It was, by most accounts, the closest the two sides had ever come to a deal. It could have created a comprehensive peace plan between the Palestinians and the Israelis and an end to the more than half century of warfare and enmity between the two peoples. Most importantly, it could have created a country for the dispossessed Palestinians, and an end to the constant state of vulnerability and fear for the Israelis. All of this would have occurred had the deal proposed by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak been accepted by the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat, at the 2000 Camp David negotiations. Why did Arafat walk away from the deal presented to him? Why did Ehud Barak propose giving away what other Israeli Prime Ministers never did? This paper will examine these two questions by looking at the setup to Camp David, and the domestic political factors affecting both leaders. Finally, I will also attempt to extrapolate any lessons for Palestinian and Israeli leaders as they continue their attempts to find a just and lasting peace.
Before a discussion of what happened at Camp David can begin, one has to understand the events leading up to the Camp David summit in 2000. The most prominent part of the pre-2000 landscape was the 1993 Oslo Accords. In the 1993 Oslo deal the Israelis committed to working with Yasser Arafar, and Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) recognized Israel’s right to exist and renounced the use of violence and terrorism. It also set the groundwork for an eventual “land for peace” deal (Frontline). Rabin promised Arafat that the settlements would stop, and Arafat promised to do his best to stop terrorist attacks against Israelis. As the decade continued, however, neither Israeli settlements nor Palestinian suicide attacks ceased.
Although Yasser Arafat remained a powerful figure through these years, he was not able to control all of his people. The Palestinian population was then, as it remains now, largely “divided into two camps: the “return to 1967 borders” crowd and the “destroy the state of Israel” crowd” (Wright). The “destroy the state of Israel” crowd consists mainly of Hamas members, a Palestinian social and now political group that refused to submit to Arafat’s leadership and refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Hamas members largely ignored the Oslo Accords and continued to commit terrorist attacks. Also, many Palestinians grew disenchanted of the efficacy of the Accords as more settlements were built over the years, contrary to what they were promised by the Israelis.
Yitzhak Rabin had a similar problem in that he also failed to mollify the extremists in his country. As a result, in November 1995 an right-wing extremist Israeli intent on derailing the peace process assassinated Rabin. Other prime ministers were elected, and different agreements were made over the course of the decade, including Oslo II and the Wye River Memorandum. These interim agreements for piecemeal deals began to strain the Israelis’ patience, especially with the intermittent suicide bombings which, contrary to what they were promised by Arafat, did not seem to halt or even lessen.
With these factors in mind, President Bill Clinton convened the Camp David summit on July 11, 2000. Despite his doubts about what could be accomplished, he requested the meeting because he “believed that the collapse of the peace process would be a near certainty” if he didn’t call it (Clinton, 592). President Clinton was committed to the summit – he only had about six more months in office, and a Middle-East peace deal would go a long way in making sure people remembered Clinton the peace-maker instead of Clinton the adulterer. He was known to be concerned about his place in presidential history, and solving a decades-long conflict would ensure a place in the pantheon of great American Presidents. As a result, he “was prepared to devote as much of his presidency as it took to make the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations succeed” (Agha and Malley).
Ehud Barak, the Israeli Prime Minister, was in an extremely tough political position when he came to the meeting. Despite being the most decorated soldier in Israeli history, the coalition of parties supporting him and keeping him in power was an extremely tenuous group, and he had in fact “just survived a no-confidence vote in the Knesset by only two votes” (Clinton, 593). Barak was also tired of the incremental steps such as those agreed upon in the 1993 Oslo Accords, and he was also very much aware that “Yitzhak Rabin [the Israeli Prime Minister responsible for the Accords] had paid a tremendous political (and physical) price by alienating the Israeli right wing” so he was determined to find a solution most Israelis could accept (Agha and Malley).
Barak actually persuaded Clinton to hold the summit, in part because his political survival depended on it. Earlier in his term Barak had tried to make peace with Syria, but that effort failed. He had also only months earlier approved the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon. Barak needed a victory to sustain his coalition and his career, and no victory could be more important than a final deal with the Palestinians. Barak had a “single-minded focus on the big picture,” and there was no bigger picture than the comprehensive peace deal he hoped to achieve at the summit (Agha and Malley).
Yasser Arafat, on the other hand, didn’t want the summit. He was angry with Barak for attempting negotiations with the Syrians, and for withdrawing from Lebanon. Whie Arafat had renounced violence as part of the 1993 Olso Accords, Syria and militant Lebanese groups had continued violent resistance, and Barak was rewarding those two countries instead of Arafat. This only reinforced the beliefs of the more militant Palestinians that negotiations were fruitless and that the Israelis only understood the language of violence. Years after the 1993 Agreement which he had promised would create a better life for his people, Arafat could only point to “more Israeli settlements, less freedom of movement, and worse economic conditions” (Agha and Malley).
