The Tragedy of Errors
By Hussein Agha, Robert Malley
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-
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
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. Paradoxically,
a government that believed it enjoyed considerable latitude concerning
the terms of the ultimate deal felt remarkably constrained on the steps
it could take to get there. Bearing these principles in mind helps us to
make sense of the Israeli government's actions during this period.
To begin, Barak discarded a number of interim steps, even those to which
Israel was formally committed by vari-ous agreements-including a third
partial redeployment of troops from the West Bank, the transfer to
Palestinian control of three villages abutting Jerusalem, and the
release of Palestinians imprisoned for acts committed before the Oslo
agreement. He did not want to estrange the right prematurely or be (or
appear to be) a "sucker" by handing over assets, only to be rebuffed on
the permanent status deal. In Barak's binary cost-benefit analysis, such
steps did not add up: on the one hand, if Israelis and Palestinians
reached a final agreement, all these minor steps (and then some) would
be taken; on the other hand, if the parties failed to reach a final
agreement, those steps would have been wasted. What is more, concessions
to the Palestinians would cost Barak precious political capital he was
determined to husband until the final, climactic moment.
The better route, he thought, was to present all concessions and all
rewards in one comprehensive package that the Israeli public would be
asked to accept in a national referendum. Oslo was being turned on its
head. It had been a wager on success-a blank check signed by two sides
willing to take difficult preliminary steps in the expectation that they
would reach an agreement. Barak's approach was a hedge against failure-a
reluctance to make preliminary concessions out of fear that they might
Much the same can be said about Israel's expansion of the West Bank
settlements, which proceeded at a rapid pace. Barak saw no reason to
needlessly alienate the settler constituency. Moreover, insofar as new
housing units were being established on land that Israel ultimately
would annex under a permanent deal-at least any permanent deal Barak
would sign-he saw no harm to the Palestinians in permitting such
construction. In other words, Barak's single-minded focus on the big
picture only magnified in his eyes the significance-and cost-of the
small steps. Precisely because he was willing to move a great distance
in a final agreement (on territory or on Jerusalem, for example), he was
unwilling to move an inch in the preamble (prisoners, settlements, troop
redeployment, Jerusalem villages).
Barak's principles also shed light on his all-or-nothing approach. In
Barak's mind, Arafat had to be made to understand that there was no
"third way," no "reversion to the interim approach," but rather a
corridor leading either to an agreement or to confrontation. Seeking to
enlist the support of the US and European nations for this plan, he
asked them to threaten Arafat with the consequences of his obstinacy:
the blame would be laid on the Palestinians and relations with them
would be downgraded. Likewise, and throughout Camp David, Barak
repeatedly urged the US to avoid mention of any fall- back options or of
the possibility of continued negotiations in the event the summit
The Prime Minister's insistence on holding a summit and the timing of the
Camp David talks followed naturally. Barak was prepared to have his
negotiators engage in preliminary discussions, which in fact took place
for several months prior to Camp David. But for him, these were not the
channels in which real progress could be made. Only by insisting on a
single, high-level summit could all the necessary ingredients of success
be present: the drama of a stark, all-or-nothing proposal; the prospect
that Arafat might lose US support; the exposure of the ineffectiveness
of Palestinian salami- tactics (pocketing Israeli concessions that
become the starting point at the next round); and, ultimately, the
capacity to unveil to the Israeli people all the achievements and
concessions of the deal in one fell swoop.
In Gaza and the West Bank, Barak's election was greeted with mixed
emotions. Benjamin Netanyahu, his immediate predecessor, had failed to
implement several of Israel's signed obliga-tions and, for that reason
alone, his defeat was welcome. But during his campaign, Barak had given
no indication that he was prepared for major compromises with the
Palestinians. Labor back in power also meant Tel Aviv back in
Washington's good graces; Netanyahu's tenure, by contrast, had seen a
gradual cooling of America's relations with Israel and a concomitant
warming of its relations with the Palestinian Authority.
