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Reporting On History In the Making

In his July 25 review of my book “Shattered Dreams,” Itamar Rabinovitch implies that any account which differs from those presented by “Clinton, Barak, Shlomo Ben-Ami, Dennis Ross” should be considered as “revisionist” (“Camp David Redux: The Reporter As Chronicler and Participant”).

To this list of names, he adds Saudi Prince Bandar, “who blamed Arafat for failing to say ‘yes’ in Camp David.” This declaration from the Saudi ambassador in Washington indeed puzzled me when it was issued. Did the prince mean that Arafat should have accepted a kind of Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount, the Haram El Sharif, the third holiest site for Muslims? Accept autonomy, rather than sovereignty, over East Jerusalem?

As far as I could check with sources in Riyadh, the king of Saudi Arabia told Arafat he should not make any concessions over the Islamic sites in Jerusalem. After Camp David, this position was repeated to the Clinton administration, not only by the Saudis but also by the Egyptians.

Calling bare facts “revisionism” does not change reality. Camp David was an episode of the peace process. Negotiations were resumed in Jerusalem 48 hours after the summit ended. In an interview on video, Ben-Ami himself described the “delightful” meeting between Arafat and Barak held on September 25 at the Israeli prime minister’s private residence. Does such an admission qualify Ben-Ami as a revisionist?

As Rabinovitch points out in his book review, on September 24 I was allowed by the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, Gilead Sher and Saeb Erekat, to film their secret meeting at the King David Hotel. But contrary to what Rabinovitch wrote in Forward, I did not “quote from their dialogue.” Rather, I interviewed both of them.

I followed this research method throughout the book: conducting interviews in real time with several negotiators during 1999, 2000 and the beginning of 2001. They spoke for the historical record while not knowing the outcome of the talks they were conducting. Those interviews are of immense value, particularly in comparison to declarations made after the collapse of the talks, when each side refused to accept the responsibility of the tragic failure.

A part of those interviews was included in the television documentary “Shattered Dreams,” which was broadcast in June 2002 by PBS’s flagship public affairs series “Frontline” and in many countries around the world. Sadly, excerpts of this movie — the most important parts were cut out — were screened recently by Tel Aviv University at a conference about Camp David, without the permission of the production company or of myself.

To be fair, Rabinovitch adds a few useful details to some of the episodes I describe in my book. In particular, he offers a different vantage point from which to view the meeting that took place at Point Magoo Marine Base, when senior statesman Shimon Peres and a group of Norwegian and Israeli colleagues came to share the news of the Oslo accords with then-secretary of state Warren Christopher.

My account came from Norwegian negotiator Terje Larsen and an Israeli diplomat. They remembered that Christopher left the room at some point but did not know why. For Rabinovitch, “it was obvious that he needed to call the president and to consult with him.” His anecdote is further evidence of the importance of collecting evidence as soon after the events as possible, as participants at the same meeting can have different accounts about what happened.

Curiously, Rabinovitch writes that “it would take a particularly knowledgeable and perceptive reader to find out” that the images of the death of Mohammad al-Dura, the Palestinian child, “were dispatched by none other than France’s second television channel, whose bureau chief in Israel is Charles Enderlin”. Rabinovitch likely skipped over page 291 of my book, on which I mention that the video was filmed by France 2’s Gaza cameraman. As for proper disclosure, anyone can discover the fact that I am France 2’s Jerusalem bureau chief on the jacket of the book.

Finally, Rabinovitch regrets that I offer little commentary. That was exactly what I wanted to avoid. My intention was to tell the story without editorializing, by presenting the bare facts and letting the reader decide.

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