Only we in the West are surprised by the Camp David failure

Ordinary Arabs and Israelis knew all along that the really important issues would not be properly addressed
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The Independent Online

When the world's media - and more than a few diplomats - predicted violence in the aftermath of the failure of the Camp David talks, it was a sign of just how out of touch they all were. Commentators on the Middle East waffled on about the "dangerous vacuum" that existed after Messrs Arafat and Barak returned home, and an Israeli officer turned up on CNN to talk about the very same "vacuum" and the need to take tough measures against "terrorism" (for which read Arabs). But our reaction was really about our own arrogance.

When the world's media - and more than a few diplomats - predicted violence in the aftermath of the failure of the Camp David talks, it was a sign of just how out of touch they all were. Commentators on the Middle East waffled on about the "dangerous vacuum" that existed after Messrs Arafat and Barak returned home, and an Israeli officer turned up on CNN to talk about the very same "vacuum" and the need to take tough measures against "terrorism" (for which read Arabs). But our reaction was really about our own arrogance.

Why should either side in the Arab-Israeli struggle suddenly turn to violence now? Why should the Arabs react in this way? After all, they have realised for years - as we have not - that the Oslo agreement was doomed, that its deviation from the UN Security Council resolutions upon which it was supposedly founded has gone so far that there is no chance of a satisfactory outcome to the four issues that finally paralysed Arafat and Barak at Camp David: Jerusalem, settlements, the Palestinian right of return and a Palestinian state. Only journalists and governments pretended that Camp David could succeed. We supposed that the Arabs would only realise the collapse of Oslo when we did.

Likewise, television reporters expressed surprise when Arafat was given a hero's welcome back in Gaza and Barak a cold shoulder in Jerusalem. The truth is that we have grown so used to Arafat giving away yet more "concessions" and the Israelis taking more from the Palestinians that, when the opposite happened, we failed to understand the perfectly natural reaction of the people who live in the region. For once - uniquely - the old Palestinian chairman had not returned with another capitulation. He had stood up to the United States and Israel. He who once called the late King Hussein a "Saladin" was elevated to the role of "Saladin of the century".

It's all sorry stuff, of course. This Saladin is not going to gallop into Jerusalem. He's not going to stop the Jewish settlement building. Mere mention of the "right of return" had long ago assumed - in the West, at least - the aspect of an unmentionable subject. Indeed, as the Palestinian scholar Edward Said has pointed out, anyone who suggested that the right of return of Palestinian families to their original homes in what is now Israel should be debated was treated with scorn; merely raising the issue could "upset the peace process".

In reality, the "return" is already changing its nature. In Lebanon, for example, the UN claims that there are up to 250,000 Palestinian refugees. The Lebanese suggest the figure might be as high as 350,000. In fact, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine estimates that there may be only 133,000 Palestinians - at most - left in Lebanon. The rest, they calculate, have been resettled abroad: in Denmark, Norway, France, the US. At least one State Department official has suggested in a private paper that half a million Palestinians or more might be given residence in the US. And who could blame a Palestinian for seizing such an offer if it rescued him from the faeces-encrusted streets of Sabra, Chatila and Ein el-Helwe camps?

We should not be surprised, however, if Mr Arafat - who made his "peace of the brave" with Israel on the basis of trust rather than written guarantees - has a few more betrayals up his sleeve. If he goes on demanding sovereignty over east Jerusalem (and thus refuses to "compromise" over Israel's illegal annexation of the city) and insists on a state in September, his millions of dollars from the US will be abruptly halted. So too, no doubt, the EU's aid. And Mr Arafat needs this money to enrich his ministers and followers, to pay his bodyguards and jailers and prison torturers.

As for Mr Barak, we managed to get him wrong too. When he was elected with such a massive personal vote, CNN told us that he now had a mandate to make peace. It forgot to point out that his party lost seats in the Knesset and that his government would therefore be inherently unstable. Thus did the democratically elected Israeli prime minister return from Camp David last week to face the scorn of his people while the ruler of "Palestine" received a dictator's reception. Utterly predictable, the Arabs and Israelis might have told you. But as usual, we knew best.

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