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Camp David: The Tragedy of Errors

The President’s decision to ignore his commitment to Arafat and blame the Palestinians after the summit points to another factor, which is how the two sides were perceived during the negotiations. As seen from Washington, Camp David exemplified Barak’s political courage and Arafat’s political passivity, risk-taking on the one hand, risk-aversion on the other. The first thing on the President’s mind after Camp David was thus to help the Prime Minister, whose concessions had jeopardized his political standing at home. Hence the finger-pointing. And the last thing on Clinton’s mind was to insist on a further Israeli withdrawal. Hence the absence of a safety net. This brings us to the heart of the matter—the substance of the negotiations themselves, and the reality behind the prevailing perception that a generous Israeli offer met an unyielding Palestinian response.


Was there a generous Israeli offer and, if so, was it peremptorily rejected by Arafat?

If there is one issue that Israelis agree on, it is that Barak broke every conceivable taboo and went as far as any Israeli prime minister had gone or could go. Coming into office on a pledge to retain Jerusalem as Israel’s “eternal and undivided capital,” he ended up appearing to agree to Palestinian sovereignty—first over some, then over all, of the Arab sectors of East Jerusalem. Originally adamant in rejecting the argument that Israel should swap some of the occupied West Bank territory for land within its 1967 borders, he finally came around to that view. After initially speaking of a Palestinian state covering roughly 80 percent of the West Bank, he gradually moved up to the low 90s before acquiescing to the mid-90s range.

Even so, it is hard to state with confidence how far Barak was actually prepared to go. His strategy was predicated on the belief that Israel ought not to reveal its final positions—not even to the United States—unless and until the endgame was in sight. Had any member of the US peace team been asked to describe Barak’s true positions before or even during Camp David—indeed, were any asked that question today—they would be hard-pressed to answer. Barak’s worst fear was that he would put forward Israeli concessions and pay the price domestically, only to see the Palestinians using the concessions as a new point of departure. And his trust in the Americans went only so far, fearing that they might reveal to the Palestinians what he was determined to conceal.

As a consequence, each Israeli position was presented as unmovable, a red line that approached “the bone” of Israeli interests; this served as a means of both forcing the Palestinians to make concessions and preserving Israel’s bargaining positions in the event they did not. On the eve of Camp David, Israeli negotiators described their purported red lines to their American counterparts: the annexation of more than 10 percent of the West Bank, sovereignty over parts of the strip along the Jordan River, and rejection of any territorial swaps. At the opening of Camp David, Barak warned the Americans that he could not accept Palestinian sovereignty over any part of East Jerusalem other than a purely symbolic “foothold.” Earlier, he had claimed that if Arafat asked for 95 percent of the West Bank, there would be no deal. Yet, at the same time, he gave clear hints that Israel was willing to show more flexibility if Arafat was prepared to “contemplate” the endgame. Bottom lines and false bottoms: the tension, and the ambiguity, were always there.

Gradual shifts in Barak’s positions also can be explained by the fact that each proposal seemed to be based less on a firm estimate of what Israel had to hold on to and more on a changing appraisal of what it could obtain. Barak apparently took the view that, faced with a sufficiently attractive proposal and an appropriately unattractive alternative, the Palestinians would have no choice but to say yes. In effect, each successive Palestinian “no” led to the next best Israeli assessment of what, in their right minds, the Palestinians couldn’t turn down.

The final and largely unnoticed consequence of Barak’s approach is that, strictly speaking, there never was an Israeli offer. Determined to preserve Israel’s position in the event of failure, and resolved not to let the Palestinians take advantage of one-sided compromises, the Israelis always stopped one, if not several, steps short of a proposal. The ideas put forward at Camp David were never stated in writing, but orally conveyed. They generally were presented as US concepts, not Israeli ones; indeed, despite having demanded the opportunity to negotiate face to face with Arafat, Barak refused to hold any substantive meeting with him at Camp David out of fear that the Palestinian leader would seek to put Israeli concessions on the record. Nor were the proposals detailed. If written down, the American ideas at Camp David would have covered no more than a few pages. Barak and the Americans insisted that Arafat accept them as general “bases for negotiations” before launching into more rigorous negotiations.

According to those “bases,” Palestine would have sovereignty over 91 percent of the West Bank; Israel would annex 9 percent of the West Bank and, in exchange, Palestine would have sovereignty over parts of pre-1967 Israel equivalent to 1 percent of the West Bank, but with no indication of where either would be. On the highly sensitive issue of refugees, the proposal spoke only of a “satisfactory solution.” Even on Jerusalem, where the most detail was provided, many blanks remained to be filled in. Arafat was told that Palestine would have sovereignty over the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City, but only a loosely defined “permanent custodianship” over the Haram al-Sharif, the third holiest site in Islam. The status of the rest of the city would fluctuate between Palestinian sovereignty and functional autonomy. Finally, Barak was careful not to accept anything. His statements about positions he could support were conditional, couched as a willingness to negotiate on the basis of the US proposals so long as Arafat did the same.


