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Camp David: The Tragedy of Errors

Domestic hostility toward the summit also exacerbated tensions among the dozen or so Palestinian negotiators, which, never far from the surface, had grown as the stakes rose, with the possibility of a final deal and the coming struggle for succession. The negotiators looked over their shoulders, fearful of adopting positions that would undermine them back home. Appearing to act disparately and without a central purpose, each Palestinian negotiator gave preeminence to a particular issue, making virtually impossible the kinds of trade-offs that, inevitably, a compromise would entail. Ultimately, most chose to go through the motions rather than go for a deal. Ironically, Barak the democrat had far more individual leeway than Arafat the supposed autocrat. Lacking internal cohesion, Palestinian negotiators were unable to treat Camp David as a decisive, let alone a historic, gathering.

The Palestinians saw acceptance of the US ideas, even as “bases for further negotiations,” as presenting dangers of its own. The Camp David proposals were viewed as inadequate: they were silent on the question of refugees, the land exchange was unbalanced, and both the Haram and much of Arab East Jerusalem were to remain under Israeli sovereignty. To accept these proposals in the hope that Barak would then move further risked diluting the Palestinian position in a fundamental way: by shifting the terms of debate from the international legitimacy of United Nations resolutions on Israeli withdrawal and on refugee return to the imprecise ideas suggested by the US. Without the guarantee of a deal, this was tantamount to gambling with what the Palestinians considered their most valuable currency, international legality. The Palestinians’ reluctance to do anything that might undercut the role of UN resolutions that applied to them was reinforced by Israel’s decision to scrupulously implement those that applied to Lebanon and unilaterally withdraw from that country in the months preceding Camp David. Full withdrawal, which had been obtained by Egypt and basically offered to Syria, was now being granted to Lebanon. If Hezbollah, an armed militia that still considered itself at war with Israel, had achieved such an outcome, surely a national movement that had been negotiating peacefully with Israel for years should expect no less.

The Palestinians’ overall behavior, when coupled with Barak’s conviction that Arafat merely wanted to extract Israeli concessions, led to disastrous results. The mutual and by then deeply entrenched suspicion meant that Barak would conceal his final proposals, the “endgame,” until Arafat had moved, and that Arafat would not move until he could see the endgame. Barak’s strategy was predicated on the idea that his firmness would lead to some Palestinian flexibility, which in turn would justify Israel’s making further concessions. Instead, Barak’s piecemeal negotiation style, combined with Arafat’s unwillingness to budge, produced a paradoxical result. By presenting early positions as bottom lines, the Israelis provoked the Palestinians’ mistrust; by subsequently shifting them, they whetted the Palestinians’ appetite. By the end of the process, it was hard to tell which bottom lines were for real, and which were not.


The United States had several different roles in the negotiations, complex and often contradictory: as principal broker of the putative peace deal; as guardian of the peace process; as Israel’s strategic ally; and as its cultural and political partner. The ideas it put forward throughout the process bore the imprint of each.

As the broker of the agreement, the President was expected to present a final deal that Arafat could not refuse. Indeed, that notion was the premise of Barak’s attraction to a summit. But the United States’ ability to play the part was hamstrung by two of its other roles. First, America’s political and cultural affinity with Israel translated into an acute sensitivity to Israeli domestic concerns and an exaggerated appreciation of Israel’s substantive moves. American officials initially were taken aback when Barak indicated he could accept a division of the Old City or Palestinian sovereignty over many of Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods—a reaction that reflected less an assessment of what a “fair solution” ought to be than a sense of what the Israeli public could stomach. The US team often pondered whether Barak could sell a given proposal to his people, including some he himself had made. The question rarely, if ever, was asked about Arafat.

A second constraint on the US derived from its strategic relationship with Israel. One consequence of this was the “no-surprise rule,” an American commitment, if not to clear, at least to share in advance, each of its ideas with Israel. Because Barak’s strategy precluded early exposure of his bottom lines to anyone (the President included), he would invoke the “no-surprise rule” to argue against US substantive proposals he felt went too far. The US ended up (often unwittingly) presenting Israeli negotiating positions and couching them as rock-bottom red lines beyond which Israel could not go. Faced with Arafat’s rejection, Clinton would obtain Barak’s acquiescence in a somewhat improved proposal, and present it to the Palestinians as, once again, the best any Israeli could be expected to do. With the US playing an endgame strategy (“this is it!”) in what was in fact the middle of the game (“well, perhaps not”), the result was to depreciate the assets Barak most counted on for the real finale: the Palestinians’ confidence in Clinton, US credibility, and America’s ability to exercise effective pressure. Nor was the US tendency to justify its ideas by referring to Israeli domestic concerns the most effective way to persuade the Palestinians to make concessions. In short, the “no-surprise rule” held a few surprises of its own. In a curious, boomerang-like effect, it helped convince the Palestinians that any US idea, no matter how forthcoming, was an Israeli one, and therefore both immediately suspect and eminently negotiable.

Seven years of fostering the peace process, often against difficult odds, further eroded the United States’ effectiveness at this critical stage. The deeper Washington’s investment in the process, the greater the stake in its success, and the quicker the tendency to indulge either side’s whims and destructive behavior for the sake of salvaging it. US threats and deadlines too often were ignored as Israelis and Palestinians appeared confident that the Americans were too busy running after the parties to think seriously of walking away.

