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Opinion

How Arafat saved Israel from Ehud Barak

The terror chief’s miscalculation prevented Israel from making extremely dangerous territorial concessions and bringing on a war that would have been far more costly than the one it got.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak addresses the Chatham House think tank in London, March 27, 2023. Source: YouTube.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak addresses the Chatham House think tank in London, March 27, 2023. Source: YouTube.
Kenneth Levin
Kenneth Levin is a psychiatrist, historian and author of The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People Under Siege.

On June 19, the Israel State Archives released material showing that during Dec. 2000 negotiations, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak was prepared to give up Israeli sovereignty over parts of the Old City of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.

At the Camp David talks five months earlier, Barak had already offered the Palestinian Authority control over territories that went far beyond what most Israeli military strategists believed the nation could give up and still retain defensible borders.

U.S. envoy Dennis Ross, who was involved in all the relevant discussions, later stated, “Barak’s government … formally accepted ideas that would effectively divide East Jerusalem, end the IDF’s presence in the Jordan Valley, and produce a Palestinian state in roughly 97 percent of the West Bank [as well as all of Gaza].” Ross added that Barak agreed to give up the Temple Mount as well. 

In contrast, Barak’s predecessor Yitzhak Rabin, even as he pursued the Oslo process, had insisted that Israel hold on to parts of Judea and Samaria in order to block traditional invasion routes and protect both Jerusalem and the low-lying coastal plain, home to some 70% of Israel’s population.

In his last speech to the Knesset before his assassination, Rabin declared, “The borders of the State of Israel, during the permanent solution, will be beyond the lines which existed before the Six-Day War. We will not return to the 4 June 1967 lines.”

“These are the main changes, not all of them, which we envision and want in the permanent solution,” he said. “First and foremost, united Jerusalem, which will include both Ma’ale Adumim and Givat Ze’ev, as the capital of Israel, under Israeli sovereignty.”

Rabin further stated that “the security border of the State of Israel will be located in the Jordan Valley, in the broadest meaning of that term” and spoke of “changes which will include the addition of Gush Etzion, Efrat, Beitar and other communities, most of which are in the area east of what was the ‘Green Line,’ prior to the Six Day War” and “the establishment of blocs of settlements in Judea and Samaria.”

The factors that shaped Rabin’s strategic considerations did not change between his speech and Barak’s concessions. Yet Barak tossed Rabin’s considerations aside essentially on his own.

P.A. and PLO chief Yasser Arafat, having rejected Israeli and American proposals at Camp David and offered no counter-proposals, launched a terror war in Sept. 2000. But even before Camp David, as reports of what Barak was prepared to concede leaked out, elements of Barak’s coalition began to abandon the government.

When Arafat initiated his terror war and Barak failed to respond strongly, public opinion turned definitively against Barak. He retained the support of less than a third of the Knesset, with no mandate to pursue negotiations. Yet he did so nonetheless, offering Arafat further concessions.

In early Dec. 2000, it became clear that Barak’s government was about to fall. Rather than face a vote of no confidence, he resigned. A date was set for new elections, but in the interim Barak would serve as head of a caretaker government. While it is not enshrined in law, caretaker governments are not supposed to make major policy decisions. Yet Barak pressed on with negotiations until a week before the elections.

Arafat had made clear even on the day the initial Oslo Accords were signed at a White House Rose Garden ceremony in 1993 that he saw the accords as a stage in the process of Israel’s destruction. On the evening of the ceremony, he appeared on Jordanian television explaining that the accords were the first step in the PLO’s 1974 “plan of phases.”

According to this plan, the PLO would acquire whatever territory it could through negotiations and use it as a base to annihilate the Jewish state. Indeed, some years before the phased plan was adopted, Arafat explicitly stated that a terror war prosecuted from bases in the West Bank and Gaza could fatally undermine Israel. It was clear that once Arafat had exhausted his acquisition of territory by negotiations, he would launch an armed conflict.

Barak, however, offered much more territory than Arafat could have hoped for. The terrible costs to Israel of Arafat’s terror war are well known, but those costs would have been much higher if Arafat had agreed to Barak’s offers and then initiated his terror war.

The current understanding of Arafat’s refusal is that he would have been required to sign an end-of-conflict agreement in return for Israel’s concessions. He was not prepared to do so because it would inhibit his freedom of action against Israel as he pursued his ultimate goal.

There are problems with this explanation, however. Arafat had a long history of reneging on agreements with Arab leaders. He did so many times with Jordan’s King Hussein prior to Arafat’s attempted coup in Jordan in Sept. 1970. He did the same in regard to the Lebanese government after he and the PLO relocated to southern Lebanon. He had forgone all his obligations under the Oslo Accords to end his support for terror and anti-Israel incitement.

Thus, the question remains: Why did Arafat refuse to sign a final status agreement, pocket Barak’s concessions and breach the agreement after having gained the territorial advantage?

It may be that Arafat was concerned about the optics of such an agreement and what it would convey to his followers.

More likely, however, Arafat knew that he was already very ill. Taking control of the territories Barak conceded would take several years. This meant his terror war would not be launched immediately. He could not tolerate the thought that he might die before he had his chance to attempt to destroy Israel. If he had, the final status agreement would be his legacy, while his heirs would reap the glory of casting it aside.

Whatever the details of Arafat’s calculations, his rejection of Barak’s concessions and launching his terror war without the advantage of the additional territories ultimately saved Israel from a war that would have been far more costly.

As to Barak’s proffered concessions, it is an obvious understatement that leaders who pursue self-deluding, potentially suicidal policies and render their nation dependent on the missteps of its enemies are courting national disaster. To say that Israel needs to eschew such leaders is another understatement.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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