Palestinians were looking for early reassuring signs from Barak; his first
moves were anything but. His broad government coalition (an assortment
of peace advocates and hard-liners), his tough positions on issues like
Jerusalem, and his reluctance to confront the settlers all contributed
to an early atmosphere of distrust. Delays in a core Palestinian
concerns- such as implementing the 1998 Wye Agreement (which Barak chose
to renegotiate) or beginning permanent status talks (which Barak
postponed by waiting to name a lead negotiator) -were particularly
irksome given the impatient mood that prevailed in the territories. Seen
from Gaza and the West Bank, Oslo's legacy read like a litany of
promises deferred or unfulfilled. Six years after the agreement, there
were more Israeli settlements, less freedom of movement, and worse
economic conditions. Powerful Palestinian constituencies-the
intellectuals, security establishment, media, business community,
"state" bureaucrats, political activists-whose support was vital for any
peace effort were disillusioned with the results of the peace process,
doubtful of Israel's willingness to implement signed agreements, and,
now, disenchanted with Barak's rhetoric and actions.
Perhaps most disturbing was Barak's early decision to concentrate on
reaching a deal with Syria rather than with the Palestinians, a decision
that Arafat experienced as a triple blow. The Palestinians saw it as an
instrument of pressure, designed to isolate them; as a delaying tactic
that would waste precious months; and as a public humiliation, intended
to put them in their place. Over the years, Syria had done nothing to
address Israeli concerns. There was no recognition, no bilateral
contacts, not even a suspension of assistance to groups intent on
fighting Israel. During that time, the PLO had recognized Israel,
countless face-to-face negotiations had taken place, and Israeli and
Palestinian security services had worked hand in hand. In spite of all
this, Hafez al-Assad-not Arafat-was the first leader to be courted by
the new Israeli government.
In March 2000, after the failed Geneva summit between Clinton and
President Assad made clear that the Syrian track had run its course,
Barak chose to proceed full steam ahead with the Palestinians, setting a
deadline of only a few months to reach a permanent agreement. But by
then, the frame of mind on the other side was anything but receptive. It
was Barak's timetable, imposed after his Syrian gambit had failed, and
designed with his own strategy in mind. Arafat was not about to oblige.
Indeed, behind almost all of Barak's moves, Arafat believed he could
discern the objective of either forcing him to swallow an unconscionable
deal or mobilizing the world to isolate and weaken the Palestinians if
they refused to yield. Barak's stated view that the alternative to an
agreement would be a situation far grimmer than the status quo created
an atmosphere of pressure that only confirmed Arafat's suspicions -and
the greater the pressure, the more stubborn the belief among
Palestinians that Barak was trying to dupe them.
Moreover, the steps Barak undertook to husband his resources while
negotiating a historical final deal were interpreted by the Palestinians
as efforts to weaken them while imposing an unfair one. Particularly
troubling from this perspective was Barak's attitude toward the interim
commitments, based on the Oslo, Wye, and later agreements. Those who
claim that Arafat lacked interest in a permanent deal miss the point.
Like Barak, the Palestinian leader felt that permanent status
negotiations were long overdue; unlike Barak, he did not think that this
justified doing away with the interim obligations.
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
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
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 Je 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.
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 bord, 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
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
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
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; 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.
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 agaidifficult 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
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 comeand 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.
"Quest for Mideast Peace: How and Why it Failed" from
the New York Times of July 26, 2001) The Blame Game: Why Did Talks End
Assuming the mantle of Mr. Rabin, Mr. Barak came to office in July 1999
trumpeting his intent to end the conflict with the Palestinians in short
order. But then he chose to direct his energy at seeking peace with the
Syrians, and ignored the Palestinians long enough to make them
suspicious. He also brought the settlers' representatives, the National
Religious Party, into his coalition and gave them the Housing Ministry,
which led to a significant expansion of the settlement enterprise.
Four years late by the original peacemaking timetable, the first
substantial final-status talks began secretly only in late March 2000,
after the Israeli-Syrian talks died. "It all started too late and on the
wrong footing," said Mr. Larsen, the United Nations envoy.
As a signal of his good faith, Mr. Barak promised to transfer to the
Palestinians three Jerusalem-area villages, a promise that was relayed
to Mr. Arafat by Mr. Clinton. Mr. Barak even won Parliament's consent to
do so. But, on the day of the vote, an intense spasm of violence erupted
in the West Bank, which seems in retrospect a harbinger of what was to
Mr. Barak indefinitely deferred the transfer because of the violence. Both
Mr. Arafat and, according to Mr. Malley, Mr.
Clinton later said they felt burned by Mr. Barak's broken promise.
