Former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami reveals: Arafat tricked Israel -
wants to break us
IMRA: If the following excerpts from Ari Shavit's interview of former
foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami "End of a journey" published in the 13
September 2001 edition of the magazine section of Ha'aretz was an interview
of a corporate lawyer discussing business negotiations the shareholders
would have grounds to take him to court for failing to reveal this
information and assessment with the shareholders at the time of the
Excerpts from "End of a journey" published in the 13 September 2001 edition
of the magazine section of Ha'aretz
By Ari Shavit
Question: Shlomo Ben-Ami, what were the assumptions that guided you and the
prime minister, Ehud Barak, when you set out, in the spring of 2000, to
terminate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Answer: "We had a number of working assumptions, but I think the most
important of them was the basic assumption that has been shared by the
Americans, the Europeans and the Israeli center-left for years: that Oslo
created a rational order in the Middle East based on give-and-take, which in
the future would lead to an acceptable compromise; that in 1993 a
quasi-state of the Palestinians was established, in terms of orderly
international relations. In retrospect, this turned out to be a mistaken
assumption, It turned out that for [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat it was
a huge camouflage net behind which he fomented, and continues to foment,
political pressure and terrorism in different dosages in order to undermine
the very idea of two states for two nations."
Question: And what about Jerusalem and the refugees?
Answer: ... ". After our meetings, Abu Ala brought the joint document of Abu
Ala and Yossi Beilin and showed me how many reservations Abu Mazen himself h
ad about that document, especially in regard to the refugees.
"By the way, not only Abu Mazen but Arafat too had reservations about the
document. When I asked Arafat about it in a talk we held in Gaza a few
months later, he replied contemptuously: `Words, words.' [in Hebrew edition:
Arafat was not prepared to relate to that document as any kind of basis.
Down the line they did not accept the most basic of parameters I therefore
came to the conclusion that it is forbidden to continue generating such
papers of back-door diplomacy. It does not commit the Palestinians and they
only use it to soften their target in advance.]"
Question: Didn't the Palestinians make a counterproposal?
Answer: "No. And that is the heart of the matter. 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."
Question: Are you saying that on July 16, 2000, in a conversation with
Clinton, Yasser Arafat agreed to give Israel about a tenth of the West Bank?
Answer: "I am quoting to you from what I recorded in my diary on July 17:
`Yesterday Arafat made a counterproposal to Clinton in relation to the
scenario of the previous night. He is ready to give territory of between 8
and 10 percent. He told Clinton: I leave the matter of the [territorial]
swap in your hands, you decide. He is ready for security arrangements as
will be decided. He places the emphasis on an international force. We will
find a solution on the refugee issue, too. Everything now stands or falls
over Jerusalem. Arafat wants a solution there that he can live with."
Question: Is this the origin of the Camp David formula for a territorial
exchange: 9 percent of the territories in return for 1 percent of sovereign
Answer: "That formulation was never crystallized in a binding document. But
from the beginning of the second week at Camp David, it was in the air. It
was our working assumption. And it was based on what Arafat had said. Not on
some canton scheme of Israel's, but on explicit remarks by Arafat. I
remember that on the 17th, I went to Ehud's cabin and I ran into Clinton,
who was just coming out of the cabin, and he told me the same: that Arafat's
message is readiness for 8 percent with a token territorial swap in the Gaza
"In other talks that day, Clinton said that `the Israelis did something
precedent-setting, and there was genuine and essential movement here to get
to 80 percent of the settlers and a united Jerusalem under Israeli
sovereignty.' His impression was that the whole package was beginning to
fall into place. But some time later Arafat retracted. He conveyed a note to
Clinton in which he retracted."
Question: Isn't it possible that what Arafat did was to brilliantly maneuver
the Israeli side into breaking the great taboo of Jerusalem, by creating the
false impression that if you would only make a concession on Jerusalem,
everything else would be easily resolved and an agreement could be signed?
Answer: "I don't know. I wouldn't be surprised if what he wanted at that
moment was simply to extricate himself from the plight he was in because of
the flexibility we showed and the American pressure on him. So he said a few
words to Clinton, which was no big deal from his point of view. You know,
when he went with us to Sharm al-Sheikh and promised to stop the shooting,
he also said a few words. But did he actually stop the shooting?"
