February 2012 Archives

Sharon's walk, revisited

On September 28, 2000, Ariel Sharon took a walk up to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  It was most assuredly a political statement, meant to communicate to the Israeli public his credentials as a strong leader who would protect and defend the sites holiest to the Jewish People.  It was surely meant to signal that he would do a better job of that than Ehud Barak who had arguably offered to give away the store at Camp David and than Benyamin Netanyahu who was challenging Sharon for leadership of the Likud party.

It was also most assuredly a jurisdictional statement, meant to remind the world that, notwithstanding Israel's numerous and generous attempts to accommodate Muslim sensitivities there, as the singularly holy hill toward which Jews had yearned and prayed for millennia, it was and would remain under the sovereignty of the Jewish State.

Yassir Arafat and much of the world blamed Sharon's walk for igniting the terror war that is commonly (but inaccurately) referred to as the "second intifada."  But the evidence is to the contrary.  A survey of events from Camp David through September of that year indicate that Arafat had been preparing for war and was seeking a trigger, any trigger, to set it off.  In that respect, Sharon may have given him a gift and it may be that better judgment could have prevailed.  Another view is that it was time to call the other half of the bluff that Arafat had brought to Camp David.  He had already proved there that he wasn't ready for peace.  Was he actually ready, willing, even anxious for war?  Did he actually, as he subsequently claimed, try to prevent Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount (for the sake of preserving the peace, of course)?

DG's Mideast Media Sampler recently offered important insights into the flaws of an article (since expanded) by Neil Lewis in the Columbia Journalism Review in which Lewis attempts (unsuccessfully, IMO) to defend the New York Times against claims of anti-Israel bias.  One such insight explores a piece of "analysis" by Deborah Sontag, other parts of which are mentioned by Lewis, in which Sontag recites a story about a party in late September, 2000, at the home of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, a few days before Sharon's walk.

But Palestinians drove away from that dinner with something else on their minds -- Mr. Sharon's coming visit to what Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary and Jews know as the Temple Mount. Mr. Arafat said in an interview that he huddled on the balcony with Mr. Barak and implored him to block Mr. Sharon's plans.
Though Sontag doesn't identify the interview, it would appear to have been this one by Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes (first aired November 5, 2000).  It's cited, along with Sontag's op-ed, in this recent book by Greg Myre and Jennifer Griffin, in which they uncritically repeat Sontag's (and Arafat's) version of the story.  If a full transcript or video of the interview is available, I've been unable to find it.  Here's a partial annotated excerpt:

Arafat blames all the recent violence on Ariel Sharon - Israel's hardline opposition leader - who five weeks ago made a point of visiting a key Muslim holy place in Jerusalem, the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Arafat said he knew about Sharon's visit three days in advance, and tried to head it off because he knew it would trigger clashes.

"I had asked (Israeli Prime Minister) Ehud Barak and asked others why Sharon is insistent to come in this delicate time," Arafat said.

"(Barak) kept silent. I raised this question to President Clinton to try with me to convince Barak not to give him the permission to go to visit," Arafat said.

Arafat said he also told the European Union, the Vatican and Arab leaders about the planned visit.
No mention of a huddle on the balcony or any direct warning of violence is apparent here, at least according to this report.  And did Arafat really prevail upon President Clinton to prevent the walk (something Clinton clearly needed no prodding to attempt for obvious reasons)?  Or did Arafat merely repeat to Clinton his claim that he had made the request of Barak?  Clinton addresses the issue in his autobiography right after mentioning the dinner at Barak's but, notwithstanding the embellishments and hyperbole in this Ha'aretz report, actually seems to suggest the latter.  Says Clinton (at p. 924):

Arafat said he had asked Barak to prevent Sharon's stroll, which was clearly intended to affirm Israel's sovereignty over the site and to strengthen his hand against a challenge to his leadership of the Likud Party from former prime minister Netanyahu, who was now sounding more hawkish than Sharon.  I had also hoped Barak would prevent Sharon's inflamatory escapade, but Barak told me he couldn't.
In this book, S. Daniel Abraham (who helped arrange that dinner meeting at Barak's home and was actually there) provides a different account (at pp.154-55):

Barak stood up, thanked me for arranging the meeting, and said that he believed peace could be achieved by the people gathered in this room.  Even as he was speaking, Gilead Sher and Saeb Erekat were whispering among themselves, trying to set an agenda for the evening.  No one seemed to know exactly what topics should be discussed.  Arafat followed Barak with a similar sort of vague, but positive, speech.  But there remains to this day a very important difference of recollections regarding exactly what Arafat said.  News had broken earlier that day that Sharon was planning to visit the Temple Mount (what the Muslims call Haram al Sharif), in order to demonstrate Israel's sovereignty over the holy site.  Erekat insists that during his remarks, Arafat turned to Barak, and said, "Your Excellency, it is to no good end that Sharon will go to the Haram.  Please don't allow him to go.  Don't allow him to go because in a few months time, he will be the only one smiling.  He will destroy us.  Please don't give him permission to go."  According to Erekat, Barak never responded to Arafat's request.  The Israeli team claims they never heard such a request.  But I do know that the issue of Sharon's visit was discussed.  I remember Barak saying to me toward the end of the evening that Israeli law would not permit him to prevent the visit of a private Israeli citizen, which Sharon then was, to the Temple Mount.
Very peculiar.  Abraham was obviously in the room for these two speeches and yet he suddenly pivots from a first person on-the-spot account to an "objective" discussion of this "difference of recollections."  What was his recollection??  Like Sontag, he cites no references for the claims.  Nevertheless ...