Nonetheless, what became known as the "Stockholm track" consisted of 15
substantive sessions, culminating in three long weekends, two in Sweden
and one in Israel. Israelis and Palestinians who took part say now that
the discussions were groundbreaking and that the mood was positive. They
made progress on the issues of territory, borders, security and even
refugees, although there were both advances and retreats on every issue.
In mid-May, the fact and the substance of the talks were leaked to Israeli
newspapers, and what was printed about potential concessions caused
political problems for both Mr. Barak and Mr.
Arafat. That in effect brought the talks to a halt and led Mr.
Barak to seek a summit meeting before the Palestinians considered the
"Stockholm died once revealed," Mr. Indyk, the former American ambassador,
said in an interview in June. "If Stockholm had continued, it might have
laid a better foundation for Camp David.
But Barak felt the leaks would lead to the breakup of his coalition and
he'd never get to the endgame." Mr. Ben-Ami said the negotiators had
supported Mr. Barak's decision to push for an American-led summit
meeting at that point.
"We didn't feel there was a purpose in eroding our positions further
before a summit where we'd have to give up more," he said.
For other reasons, though, Mr. Ben-Ami said that in retrospect he
considered it a pity that the Stockholm track was aborted.
Referring to Abu Ala, he said: "The Palestinian negotiator there was an
extraordinarily talented and able man who had the trust of the chairman.
And he liked discreet channels. The moment they collapsed, he became an
enemy of the process. He thought Camp David was a show." The palpable
displeasure of Mr. Abu Ala, whose given name is Ahmed Qurei, at Camp
David was considered by many to have contributed to the talks' failure -
just as his subsequent leadership role at Taba was believed to have
contributed to greater success there.
Mr. Abu Ala himself said Mr. Barak had doomed Camp David by cutting short
the preparatory session. "We told him without preparation it would be a
catastrophe, and now we are living the catastrophe," Mr. Abu Ala said in
an interview in Abu Dis, his village in the West Bank. "Two weeks before
Camp David, Arafat and I saw Clinton at the White House. Arafat told
Clinton he needed more time. Clinton said, 'Chairman Arafat, come try
your best. If it fails, I will not blame you.' But that is exactly what
he did." The Palestinians went to Camp David so reluctantly that the
failure of the talks should have been foreseen, many now say.
"The failure of Camp David was a self-fulfilling prophesy, and it wasn't
because of Jerusalem or the right of return" of refugees, said Mr.
Mr. Larsen agreed: "It was a failure of psychology and of process, not so
much of substance." The Palestinians felt that they were being dragged
to the verdant hills of Maryland to be put under joint pressure by an
Israeli prime minister and an American president who, because of their
separate political time tables and concerns about their legacies, had a
personal sense of urgency.
The Palestinians said they had been repeatedly told by the Americans that
the Israeli leader's coalition was unstable; after a while, they said,
the goal of the summit meeting seemed to be as much about rescuing Mr.
Barak as about making peace. At the same time, they said, the Americans
did not seem to take seriously the pressures of the Palestinian public
and the Muslim world on Mr. Arafat. Like Mr. Barak, Mr. Arafat went to
Camp David dogged by plummeting domestic approval ratings.
Mr. Indyk, who is planning to write a book on the peace effort called
"Unintended Consequences," said Mr. Barak's requirement that Camp David
produce a formal end to the conflict had put too much pressure on the
The discussions on some issues actually went backward during the two weeks
at Camp David, Mr. Sher and Mr. Ben-Ami said. Mr. Sher said he believed
that it was because Palestinian negotiators had kept Mr. Arafat in the
dark about key details of the Stockholm talks, which they deny. He said
he and Mr. Ben-Ami had traveled to Nablus, in the West Bank, to see the
Palestinian leader shortly before Camp David and were stunned to
discover that Mr.
Arafat did not know precisely what had been discussed.
The Israelis and the Americans describe a "bunker mentality" on the part
of the Palestinians at Camp David. In response, the Palestinians say
that at one point Mr. Barak did not come out of his cabin, the Dogwood,
for two days and that he refused to meet with Mr. Arafat personally
except for one tea.