Question: Still, in the wake of this dynamic, the Camp David conference
became the Jerusalem conference. Isn't it the case that you didn't reach a
binding territorial agreement, you didn't formulate a solution for the
refugee question, all you did was divide Jerusalem?
Answer: "That is not completely accurate. It's true that there was a
regression at Camp David on the question of the refugees, but the feeling
was that there was flexibility on the territorial issue - that the peace
would not stand or fall on this issue. And in the security group, there were
very positive discussions that advanced the process. The concept of a
multinational force was crystallized. I also do not accept the argument that
we divided the city at Camp David. The decision on the division of Jerusalem
came only with the acceptance of Clinton's parameters five months later.
"You have to understand one thing: we at Camp David were moving toward a
division in practice but with the aspiration of reaching an agreement that
didn't look like a division. The big problem there was that the Palestinians
weren't willing to help us with that. They weren't ready for any face-saving
formulation for the Israelis. Not on the issue of the Temple Mount, not on
sovereignty, not on anything. Arafat did not agree to anything that was not
a complete division at Camp David. Therefore, even Bob Malley, whom everyone
now likes to quote, told me at some stage that the Palestinians simply want
to humiliate us. `They want to humiliate you' were his words." [The
reference is to an article by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley - a member of
the U.S. peace team and a special assistant to President Clinton - "Camp
David: The Tragedy of Errors," The New York Review of Books, August 9,
Question: I understand that there was a stage at which Barak astonished
everyone by agreeing to divide the Old City of Jerusalem into two quarters
under Israeli sovereignty and two quarters under Palestinian sovereignty.
Did he do that on his own or was it a joint decision made by the entire
Answer: "As I told you, I suggested that a special regime be introduced in
the Old City. In the wake of that discussion, some time later, the president
put forward a two-two proposal, meaning a clear division of sovereignty. In
a conversation with the president, Ehud agreed that that would be a basis
for discussion. I remember walking in the fields with Martin Indyk [of the
State Department] that night and both of us saying that Ehud was nuts. We
didn't understand how he could even have thought of agreeing. Afterward I
wrote in my diary that everyone thinks that Amnon [Lipkin-] Shahak and I are
pushing Barak to the left, but the truth is that he was the one who pushed
us leftward. At that stage - this was the start of the second week of the
meeting - he was far more courageous than we were. Truly courageous. Clinton
told me a few times: I have never met such a courageous person."
Question: So it was over this that Camp David collapsed, the Palestinian
rejection of an American proposal on Jerusalem that you found inadequate?
Answer: "No. Camp David collapsed over the fact that they refused to get
into the game. They refused to make a counterproposal. No one demanded that
they give a positive response to that particular proposal of Clinton's.
Contrary to all the nonsense spouted by the knights of the left, there was
no ultimatum. What was being asked of the Palestinians was far more
elementary: that they put forward, at least once, their own counterproposal.
That they not just say all the time `That's not good enough' and wait for us
to make more concessions. That's why the president sent [CIA director
George] Tenet to Arafat that night - in order to tell him that it would be
worth his while to think it over one more time and not give an answer until
the morning. But Arafat couldn't take it anymore. He missed the applause of
the masses in Gaza.
"At 9 A.M. the next day, Arafat and Barak and Clinton met one more time. We
stood outside and prayed that something would somehow come of it: that when
Arafat would grasp that this was truly the 11th hour, he would, despite
everything, reconsider. But they came out five minutes after they started.
It was over."
"But when all is said and done, Camp David failed because Arafat refused to
put forward proposals of his own and didn't succeed in conveying to us the
feeling that at some point his demands would have an end. One of the
important things we did at Camp David was to define our vital interests in
the most concise way. We didn't expect to meet the Palestinians halfway, and
not even two-thirds of the way. But we did expect to meet them at some
point. The whole time we waited to see them make some sort of movement in
the face of our far-reaching movement. But they didn't. The feeling was that
they were constantly trying to drag us into some sort of black hole of more
and more concessions without it being at all clear where all the concessions
were leading, what the finish line was."
... I remember that at a certain point, I proposed to Arafat that we delay
the discussion on Jerusalem for two years. `Not even for two hours,' Arafat
said, waving two of his fingers."
...I believe today that no rational Israeli leader could have succeeded in
reaching a settlement with Arafat at that encounter. The man is simply not
built that way."
