Evidently vexed that the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at Camp David has been seen almost universally as Arafat’s fault, the New York Times is out to change minds. Readers awoke on July 26th to an extraordinary front-page apologia for the Palestinians running nearly 6,000 words (this followed a July 8 Op-Ed by Robert Malley defending Arafat, and preceded a like-minded Times editorial on the 28th).
This salvo by outgoing Jerusalem bureau chief Deborah Sontag marshaled “peace advocates, academics, and diplomats” to explain that, actually, prime minister Ehud Barak was not especially forthcoming at Camp David — in addition to being insensitive to Palestinian feelings — and PLO Chairman Arafat has been grievously misrepresented.
While noting that “many Israelis” have, admittedly, lost faith in “Mr. Arafat” and that “an increasing number believe that he once more has his sights fixed on destroying Israel,” Sontag makes clear she knows better than the people. A “potent. simplistic narrative has taken hold in Israel and to some extent in the United States,” she declares. “It says: Mr. Barak offered Mr. Arafat the moon at Camp David last summer. Mr. Arafat turned it down, and then ‘pushed the button’ and chose the path of violence.” But, Sontag insists, “Mr. Barak did not offer Mr. Arafat the moon.”
In a recounting of events leading up to and through Camp David, Sontag describes the Palestinians as well-meaning but helplessly buffeted by events beyond their control, then pushed unfairly into having to consider Israel's offer of nearly the entire West Bank, Gaza, half of Jerusalem, parts of the Temple Mount, and compensation and resettlement of the Palestinian refugees.
As to why the Palestinians balked at even more Israeli concessions months later in the chaotic days of violence and negotiations at Taba, Sontag offers a delicately formulated excuse. “They were not emotionally poised to abide by the political timetables of others,” she explains.
The unprecedented onslaught of Palestinian terrorism, no doubt a discordant note in the Times preferred rendering of events, is all but unmentioned, and the demonizing of Jews and Israel, which intensified in the period just after the collapse of the Camp David talks and undoubtedly helped fuel the mob violence that exploded in late September, is entirely excluded. (One group monitoring Palestinian television wrote in prescient language in the late summer of 2000 that intensive broadcasting of old intifada footage with its images of violent clashes and emotional funerals, the playing of martial music, and the villifying of “Satanic Jews” indicated an “eve of war” mentality among the Palestinians.)
Omitted completely are the numerous declarations by Palestinian leaders that, indeed, the current mini-war was planned by Arafat in the wake of Camp David.
Palestinian Communications Minister Imad al-Faluji, in comments consistent with those of other PA officials, stated: “Whoever thinks that the intifada broke out because of the despised Sharon's visit to Al-Aksa Mosque is wrong… The intifada was planned in advance, ever since President Arafat's return from the Camp David negotiations, where he turned the tables upside down on President Clinton.”
Sontag, however, still casts then prime ministerial candidate Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount as provoking the violence.
Nor is the reporter any more complete and candid in presenting various experts’ views on the collapse of the Camp David/Taba talks. UN representative Terje Larsen and “Rob” Malley are cited repeatedly rationalizing Arafat's actions. Yet when she quotes from a published interview with “long-serving American mediator Dennis Ross” she neatly omits much-publicized statements by him that radically undercut the Times’ airbrushing of the Palestinian failure to end the conflict with Israel.
Thus omitted was Ross's statement that 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.” Likewise in quoting former American ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, Sontag omits observations in an Israeli interview in which he stated flatly that Arafat has yet to renounce violence as a negotiating tool even though this was the bedrock commitment of the Palestinians in the Oslo Accords.
But the distortions of the Sontag story and related Times coverage rest not only on omission of key information about the year since Camp David.
They build on the Times’ chronic omission, since Arafat's arrival in the territories in 1994, of his ongoing campaign — in Palestinian school texts and media, and his own speeches — to delegitimize Israel, to rally Palestinians and other Arabs to continued pursuit of Israel's destruction, and to assure his constituency that Oslo is only a phase in his “plan of phases” for Israel's ultimate defeat.
Sontag's and the Times’ revisionism regarding Camp David and its aftermath are only the latest chapter in seven years of whitewashing Arafat.
Originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on August 17, 2001.