Ever since the failure of the Camp David summit in July, 2000, it's been an article of political faith in Israel that Yasser Arafat seeks the "demographic destruction" of Israel through the so-called Right of Return, the principle that the families of Palestinians driven from their homes during the violence surrounding the foundation of Israel in 1948 should be able to return to them. Arafat, it was claimed, would demand that 300,000-400,000 refugees be resettled in Israel as part of a peace arrangement, creating a demographic time bomb that would put an end to Israel as a Jewish state. (I don't know when that particular figure began being used, but it could be based on a 2003 survey of Palestinians in the region which concluded that about 10% of them, or 373,000 Palestinians, would choose to live in Israel, with the rest preferring some Palestinian entity.) Thus, as the Israeli daily Haaretz said on June 11, when then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak made a "generous offer" to Arafat at Camp David and
the latter refused to accept it, his real face was exposed: that of a terrorist who aims at the destruction of Israel.The ultimate result has been Ariel Sharon's "unilateral disengagement" marked by erecting the dividing wall in the West Bank and turning Gaza into a gulag.
This theory ... is believed by most Israelis today and has also won many fans abroad. It was readily absorbed in ground soaked with the blood of intifada victims. [Shaul] Mofaz, first as chief of staff and then as defense minister, and Moshe Ya'alon, first as Mofaz's deputy on the General Staff and later as his successor, adopted the so-called konseptzia ["conception"] and spread it. Politicians from both right and left agree with it, as does the director of MI [Military Intelligence], Major General Aharon Ze'evi (Farkash).
The driving force behind this conception of Arafat's intentions was Amos Gilad, who headed the research division of Israel's military intelligence agency at the time. Subsequently, he was the coordinator of activities in the territories (2001-2003) and now heads the political-security branch of the Ministry of Defense.
There's only one problem with this conception: It's not true.
Or, at the very least, the tales with which Gilad was filling Barak's ears, the tales on which it's based, were not supported by the findings of the very bureau he headed. Who says so? Gilad's then-boss, former Military Intelligence Chief Amos Malka.
Friday [Malka] reiterated that ahead of the Camp David talks in July 2000 and prior to the outbreak of the intifada in two months later, intelligence evaluations did not back the theory that there was no Palestinian partner for talks with Israel. ...Those other senior officials include
Malka and other senior intelligence officials ... claim that the belief put forward by Gilad had no basis in any of the documents released by the intelligence establishment at the time.
Major General (res.) Ami Ayalon, who headed the Shin Bet security service up until a few months before the intifada; in the approach taken by Arab affairs specialist Mati Steinberg, who until a year ago was a special advisor on Palestinian affairs to the head of the Shin Bet; and by Colonel (res.) Ephraim Lavie, the research division official responsible for the Palestinian arena at that time and Gilad's immediate subordinate.Indeed, the intelligence estimates spoke to the contrary, Malka says, insisting that intelligence not only knew that Arafat wanted a diplomatic solution if one was possible but that it knew what his limits were.
"We assumed that it is possible to reach an agreement with Arafat under the following conditions: a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital and sovereignty on the Temple Mount; 97 percent of the West Bank plus exchanges of territory in the ratio of 1:1 with respect to the remaining territory; some kind of formula that includes the acknowledgement of Israel's responsibility for the refugee problem and a willingness to accept 20,000-30,000 refugees. All along the way ... it was MI's assessment that he had to get some kind of statement that would not depict him as having relinquished this [i.e., the right of return], but would be prepared for a very limited implementation."In fact, the whole business about the right of return being a Trojan Horse for a Palestinian determination to destroy Israel was apparently concocted after the failure of Camp David.
[O]n June 15, [2000,] prior to his departure for Camp David, Barak summoned a conference with a group of military people and advisors. ... According to some of the participants in the discussion, all the speakers agreed that if Arafat did not get what he expected to achieve, he would turn to limited violence. No one remembers that Arafat was said to be aiming for the destruction of Israel through demography. There was also no mention of the possibility that the Palestinians would abandon the peace process in favor of a comprehensive armed struggle. No one, including Gilad himself, argued that Arafat's expectations included Israeli agreement to take in 300,000 to 400,000 refugees in the framework of the right of return.The Sharon government, of course, is wholly committed to the "no Palestinian partner" nonsense, so it's response to a call to re-examine the use and distortion of intelligence about Palestinian (and Arafat's) intentions was predictable.
