A testy debate between an Al Jazeera presenter and a former US ambassador, in which emotions were churned and index fingers were wagged, made for entertaining television. It also embodied a tug-of-war over how the history of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking should be remembered.
Martin Indyk, the American ambassador to Israel under president Bill Clinton, appeared on Mehdi Hasan’s Al Jazeera debate program Head to Head on May 13 to discuss the question, “Should the US be neutral on Israel-Palestine?”
The portion of the program that got the most attention, and that raised temperatures most, began when a panelist sneered about Israel “rampaging” around the region. Indyk has directed plenty of his own criticism at Israel. But the panelist’s overwrought hostility moved the former ambassador to remind the audience of Israel’s readiness, under prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, to turn over nearly all of the West Bank to a Palestinian state. “We had Barak and Olmert offering the Palestinians 95 to 97 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza and they didn’t take it” Indyk recalled.
In late 2000, Barak’s government formally accepted guidelines known as the Clinton Parameters, which among other things called for a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and nearly all of the West Bank. And in 2008, Olmert made an offer to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas that was even more far-reaching.
When Indyk noted a second time during the program that Israel agreed to turn over 95 to 97 percent of the West Bank, a visibly agitated Hasan pushed back:
Indyk (to panelist): If you cannot be satisfied — it’s fine, it’s fine, I understand it — but if you can’t be satisfied with 95 to 97 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza, then we cannot have a two-state solution–
Hasan: Because we don’t have time, we can’t get into this, but 95 to 97 is questioned by many Israelis, many Palestinians, many Americans–
Indyk: I was there.
Hasan: Okay, there were people who were there also who disagree with you. Yeah, they happen to be called Palestinians.
Indyk: Look, it’s easy to make fun of this, but it’s there in terms of what Clinton offered them.
Hasan: And both sides tabled reservations to the Clinton Parameters in December 2000, as you well know.
Indyk: No, Barak accepted them.
Hasan: That’s not true, but we’ll have to agree to disagree on that.
Indyk: I was there–
Indyk: –when the fax came from Barak’s office to my residence in Israel with the formal decision, signed by the prime minister, accepting the Clinton Parameters. So don’t tell me that I don’t know what I’m talking about.
In this exchange, Hasan promoted two related ideas. One is fairly common among revisionists hostile to the view that Israel accepted, and the Palestinians rejected, Clinton’s plan. Because “both sides tabled reservations,” as Hasan put it, it follows that both sides responded the same way. One can either say they both accepted the plan, the argument goes, or both rejected it. In the back-and-forth, Hasan seemed to choose the latter: “It’s not true,” Hasan replied after Indyk said Barak accepted the Clinton Parameters.
Hasan’s other argument — the initial one he raised and the one that sparked the tense exchange — goes even further. He suggested it is incorrect to say the Palestinians were offered 95 to 97 percent of the West Bank, presumably because the Israeli government expressed reservations.
Hasan Doubles Down
After the segment aired, Hasan revisited the disagreement in an article on the Al Jazeera website. Offering no change to his own position, Hasan insisted “the argument that Indyk forcefully advances in the clip is wholly and demonstrably incorrect.”
To back this up, Hasan cites statements by two Clinton-administration spokesmen, and a comment by Clinton himself, referring to acceptance of the plan by “both sides.” Those statements were made just after the Palestinian leadership first publicly rejected the Clinton Parameters and then, under international pressure, changed course, with Palestinian president Yasir Arafat privately telling the US president he accepted the plan with reservations.
Having cited these quotes, Hasan concludes: “If Indyk [and others] believe the Palestinians never wanted to accept the parameters and sign a peace deal with Israel, fine. Let them believe that. The historical record, however, says otherwise.”
But even if the Palestinians did accept the Clinton Parameters — more on that shortly — Hasan’s position is untenable. On the air, he said that it is “not true” that Israel’s Ehud Barak accepted the parameters. In print, meanwhile, he said the Palestinians accepted them, citing US officials as proof. But the very same officials Hasan cited, in the very same statements, explicitly noted that Israel, too, accepted the Parameters. This leaves Hasan, who told Indyk that Israel rejected the peace plan, at least as “wholly and demonstrably incorrect” as he claims Indyk is.
And there’s more. If Bill Clinton’s assessment is indeed authoritative, as the Al Jazeera column suggests, then Hasan should have agreed that the Palestinians rejected the plan. Because while it’s true that, in early 2001, with Clinton still hoping to salvage the crumbling peace process, the president diplomatically told an audience that both sides accepted his Parameters, a more plainspoken Clinton later said otherwise.
“An Error of Historic Proportions”
In a much-quoted passage from Clinton’s memoirs, the former president describes a meeting with Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader at the time:
Right before I left office, Arafat, in one of our last conversations, thanked me for all my efforts and told me what a great man I was. “Mr. Chairman,” I replied, “I am not a great man. I am a failure, and you have made me one.”
“Arafat’s rejection of my proposal after Ehud Barak accepted it,” he elaborated a few sentences later, “was an error of historic proportions.”
Ironically, on the very day Hasan’s program aired, Bill Clinton again took the opportunity to explain what happened during the peace talks. While campaigning for his wife’s presidential run, in response to an anti-Israel heckler, Clinton recounted that
I killed myself to give the Palestinians a state. I had a deal they turned down that would have given them all of Gaza, between 96 and 97 percent of the West Bank, compensating land in Israel, you name it.
So Clinton, unconstrained by the diplomatic maneuvering that sometimes comes with being president, has long been forthright with his view that Palestinians rejected his eponymous peace plan.
He’s not the only one.
Madeleine Albright, Clinton’s Secretary of State, referred in her memoir to “the Palestinians’ failure to accept the best peace offer they would ever get.”
