Although I’m something of a historian by trade and inclination, in this space I try to keep to current events. But some historical events are of particular importance because they continue to shape today’s events. This is especially true of the failed attempt at Camp David in 2000 to cobble together a final peace agreement based on the Oslo process between israel and the Palestinians.
The common view that Arafat was solely responsible for the Camp David failure is false, but it is widely believed and that belief has colored the politics of the conflict to this very day. But some alternate versions, where Arafat is held blameless and painted as an innocent victim of American and Israeli machinations are equally false.
These questions arose in an e-mail sent to me recently, and I reprint below some of that exchange, edited to be more readable in this space. Except where otherwise noted, my view of the events at Camp David in 2000 is based on the following sources. I draw from all of them to try to synthesize a reasonable picture, and what emerges does not match any of them perfectly:
Clayton Swisher, The Truth About Camp David: The Untold Story About the Collapse of the Middle East Peace Process
Dennis Ross, The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace
Shlomo Ben-Ami, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy
William Quandt, Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict Since 1967
And the articles in the New York Review of Books which featured interviews and exchanges between Ehud Barak, Dennis Ross, Gidi Grinstein, Robert Malley and Hussein Agha. These can found on the web by clicking on the following links:
“When Bush came into office the context was that the Palestinians had rejected Clinton’s whirlwind effort to broker a deal.”
As many times as this myth gets repeated, it remains false. Both the Palestinians and Israelis greeted the Clinton protocols with a guarded, but positive response, one which each called “acceptance with reservations and conditions”. A joint statement issued from Taba indicated that “peace had never been closer.” The talks were ended by Ehud Barak, not Arafat. They were ended because the Barak government had fallen and the new elections were at hand. Sharon had already stated publicly that he opposed the Taba talks and would not continue them nor honor their results. After the Taba talks ended, Barak publicly declared that the results of those talks were “not binding on the new (Sharon) government.”
For their part, the Palestinian negotiators, like their Israeli counterparts, were working in good faith, but they, again like the Israelis, knew full well that they did not have the support of their public in the talks. By this time, the second intifada was raging, with major social and political upheavals resulting both in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
The Taba talks were doomed from both sides before they ever began, and it is to the credit of both the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators at Taba that they were able, under those difficult circumstances, to reach the agreements they did, which eventually evolved into the Geneva Accords.
But, though often repeated, it is simply untrue that the Clinton parameters and the Taba talks were summarily rejected by Arafat. In fact, neither side truly rejected the Clinton parameters, they led to the Taba talks, which were terminated by Israel and disavowed by Barak, not Arafat.
“The prevailing view from everyone was that there was nothing more to do. Clinton went on a speaking tour and said that the peace talks failed for two reasons: 1. Arafat had no vision for peace, and 2. everyone underestimates the effect of the teaching of hate in the Arab world.”
Quite true that Clinton, as well as Barak, did indeed repeat this far and wide. This was, actually, a breach of the commitment they made to Arafat, and this gets to the heart of the real failure of Camp David, which neither side wants to talk about. I will elaborate.
The Camp David talks were very much the child of Clinton and Barak. Arafat was essentially dragged to them. The reasons for the different attitudes were clear.
Clinton was a lame duck president, and his second term had been marred by the impeachment. Here was his last chance to put some real shine on his legacy, as the president who brokered the final peace between Israel and the Palestinians. He had nothing to lose at Camp David and everything to gain, but he needed to make it happen quickly.
Barak had been elected on a peace platform. His ending of the 17-year old Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon was a piece of fulfillment of this promise. But that withdrawal also sent the Israeli right wing into full battle mode. Barak had accelerated the withdrawal after the assassination of the leader of the South Lebanon Army and the chaos in the ranks that caused. This heightened the impression that both Hezbollah and the Israeli right (Likud in particular) were cultivating, of Barak running away, or retreating. This added to a major campaign financing scandal had put Barak’s shaky coalition on the razor’s edge. He very much needed something to bolster his position, and a deal with the Palestinians would have cemented it.