Much as they tried, the Palestinian leaders have proved utterly unable to make their case. In Israel and the US, they are consistently depicted as uncompromising and incapable of responding to Barak’s supreme effort. Yet, in their own eyes, they were the ones who made the principal concessions.

For all the talk about peace and reconciliation, most Palestinians were more resigned to the two-state solution than they were willing to embrace it; they were prepared to accept Israel’s existence, but not its moral legitimacy. The war for the whole of Palestine was over because it had been lost. Oslo, as they saw it, was not about negotiating peace terms but terms of surrender. Bearing this perspective in mind explains the Palestinians’ view that Oslo itself is the historic compromise—an agreement to concede 78 percent of mandatory Palestine to Israel. And it explains why they were so sensitive to the Israelis’ use of language. The notion that Israel was “offering” land, being “generous,” or “making concessions” seemed to them doubly wrong—in a single stroke both affirming Israel’s right and denying the Palestinians’. For the Palestinians, land was not given but given back.

Even during the period following the Oslo agreement, the Palestinians considered that they were the ones who had come up with creative ideas to address Israeli concerns. While denouncing Israeli settlements as illegal, they accepted the principle that Israel would annex some of the West Bank settlements in exchange for an equivalent amount of Israeli land being transferred to the Palestinians. While insisting on the Palestinian refugees’ right to return to homes lost in 1948, they were prepared to tie this right to a mechanism of implementation providing alternative choices for the refugees while limiting the numbers returning to Israel proper. Despite their insistence on Israel’s withdrawal from all lands occupied in 1967, they were open to a division of East Jerusalem granting Israel sovereignty over its Jewish areas (the Jewish Quarter, the Wailing Wall, and the Jewish neighborhoods) in clear contravention of this principle.

These compromises notwithstanding, the Palestinians never managed to rid themselves of their intransigent image. Indeed, the Palestinians’ principal failing is that from the beginning of the Camp David summit onward they were unable either to say yes to the American ideas or to present a cogent and specific counterproposal of their own. In failing to do either, the Palestinians denied the US the leverage it felt it needed to test Barak’s stated willingness to go the extra mile and thereby provoked the President’s anger. When Abu Ala’a, a leading Palestinian negotiator, refused to work on a map to negotiate a possible solution, arguing that Israel first had to concede that any territorial agreement must be based on the line of June 4, 1967, the President burst out, “Don’t simply say to the Israelis that their map is no good. Give me something better!” When Abu Ala’a again balked, the President stormed out: “This is a fraud. It is not a summit. I won’t have the United States covering for negotiations in bad faith. Let’s quit!” Toward the end of the summit, an irate Clinton would tell Arafat: “If the Israelis can make compromises and you can’t, I should go home. You have been here fourteen days and said no to everything. These things have consequences; failure will mean the end of the peace process…. Let’s let hell break loose and live with the consequences.”

How is one to explain the Palestinians’ behavior? As has been mentioned earlier, Arafat was persuaded that the Israelis were setting a trap. His primary objective thus became to cut his losses rather than maximize his gains. That did not mean that he ruled out reaching a final deal; but that goal seemed far less attainable than others. Beyond that, much has to do with the political climate that prevailed within Palestinian society. Unlike the situation during and after Oslo, there was no coalition of powerful Palestinian constituencies committed to the success of Camp David. Groups whose support was necessary to sell any agreement had become disbelievers, convinced that Israel would neither sign a fair agreement nor implement what it signed. Palestinian negotiators, with one eye on the summit and another back home, went to Camp David almost apologetically, determined to demonstrate that this time they would not be duped. More prone to caution than to creativity, they viewed any US or Israeli idea with suspicion. They could not accept the ambiguous formulations that had served to bridge differences between the parties in the past and that later, in their view, had been interpreted to Israel’s advantage; this time around, only clear and unequivocal understandings would do.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the case of what is known as the Haram al-Sharif to Palestinians and the Temple Mount to Jews. The Americans spent countless hours seeking imaginative formulations to finesse the issue of which party would enjoy sovereignty over this sacred place—a coalition of nations, the United Nations Security Council, even God himself was proposed. In the end, the Palestinians would have nothing of it: the agreement had to give them sovereignty, or there would be no agreement at all.

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