In his memoirs, the former US president Bill Clinton writes that the Camp David summit, of which this month marks the fourth anniversary, was the greatest failure of his career. And that, he says, was overwhelmingly Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's doing -- for, unlike Israeli Premier Ehud Barak, who had been ready for "enormous concessions," the Palestinian leader couldn't "make the final jump from revolutionary to statesman."
There is one reason that, even if he believes this, he should not, even now, be so publicly proclaiming it. Camp David was essentially Barak's brainchild. Desperate for a breakthrough in the moribund peace process, he conceived the gambit of telescoping both the still unaccomplished "interim phases" of the Oslo agreement and "final-status" issues into one grand, climactic conclave that would "end the 100-year conflict." Clinton only persuaded a deeply reluctant Arafat to attend at all by pledging not to blame him for an inglorious outcome.
But blame him is precisely what Clinton did at the time. And that he should still be doing so renders his partisanship even more grossly out of place. For the controversy of which it is a part has moved on -- and much in Arafat's favor. It revolves around a second case, almost as momentous as Iraq, where intelligence was politicized and corrupted to serve a preconceived agenda.
The story began with that ill-fated conference; it was the turning point, most agree, that led to the Intifada. But who was actually to blame for this is where the disagreement lies. The standard Israeli version, to which Clinton thus lends weight, is that Arafat was. Yet this version, already heavily eroded, has just suffered another damning blow from a quarter more authoritative than Clinton -- Amos Malka, the head of Israeli military intelligence at the time.
The chief mantra of this version was that Arafat proved himself "no partner for peace." 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. This theory had enormous consequences that persist to this day. It was bought by just about the entire Israeli public. 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 -- betrayed the trust they had placed in him. The genuine "peace camp" dwindled almost to nothing. Before long, both left and right were ready for the "savior" who promised a simple military solution; Ariel Sharon replaced Barak at the head of the most bellicose Israeli government ever.
America bought it too, with the press almost unanimously outdoing Clinton himself in praise of the "most generous Israeli offer ever" and condemnation of the "rejectionist" Arafat. The partisanship came to full fruition under the Bush administration, especially after Sept. 11. For 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," he endorsed Sharon's scheme for "unilateral disengagement" from Gaza, and its quid pro quo: Israel's right to retain almost all its illegal settlements and the vast swath of the West Bank in which they are located.