"There was also one dinner in which Barak was on the right side of Clinton
and Arafat was on the left," said Mr. Shaath, the Palestinian, adding in
reference to Mr. Clinton's daughter: "But Chelsea sat to the right of
Barak all evening, and she received his undivided attention. Why the
hell did he insist on a summit if he did not intend to meet his partner
for a minute?" Western diplomats here say the Palestinians believed that
they were being manipulated by the Americans. They said American
officials had made a crucial mistake in trying to nurture special
relationships with two younger-generation Palestinian officials whom
they thought were pragmatic: Muhammad Rashid, Mr. Arafat's Kurdish
economic adviser, and Muhammad Dahlan, the Gaza preventive security
chief. That angered the veteran Palestinian negotiators, they said, who
felt that the Americans were seeking to divide and weaken them.
In the middle of Camp David, one of the negotiators, Abu Mazen, flew back
to the Middle East for his son's wedding. He was furious about the
American tactics, a European diplomat said, and pledged that Camp David
would never succeed if such games continued and that he would use the
refugee issue to foil it, if need be.
Mr. Sher said the Palestinians had never put forward an counterproposals
to what the Israelis were suggesting. They just said no, he said. Mr.
Malley, who was at Camp David, wrote in an op-ed piece in The New York
Times in mid-July that the American mediators were "frustrated almost to
the point of despair by the Palestinians' passivity and inability to
seize the moment." The two sides had discussed territorial swaps at
Stockholm, in which the Palestinians would cede a percentage of the West
Bank for settlement blocs in exchange for territory elsewhere. They
continued the conversation at Camp David. But Mr. Abu Ala said the
Israelis had talked of an unfair swap - annexing about 9 percent of the
West Bank and giving the Palestinians the equivalent of about 1 percent
"I said, Shlomo, I cannot look at the maps. Close them," Mr. Abu Ala said,
describing a conversation with Mr. Ben-Ami. He declared that he would
discuss only the 1967 borders. "Clinton was angry at me and told me I
was personally responsible for the failure of the summit. I told him
even if occupation continues for 500 years, we will not change." But at
Taba, the Palestinians were more than willing to look at maps. Now the
Israelis were talking about annexing 6 percent of the West Bank in
exchange for land else where that was equivalent to 3 percent. That
would have given the Palestinians some 97 percent of the total land mass
of the West Bank, which is much closer to their long-held goal that the
Israelis should return all the territories captured in 1967.
At Camp David, Mr. Ben-Ami said, the Israelis discovered very late in the
game how differently the two sides perceived the final status talks.
"That the Palestinians would agree to less than 100 percent was the axiom
of Israeli politics since 1993," he said.
Mr. Sher said most members of the Palestinian leadership "knew and agreed
that this is a historic compromise that requires the Palestinians
yielding on some issues - all except one: Arafat." At the end of Camp
David, the three parties agreed that the chemistry had been bad. That
was about all they agreed on. The Americans were dejected, although
months later Mr. Clinton described Camp David as a "transformative
event" because it forced the two sides to confront each other's core
needs and allowed them to glimpse the potential contours of a final
At the close of July 2000, however, the Israelis felt that their
generosity had been rebuffed. And the Palestinians felt that they were
being offered a state that would not be viable - "less than a bantustan,
for your information," Mr. Arafat said in a recent interview.
"They have to control the Jordan Valley, with five early warning stations
there," Mr. Arafat said. "They have to control the air above, the water
aquifers below, the sea and the borders. They have to divide the West
Bank in three cantons. They keep 10 percent of it for settlements and
roads and their forces. No sovereignty over Haram al Sharif. And
refugees, we didn't have a serious discussion about." Mr. Ben-Ami said
he spent considerable time after Camp David trying to explain to
Israelis that the Palestinians indeed did make significant concessions
from their vantage point. "They agreed to Israeli sovereignty over
Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, 11 of them," he said. "They
agreed to the idea that three blocs of the settlements they so oppose
could remain in place and that the Western Wall and Jewish Quarter could
be under Israeli sovereignty." Mr. Malley added that the Palestinians
had agreed to negotiate a solution to the refugee issue that would not
end up threatening Israel's Jewish majority. "No other Arab party that
has negotiated with Israel - not Anwar el-Sadat's Egypt, not King
Hussein's Jordan, let alone Hafez al-Assad's Syria - ever came close to
even considering such compromises," he said.
In the public analysis, the summit meeting fell apart in bitter
disagreement over how to share or divide Jerusalem. Mr. Clinton recently
said it was the refugee issue that did it in. But Mr.
Malley and others who took part said there were gaps on every issue.
But at the end, Mr. Clinton praised Mr. Barak's courage and vision and
said Mr. Arafat had not made an equivalent effort.