Yet for all that, the United States had an important role in shaping the content of the proposals. One of the more debilitating effects of the visible alignment between Israel and the United States was that it obscured the real differences between them. Time and again, and usually without the Palestinians being aware of it, the President sought to convince the Prime Minister to accept what until then he had refused—among them the principle of land swaps, Palestinian sovereignty over at least part of Arab East Jerusalem and, after Camp David, over the Haram al-Sharif, as well as a significantly reduced area of Israeli annexation. This led Barak to comment to the President that, on matters of substance, the US was much closer to the Palestinians’ position than to Israel’s. This was only one reflection of a far wider pattern of divergence between Israeli and American positions—yet one that has systematically been ignored by Palestinians and other Arabs alike.

This inability to grasp the complex relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv cost Arafat dearly. By failing to put forward clear proposals, the Palestinians deprived the Americans of the instrument they felt they needed to further press the Israelis, and it led them to question both the seriousness of the Palestinians and their genuine desire for a deal. As the President repeatedly told Arafat during Camp David, he was not expecting him to agree to US or Israeli proposals, but he was counting on him to say something he could take back to Barak to get him to move some more. “I need something to tell him,” he implored. “So far, I have nothing.”

Ultimately, the path of negotiation imagined by the Americans—get a position that was close to Israel’s genuine bottom line; present it to the Palestinians; get a counterproposal from them; bring it back to the Israelis—took more than one wrong turn. It started without a real bottom line, continued without a counterproposal, and ended without a deal.


Beneath the superficial snapshot—Barak’s offer, Arafat’s rejection—lies a picture that is both complex and confusing. Designed to preserve his assets for the “moment of truth,” Barak’s tactics helped to ensure that the parties never got there. His decision to view everything through the prism of an all-or-nothing negotiation over a comprehensive deal led him to see every step as a test of wills, any confidence-building measure as a weakness-displaying one. Obsessed with Barak’s tactics, Arafat spent far less time worrying about the substance of a deal than he did fretting about a possible ploy. Fixated on potential traps, he could not see potential opportunities. He never quite realized how far the prime minister was prepared to go, how much the US was prepared to push, how strong a hand he had been dealt. Having spent a decade building a relationship with Washington, he proved incapable of using it when he needed it most. As for the United States, it never fully took control of the situation. Pulled in various and inconsistent directions, it never quite figured out which way to go, too often allowing itself to be used rather than using its authority.

Many of those inclined to blame Arafat alone for the collapse of the negotiations point to his inability to accept the ideas for a settlement put forward by Clinton on December 23, five months after the Camp David talks ended. During these months additional talks had taken place between Israelis and Palestinians, and furious violence had broken out between the two sides. The President’s proposal showed that the distance traveled since Camp David was indeed considerable, and almost all in the Palestinians’ direction. Under the settlement outlined by the President, Palestine would have sovereignty over 94 to 96 percent of the West Bank and it would as well have land belonging to pre-1967 Israel equivalent to another 1 to 3 percent of West Bank territory. Palestinian refugees would have the right to return to their homeland in historic Palestine, a right that would guarantee their unrestricted ability to live in Palestine while subjecting their absorption into Israel to Israel’s sovereign decision. In Jerusalem, all that is Arab would be Palestinian, all that is Jewish would be Israeli. Palestine would exercise sovereignty over the Haram and Israel over the Western Wall, through which it would preserve a connection to the location of the ancient Jewish Temple.

Unlike at Camp David, and as shown both by the time it took him to react and by the ambiguity of his reactions, Arafat thought hard before providing his response. But in the end, many of the features that troubled him in July came back to haunt him in December. As at Camp David, Clinton was not presenting the terms of a final deal, but rather “parameters” within which accelerated, final negotiations were to take place. As at Camp David, Arafat felt under pressure, with both Clinton and Barak announcing that the ideas would be off the table—would “depart with the President”—unless they were accepted by both sides. With only thirty days left in Clinton’s presidency and hardly more in Barak’s premiership, the likelihood of reaching a deal was remote at best; if no deal could be made, the Palestinians feared they would be left with principles that were detailed enough to supersede international resolutions yet too fuzzy to constitute an agreement.

Besides, and given the history of the negotiations, they were unable to escape the conclusion that these were warmed-over Israeli positions and that a better proposal may still have been forthcoming. In this instance, in fact, the United States had resisted last-minute Israeli attempts to water down the proposals on two key items—Palestinian sovereignty over the Haram and the extent of the territory of the Palestinian state. All told, Arafat preferred to continue negotiating under the comforting umbrella of international resolutions rather than within the confines of America’s uncertain proposals. In January, a final effort between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in the Egyptian town of Taba (without the Americans) produced more progress and some hope. But it was, by then, at least to some of the negotiators, too late. On January 20, Clinton had packed his bags and was on his way out. In Israel, meanwhile, Sharon was on his way in.

Had there been, in hindsight, a generous Israeli offer? Ask a member of the American team, and an honest answer might be that there was a moving target of ideas, fluctuating impressions of the deal the US could sell to the two sides, a work in progress that reacted (and therefore was vulnerable) to the pressures and persuasion of both. Ask Barak, and he might volunteer that there was no Israeli offer and, besides, Arafat rejected it. Ask Arafat, and the response you might hear is that there was no offer; besides, it was unacceptable; that said, it had better remain on the table.

Offer or no offer, the negotiations that took place between July 2000 and February 2001 make up an indelible chapter in the history of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. This may be hard to discern today, amid the continuing violence and accumulated mistrust. But taboos were shattered, the unspoken got spoken, and, during that period, Israelis and Palestinians reached an unprecedented level of understanding of what it will take to end their struggle. When the two sides resume their path toward a permanent agreement—and eventually, they will—they will come to it with the memory of those remarkable eight months, the experience of how far they had come and how far they had yet to go, and with the sobering wisdom of an opportunity that was missed by all, less by design than by mistake, more through miscalculation than through mischief.

July 12, 2001

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