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Camp David: The Tragedy of Errors

Mr. Malley, as Special Assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli Affairs, was a member of the US peace team and participated in the Camp David summit. Mr. Agha has been involved in Palestinian affairs for more than thirty years and during this period has had an active part in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

In accounts of what happened at the July 2000 Camp David summit and the following months of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, we often hear about Ehud Barak’s unprecedented offer and Yasser Arafat’s uncompromising no. Israel is said to have made a historic, generous proposal, which the Palestinians, once again seizing the opportunity to miss an opportunity, turned down. In short, the failure to reach a final agreement is attributed, without notable dissent, to Yasser Arafat.

As orthodoxies go, this is a dangerous one. For it has larger ripple effects. Broader conclusions take hold. That there is no peace partner is one. That there is no possible end to the conflict with Arafat is another.

For a process of such complexity, the diagnosis is remarkably shallow. It ignores history, the dynamics of the negotiations, and the relationships among the three parties. In so doing, it fails to capture why what so many viewed as a generous Israeli offer, the Palestinians viewed as neither generous, nor Israeli, nor, indeed, as an offer. Worse, it acts as a harmful constraint on American policy by offering up a single, convenient culprit—Arafat—rather than a more nuanced and realistic analysis.


Each side came to Camp David with very different perspectives, which led, in turn, to highly divergent approaches to the talks.

Ehud Barak was guided by three principles. First was a deep antipathy toward the concept of gradual steps that lay at the heart of the 1993 Oslo agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. In his view, the withdrawals of Israeli forces from parts of Gaza and the West Bank during the preceding seven years had forced Israel to pay a heavy price without getting anything tangible in return and without knowing the scope of the Palestinians’ final demands. A second axiom for Barak was that the Palestinian leadership would make a historic compromise—if at all—only after it had explored and found unappealing all other possibilities.

An analysis of Israeli politics led to Barak’s third principle. Barak’s team was convinced that the Israeli public would ratify an agreement with the Palestinians, even one that entailed far-reaching concessions, so long as it was final and brought quiet and normalcy to the country. But Barak and his associates also felt that the best way to bring the agreement before the Israeli public was to minimize any political friction along the way. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had paid a tremendous political (and physical) price by alienating the Israeli right wing and failing to bring its members along during the Oslo process. Barak was determined not to repeat that mistake. Paradoxically, a government that believed it enjoyed considerable latitude concerning the terms of the ultimate deal felt remarkably constrained on the steps it could take to get there. Bearing these principles in mind helps us to make sense of the Israeli government’s actions during this period.

To begin, Barak discarded a number of interim steps, even those to which Israel was formally committed by various agreements—including a third partial redeployment of troops from the West Bank, the transfer to Palestinian control of three villages abutting Jerusalem, and the release of Palestinians imprisoned for acts committed before the Oslo agreement. He did not want to estrange the right prematurely or be (or appear to be) a “sucker” by handing over assets, only to be rebuffed on the permanent status deal. In Barak’s binary cost-benefit analysis, such steps did not add up: on the one hand, if Israelis and Palestinians reached a final agreement, all these minor steps (and then some) would be taken; on the other hand, if the parties failed to reach a final agreement, those steps would have been wasted. What is more, concessions to the Palestinians would cost Barak precious political capital he was determined to husband until the final, climactic moment.

The better route, he thought, was to present all concessions and all rewards in one comprehensive package that the Israeli public would be asked to accept in a national referendum. Oslo was being turned on its head. It had been a wager on success—a blank check signed by two sides willing to take difficult preliminary steps in the expectation that they would reach an agreement. Barak’s approach was a hedge against failure—a reluctance to make preliminary concessions out of fear that they might not.

Much the same can be said about Israel’s expansion of the West Bank settlements, which proceeded at a rapid pace. Barak saw no reason to needlessly alienate the settler constituency. Moreover, insofar as new housing units were being established on land that Israel ultimately would annex under a permanent deal—at least any permanent deal Barak would sign—he saw no harm to the Palestinians in permitting such construction. In other words, Barak’s single-minded focus on the big picture only magnified in his eyes the significance—and cost—of the small steps. Precisely because he was willing to move a great distance in a final agreement (on territory or on Jerusalem, for example), he was unwilling to move an inch in the preamble (prisoners, settlements, troop redeployment, Jerusalem villages).

