Just a year after the abortive Israeli-Palestinian "peace" talks at Camp David, one of Israel's greatest public relations triumphs – persuading the world that the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, was to blame for the collapse of the summit – is turning into a hollow victory.
For despite Israeli and American claims that Mr Arafat turned down an offer of "96 per cent" of the Palestinian occupied territories, one of former president Bill Clinton's senior Middle East advisers now says that Mr Clinton and the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, were equally responsible for the failure of the Camp David initiative.
Writing in the New York Review of Books, Robert Malley, who was Mr Clinton's special adviser on Arab-Israeli affairs, claims that Mr Barak failed to honour previous Israeli agreements – assurances which Mr Clinton had been personally guaranteed to Mr Arafat. Mr Barak, the author writes, failed to fulfil promises to withdraw from three villages around Jerusalem and to release Palestinian prisoners – provoking an angry confrontation with Mr Clinton.
The article, which is co-authored with Hussein Agha, a former Arafat adviser and university don, reveals only two of the reasons why Mr Arafat failed to reach a peace agreement but already the claims have severely damaged Israel's repeated assertion that the Palestinian leader "turned to violence" after "massive concessions" from Israel.
Immediately after the Camp David talks broke down, Israel mounted a huge public relations exercise to convince the international community that it had made unprecedented offers to Mr Arafat which amounted to the return of almost the entire occupied Palestinian territories. Israeli embassies wined and dined Western newspaper editors with stories of the supposed 96 per cent of land which was offered to Mr Arafat, repeating the tired old shibboleth that the Palestinian leader "never lost an opportunity to lose an opportunity".
Mr Clinton took the unprecedented step of appearing on Israeli television to blame Mr Arafat. American journalists dutifully reported that the Palestinian Authority president – out of greed or stupidity – had demanded the return of 100 per cent of the occupied land and, failing to achieve this, opted for a second intifada in which more than 600 men, women and children, the vast majority of them Palestinians, have been killed by Israeli soldiers, Jewish settlers, Palestinian guerrillas and suicide bombers.
In reality, Palestinian officials and American sources – the latter wisely avoiding Israeli condemnation by talking anonymously – have pointed out that the figure of 96 per cent represented the percentage of the land over which Israel was prepared to negotiate – not 96 per cent of the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Left out of the equation was Arab east Jerusalem – illegally annexed by Israel after the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six Day War – the huge belt of Jewish settlements, including Male Adumim, around the city and a 10-mile wide military buffer zone around the Palestinian territories.
Along with the obligation to lease back settlements – built illegally under international law on Arab land – to Israel for 25 years, the total Palestinian land from which Israel was prepared to withdraw came to only around 46 per cent – a far cry from the 96 per cent touted after Camp David.
With his usual inability to explain himself, Mr Arafat failed to explain these details after Camp David, preferring to concentrate on Israel's refusal to grant Palestinians sovereignty in east Jerusalem – an important symbolic point but by no means the only reason for Camp David's failure.
The Israelis had only offered the Palestinians "control" over some Arab streets in Jerusalem – a miniature version of the little "bantustans" that already exist in the West Bank – and "control" over the Al Aqsa mosque and its surrounds, the territory beneath (including the remains of the Jewish Temple) being under Israeli sovereignty. The Palestinians were apparently to receive some territorial waters in the Dead Sea – upon which they could hardly build any houses.
Mr Malley's disclosures – which do not include the percentage breakdown of land to be offered back to Mr Arafat – appear a little self-serving. By making Mr Barak share the blame for the collapse of Camp David, he cleans up Mr Clinton's image as a Middle East peacemaker, presenting him as a victim of Mr Barak's double-cross as well as Mr Arafat's intransigence.
According to the two authors, Mr Barak decided, for domestic political reasons, not to keep his promise to withdraw from the three villages outside Jerusalem, allowing instead the rapid construction of new – and illegal – Jewish settlements on Palestinian land.
He did not, the authors say, want to alienate the Israeli right wing before a final peace settlement. Mr Arafat was therefore reluctant to attend the talks even before they began – and suspicious of Mr Barak because the latter wanted to negotiate first with Syria.
The painful linguistic vice from which all US policy makers suffer in their attempts to be even-handed while at the same time being Israel's closest ally, was all too evident yesterday when the Arabs perused Washington's reaction to the killing by Jewish settlers of two Palestinian civilians and a three-month-old baby.
Never afraid to refer to the Palestinian murder of Israelis as "terrorism", the State Department referred to the latest killings as a barbaric attack of "unconscionable vigilantism".Reuse content