..."Arafat's discourse is never practical, either. His sentences don't
connect and aren't completed. There are words, there are sentences, there
are metaphors - there is no clear position. The only things there are, are
codes and nothing else. At the end of the process, you suddenly understand
that you are not moving ahead in the negotiations because you are in fact
negotiating with a myth."
...He is a kind of eternal globetrotter who is simply afraid to face up to
reality. That's why he is always fleeing from decision-making. I don't know
any precedent in history for such severe behavior of fleeing decisions as
that of Arafat."
Question: Are you suggesting that the Intifada was a calculated move by the
Palestinians to extricate them from their political and diplomatic
Answer: "No. I am not attributing that kind of Machiavellian scheme to them.
But I remember that when we were at Camp David, Saeb Erekat said that we had
until September 13. And I remember that when I visited Mohammed Dahlan and
from his office spoke with Marwan Barghouti, he also said that if we didn't
reach an agreement by the middle of September, it would not be good. There
was a tone of threat in his words that I didn't like. So, when you look at
the course of events and see that the violence erupted exactly two weeks
after September 13 [the seventh anniversary of the Oslo accords], it makes
you think. One thing is certain: the Intifada absolutely saved Arafat."
"By September we were talking about 7 percent [of the West Bank to be
retained by Israel] in return for 2 [percent of sovereign Israeli territory
to be transferred to the Palestinians]. I think we also dropped the demand
for sovereignty in the Jordan Rift Valley."
Question: Throughout this whole period, didn't the Palestinians present maps
of their own? Was there no Palestinian geographical proposal?
Answer: "They did not present maps at all. Not before Taba. But at Camp
David I did chance to see some sort of Palestinian map. It was a map that
reflected a concession of less than 2 percent on their part in return for a
territorial swap in a 1:1 ratio. But the territories they wanted from us
were not in the Halutza dunes, they wanted them next to the West Bank. I
remember that according to their map, Kochav Yair, for example, was supposed
to be included in the territory of the Palestinian state; they demanded
sovereignty over Kochav Yair."
Question: When the talks resumed in November-December, as the violence
raged, but with elections for prime minister in the offing, in what area did
they make progress?
Answer: "Mainly on the Jerusalem question. By this stage, we had agreed to
the division of the city and to full Palestinian sovereignty on Haram
al-Sharif, but we insisted that some sort of attachment of ours to the
Temple Mount be recognized. I remember that when we held talks with Yasser
Abed Rabbo at Bolling Air Force Base, I raised the following idea without
consulting anyone: the Palestinians would have sovereignty on the Temple
Mount, but they would undertake not to conduct excavations there because the
place was sacred to the Jews. The Palestinians agreed not to excavate, but
under no circumstances would they agree to give us the minimal statement,
`because the site is sacred to the Jews.'
"What particularly outraged me on that occasion wasn't only the fact that
they refused, but the way in which they refused: out of a kind of total
contempt, an attitude of dismissiveness and arrogance. At that moment I
grasped they are really not Sadat [Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who
signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979]. That they were not willing to
move toward our position even at the emotional and symbolic level. At the
deepest level, they are not ready to recognize that we have any kind of
Question: Three days later, on December 23, 2000, at the end of the Bolling
talks, Clinton convened you again and presented his narrow parameters. What
Answer: "Ninety-seven percent: 96 percent of the West Bank [to the
Palestinians] plus 1 percent of sovereign Israeli territory, or 94 percent
of the West Bank plus three percent of sovereign Israeli territory. However,
because Clinton also introduced into this formulation the concept of the
safe passage route - over which Israeli sovereignty would be ethereal - it
could be argued that the Palestinians got almost 100 percent. Clinton
constructed his proposal in such a way that if the Palestinians' answer was
positive, they would be able to present the solution to their public as a
solution of 100 percent."
Question: And Jerusalem?
Answer: "As the reports said: what is Jewish is Israeli, what is Arab is
Palestinian. The Temple Mount would be under full Palestinian sovereignty,
with Israel getting the Western Wall and the Holy of Holies. But Clinton, in
his proposal, did not make reference to the `sacred basin' - the whole area
outside the Old City wall that includes the City of David and the Tombs of
the Prophets on the road to the Mount of Olives. We demanded that area, in
which there are hardly any Arabs, but the Palestinians refused. During the
night, there was a very firm phone call between Barak and Clinton on this
subject, because we were afraid he would decide against us. As a result of
that call, the subject remained open. Clinton did not refer to it."
Question: What about the refugees?
