The Culture Gap at Camp David

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Yasser Arafat's call for reinforcements Friday confirmed — as if any confirmation was necessary — that the Camp David talks are an uphill battle. The Palestinian leader invited members of opposition groups who had opposed the Oslo Peace process to join him for consultations inside the sequestered compound, citing a need to canvass a wider body of Palestinian opinion. phoned West Bank correspondent Jamil Hamad in Bethlehem to assess the latest developments.

Why has Yasser Arafat invited Palestinian opposition leaders for a meeting at Camp David?

I think this is a tactical move aimed at showing the Americans and Israelis that Arafat is not alone in this battle of negotiations. It gives him more cover to oppose or refuse the Israeli and American proposals if he doesn't like them. If he's given what he wants, you can be sure he's not going to consult these opposition figures.

Doesn't including groups that were opposed to the Oslo Accord in the first place make it even more difficult for Arafat to make a deal?

Yes, it could be dangerous because in the long run he could find himself besieged by these factions. Even they're pretty insignificant on the Palestinian street, they can throw mud at Arafat and turn public opinion against him. But the real opposition about which he has to be concerned — Hamas, Islamic Jihad and to a lesser extent the Popular Front — are staying away from Camp David. And these groups can embarrass Arafat by continuing to attack Israeli targets.

Do you expect the Camp David talks to produce a final agreement?

I personally doubt that very much. At most, they might agree on a declaration of principles, with no fixed timetable, which will mean very little on a practical level. Both sides, right now, are incapable of reaching an agreement — especially on Jerusalem.

This is something the Americans don't seem to understand. There's a real culture gap between the Americans, the Israelis and the Palestinians. None of them really understands the other two. For example, that deal to sell radar to China that Barak withdrew a few days ago — the fact that they'd even made that deal without taking account of American reaction is proof that the Israelis don't really understand America.

And the Palestinians simply don't understand the Israelis. They see them either as all-powerful and able to do anything, or otherwise as easily defeated. There's no objective, realistic approach to Israel. For example, when Barak has problems with parties leaving his coalition, they see it either as a plot or as a sign that Barak counts for nothing. They don't understand the political culture of Israel, of a democracy. Of course they're going to disagree with Israel's positions on Jerusalem, for example, but they haven't made it their business to try and understand why Barak can't make any compromises on Jerusalem.

And the Israelis' understanding of Palestinians is still stuck in a kind of 19th-century "Lawrence of Arabia" mold. They look down on them. And just as the Palestinians don't understand Israel's attachment to Jerusalem, nor do the Israelis and Americans understand why Arafat cannot give up Jerusalem. The Americans think of it simply as property, or land. They haven't grasped what Jerusalem means in the minds and hearts of Palestinians — as Arabs and Muslims it represents something extremely powerful. In the same way, the Palestinians have failed to understand the emotional significance of the city for Jews, and why Barak can't move an inch on Jerusalem. And this is the basic problem. There's very little mutual understanding among the parties at the talks — they talk past one another.