Arafat was also concerned about the idea of the American-sponsored summit. He was afraid that the high-profile summit would force him to give into combined Israeli and American pressure and compromise on vital issues (Bickerton and Klausner, 329). The fact that the summit was called “despite Israel’s refusal to carry out its earlier commitments and despite Arafat’s plea for additional time to prepare only reinforced in his mind the sense of a US-Israeli conspiracy” (Agha and Malley). As a result, Arafat “went [to the summit] intent more on surviving than on benefiting from it” (Agha and Malley).
The stakes were high. Ehud Barak’s career depended on the outcome of the summit. As aforementioned, Yasser Arafat had threatened to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state in just a few months. It was also clear that “with the American elections impending…failure would mean the end of the whole process for the foreseeable future and unpredictable results should the parties take matters into their own hands” (Bickerton and Klausner, 329).
The summit began on July 11. Private and public messages, position papers and face-to-face confrontations all took place in the ensuing 15 days of negotiations. For the first time, some of the most important issues to both sides were breached. Unfortunately, although these issues were discussed, there was little agreement. President Clinton played a major role, haggling with both sides and demanding that the two sides reach an agreement. Secretary of State Madeline Albright, National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, and special envoy Dennis Ross were all equally involved in the give and take between Arafat, Barak, and their top aides.
Problems arose immediately in terms of negotiating style. The Israelis held their cards privately, partly because they were afraid the media and opposition politicians would find out about the amount of territory they were willing to give up, and partly because they feared the Palestinians would use the Israeli offer as a starting point, not an end goal. The Palestinians had a whole host of other problems. Arafat’s negotiators engaged in “fratricidal competition” – undermining each other and their agreements, frustrating Clinton and Barak to no end (Ross and Grinstein). They also largely did not trust Barak, especially since he had refused to stop the ongoing settlements. They feared Barak’s political weakness, and were aware that he looked ready to be defeated by the hard-line Ariel Sharon, who they believed would not respect any agreement Barak made (Wright).
After days and days of tense negotiations, Barak finally agreed to authorize a proposal. The plan he came up with would result in the Palestinians obtaining a state of their own that would comprise 91% of the West Bank. Part of Israel’s pre-1967 borders would be given to the Palestinians in exchange for the 9% of land in the West Bank that the Israelis would retain. The plan would also have given the Palestinians “a capital in East Jerusalem; planning, zoning, and law-enforcement authority over the rest of the eastern part of the city; and custodianship but not sovereignty over the Temple Mount” (Clinton, 596). The details reported in media accounts of the proposed deal, however, only tell part of the story. In fact, the Palestinian state Barak offered would be hamstrung in a number of different ways, and important demands of the Palestinians would be rejected.
The settlements, for instance, would largely remain. The deal envisioned by Barak would have involved the withdrawal of “20 percent of the settlers, leaving more than 180,000 in 209 settlements” – essentially vindicating Ariel Sharon’s strategy of creating “facts on the ground” (Carter, 151). Also, the 91% figure didn’t tell the full story:
There is a zone with a radius of about four hundred meters around each settlement within which Palestinians cannot enter. In addition, there are other large areas that would have been taken or earmarked to be used exclusively by Israel, roadways that connect the settlements to one another and to Jerusalem, and “life arteries” that provide the settlers with water, sewage, electricity, and communications. (Carter, 151).
The land Israel would have provided from within its pre-1967 borders in exchange for the land in the West Bank would have amounted to “land as large as 1 percent of the West Bank” (Wright).
It is helpful to remember that these territorial discussions have to be seen in the context of each side’s unique historic claims to the land. For the Israelis, Israel was the Promised Land – the land granted by God to the Jewish people. Many Israelis, especially the more conservative and religious ones, believed in the concept of Eretz Yisrael, or Greater Israel, a land which contained all of modern-day Israel as well as the West Bank and Gaza, and even more territory in other Arab countries. For these Israelis, giving up any part of the West Bank and Gaza is giving up on land that belongs to them – land that God gave to them. A refusal to give up this God-ordained land was partially what motivated the Israeli extremist who had assassinated Yitzhak Rabin.
The Palestinians, on the other hand, were a dispossessed people. For decades if not centuries, their ancestors had lived on and worked the land of Palestine. More than a half century ago they had lost their land in a traumatic war, one which they expected to be over quickly. Their homes and villages had been occupied or destroyed and their people forced into exile or refugee camps, camps where hundreds of thousands of refugees remain to this day. For the Palestinians, Oslo and Camp David were “not about negotiating peace terms but terms of surrender” (Agha and Malley).
