Nearly a year after he failed to achieve a deal at Camp David, former president Bill Clinton gave vent to his frustrations this week over the collapse of peace in the Mideast. And Clinton directed his ire at one man: Yasir Arafat. On Tuesday night, Clinton told guests at a party at the Manhattan apartment of former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke and his wife, writer Kati Marton, that Arafat called to bid him farewell three days before he left office. "You are a great man," Arafat said. "The hell I am," Clinton said he responded. "I'm a colossal failure, and you made me one."
Clinton said he told Arafat that by turning down the best peace deal he was ever going to get-the one proffered by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and brokered by Clinton last July-the Palestinian leader was only guaranteeing the election of the hawkish Ariel Sharon, the current Israeli leader. But Arafat didn't listen. Sharon was elected in a landslide Feb. 6 and has gradually escalated his crackdown on the Palestinians despite a shaky ceasefire negotiated two weeks ago by CIA chief George Tenet.
Clinton has refused most interview requests since he left office Jan. 20. But at the party-which was held jointly by Holbrooke and the International Crisis Group to celebrate a new book, "Waging Modern War," by former NATO commander Gen. Wesley Clark-Clinton captivated guests for nearly an hour with an insider's tale of the Camp David talks. Among the listeners, who gathered around the former president as he cheerfully downed Diet Cokes and hors d'oeuvres, were Holbrooke, Clark and John Negroponte, who has been nominated by President Bush to replace Holbrooke as U.N. ambassador.
Clinton said, somewhat surprisingly, that he never expected to close the deal at Camp David. But he made it clear that the breakdown of the peace process and the nine months of deadly intifada since then were very much on his mind. He described Arafat as an aging leader who relishes his own sense of victimhood and seems incapable of making a final peace deal. "He could only get to step five, and he needed to get to step 10," the former president said. But Clinton expressed hope in the younger generation of Palestinian officials, suggesting that a post-Arafat Palestinian leader might be able to make peace, perhaps in as little as several years. "I'm just sorry I blew this Middle East" thing, Clinton said shortly before leaving. "But I don't know what else I could have done."
Clinton also revealed that, contrary to most conventional wisdom after Camp David ended on July 25, 2000, the key issue that torpedoed the talks in their final stages was not the division of East Jerusalem between Palestinians and Israelis, but the Palestinian demand for a "right of return" of refugees to Israel. On Jerusalem, he said, the two sides were down to dickering over final language on who would get sovereignty over which part of the Western Wall. But Arafat continued to demand that large numbers of Palestinian refugees, mainly from the 1967 and 1948 wars, be allowed to return-numbers that Clinton said both of them knew were unacceptable to the Israelis.
Clinton said he bluntly contradicted Arafat when, in one of their final conversations, the Palestinian leader expressed doubts that the ancient Jewish temple actually lay beneath the Islamic-run compound in Jerusalem containing the holy Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. This was a critical point of dispute, since the Western Wall, a remnant of the temple's retaining wall, is the holiest site in Judaism and one the Israelis were intent on maintaining sovereignty over. "I know it's there," Clinton said he told Arafat. The so-called Al Aqsa intifada began after Ariel Sharon made a controversial visit to the disputed compound on Sept. 28, 2000.