Saudi prince Bandar bin Sultan told the New Yorker’s Elsa Walsh, “It broke my heart that Arafat did not take that offer.”
Dennis Ross, Clinton’s top negotiator during the event in question, said in a New York Times Op-Ed about Arafat’s rejection of the Clinton Parameters that
since the talks fell apart, there has emerged a mythology that seeks to defend Mr. Arafat’s rejection of the Clinton ideas by suggesting they weren’t real or they were too vague or that Palestinians would have received far less than what had been advertised. Mr. Arafat himself tried to defend his rejection of the Clinton proposals by later saying he was not offered even 90 percent of the West Bank or any of East Jerusalem. But that was myth, not reality.
In his book The Missing Peace, which recounted in fascinating detail those 2000 peace negotiations, Ross wrote of Arafat’s “actual rejection of the specifics of the Clinton ideas.”
Even Peter Beinart, a commentator normally found promoting the Palestinian narrative over the Israeli one, acknowledged in his book Crisis of Zionism that while “Arafat accepted the Clinton parameters in principle,” the Palestinian reservations “rendered his acceptance virtually meaningless.”
Not All Reservations Are Created Equal
That touches on the problem with the revisionist argument that, because both sides shared reservations, both sides responded identically. In reality, not all reservations are created equal.
“Some experts say Arafat later added so many conditions that the agreement fell apart,” a document on the Council on Foreign Relations said.
Indeed, Dennis Ross explained in his book that the Israeli prime minister “convened his security cabinet in Jerusalem and they voted to accept the Clinton ideas with reservations. But the reservations were within the parameters, not outside them.”
But on the other hand, Ross noted,
Arafat was not up to peacemaking. After the meeting with President Clinton, it was clear: he was not up to ending the conflict, and already he had effectively rejected the President’s ideas. His reservations were deal-killers, involving his actual rejection of the Western Wall part of the formula on the Haram, his rejection of the most basic elements of the Israeli security needs, and his dismissal of our refugee formula. All were deal-killers.
In a 2001 interview, Shlomo Ben Ami, who was Israel’s left-wing foreign minister during the peace talks as well as a negotiator, discussed the two sides’ reservations, and in the process revealed why top Americans officials viewed the Israeli response as acceptance of Clinton’s parameters and Arafat’s response as a rejection:
What was the Israeli reaction to Clinton’s parameters? Did Barak accept them wholeheartedly?
The president dictated the points to us and to the Palestinians in a conference room adjacent to the Oval Office in the White House. It was a Saturday. I remember walking from the hotel to the White House and back. Clinton explained that the parameters were not an American proposal but constituted his understanding of the midway point between the positions the sides had reached. Now everything depends on the decision of the leaders, he said, and asked for that decision to be made within four days.
The proposal was difficult for us to accept. No one came out dancing and singing, and Ehud especially was perturbed. At the same time, three days later, the cabinet decided on a positive response to Clinton. All the ministers supported it, with the exception of Matan Vilnai and Ra’anan Cohen. I informed the Americans that Israel’s answer was yes.
And the Palestinians?
Arafat wasn’t in any hurry. He went to Mubarak and then to all kinds of inter-Arab meetings and dragged his feet. He didn’t even return Clinton’s calls. The whole world, and I mean the whole world, put tremendous pressure on him, but he refused to say yes. During those 10 days there was hardly any international leader who didn’t call him – from the Duke of Liechtenstein to the president of China. But Arafat wouldn’t be budged. He stuck to his evasive methods. He’s like one of those stealth planes. Finally, very late, his staff conveyed to the White House a reply that contained big noes and small yeses. Bruce Reidell, from the National Security Council, told me that we shouldn’t get it wrong, that there should be no misunderstandings on our part: Arafat in fact said no.
But didn’t Israel also have reservations?
Yes. We sent the Americans a document of several pages containing our reservations. But as far as I recall, they were pretty minor and dealt mainly with security arrangements and deployment areas and control over the passages. There was also clarification concerning our sovereignty over the Temple Mount. There was no doubt that our reply was positive. In order to remove any doubts, I called Arafat on December 29, at Ehud’s instructions, and told him that Israel accepted the parameters and that any further discussion should be only within the framework of the parameters and on how to implement them.
In short, it was clear to key players that Arafat’s reservations ran contrary to the substance and spirit of the peace plan, and that his reserved “acceptance” of the offer as a basis for continued talks in essence amounted to a rejection and a call to renegotiate the principles.
A senior Palestinian negotiator concurred. On Jan. 8, 2001, less than a week after Arafat’s laid out his deal-killing reservations, Ahmad Qurei stated, “We can’t accept Clinton’s ideas as a basis for future negotiations or a future settlement. Clinton didn’t take Arafat’s reservations into account, and these ideas don’t offer our people their legitimate rights.”
Spurning Peace and Undermining a Narrative
In short, Martin Indyk was correct when he said Palestinians failed to accept a generous peace offer during Ehud Barak’s tenure and again during Olmert’s tenure. (Hasan’s article conveniently ignores Indyk’s reference to Olmert.)
Hasan, on the other hand, was wrong. His claims that Arafat accepted and Barak rejected the Clinton Parameters are irreconcilable — Arafat’s reservations, as many noted, were incompatible with the Parameters. And his appeal to Bill Clinton’s authority flopped — the former president couldn’t be more clear about his view that Arafat rejected the peace plan.
It’s easy to understand why an anti-Israel activist might want to strike from the record numerous Palestinian opportunities to have a state. These rejections of statehood undermine the claim that Palestinians are fighting only for freedom, and not against Israel per se. So some activists carefully avoid mention of the rejections, and let the omission silently bolster their case. Hasan’s type of revisionism, though, was loud and brash. To paraphrase from a recent Al Jazeera article: Let him believe it. But the historical record says otherwise.