Confirmation that MI research did not believe that Arafat expected a massive return of refugees can be found in a document of the information team of the research division, which was headed by Gilad. The document analyzes a position paper that was written in June, 1999, by Dr. Assad Abed al-Rahman, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization steering committee and the one in charge of the portfolio on refugees and the uprooted. "In his discussion of the possible solutions to the refugee problem, Abed al-Rahman presents a comprehensive and rigid position, which even the Palestinian leadership has already understood is no longer realistic," the document says. "Even those who hold an 'extreme' position on the issue, among them Arafat, have adopted the position that if Israel recognizes the right of return in principle, its implementation can be partial and limited."
In a lecture at Princeton University in March, 2002, the contents of which have not been published until now, Steinberg argued that the Camp David summit failed because of the dispute over the Temple Mount - not over the issue of the right of return, which was barely discussed at that summit and was born retrospectively in Israel in order to create the internal consensus.
His remarks are congruent with the claim of Yossi Ginnosar, who participated in the summit: In an interview with the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth before his death, he said that the idea that the summit had failed because of the right of return was aimed at justifying the failure and was "a duplicitous campaign that contributed to sowing despair in Israeli society and caused damage to the process that was conducted afterward."
According to Mofaz, Gilad was correct in concluding that Arafat was not a reliable partner, and that if an arrangement favored by Arafat would not be achieved, a violent conflict and wave of terror would erupt.Translation: Why does the opposition hate Israel so much?
Justice Minister Yosef Lapid said during the cabinet meeting Sunday [June 13] that "the attacks on Gilad originated in the Israeli left and were intended to undermine Gilad's correct evaluations."
Footnote one: Gilad has not changed his mind.
"Arafat is aiming to have Oslo lead to the fulfillment of his strategy that Israel has no right to exist," said the man who headed the research division at Military Intelligence during the period when the Oslo agreement was gasping for breath and dying. "Arafat is a terrible danger. Nothing will shake him as long as he lives. If he isn't dealt with in the right way, he will also bequeath us a heritage that no one will dare to change."What's more, we're going to find Saddam's weapons of mass destruction any day now.
Footnote two: Haaretz also noted that
Gilad insists that Arafat has never let go of the vision of the right of return, in order to shorten the way to demographic victory over Israel. The current head of MI, Ze'evi, and former Mossad head Ephraim Halevy, share this assessment: Arafat has not come to terms with the existence of a Jewish state and has not given up the struggle to eliminate it.This is from Haaretz for June 18, one week later:
Yasser Arafat "definitely" understands that Israel must preserve its character as a Jewish state, the Palestinian Authority chairman told Haaretz in an interview this week. ...Arafat declined to specify a number of refugees that Israel would be expected to take in as part of a peace settlement. (Not surprising: Who would give away their negotiating position before the discussion starts?) However, he did note that the PLO had agreed to an Arab Summit resolution from April 2002, which urged a "just and agreed" solution to the Palestinian refugee problem based on UN General Assembly Resolution 194.
Regarding borders, Arafat essentially confirmed Malka's assessment - that he would be willing to sign an agreement under which Israel would withdraw from 97 to 98 percent of the West Bank and give the Palestinians territory equivalent in size and quality to the 2 to 3 percent that would be annexed to Israel. He also said that under any agreement, Israel would retain sovereignty over the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, and Israelis would be granted freedom of access to holy sites under Palestinian control. The Palestinians would require sovereignty over the rest of East Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount. ...
Arafat pledged that once the Israel Defense Forces withdraw from Gaza, the PA would take control of the area and fight not only Hamas members, but also Fatah members who seek to break the law.
He noted that British intelligence, which is monitoring the security situation in the territories on behalf of the Quartet, recently published a positive report on the Palestinian security services' efforts to foil suicide bombings in Israel.
That resolution, which is nonbinding because it's a General Assembly, not a Security Council, resolution, was passed while the 1948 war was still going on. It created a Conciliation Commission to work for a settlement and in the course of covering several other issues (e.g., protection of and access to holy sites) asserted that refugees should be allowed to return to their homes "at the earliest practicable date" and that compensation for lost property should be paid to those who chose not to return. Based on principles that were enshrined later that year in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it's the source of the right of return.
What the 2002 Summit resolution means in diplomatic terms, then, is exactly what Israeli military intelligence concluded: As long as Israel recognizes the principle involved and agrees to some form of compensation, return can be "partial and limited."
There is a way out. The path is still rocky and still long and frankly won't be traveled without more bloodshed along the way because there are those on both sides who are so locked into one way of thinking, who have become so limited in their ability to see, that they would sooner mine that path than walk it. But the fact is, it is there and it only takes the courage and political will to follow it.
Updated to include the link to the 2003 poll of Palestinians and to amend and expand the information about Resolution 194.