Answer: "Here Clinton tried to square the circle. He went toward the
Palestinians to the very end of the farthest limit of what we could accept.
His formulation was that `the two sides recognize the right of the refugees
to return to historic Palestine' or `to return to their homeland,' but on
the other hand, he made it clear that `there is no specific right of return
to Israel.' We were pleased that he talked about a two-state solution and
that the Palestinian state was the homeland of the Palestinian people and
Israel the home of the Jewish people.
"The mechanism he referred to was more or less that of Stockholm. He
obligated a certain absorption of refugees in Israel, but subject to
Israel's sovereign laws and its absorption policy."
Question: What about the security arrangements and demilitarization?
Answer: "We insisted that the Palestinian state be demilitarized. The
president suggested a softer term: a `non-militarized state.' He also
asserted that we would have a significant military presence in the Rift
Valley for three years and a symbolic presence at defined sites for three
more years. We were given three early-warning stations for a 10-year period
with the presence of Palestinian liaison officers."
Question: Was there an explicit ban on Palestinian use of tanks, war planes
Answer: "No. To the best of my knowledge, we didn't reach those details.
They were certainly not mentioned by Clinton. But that was the intention."
Question: And what about air and water rights?
Answer: "The Palestinians refused to enter into a discussion about the water
issue, so Clinton did not make any reference to the subject. On the other
hand, with regard to air space, the term was `agreed use.' Clinton declared
that sovereignty over air space would be Palestinian, but recognized
Israel's right to make use of it for training purposes and for operational
needs, providing such use would be agreed. One idea was that the ways for it
to be used would be on a mutual basis: by giving the Palestinians the right
to make nonmilitary use of Israeli air space."
Question:What was the Israeli reaction to Clinton's parameters? Did Barak
accept them wholeheartedly?
Answer: "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."
Question: And the Palestinians?
Answer: "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."
Question: But didn't Israel also have reservations?
Answer: "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."
Question: In the light of all this, was there any point in holding the Taba
meeting? After all, you went all the way to the red line and the
Palestinians said it wasn't enough. What was there left to talk about?
Answer: "The truth is that Ehud thought exactly that. He didn't want to go
to Taba. He didn't see any point or purpose in it. But at this stage there
was a pistol on the table. The elections were a month away, and there was a
minister who told Ehud that if he didn't go to Taba they would denounce him
in public for evading his duty to make peace. He had no choice but to go to
a meeting for something he himself no longer believed in."
Question: So what did you talk about in Taba? What new progress was made
Answer: "We insisted that Clinton's parameters for negotiations would not be
thrown open for renewed discussion in any sphere, that we would address only
the question of how to implement them. The Palestinians, however, tried to
whittle away at the parameters. They tried to squeeze a bit more out of us:
on the Jerusalem question they didn't accept the idea of the Holy of Holies,
which appears explicitly in the Clinton proposals. And on the refugee issue
they suggested a formulation that meant that they had their own reading of
[United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, December 11, 1948], while
the Israelis had a different reading. They said `we have to establish the
right of return and then discuss the mechanisms.' That demand of principle
infuriated me no less than when they occasionally mentioned numbers [of
Question: What sort of numbers did they mention?
Answer: "Look, I didn't sit opposite them in the negotiations on the refugee
issue at Taba. But the various information papers that were passed around at
Taba contained some extraordinary numbers. What do you think of 150,000
refugees a year during a 10-year period?"
Question: And what did we propose?
Answer: "Yossi Beilin said he proposed 40,000. I don't know whether that is
really the figure, but with that figure it was obvious that no deal could be
struck unless the ends were left loose for additional claims in the future."
Question: What was the new map you showed the Palestinians at Taba?
Answer: "Here it is, you can see for yourself. The brownish-mustard color is
Palestinian, the white is Israeli. It represents a ratio of 94.5 percent [of
the land for the Palestinians] against 5.5 percent. And that's before the
[territorial] swap, of course."
Question: Did you reach agreement on a territorial exchange?
Answer: "No. It turned out that the Palestinians don't like the idea of the
Halutza dunes. I'm not crazy about it either. I see that area as a last
reserve for Zionist settlement inside the  Green Line. So we examined
the possibility of transferring land in the southern Mount Hebron region, in
the area north of Arad. But that was extremely difficult - half a percent
here, a quarter there. I'm not sure that the whole idea of a land swap is
feasible. It could be that the only way to do it is by moving the border
with Egypt to the east and then giving the Palestinians Egyptian territory
adjacent to the Gaza Strip. But neither we nor the Palestinians wanted to
raised that idea with the Egyptians."