The BBC propaganda documentary film "Elusive Peace" (see CAMERA's critique here), includes a report remarkably similar to Abraham's -- unsurprisingly narrated by Saeb Erekat himself (the relevant part starts at 34:25), with helpful commentary from the narrator.  Here's an excerpt:

NARRATOR: To make his point that Temple Mount belonged to the Jews, Ariel Sharon said he would take a public walk on Haram al Sharif, around two of Islam's holiest mosques...

EREKAT: [Arafat said to Barak] "Please, please, please, your excellency, don't allow Sharon to come to Haram."

NARRATOR: Hanging over the whole room was the threat of Ariel Sharon's visit to the mosques on Haram, Temple Mount, scheduled to occur in three days.

EREKAT: I remember President Arafat telling Mr. Barak, "He wants to destroy everything. Your excellency, if he goes to Haram he'll be the only person laughing in the next months to come.

NARRATOR: Barak took no action. ...

(There's more and I recommend watching that segment of the video for the full context.)  Abraham's book came out the year after "Elusive Peace" was aired on PBS and may well have used it as his source, diplomatically suggesting that while he heard no such conversation, "Erekat insists" in that clip that it happened. 

So what did happen?  Did Arafat ever make a serious attempt to prevent Sharon's walk?  Did he, as he and Erekat claimed, try their best to avoid the eruption of violence?  If so, why is the evidence so thin, inaccessible and vague?  And why are the few uncorroborated accounts of his efforts all after the fact?  Where are the contemporaneous reports of warnings and alarms being sounded in the days preceding the walk?

I was, in fact, able to find ... one.

On September 27, 2000, the day before Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount, IMRA reported:

Col. Jibril Rajoub, the head of Palestinian Authority Preventive Security in the West Bank, warned Israel Radio this morning that there would be bloodshed if Arik Sharon visits the Temple Mount in Jerusalem on Thursday and that the PA would do nothing to prevent bloodshed in areas under their control.
But contrast that report with this one from just a week later:

Israel Radio reported this morning that Minister of Internal Security and Acting Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami was promised by Jibril Rajoub, head of PA Preventive Security, that there would be no reaction to Likud MK Arik Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount as long as Sharon did not attempt to enter the mosque itself.
Numerous Israeli officials and American peace processers have related similar accounts of such assurances having been made by Rajoub in the days immediately prior to the event.  So the evidence, such as it is, is that the threat of violence was both telegraphed (threatened) once and and played down repeatedly ... by the same person.  With that exception, the warnings seem largely to have been projections backward after the event, an excuse swallowed whole by many in the media (see here, for a particularly egregious example) and in international diplomatic circles as well.

On this page, there's an impressive collection of quotes attributed to palestinian and Arab sources that demonstrate the terror war had been planned since at least the conclusion of the Camp David summit in July.  (See also, Palestinian Media Watch.)  Perhaps the best known of these is this excerpt from a speech reportedly made by PA Communications Minister, 'Imad Al-Faluji during a visit to the 'Ein Al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon in March, 2001 (subsequently disavowed).

The Al-Aqsa Intifada emphasizes these principles and axioms. Whoever thinks that the Intifada broke out because of the despised Sharon's visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, is wrong, even if this visit was the straw that broke the back of the Palestinian people. This Intifada was planned in advance, ever since President Arafat's return from the Camp David negotiations, where he turned the table upside down on President Clinton. [Arafat] remained steadfast and challenged [Clinton]. He rejected the American terms and he did it in the heart of the US.
President Clinton claims that he and others on his team had urged Arafat to prevent the violence, to "refuse to be provoked."  Arafat was having none of it.  IMRA reported:

Sept 29, 2000

Prime Minister Ehud Barak told Israel Radio this afternoon that Palestinian incitement AFTER Likud MK Arik Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount rather than Sharon's visit was to blame for the violence today in Jerusalem.

When Sharon visited the Temple Mount on Thursday morning very few Palestinians responded to calls to come to the Temple Mount to protest. Palestinian youth also steered clear of the Temple Mount even though local schools were closed to allow them join in "the defense of Jerusalem".

Israel Radio reports that Palestinian Authority Radio devoted the morning broadcasts to calls for people to come to the Temple Mount in the defense of Jerusalem and inciting talk against Israel. Israel Radio also reports that the Palestinian papers featured similar calls.
The palestinian media was under the absolute control of Yassir Arafat, as were the schools.  This was, in fact, exactly what he had wanted all along. 

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