Barak’s principles also shed light on his all-or-nothing approach. In Barak’s mind, Arafat had to be made to understand that there was no “third way,” no “reversion to the interim approach,” but rather a corridor leading either to an agreement or to confrontation. Seeking to enlist the support of the US and European nations for this plan, he asked them to threaten Arafat with the consequences of his obstinacy: the blame would be laid on the Palestinians and relations with them would be downgraded. Likewise, and throughout Camp David, Barak repeatedly urged the US to avoid mention of any fall-back options or of the possibility of continued negotiations in the event the summit failed.

The Prime Minister’s insistence on holding a summit and the timing of the Camp David talks followed naturally. Barak was prepared to have his negotiators engage in preliminary discussions, which in fact took place for several months prior to Camp David. But for him, these were not the channels in which real progress could be made. Only by insisting on a single, high-level summit could all the necessary ingredients of success be present: the drama of a stark, all-or-nothing proposal; the prospect that Arafat might lose US support; the exposure of the ineffectiveness of Palestinian salami-tactics (pocketing Israeli concessions that become the starting point at the next round); and, ultimately, the capacity to unveil to the Israeli people all the achievements and concessions of the deal in one fell swoop.


In Gaza and the West Bank, Barak’s election was greeted with mixed emotions. Benjamin Netanyahu, his immediate predecessor, had failed to implement several of Israel’s signed obliga-tions and, for that reason alone, his defeat was welcome. But during his campaign, Barak had given no indication that he was prepared for major compromises with the Palestinians. Labor back in power also meant Tel Aviv back in Washington’s good graces; Netanyahu’s tenure, by contrast, had seen a gradual cooling of America’s relations with Israel and a concomitant warming of its relations with the Palestinian Authority.

Palestinians were looking for early reassuring signs from Barak; his first moves were anything but. His broad government coalition (an assortment of peace advocates and hard-liners), his tough positions on issues like Jerusalem, and his reluctance to confront the settlers all contributed to an early atmosphere of distrust. Delays in addressing core Palestinian concerns—such as implementing the 1998 Wye Agreement (which Barak chose to renegotiate) or beginning permanent status talks (which Barak postponed by waiting to name a lead negotiator)—were particularly irksome given the impatient mood that prevailed in the territories. Seen from Gaza and the West Bank, Oslo’s legacy read like a litany of promises deferred or unfulfilled. Six years after the agreement, there were more Israeli settlements, less freedom of movement, and worse economic conditions. Powerful Palestinian constituencies—the intellectuals, security establishment, media, business community, “state” bureaucrats, political activists—whose support was vital for any peace effort were disillusioned with the results of the peace process, doubtful of Israel’s willingness to implement signed agreements, and, now, disenchanted with Barak’s rhetoric and actions.

Perhaps most disturbing was Barak’s early decision to concentrate on reaching a deal with Syria rather than with the Palestinians, a decision that Arafat experienced as a triple blow. The Palestinians saw it as an instrument of pressure, designed to isolate them; as a delaying tactic that would waste precious months; and as a public humiliation, intended to put them in their place. Over the years, Syria had done nothing to address Israeli concerns. There was no recognition, no bilateral contacts, not even a suspension of assistance to groups intent on fighting Israel. During that time, the PLO had recognized Israel, countless face-to-face negotiations had taken place, and Israeli and Palestinian security services had worked hand in hand. In spite of all this, Hafez al-Assad—not Arafat—was the first leader to be courted by the new Israeli government.

In March 2000, after the failed Geneva summit between Clinton and President Assad made clear that the Syrian track had run its course, Barak chose to proceed full steam ahead with the Palestinians, setting a deadline of only a few months to reach a permanent agreement. But by then, the frame of mind on the other side was anything but receptive. It was Barak’s timetable, imposed after his Syrian gambit had failed, and designed with his own strategy in mind. Arafat was not about to oblige.

Indeed, behind almost all of Barak’s moves, Arafat believed he could discern the objective of either forcing him to swallow an unconscionable deal or mobilizing the world to isolate and weaken the Palestinians if they refused to yield. Barak’s stated view that the alternative to an agreement would be a situation far grimmer than the status quo created an atmosphere of pressure that only confirmed Arafat’s suspicions—and the greater the pressure, the more stubborn the belief among Palestinians that Barak was trying to dupe them.

Moreover, the steps Barak undertook to husband his resources while negotiating a historical final deal were interpreted by the Palestinians as efforts to weaken them while imposing an unfair one. Particularly troubling from this perspective was Barak’s attitude toward the interim commitments, based on the Oslo, Wye, and later agreements. Those who claim that Arafat lacked interest in a permanent deal miss the point. Like Barak, the Palestinian leader felt that permanent status negotiations were long overdue; unlike Barak, he did not think that this justified doing away with the interim obligations.

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