After the collapse of the Oslo process in January, Israeli and American officials most closely involved with this diplomacy went silent - and with good reason. Promising an end of the Arab-Israeli conflict, it delivered the most vicious and fatal Palestinian-Israeli fighting since 1948.
But the brief period of remorse by those diplomats and politicians has now ended. In recent weeks they have launched an audacious campaign arguing that no matter how bad things are today, the parties eventually must return to exactly their brand of diplomacy.
And now The New York Times has devoted its immense resources to backing up this self-interested claim. "Quest for Mideast peace: How and why it failed," (July 26), amounts to a 6,000-word valentine by the paper's Israel bureau chief, Deborah Sontag, to the men of Oslo.
Sontag works to undermine what she dismissively terms the "potent, simplistic narrative" that most Israelis and many Americans now accept: Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat was offered exceptionally generous terms last summer by prime minister Ehud Barak, he turned them down, and instead resorted to a campaign of violence. This shows Arafat to be unsuitable as a negotiating partner, so a diplomatic resolution of Israeli-Palestinian differences is impossible as long as he remains the Palestinian leader.
Sontag's alternative "narrative" (dare one call it impotent and complex?) is summarized by her subtitle: "Many now agree that all the parties, not just Arafat, were to blame." If she can show that Israelis and Americans were as responsible as Arafat for the present crisis, she thereby revives Arafat as a negotiating partner and with that, the whole Oslo process. The Palestinian leader comes off predictably well in her account - like an innocent bystander to a two-car smash-up.
Instead, she mostly blames that nuisance called democracy. The change of Israeli and American leaders at the start of 2001 imposed an artificial deadline on the talks; had Barak and president Bill Clinton remained in office, a United Nations official informs us, a final peace deal "could have been hammered out." Also, Barak saw former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu as his strongest electoral opponent. To obstruct Netanyahu's path, he colluded with Netanyahu's rival Ariel Sharon to enhance Sharon's nationalist credentials, for example by permitting him to take a walk on the Temple Mount. Arafat warned this would have terrible consequences; Sontag reports that he "huddled on the balcony" with Barak at a dinner party and implored him to block Sharon's visit to the holy site, but to no avail. Sharon did go and he "set off angry Palestinian demonstrations" which the Israeli forces then put down with "lethal force," launching "the cycle of violence" that yet continues.
If the Oslo track was indeed derailed by these dumb mistakes, rather than being Arafat's fault, diplomacy can be resumed where it left off. An Israeli insider sums up Sontag's conclusion by announcing that "the basis of the agreement is lying there in arm's reach."
This is patent nonsense. In part, Sontag has the facts wrong. Sharon's stroll provoked 10 months of Palestinian violence? Inherently improbable to begin with, this notion has been completely discredited by several Palestinian leaders' publicly acknowledging that violence was planned.
Sharon's walk, actually, was but a pretext.
In part, Sontag has the premises wrong. Oslo has not only caused many hundreds of deaths (including 700 or so just in the past 10 months), but it has vastly increased the danger of an all-out Arab-Israeli war. Why would anyone want more of it? The answer lies in Sontag's acknowledgment that her article was based on conversations only with "peace advocates, academics and diplomats." By excluding all critics of Oslo, she has uncritically accepted the pleadings of Oslo's core enthusiasts - those individuals who, for their reputations to be restored, need Oslo to be revived. She serves as their apologist.
Thus, Sontag never mentions the real reason for Oslo's failure: the Palestinian Authority's violation of nearly every commitment from the moment Arafat signed the accords eight years ago. Her article is consistent with The New York Times having, over that entire period, politicized its news pages and not informing about those violations.
With this "special report," the Times caps its record of undistinguished reporting on Arab-Israeli diplomacy by publishing what is, in reality, just shallow propaganda for a failed idea.