. You do deserve a lot of credit for what you did accomplish at Camp David. If the crisis in the Middle East gets any worse, though, a point of no return will be reached, and all your work and President Bush's work will go up in flames.