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Camp David: The Tragedy of Errors

For Arafat, interim and permanent issues are inextricably linked—“part and parcel of each other,” he told the President—precisely because they must be kept scrupulously separate. Unfulfilled interim obligations did more than cast doubt on Israel’s intent to deliver; in Arafat’s eyes, they directly affected the balance of power that was to prevail once permanent status negotiations commenced.

To take the simplest example: if Is-rael still held on to land that was supposed to be turned over during the interim phase, then the Palestinians would have to negotiate over that land as well during permanent status negotiations. And while Barak claimed that unfulfilled interim obligations would be quickly forgotten in the event that the summit succeeded, Arafat feared that they might just as quickly be ignored in the event that it failed. In other words, Barak’s seemed a take-it-or-leave-it proposition in which leaving it meant forsaking not only the permanent status proposal, but also a further withdrawal of Israeli forces, the Jerusalem villages, the prisoner releases, and other interim commitments. Worse, it meant being confronted with the new settlement units in areas that Barak self-confidently assumed would be annexed to Israel under a permanent status deal.

In many ways, Barak’s actions led to a classic case of misaddressed messages: the intended recipients of his tough statements—the domestic constituency he was seeking to carry with him—barely listened, while their unintended recipients—the Palestinians he would sway with his final offer—listened only too well. Never convinced that Barak was ready to go far at all, the Palestinians were not about to believe that he was holding on to his assets in order to go far enough. For them, his goals were to pressure the Palestinians, lower their expectations, and worsen their alternatives. In short, everything Barak saw as evidence that he was serious, the Palestinians considered to be evidence that he was not.

For these reasons, Camp David seemed to Arafat to encapsulate his worst nightmares. It was high-wire summitry, designed to increase the pressure on the Palestinians to reach a quick agreement while heightening the political and symbolic costs if they did not. And it clearly was a Clinton/ Barak idea both in concept and timing, and for that reason alone highly suspect. That the US issued the invitations 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.

On June 15, during his final meeting with Clinton before Camp David, Arafat set forth his case: Barak had not implemented prior agreements, there had been no progress in the negotiations, and the prime minister was holding all the cards. The only conceivable outcome of going to a summit, he told Secretary Albright, was to have everything explode in the President’s face. If there is no summit, at least there will still be hope. The summit is our last card, Arafat said—do you really want to burn it? In the end, Arafat went to Camp David, for not to do so would have been to incur America’s anger; but he went intent more on surviving than on benefiting from it.


Given both the mistrust and tactical clumsiness that characterized the two sides, the United States faced a formidable challenge. At the time, though, administration officials believed there was a historic opportunity for an agreement. Barak was eager for a deal, wanted it achieved during Clinton’s term in office, and had surrounded himself with some of Israel’s most peace-minded politicians. For his part, Arafat had the opportunity to preside over the first Palestinian state, and he enjoyed a special bond with Clinton, the first US president to have met and dealt with him. As for Clinton, he was prepared to devote as much of his presidency as it took to make the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations succeed. A decision not to seize the opportunity would have produced as many regrets as the decision to seize it produced recriminations.

Neither the President nor his advisers were blind to the growing distrust between the two sides or to Barak’s tactical missteps. They had been troubled by his decision to favor negotiations with the “other woman,” the Syrian president, who distracted him from his legitimate, albeit less appealing, Palestinian bride-to-be. Barak’s inability to create a working relationship with Arafat was bemoaned in the administration; his entreaties to the Americans to “expose” and “unmask” Arafat to the world were largely ignored.

When Barak reneged on his commitment to transfer the three Jerusalem villages to the Palestinians—a commitment the Prime Minister had specifically authorized Clinton to convey, in the President’s name, to Arafat—Clinton was furious. As he put it, this was the first time that he had been made out to be a “false prophet” to a foreign leader. And, in an extraordinary moment at Camp David, when Barak retracted some of his positions, the President confronted him, expressing all his accumulated frustrations. “I can’t go see Arafat with a retrenchment! You can sell it; there is no way I can. This is not real. This is not serious. I went to Shepherdstown [for the Israeli-Syrian negotiations] and was told nothing by you for four days. I went to Geneva [for the summit with Assad] and felt like a wooden Indian doing your bidding. I will not let it happen here!”

