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Challenging the Camp David myth

By Meron Benvenisti, Ha'aretz, Thursday, August 02, 2001

Only rarely does the New York Times devote half its front page and two full pages inside its international news section to a historic description and analysis of events that don't have immediate news value. A week ago, Deborah Sontag published a special report called "Quest for Mideast Peace: How and Why It Failed." Its conclusion: "Many now agree that all the sides, and not just Arafat, were to blame."

In the New York Review of Books, in an article due to appear next week, Robert Malley and Hussein Agha, who were involved in the negotiations at Camp David, reach the same conclusion, backed by eyewitness testimony by several of the participants.

Ostensibly, Sontag's detailed, balanced and unprejudiced report in the prestigious newspaper should have been thought-provoking and won accolades. But it never had a chance. It was perceived as anti-Israeli because, in Sontag's own words, it dared challenge the "potent, simplistic narrative that has taken hold in Israel and to some extent in the United States. It says: Mr. Barak offered Mr. Arafat the moon at Camp David last summer. Mr. Arafat turned it down, and then `pushed the button' and chose the path of violence."

That narrative is immune to fact or proof because it has become a myth in the service of a cause and like all myths, once it has caught on, it becomes more real than reality itself. Israeli society needs the myth, because it is unifying and justifies all actions, clears the conscience, defines the enemy as bloodthirsty and allows society to cope with the tough reality of "no alternative."

The narrative blaming Yasser Arafat now joins a whole string of myths: the Tel Hai myth, the myth of the runaway refugees in 1948, the myth of the War of Independence as a defensive war that broke out because of an invasion by Arab armies, the myth of the few against the many, and the myth of the liberation of the homeland from the British boot - just to mention a few of the many myths that have been created here to deal with the reality that gave birth to many crises and second thoughts about the situation.

Myths are not illusions but a salad of real and legendary events aimed at creating an image that the society wants to show to the world and itself - and God help anyone who dares to doubt them. No wonder that nearly every learned analysis of the "situation" is based on the careful calculation of "the nearly 100 percent Barak offered Arafat, the breaking of the Jerusalem taboo, the Palestinians' stubborn insistence on the right of return that means the destruction of Israel and the terrorist attacks that are aimed at winning with blood what they failed to get through negotiations."

Anyone who tries to present a more complex and balanced view that doesn't clear the Palestinians but also criticizes Barak for his management and Clinton for his panic - and particularly criticizes the hubris of trying to "end the conflict" - is immediately branded an enemy, or "extreme leftist."

But the ramifications of the myth are far-reaching: It's not the settlements that are an obstacle to peace, because in Arafat's eyes there's no difference between Psagot and Netanya; it's not the occupation that is the root of the violence, but the murderous instincts buried in Arafat's genes; there's no partner for negotiations and the conflict is existential.

The trouble, of course, is that myths are inherently subjective for the society that creates them for its own needs, and that society's opponents create their own, contradictory myths, like mirror images. Therefore, there's no chance that third-party observers will be able to confront either side with objective facts. In such a binary situation, there is no place for a third party. If you don't buy the myth, you're against me, so I'll have to hire a better public relations firm to successfully sell you my self-image.

Nonetheless, you wonder. Why should Deborah Sontag and Robert Malley do the work for us and tell us the facts that undermine the myth, and why is it so frightening for us to learn that Camp David's failure had many fathers? After all, if we can understand the facts, we can learn the lesson and if we stick to the myth, we'll only continue on the march of folly. It's sad to see that some of the best of the intellectuals and historians, who handle the myths of the past so well, don't have the courage to do it in real time.

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