In the world of summit diplomacy, it has long been customary to throw cold water on any really important meeting of world statesmen well in advance of its occurrence: that way no one gets too excited beforehand or too disappointed afterward. In the case of this week’s Camp David meeting between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak, however, the advance noises have been pessimistic to the point of caricature. President Clinton, commenting on the summit last week actually warned of the “abject dreariness” of the coming negotiations. The Palestinian Authority’s official position is that “in spite of the optimistic reports,” there is still a “long and difficult path to put an end to a century-old conflict,” and Arafat has recently said that the peace talks are “in crisis.” Barak himself didn’t need to say anything: The mere fact that his government fell apart on the eve of his departure for Washington—three of the coalition parties resigned, depriving him of his parliamentary majority—would have been enough to dampen any unwarranted enthusiasm, had there actually been any in evidence.
In fact, Barak’s difficulties are symptomatic of a deeper problem, not only with this summit in particular, but with Arab-Israeli summits in general. To start with, the expression “Arab-Israeli” is itself flawed, as anyone who has ever spent 10 minutes in the Middle East already knows. There has long been a small group of Palestinians, and a small group of Israelis, who are more than willing to do a deal. But if it were that easy, a deal would have been done a long, long time ago.
In fact, there aren’t “Arabs” as such: Even the multitrack organization of Middle East peace negotiations is designed to reflect the existence of Palestinians and Syrians and Lebanese and others, each with their separate histories, their separate relations with Israel, their separate agendas for the future. But what the negotiations don’t—and can’t—reflect is that there aren’t really “Palestinians” either. That is, there are Palestinians who live in Gaza, Palestinians who live on the West Bank, Palestinians who support the Palestinian Authority, and Palestinians who support Hamas, among others. And all these factions have their separate agendas, separate histories, and separate traditions as well.
Nor, needless to say, are there “Israelis” either. There isn’t, in other words, one nation which has one set of feelings regarding the Palestinians, or the territory Israel acquired during the 1967 war—territory which is referred to by some as “the West Bank,” or “the occupied territories” and by others as “Judea and Sumaria,” depending on their ideological orientation. In fact, I find it difficult to think of another country whose citizens are so prone to provide not only different interpretations of events but also different factual accounts of the events themselves. Some of these deep divides are reflected in the fractious Israeli political system, but they go beyond it too. Would that this were only about “Left” and “Right” or hawks and doves: To that, you have to add not only the traditional cultural splits, between religious Jews and secular Jews, European Jews and Middle Eastern Jews as well as the newer divisions between recent Russian immigrants and old post-war settlers, not to mention rich vs. poor. For a flavor of how much these various groups dislike each other, read Uri Dan’s attack on Barak in the Jerusalem Post and Ha’aretz’s defense of him against “the fanatics, the ranters and ravers.” Then ask yourself whether they could really be talking about the same person.
Given that the entities of “Palestine” and “Israel” are in fact not unitary entities, but rather squabbling coalitions composed of various groups who might at any point decide to chart their own course (is it that hard to imagine a group of Palestinians rejecting any agreement, and starting their own jihad?), the question of just who is talking to whom at a Camp David summit becomes a somewhat ambiguous one. In fact, neither of the main protagonists can confidently claim to speak with the voice of his respective nation.
On the one hand, there is Arafat: old, tired, under heavy criticism for the manifold failures of the Palestinian Authority—and, limited by the fact that he is, effectively, speaking for the entire Muslim world. That makes him unlikely, for example, to give up the Palestinian claim to sovereignty over Jerusalem: He would lose the backing of too many people, not only in Palestine but in the Arab states that have long supported the Palestinian cause. He isn’t a man with a free hand, a man who can wheel and deal as he wishes: There is his own future to think of, the interests of a wide range of people, money, political support, power.
On the other hand, there is Barak, who has an interesting dilemma in front of him. As we know, he is no longer head of a majority government, and on Monday, he narrowly escaped being ousted altogether by a vote of “no confidence.” About 45 percent of his countrymen, according to a poll this week, feel that he doesn’t represent them, and don’t think he should go to the summit at all. In good faith, can he sign an agreement handing over large chunks of the West Bank (or whatever you want to call it) to what inevitably seems destined to become a Palestinian state? And if he does, will that spark riots, protests, new elections, a new leadership, rollback—and so on? Although he has announced his intention to deal “as a leader of the nation” and then hold a referendum afterward, he isn’t exactly a free agent either.
Yet at the same time, you would be hard pressed to find two men who really do, in their various ways, have a claim to speak for their respective nations. Arafat, it hardly needs noting, has been fighting these battles for a long, long time. He has been the international face of Palestine abroad, for better or for worse, certainly as long as I can remember. Although the same cannot be said of Barak, the man has served as commander of the Israeli army’s elite commando unit and as chief of military intelligence and chief of staff of the Israeli army itself. He has played a prominent role in peace negotiations since 1993. Quite a lot of people don’t think much of him, but in Israeli’s direct prime ministerial elections, he was supported by 56 percent of the popular vote. If not these two men, then who?
In a most undemocratic way, the choice is theirs. Any Arab-Israeli deal is virtually guaranteed to produce angry, even violent opposition. Therefore, if a really meaningful breakthrough is to be achieved, both men will have to detach themselves from the factional, domestic politics at home; ignore the probable negative consequences for themselves and their political parties; cast aside petty concerns about things like “the next elections”; close their eyes; cross their fingers; sign; and hope for the best. And that’s asking a lot of politicians, I know.