In a Ruined Country

How Yasir Arafat destroyed Palestine

A current high-ranking officer in the Israeli intelligence services: "Let me tell you a story. In 1997 Arafat was unhappy with Netanyahu, so in March he decided to resume what we call the green light for attacks. Since early 1996 he had the red light. So he had a meeting with the Hamas leadership, and he said something about the fact that they are always in holy war. Hamas came out of this meeting and they weren't sure if Arafat really meant for them to resume the attacks. So they asked him to give them a sign. He released from jail Ibrahim Maqadma. The story with Maqadma is that he had been in charge of the secret cell in Hamas that was in charge of getting rid of Arafat. So by releasing him, you give them a green light. On the twenty-first of March, 1997, they carried out the attack on the café in Tel Aviv. That is what we mean by the green light for terror."

A former leader of the Israeli security services who met with Arafat many times: "He accepted that in his lifetime he would not see a Palestinian state that included the land beyond the 1967 borders. 'In his lifetime' is a key phrase on our side also. We also believe that all the land is ours. If the Palestinians were weak enough, we would take Hebron and Nablus and sit there forever, because that is the biblical heartland of Israel. Arafat woke up every day and imagined what is possible today, and that is the mark of a pragmatic person. When the intifada came, he rode the horse. I used to tell my people, just because you see a man sitting on top of the horse, it doesn't mean he is telling the horse where it should go."

Amos Gilad, the chief of Israeli military intelligence's research section during the late 1990s, who authored a classified report titled "2000, the Year of Decision—The Coming Terror War Against Israel": "He loved smoke and blood and ruins. This is where he felt most comfortable. He believed that Israel was a temporary entity. To talk about him as a pragmatic person is utter nonsense. His goal was to destroy us, and he almost succeeded. He wanted to ride on his horse up to heaven."

Former prime minister Ehud Barak is a unique figure in Israeli political life, because he is hated with equal intensity by the left and the right. Israelis hate Barak because he killed their dreams. Barak killed the dream of Greater Israel by offering to give up all of Gaza and all but a single-digit percentage of the West Bank, and to divide Jerusalem. Barak killed the dream of peace by failing to reach an agreement with the Palestinians at Camp David. The most decorated combat veteran in the history of the State of Israel, Barak is the country's prodigal son, the leader to whom it turned in 1999 with high expectations, and from whom it received the bitter harvest of the al-Aqsa intifada. The popular feeling about Barak is best summed up by a joke I saw on the Israeli sketch-comedy show Eretz Nehederet (A Wonderful Country). "Following the appearance of locusts this week in southern Israel," the show's anchor intoned, "experts are warning the public to be on the lookout for creatures that appear, wreak havoc, and leave quickly." The camera then cut to a picture of Barak.

I meet Barak in a Tel Aviv coffee shop called Aroma. Barak's security man arrives early, and asks me to move to another table so that he can position Barak close to an exit, with his back against a solid stone wall, facing outward. When Barak arrives, he asks me to change seats, so that he can sit facing the wall. Not yet comfortable, he props his feet up on a chair. A fluent storyteller, Barak is also a skilled classical pianist, a gifted mathematician, and an amateur mechanic who likes to relax by taking objects apart and putting them back together. His alert, inquisitive eyes and active features are set in a round face that carries the beginnings of a double chin.

There is a school of opinion that blames Arafat's personal hatred of Barak for the intifada. When I try it out on Barak, he dismisses the idea as irrational; yet as we talk, it is not hard to see why so many people find him disconcerting. Barak has two distinct and contradictory personalities. He combines the hyperactive, engaging manner of the smartest ten-year-old boy on the planet with a cold, analytical way of describing events that suggests the personality of the computer HAL in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Oslo, Barak believes, was a political adventure embarked on by Rabin, who distrusted Arafat but saw a strategic need to reach a political settlement with the Palestinians.

"What we had in mind all the time was that if you keep moving toward a volcanic eruption of violence, as a result of being unable to stretch reigning over the Palestinians for another generation, we might end up with a tragedy," Barak says, tugging at the collar of his navy windbreaker. He recalls a meeting at the beginning of the first intifada, chaired by Rabin, in which the Israeli defense establishment confronted the nature of the rebellion and the range of available solutions.