For Barak, unlike Clinton, this was also a risky proposition. Success would put him in as strong a position as any Israeli Prime Minister had ever been in. Failure was virtually certain to bring down his government. But since inaction seemed to be leading to the same end, it made sense for Barak to take the chance.
Arafat’s situation, however, was totally different from his interlocutors. In the six years since his return, his people had grown increasingly bitter and angry at the entire Oslo process.
Their standard of living had dropped dramatically in those years. This was due to a combination of factors. The two biggest ones lay one each on either side of Israel and Palestine. On the Israeli side, there was a move after the first intifada to bring in more foreign workers, from places like the Philippines and Thailand to replace Palestinian laborers on the lowest rungs of the labor force. This was done because one of the chief and most effective tools of the first intifada was the strike. Cheap Palestinian labor was an important piece of the Israeli economy and the Palestinians exploited this dependence with strikes. Israel found the need to rid itself of this vulnerability. Palestinians continued to work in Israel and in the settlements, but the number was greatly reduced. And, while the Palestinian economy was seeing some growth in those years, it was relatively small growth, not close to being able to accommodate the loss of so many jobs.
On the Palestinian side, corruption and cronyism severely marred the Palestinian Authority and its ability to build a functioning economy under the extremely difficult conditions of Israeli occupation. Funds were often short, sometimes because promised donations from other countries were delayed for long periods, diminished or simply never delivered; sometimes due to corruption; and sometimes due to incompetence.
These factors, among others of less impact, combined with the explosive and unprecedented growth in Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem during the Oslo years, created a pressure cooker of rage and feelings of betrayal among the Palestinians.
Arafat did not handle this situation well. Over the six years of the Oslo process (1994-2000), he established a largely autocratic regime in the Palestinian Territories. After the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Arafat was faced with an Israeli government that was determined to undermine both him and the Oslo Accords. His only real tool of response was to strengthen or lessen his work in combating attacks on Israelis. And he did this.
Arafat faced growing opposition from within Palestinian society and a stubborn Netanyahu government in Israel. His priority was always to maintain his position as the leader of all the Palestinians and to become the first leader of an independent Palestinian state. This meant he needed to walk a very fine line, maintaining broad support for his leadership among Palestinians and continuing to work with Israel and the United States.
One of the results of this was that, when it came to the most difficult of final status issues with Israel, Arafat gave mixed messages. This was especially true of the refugee issue. He would trumpet the right of return, but would also talk to Israelis and Americans of the ability to compromise on the issue. In fact, the centrality of the right of return was just as strong in 2000 among Palestinians as it had ever been, and little public dialogue had happened around it. This was the crux of Arafat’s reluctance to attend Camp David.
Arafat realized that the Palestinian people were not, in fact, at all prepared to make the kind of compromises that a peace with Israel would require. He had not done anything to make them ready for compromise on the refugee issue, if indeed such a compromise can be accepted. For his part, other circumstances, especially the settlement expansion, repeated closures of the Territories, and other Israeli actions that are simply routine parts of the occupation made it quite impossible for him to try to broach the topic of compromise on the refugee question in public. But he was not given to admit this to the Israelis and Americans. Perhaps Barak and Clinton would not have pressed him to the summit as they did if they had a better understanding of these dynamics. One cannot know now. But one can say that a little more attention to Palestinian politics in Tel Aviv and Washington might have helped.
It’s easy to see why Arafat did not wish to engage in final status talks at that point. But neither the Clinton or Barak Administrations seem to have understood his position–not that he helped them in this regard. But this was why Arafat only agreed to go to Camp David on condition that he not be blamed if the talks failed. I’m sure he knew they would fail. And this is why, to Dennis Ross and others who have written extensively about the failure at Camp David, it seemed that Arafat was refusing to make an agreement. He knew very well the absolute minimal demands of Israel would be the forfeit of any Palestinian return to Israel proper, other than perhaps a tiny, token number. It’s impossible to envision any other Israeli stance. And he knew that his people were not going to accept that.