Land was not the only contentious issue in the Israeli proposal – there would have been a number of restrictions on the new Palestinian state. The “custodianship” status of East Jerusalem was not explained, but the fact that the Palestinian Muslims wouldn’t have sovereignty over their third holiest place was a bitter pill for them to swallow. Palestinians wanted East Jerusalem to be their new capital, but without sovereign control of the territory that could not occur (Bickerton and Klausner, 329). Also, Palestine would not be allowed to have a military or control of its air space, and “at least one east-west Israeli-controlled road would slice all the way across the West Bank, and Israel would be entitled to declare emergencies during which Palestinians couldn’t cross the road” (Wright).
Finally, perhaps the single most important issue to the Palestinians – the right of return – received hardly any mention. Instead of accommodating some Palestinians demands on this important issue, Israel continued to refuse to “accept moral or legal responsibility for the refugee problem and wanted it solved not by repatriation but by compensation through international aid” (Bickerton and Klausner, 329).
Taking into consideration all of these other factors, it comes as no surprise the Israeli proposal was rejected by Arafat. Some have gone so far as to suggest that “There was no possibility that any Palestinian leader could accept such terms and survive” (Carter, 152). But if this was the case, then why do most media accounts place the blame squarely on Arafat for rejecting the deal?
The main reason is because Arafat refused to present a counter-offer. President Clinton himself was extremely upset at this, demanding of a Palestinian negotiator “Don’t simply say to the Israelis that their map is no good. Give me something better!” and later saying to Arafat: “You have been here fourteen days and said no to everything” (Agha and Malley). No one seems to understand why Arafat refused to present a counter-offer, except perhaps that he knew any offer he would present would not be accepted by the Israelis, who were dead-set against the two biggest Palestinian demands – East Jerusalem and the right of return.
Arafat also did not defend himself in the media. As a result, the press fed a narrative encouraged by the Israelis – that the Israelis had offered more than ever before, and Arafat had stubbornly turned the offer down without countering it with his own offer. The Palestinians were seen as falling again to their pattern of victimization – “by blaming others, they never have to focus on their own mistakes. And that perpetuates the avoidance of responsibility, not its assumption” (Ross).
Critics of the Israelis at Camp David 2000 will grant that Arafat “never paved the way for the various compromises that would ultimately be necessary; he had never really been a leader” in trying to make Palestinian demands more realistic (Wright). Simultaneously, however, they note that “[T]he measure of Israel’s concessions ought not be how far it has moved from its own starting point; it must be how far it has moved toward a fair solution” – and they point out that “if many Israelis were shocked in the summer of 2000 to hear that parts of Jerusalem were on the bargaining table, it would seem that Israel’s succession of leaders hadn’t done much road-paving, either” (Wright).
Looked at more critically than topical media reports often allow, the 2000 Camp David negotiations were failures because of the lack of leadership on both sides. The Palestinians, continuing to nurse their dreams about their eventual return to their homeland, failed to engage in a dialogue with a willing partner for peace. The Israelis, failing to understand the deep attachment of the Palestinians to their land, thought that going further than ever before would be good enough.
It is important to recognize the truth of what actually happened. The story typically presented in the media about the summit encourages Israelis to be complacent, and hopeful for a better Palestinian leader more willing to compromise. As these “broader conclusions take hold,” the Israelis fail to undergo the necessary self-evaluation of their offers (Agha and Malley). At the same time, it is important to not let the Palestinians completely off the hook: they need to recognize that they will most likely never receive the unlimited right of return they seek. There are any number of proposals offered over the years as to what to do with the refugees, and the Palestinians are going to have to accept one of them eventually – the Israelis will never “accept any reference to a right of return that would imply a right to immigrate to Israel” (Ross, 804).
The vast majority of both the Israeli and Palestinian sides would benefit from a solution to this decade-long struggle. A comprehensive peace deal will require painful compromises on both sides, and an unparalleled commitment of American attention, resources, and possibly even manpower. However, no peace deal will be inked so long as both sides fail to engage in the critical self-examination necessary. A complete and accurate understanding of previous successful and failed peace deals like that which occurred at the Camp David 2000 summit is necessary to continuing that vital self-examination. Only then can the seemingly never-ending Israeli/Palestinian conflict be turned into a just and lasting peace.
- Agha, Hussein and Malley, Robert. “Camp David: The Tragedy of Errors.” New York Review of Books. August 2001. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/14380
- Bickerton, Jan J., and Carla L. Klausner. A History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2007.
- Carter, Jimmy. Palestine Peace, Not Apartheid. New York. Simon and Schuester. 2006.
- Clinton, Bill. My Life. New York. Vintage Books. 2004
- “Shattered Dreams of Peace: The Negotiations” PBS Frontline. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/oslo/negotiations/
- Ross, Dennis. The Missing Peace. New York. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 2004
- Ross, Dennis and Grinstein, Gridi and Agha, Hussein and Malley, Robert. “Camp David: An Exchange” New York Review of Books. September 2001. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/14529
- Wright, Robert. “Was Arafat the Problem?” Slate. http://www.slate.com/?id=2064500