Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was famous for saying that
it was more important what the Jews did than what the non-Jewish world said
about what they were doing.
There was, and still is, a great deal of truth to that proposition. When it
comes to matters of self-defense and building your own home, there are times
when true leaders must simply say to the devil with hypocritical world
opinion and do what must be done.
But there have been times when the opposite is true. When it comes to
diplomacy between the State of Israel, its ally the United States and the
Palestinian Arabs, what the Israelis actually try to do to achieve peace
often matters far less than how the rest of the world perceives those
actions. Like it or not, Israel and its supporters are about to play out
this same frustrating scenario again.
The much-ballyhooed Middle East peace conference sponsored by the Bush
administration set to take place next month in Annapolis, Md., has sent
Israel's leaders, as well as those of the Palestinian Authority, into
overdrive as they attempt to position themselves in advance of the conclave.
Hovering over both Jerusalem and the P.A. headquarters in Ramallah is what
happened the last time the United States sponsored such an event.
THE 2000 PRECEDENT
In July of 2000, the Clinton administration was desperate to revive the
failed Oslo process, and invited both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to the presidential retreat at Camp David,
Md., to go the last mile to achieve a settlement.
Clinton seemed, even at the time, to be more focused on his desire for a
Nobel Peace Prize as his presidential legacy than on the realities on the
ground. But his desire for a settlement was real. So was that of Barak, who
threw all of Israel's bargaining chips on the table and offered the
Palestinians more than any other Israeli government had ever done: a state
on virtually all of the West Bank with a share of redivided Jerusalem to
serve as its capital. But despite Clinton's pleas, Arafat refused to take
yes for an answer.
Two months later, Arafat's response to Barak's peace offer morphed from
verbal intransigence to open combat as he launched a second "intifada" ‹ a
terrorist war of attrition that sought to bring Israel to its knees. Though
it cost Israel more than a thousand dead and far more for the Palestinians,
the intifada eventually failed.
In September 2000, Shlomo Ben Ami, Barak's foreign minister, told me that as
bad as the Camp David fiasco had been, at least it showed the world that it
was the Israelis who wanted peace and the Palestinians the ones who had
chosen war. Never again, he said, would Israel be labeled as the fomenter of
But he could not have been more wrong.
A post-Camp David Palestinian propaganda offensive sought to edit the
Israeli offer out of the history books. Despite the fact that Clinton backed
Israel's account of Arafat's responsibility, the Palestinian big lie worked.
Few media accounts of the conflict placed the intifada firmly in a context
of Arab rejectionism.
Since then, the much-publicized opinions of people like David Malley, a
minor Clinton-administration functionary, as well as former President Jimmy
Carter, who backed the false Palestinian account of Camp David, have managed
to transform the discussion about the event from a settled fact into a faux
historical dispute in which both sides are treated as equally culpable. In
the long run, it mattered less what Barak actually did at Camp David than
the lies that were told about it afterward.
All of this explains much of the activity of both the Israelis and the
Palestinians prior to Annapolis.
Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seem as desperate to promote
the equally illusory chances of Israeli-Palestinian peace as Clinton was
more than seven years ago. Their goal is to distract the Arab world and
domestic critics from the war in Iraq.
That leaves Israeli Prime Minister Olmert frantic to avoid the impression
that he will be the one to cause Annapolis to fail. So Olmert has tacked
left, pumping up the idea that P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas is a genuine peace
partner and allowed a close associate to float the idea that another
Jerusalem division scheme will be part of a proposed settlement.
But Abbas still has plenty of reasons to avoid a deal that he knows he can't
get Palestinians (especially those that back his Hamas rivals who control
Gaza) to accept. And he also understands that he can always count on
anti-Zionist agitprop to bail him out.
But the probability of diplomatic failure at Annapolis pales before the
danger of far worse repercussions if this turns into a repeat of the
disaster of 2000. And that's where Israel's perennially divided supporters
come in. While the very legitimacy of pro-Israel advocacy is increasingly
under fire as a result of "The Israel Lobby" controversy, silence about the
summit is exactly what is not needed.
The broad-based coalition of Jews and non-Jews that supports Israel here
needs more than ever to make it clear to the Bush administration that it
must not allow a repeat of Camp David 2000. The administration's hunger for
a diplomatic triumph must not serve as an excuse for pressure on Olmert to
make concessions, especially when there seems little, if any, chance that
they will be reciprocated.
NO IMMUNITY FROM ATTACKS
As was the case with Barak, Olmert's willingness to embrace far reaching
concessions will not protect Israel from post-summit attacks, both verbal
and physical, from those who will never make peace at any price.
Since Palestinian refusal to give up on the right of return makes real
progress unlikely, we can expect that Israel's foes will still be hoping to
parlay the inevitable failure of Annapolis into momentum for a renewed
assault on Israel's legitimacy as well as that of the pro-Israel movement
As such, now is exactly the time that Jewish groups as well as Christian
supporters of Israel need to speak up, not to oppose the summit or diplomacy
itself, but against American strong-arm tactics employed against Israel to
ensure either that the meeting takes place or to guarantee some sort of
Enthusiasm for peace is understandable, but rhetoric that paints a
misleading portrayal of Israeli unwillingness to compromise its security as
an "obstacle" to peace today will undoubtedly play a part in post-Annapolis
What both the administration and Jewish left-wingers who are eager for Rice
to wield a big stick at Israel's expense must remember is that the blame for
a summit failure is not an intellectual parlor game but, as Clinton's Camp
David folly proved, a vicious battle whose price may eventually be paid in