This is a good reminder about the centrality of the refugee issue, something which is often lost in our ponderings of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is the core issue, the place where the irresistible force of Palestinian nationalism collides head-on with the immovable object of Zionism. There is no more difficult issue between the two parties. The conflict will not end until it is resolved. I don’t believe it can be resolved, though, as long as it is being discussed between an occupying power and an occupied people, unequal except for their passion for this root of their perceived national existences. That’s why I have maintained that, while ending the occupation does not end the conflict, the process of ending the conflict cannot be seriously undertaken until the occupation ends.
As to the second point your friend makes above, regarding the “teaching of hate”, both sides teach their national narratives, with all the biases and prejudices that implies. The accusation that Palestinians “teach their children to hate” is easily belied. One, all you need to do is go to a Palestinian refugee camp and talk to the kids there. You’ll see the attitudes that have been taught to them, and they don’t include hate. Second, as Uri Avneri once put it, a little girl woken in the middle of the night and forced to leave her home before it is demolished does not have to be taught to hate the people who do that. But the best way, third, is to check out the report done by Prof. Nathan Brown of George Washington University. You can see the report here.
In fact, what has struck me as most remarkable in my years of doing this work is that Palestinians are not much more filled with hate for Israelis and Jews than they are.
“The Saudis blasted Arafat for not making the deal at Taba.”
Not exactly. Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia “blasted” Arafat for walking out on the Camp David talks. In this, he echoed Barak and Clinton. Arafat couldn’t make the deal at Taba, as I explained above.
But Arafat did blunder in his entire attitude and response at Camp David. No one should make him out an innocent victim there. On the other hand, the dominant narrative which puts all the blame on him is simply wrong. If one reads the various accounts of Camp David, I think a picture starts to emerge. Even Dennis Ross paints Barak as somewhat mercurial at the talks, switching between obstinacy and conciliation and being difficult in the negotiations. He presented offers to Arafat that were very far from minimal Palestinian demands as take-it-or-leave-it deals. More than once do we hear of Clinton’s frustration with both sides. To any observer with a working knowledge of Palestinian politics and who followed events at that time closely, it is apparent that the American team did not come in with a good understanding of the Palestinian political scene (in some ways, they were a ways behind even on the Israeli scene). Both the Israelis and the Americans showed a clear underestimation of what a bare minimum for Palestinian popular acceptance of a deal would be.
The Camp David offer that was put on the table as the most Israel would give provided for a continued Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley, a lopsided land swap that left the major settlement blocs intact and cutting deep into the West Bank, virtually no accommodation on refugees and Israeli sovereignty in almost all of East Jerusalem. Although both Clinton and the Israeli negotiators would dramatically improve this offer, it was presented to Arafat as a final, take-it-or-leave-it offer.
So Arafat chose to “leave it.” Subsequent events made it clear that Israel could have gone farther. The fact that Arafat didn’t respond with any kind of counter-offer was a grave error on his part, and opened the door to Clinton and Barak going back on their word not to blame the failure on him. But in truth, the summit failed because of missteps by all the parties. No one comes out of an honest assessment of Camp David looking good.
But since then, this has been distorted into Arafat leaving Camp David and starting the second intifada. As if Ariel Sharon’s deliberate provocation of going to the Temple Mount with an enormous entourage of armed police and soldiers had nothing to do with it. As if the Israeli soldiers’ lethal response to stone-throwers the following day had nothing to do with it. On the other side, the myth that Arafat was trapped by the Israelis and Americans and was simply their helpless victim ignores Arafat’s own role in creating false expectations. It ignores the years of weapons smuggling into the Occupied Territories in anticipation of a more violent uprising than the first intifada. And it ignores the widespread Palestinian disappointment and disillusionment in the Arafat-led PA and its corruption, cronyism and human rights abuses which worsened the already terrible Palestinian economic plight and helped to make the Territories a powder keg of rage and hopelessness.
Camp David has taught all the wrong lessons. What should have been learned from it was that the Israeli, Palestinian and American leadership have all failed to make a just peace possible. Until leaders weigh both sides equally, recognize that justice must be done for all, understand the political climates of both sides and deal with these difficult matters in a more realistic fashion, such failure will only be repeated.