In the end, though, and on almost all these questionable tactical judgments, the US either gave up or gave in, reluctantly acquiescing in the way Barak did things out of respect for the things he was trying to do. For there was a higher good, which was Barak’s determination to reach peace agreements with Syria and the Palestinians. As early as July 1999, during their first meeting, Barak had outlined to Clinton his vision of a comprehensive peace. He provided details regarding his strategy, a timetable, even the (astronomical) US funding that would be required for Israel’s security, Palestinian and Syrian economic assistance, and refugee resettlement. These were not the words of a man with a ploy but of a man with a mission.

The relationship between Clinton and Barak escapes easy classification. The President, a political pro, was full of empathy, warmth, and personal charm; the Prime Minister, a self-proclaimed political novice, was mainly at ease with cool, logical argument. Where the President’s tactics were fluid, infinitely adaptable to the reactions of others, Barak’s every move seemed to have been conceived and then frozen in his own mind. At Camp David, Clinton offered Barak some advice: “You are smarter and more experienced than I am in war. But I am older in politics. And I have learned from my mistakes.”

Yet in their political relations, the two men were genuine intimates. For all his complicated personality traits, Barak was deemed a privileged partner because of his determination to reach a final deal and the risks he was prepared to take to get there. When these were stacked against Arafat’s perceived inflexibility and emphasis on interim commitments, the administration found it hard not to accommodate Barak’s requests. As the President told Arafat three weeks before Camp David began, he largely agreed with the chairman’s depiction of Barak—politically maladroit, frustrating, lacking in personal touch. But he differed with Arafat on a crucial point: he was convinced that Barak genuinely wanted a historic deal.

The President’s decision to hold the Camp David summit despite Arafat’s protestations illuminates much about US policy during this period. In June, Barak—who for some time had been urging that a summit be rapidly convened—told the President and Secretary Albright that Palestinian negotiators had not moved an inch and that his negotiators had reached the end of their compromises; anything more would have to await a summit. He also warned that without a summit, his government (at least in its current form) would be gone within a few weeks.

At the same time, Arafat posed several conditions for agreeing to go to a summit. First, he sought additional preparatory talks to ensure that Camp David would not fail. Second, he requested that the third Israeli territorial withdrawal be implemented before Camp David—a demand that, when rebuffed by the US, turned into a request that the US “guarantee” the withdrawal even if Camp David did not yield an agreement (what he called a “safety net”). A third Palestinian request—volunteered by Clinton, rather than being demanded by Arafat—was that the US remain neutral in the event the summit failed and not blame the Palestinians.

The administration by and large shared Arafat’s views. The Palestinians’ most legitimate concern, in American eyes, was that without additional preparatory work the risk of failure was too great. In June, speaking of a possible summit, Clinton told Barak, “I want to do this, but not under circumstances that will kill Oslo.” Clinton also agreed with Arafat on the need for action on the interim issues. He extracted a commitment from Barak that the third Israeli withdrawal would take place with or without a final deal, and, in June, he privately told the Chairman he would support a “substantial” withdrawal were Camp David to fail. Describing all the reasons for Arafat’s misgivings, he urged Barak to put himself “in Arafat’s shoes” and to open the summit with a series of goodwill gestures toward the Palestinians. Finally, Clinton assured Arafat on the eve of the summit that he would not be blamed if the summit did not succeed. “There will be,” he pledged, “no finger-pointing.”

Yet, having concurred with the Palestinians’ contentions on the merits, the US immediately proceeded to disregard them. Ultimately, there was neither additional preparation before the summit, nor a third redeployment of Israeli troops, nor any action on interim issues. And Arafat got blamed in no uncertain terms.

Why this discrepancy between promise and performance? Most importantly, because Barak’s reasoning—and his timetable—had an irresistible logic to them. If nothing was going to happen at pre-summit negotiations—and nothing was—if his government was on the brink of collapse, and if he would put on Camp David’s table concessions he had not made before, how could the President say no? What would be gained by waiting? Certainly not the prospect offered by Arafat—another interminable negotiation over a modest territorial withdrawal. And most probably, as many analysts predicted, an imminent confrontation, if Arafat proceeded with his plan to unilaterally announce a state on September 13, 2000, or if the frustration among the Palestinians—of which the world had had a glimpse during the May 2000 upheaval—were to reach boiling point once again.

As for the interim issues, US officials believed that whatever Palestinian anger resulted from Israeli lapses would evaporate in the face of an appealing final deal. As a corollary, from the President on down, US officials chose to use their leverage with the Israelis to obtain movement on the issues that had to be dealt with in a permanent agreement rather than expend it on interim ones.

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