Question: Is it the case that Israel would have to uproot about a hundred
settlements according to the new map?
Answer: "I don't know the exact number. But we are talking about uprooting
many dozens of settlements. In my view, that map also fails to meet the goal
we set ourselves and to which Clinton agreed - 80 percent of the settlers in
sovereign Israeli territory."
Question: Did the Palestinians accept this map?
Answer: "No. They presented a counter-map that totally eroded the three
already shrunken [settlement] blocs and effectively they voided the whole
bloc concept of content. According to their map, only a few isolated
settlements would remain, which would be dependent on thin strings of narrow
access roads. A calculation we made showed that all they agreed to give us
was 2.34 percent."
Question: You say that during this whole period between June and January, in
the period when you conceded the Rift Valley and accepted the idea of a
territorial swap and divided Jerusalem and handed over the Temple Mount -
that the whole movement of the Palestinians toward Israel was in fractions
of percentage points. So, all they added to the pledge of 2 percent that
they gave Clinton from the outset was 0.34 percent?
Answer: "It's hard for me to argue with you. But that is exactly why the
criticism we have taken from the left leaves me gaping. I simply don't
understand it. It's true that both Barak and I were sort of `outside
children' of the left. Neither of us is a professional peace industrialist.
But look where we got to. Tell me what more we were supposed to do."
Question: Shlomo Ben-Ami, you and Ehud Barak set out on a journey to the
bowels of the earth, as it were, to the very heart of the conflict. What did
Answer: "I think that we found a few difficult things. First of all,
regarding Arafat, we discovered that he does not have the ability to convey
to his Israeli interlocutors that the process of making concessions has an
end. His strategy is one of conflict."
Question: Are you saying that he is not a partner?
Answer: "Arafat is the leader of the Palestinians. I cannot change this
fact; it is their disaster. He is so loyal to his truth that he cannot
compromise it. But his truth is the truth of the Islamic ethos, the ethos of
refugees and victimization. This truth does not allow him to end his
negotiations with Israel unless Israel breaks its neck. So in this
particular aspect, Arafat is not a partner. Worse, Arafat is a strategic
threat; he endangers peace in the Middle East and in the world."
Question: So he still does not recognize Israel's right to exist?
Answer: "Arafat's concession vis-a-vis Israel at Oslo was a formal
concession. Morally and conceptually, he 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 - though I
have doubts about that, too - but at the deep level, he doesn't accept us.
Neither he nor the Palestinian national movement accept us."
Question: Your criticism goes beyond Arafat personally to include also the
Palestinian national movement as a whole?
Answer: "Yes. Intellectually, I can understand their logic. I understand
that from their point of view, they ceded 78 percent [of historic Palestine]
at Oslo, so the rest is theirs. I understand that from their point of view,
the process is one of decolonization, and therefore they are not going to
make a compromise with us, just as the residents of Congo would not
compromise with the Belgians.
"But when all is said and done, after eight months of negotiations, I reach
the conclusion that we are in a confrontation with a national movement in
which there are serious pathological elements. It is a very sad movement, a
very tragic movement, which at its core doesn't have the ability to set
itself positive goals.
"At the end of the process, it is impossible not to form the impression that
the Palestinians don't want a solution as much as they want to place Israel
in the dock of the accused. They want to denounce our state more than they
want their own state. At the deepest level they have a negative ethos.
This is why unlike Zionism, they are unable to compromise..."
Question: You reached these hard conclusions in the course of the
Answer: "I think that is accumulated. There were several instances that
caused me to reach the conclusion at the end that the Palestinians always
leave strings untied not out of some evil plan but instead in order to leave
open the possibility that someone in the future will take the ends of these
strings and try to unravel the Jewish State."
...The hardest thing was Arafat's reaction to the Clinton parameters. We
really reached our red lines there. And we reached them with a government
that had no parliamentary or public basis with the Intafada in the
background and the army commanders against us....If Arafat had said a
ringing yes at the end of December he would have save the Barak Government
and save the peace....
He saw us sinking and the peace sinking and the time was running out. I
clearly understood only then that for him the negotiations will only end
when Israel is broken."
...we should stop in the place we reached with Clinton and try to implement
this solution with the help of the international community."