Camp David: The Tragedy of Errors

Yasser Arafat
Yasser Arafat; drawing by David Levine

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.

1.

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.…


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