"We had a closed gathering of probably thirty people—the top brass of the defense ministry—with Rabin, and he brought several academics to talk about what they believed they were seeing," Barak remembers. "The first intifada was then two weeks old. And there was a brilliant presentation made by Professor Shamir, and he talked about the fifty precedents in the last century of such events. He said that throughout history only three strategies came close to being successful. None is relevant to our case. The strategies were extermination, starvation, and mass transportation. We were targets of extermination and the Armenians also, but it didn't work. Biafra was starvation, didn't work. And he analyzed what would happen—it's a brilliant short presentation."

As chief of the IDF general staff, and later as a minister in Rabin's cabinet, Barak talked to the prime minister about the problems with the Oslo Accords very often, he says. "Many times I would ask Rabin, Why did you give up on this or that? and he would say, 'You know, Ehud, we still have wide enough margins. The moment will inevitably come when we'll have to pass our judgment.' Even at the time, we read Arafat's speeches to other audiences, in Johannesburg and other places, where he would say, 'Remember the false Hudna,'" Barak says, referring to a deceptive treaty entered into by the prophet Muhammad. By the time he became prime minister, Barak says, he found that a violent explosion was imminent and the strategic situation was not in Israel's favor.

"I felt in all my mature life that Israel from 1947 on could never materialize any operational or military achievement unless we had two preconditions fulfilled," he explains. "One, that we occupied the moral high ground in the world, the other that we kept our internal unity. It was the case in 1947 exactly because Ben-Gurion was ready to take an almost impossible international plan and agree to it, and the Palestinians rejected it. Only the fact that Ben-Gurion accepted it made it possible for Israel to hold to the results of the war for fifty-seven years."

"Eight years later we drove into Sinai," he continues, "and it took three weeks for Ben-Gurion to be thrown out after he made his messianic announcement to the Knesset about the founding of the Third Kingdom of Israel. In 1967 we opened fire but the perception in the world was that they tried to strangle us, and we enjoyed the moral high ground and internal unity. In Lebanon we violated this basic rule and we were unable to hold what we took. I felt if we did not act quite urgently to create this moment of truth before Bill Clinton left office, we will have an eruption, and Israel will be blamed."

I mention to Barak that Yigal Carmon, a former Israeli national-security adviser, and now the head of memri, a leading source of translations of Arab-language media into English, told me of meeting with Barak several times before he went to Camp David to make his historic peace offer to Arafat. Each time they met, Carmon said, Barak pressed him on whether Arafat would accept the deal. Each time, Carmon said that based on the speeches Arafat was making in Arabic, the Palestinian leader would insist that the Israelis hand over the Old City of Jerusalem to serve as the Palestinian capital.

Even for secular Israelis the idea of surrendering the historic center of Jerusalem to Arab rule was simply unthinkable. In order to defuse the strategic threat posed by the Palestinian claim to Jerusalem, the Israelis needed to stage a controlled scenario in which they would appear as peacemakers while Arafat would be bound by his own rhetoric to refuse their generous offer of a state. There could be no better master of ceremonies for such a demonstration than Bill Clinton, the American president who brought Arafat and Rabin together in 1993 on the White House lawn. By this account, at least, reports of Barak's unfriendly behavior at Camp David can be explained by the fact that the Israeli prime minister was hoping that his peace proposal would fail.

Many Israelis dismiss the idea that Barak's offer to Arafat at Camp David was part of any master plan. Still, the implication is worth considering: the prime minister of Israel used an American president to knowingly create a huge diplomatic failure that damaged the international prestige of the United States in order to extricate his country from the consequences of Oslo.

"Let me complete one point," Barak says. "Imagine two firemen who are both running to save a two-family house from a fire. The other fireman is already a distinguished one with a Nobel Peace Prize, and all along the way you don't know if he's the fireman or the pyromaniac. And you have to attend to both possibilities." He puts his hands one on top of the other, and then lays them both flat on the table.

"So yes, I felt the need strategically to create this moment of truth before the eruption, and before Clinton leaves."

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David Samuels has written for Harper's Magazine, The New Yorker, and The American Scholar. This is his first article for The Atlantic Monthly.

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