By Lee HockstaderWashington Post
July 24, 2001
It may be too little and too late to change many minds, but the Palestinians have begun making an impassioned case that they are not to blame for the collapse of U.S.-mediated peace talks last year at Camp David and the subsequent descent into 10 months of violence. "The biggest lie of the last three decades is . . . that [then-Israeli prime minister Ehud] Barak offered everything [and] the Palestinians refused everything," said Ahmed Qureia, the Palestinians' top negotiator at Camp David last July.
Breaking a year of virtual public silence, Qureia joined a public debate that the Palestinians have left largely to the Israelis and Americans since the summit's collapse. In a meeting with foreign and Israeli journalists today, Qureia, who also served as chief Palestinian negotiator of the 1993 Oslo agreement, offered a view of events leading to the breakdown of peace efforts that was almost diametrically opposed to the Israeli version that has gained wide acceptance in the West.
Qureia scoffed at the notion that the Palestinians refused the "deal of the century" when they spurned Barak's territorial concessions at Camp David. He criticized the Clinton administration for slapdash preparations that he said contributed significantly to the summit's failure. And he insisted that the Palestinians, who regard their demands for refugee rights and the return of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip as firmly rooted in U.N. resolutions, were under no obligation to respond to Israel's ideas with counteroffers.
When Qureia speaks, many Israelis listen -- or at least they used to. For years, peace-minded Israelis heaped solemn praise on him, lauding his status as speaker of the Palestinian parliament, his skill as a negotiator and his infectious charm. Qureia, known popularly as Abu Ala, has close ties with scores of Israelis who have held senior positions in right- and left-leaning governments, as well as virtually unrivaled access and connections to Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader.
But since the onset of bloodshed that began in September, two months after the Camp David talks collapsed, Israelis of all political stripes have stopped listening to the Palestinians -- and vice versa. Convinced that the Palestinians had been planning their armed uprising for months, then launched it to escape blame for the breakdown in peace talks, Israelis have been united in opposition to their nearest Arab neighbors as seldom before.
Qureia, a student of Israeli politics and society, did not seem to be trying to change Israeli minds. Instead his remarks -- which meshed with other recent descriptions of the talks, including that of former National Security Council official Robert Malley and Hussein Agha in the New York Review of Books -- seemed designed to chip away at Israel's success in persuading Americans and Europeans that the Palestinians should bear the lion's share of the blame for the current turmoil.
He stressed that the territorial concessions contemplated by Barak at Camp David -- to cede 91 percent of the West Bank to Arafat and annex the other 9 percent -- would have carved Israeli-controlled cantons out of the West Bank and dashed any hopes for a viable, territorially contiguous Palestinian state.
Qureia described a tense face-off with President Bill Clinton on the third day of the Camp David summit, when the Israelis laid out a map showing how the West Bank could be divided between Israeli and Palestinian control. Qureia insisted that the
Palestinians were entitled to all the West Bank land Israel conquered in 1967, with only minor modifications in the form of territorial swaps. At that, he said, Clinton lost his temper and asked Qureia what his proposals were.
"I said, 'Mr. President, I don't have proposals. My proposal is the 1967 borders,' " Qureia recalled. "I told him this is the basis, the term of reference of this process. He said, 'But you should offer a proposal.' "I told him, 'Mr. President, I cannot take my hand, part of my body [and] give it to somebody else.' " Qureia asked Clinton to show him "what things realistically he needs that will not affect the viability of our [Palestinian] state, the contiguity of our land, because this is the future of the Palestinian people."
Qureia said Clinton became angry and said, " 'Sir, you hold personally the responsibility for the failure of the summit. If you want to address speeches, go to the United Nations Security Council, address speeches there. Don't waste my time here.' " With that, Qureia said, Clinton left the room. Qureia said he complained later to Clinton's aides that the president had overstepped his role. "He was a mediator. And to blame the Palestinians in front of the Israelis is not fair," he said.
He said Clinton compounded the damage by publicly blaming Arafat after the summit ended in failure -- something he had promised Arafat in advance he would not do.
Qureia suggested that Israel's insistence on retaining control of Palestinian border crossings to Egypt and Jordan made a mockery of Palestinian sovereignty. And he argued that Israel never clarified any offer to share Jerusalem with the Palestinians, displaying neither documents nor maps but instead floating vague proposals through the American mediators.
He acknowledged that the two sides made some progress at the Red Sea resort of Taba in a further round of negotiations -- without American mediators -- shortly before Barak lost his reelection bid to Ariel Sharon in February. There, Israel improved its territorial offer and the two sides began discussing the details of establishing a border between them. But even in Taba, he said, they remained far apart on the question of sharing Jerusalem and on the fate of 3.6 million Palestinian refugees. Ordinarily voluble, Qureia dodged few questions today. But when asked what mistakes the Palestinians made, he demurred.
"So many," he said. "It's better that others speak about it."