Israel's offer of vast concessions to the Palestinians at Camp David and Taba, and the Palestinians' brush-off and resort to violence, apparently continue to disturb The New York Times' preferred view of Israel as culpable - and to prompt rewriting of the record.
A 6,000-word front-page story in July seeking to exonerate the Palestinians set off a firestorm of criticism, including op-eds and magazine articles deploring the article's distortions. The Times' Serge Schmemann added to the newspaper's deceptive rendering of the negotiations in a November 25 story entitled “America Tries, Again, to End the Endless Conflict.”
As American emissaries William Burns and Anthony Zinni were dispatched to the Middle East under pressure from European and Arab leaders for more US involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Schmemann declared: “Against the backdrop of a global war on terrorism, and after a period that saw the two sides come right to the edge o f agreement, and then fall back into destructive violence, there was a sense that this must be the final round.” But the “two sides” did not “come right to the edge of agreement,” according to many of the key players in the discussions. On the contrary, Israel's foreign minister at the time and a negotiator at the talks, Shlomo Ben-Ami, said in an extensive interview in Ha'aretz in September it became profoundly clear there was no intention on the part of the Palestinian side to reach an agreement.
Never in the negotiations between us and the Palestinians was there a Palestinian counterproposal. There never was and there never will be. So the Israeli negotiator always finds himself in a dilemma: Either I get up and walk out because these guys aren't ready to put forward proposals of their own, or I make another concession. In the end, even the most moderate negotiator reaches a point where he understands that there is no end to it.
He described the “total contempt” and “dismissiveness” with which the Palestinian side rejected even a “minimal” affirmation that the Temple Mount is a site “sacred to the Jews.” This rebuff came as the Israelis were offering the unprecedented concession of Palestinian control of the surface of the Temple Mount but asking for Jewish rights to the subterranean areas of the expanse on which the ancient Jewish temples stood.
“At the deepest level, they are not ready to recognize that we have any kind of title here,” Ben-Ami concluded. Longtime US envoy Dennis Ross also bluntly stated after the talks collapsed Arafat “really can't do a permanent deal. He could never do better than what Clinton put on the table, and he wouldn't accept that.”
Schmemann has long been cavalier in references to Oslo as well, reiterating here that:
however haltingly and despite enormous suffering on both sides, the Israelis and Palestinians had made remarkable strides since they agreed to the Oslo process in 1993...Though both sides failed to live up to many of their obligations, and most deadlines were missed ...it did elicit the recognition that both sides would have to live in neighboring states.
Here, too, Ben Ami's conclusions in the wake of the intensive negotiations were at odds with the Times. He said Arafat considered Oslo simply a:
formal concession. Morally and conceptually, (Arafat) didn't recognize Israel's right to exist. He doesn't accept the idea of two states for two peoples. He may be able to make some sort of partial, temporary settlement with us ...but at the deep level, he doesn't accept us. Neither he nor the Palestinian national movement accept us.
Schmemann does allow - without any reference to these devastating observations by a senior Labor government negotiator at Camp David — that “there is a fierce, ongoing dispute over what led to the failure of Camp David.” But, he insists, “the fact is that the great taboos of refugees and Jerusalem were breached” and “the outlines of a comprehensive settlement” were sketched.
Such a conclusion not only disregards the realities of the Camp David talks themselves but also excludes mention of the fact the parties to the negotiations repeatedly and clearly stipulated the proposals on the table were null and void if an agreement were not reached.
Having mischaracterized what actually happened, Schmemann then asks what might stand in the way of America's imposing on the parties a variation of the ultimate offer made by Israel and rejected by the Palestinians. The answer: Ariel Sharon would be the problem. Sharon, he claims, may have come some distance toward “accepting the notion of a Palestinian state,” but there were “elements that the conservative military veteran would never accept, such as the partitioning of Jerusalem, which to many Israelis is their 'eternal and undivided capital' or the abandoning of so many settlements or some of the security arrangements.”
In fact, most of the Israeli public opposed the vast concessions at Camp David and Taba, and a large majority support the positions of their prime minister on the core issues in dispute, including security requirements. Those positions became even more popular among Israelis in the wake of Arafat's rejection of Israel's Camp David and Taba concessions and President Clinton's bridging proposals, a rejection that convinced even many of the most dovish Israelis, like Shlomo Ben-Ami, that Arafat and his associates do not want peace with Israel.
There is no hint of Arafat's culpability, or that of his minions, in Schmemann's narrative.
Originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on this date.