Mr. Shaath said: "I personally pleaded with President Clinton: 'Please do
not put on a sad face and tell the world it failed.
Please say we broke down taboos, dealt with the heart of the matter and
will continue.' " "But then the president started the blame game, and he
backed Arafat into a corner," he added Mr. Ben-Ami expressed a similar
sentiment. "At the end of Camp David, we had the feeling that the
package as such contained ingredients and needed to go on," he said.
"But Clinton left us to our own devices after he started the blame game.
He was trying to give Barak a boost knowing he had political problems
going home empty handed but with his concessions revealed. But in doing
so he created problems with the other side." Mr. Arafat "rode home on a
white horse," Mr. Shaath said, because he showed Palestinians that he
"still cared about Jerusalem and the refugees." He was perceived as
having stood strong in the face of incredible pressure from the
Americans and the Israelis.
Nonetheless, Mr. Erekat said he had traveled from Bethlehem to Gaza
preaching that "Camp David was good, Camp David was progress." He also
said Mr. Arafat had made such comments, but if he did, they were very
But after Camp David, negotiators plunged back into their work at the King
David Hotel. And the results were positive enough that Mr. Barak and Mr.
Arafat held their upbeat dinner meeting, and the Clinton administration
summoned negotiators to Washington on Sept. 27. On Sept. 28, Mr. Sharon
visited the Temple Mount. On Sept. 29, the situation began
disintegrating with a rapidity that shocked everyone.
Each side blamed the other. The Israeli government has said the
Palestinians initiated the uprising to force the Israelis to give them
what they could not get at Camp David. Mr. Arafat said in an interview
that Mr. Barak in effect conspired with Mr. Sharon "to destroy the peace
process" once he could not get the Palestinians to accept his offer. Mr.
Arafat called Mr. Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount "a vehicle for what
they had decided on: the military plan." An international fact-finding
committee headed by former Senator George J. Mitchell did not hold
either side solely responsible for the breakdown and described a lethal
dynamic on the ground that grew from the behavior of both sides and took
on a destructive life of its own. More than 650 people have been killed
since Sept. 29, the over whelming majority of them Palestinians.
'Too Late' at Taba: Some Still Look to Eventual Peace Both sides, in
recent interviews, wondered aloud why Mr. Clinton could not have
presented his peace proposal at Camp David or immediately afterward. In
late December, when he finally did so, the timing was very tight. Mr.
Clinton was due to leave the presidency on Jan. 20, and Mr. Barak faced
elections on Feb. 6.
The proposal offered more to the Palestinians than what was on the table
at Camp David, but they initially responded with skepticism. The plan
was too vague, they said. In the midst once more of a violent
relationship with Israel, they were not emotionally poised to abide by
the political timetables of others and to rush into a fuzzy deal, they
A European diplomat said the Palestinians did not understand the imminence
and implications of a victory by Mr. Sharon; another said they did not
want to waste their time with Mr. Barak, who was predicted to lose.
Still, in early January, Mr. Arafat visited Mr. Clinton at the White
House. In a subsequent interview, he said he had suggested that the
president summon Israeli and Palestinian negotiators immediately for
marathon talks. Mr. Arafat said he had told Mr.
Clinton that he believed a deal was possible in 14 days.
Instead, the negotiators met later that month without the Americans and
without their leaders at the Taba Hilton on the Red Sea. With the
exception of Mr. Sher, who said Taba was little more than "good
ambience," most of the Israelis and Palestinians whotook part felt that
it was a very successful session.
"Peace seemed very possible at Taba," Mr. Ben-Ami said. And Mr.
Abu Ala said, "In Taba, we achieved real tangible steps
toward a final agreement." In Taba, the Israelis for the first time
accepted the Palestinian principle of a return to 1967 borders, the
Palestinians said. The Palestinians therefore agreed to settlement
blocs, provided there would be a swap of equivalent land. Mr. Shaath
said they were to end up with 10 percent more territory than they were
offered at Camp David.
The Israelis also agreed for the first time to give the Palestinians full
sovereignty over all Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, both sides said,
and to give the Palestinians air rights over their land. The two sides
were still grappling with the precise terms under which Israel could
retain small bases and radar posts in the Jordan Valley, at least
Many Israelis believe that throughout the final-status talks, the
Palestinians were inflexible in their demand that all refugees be given
the right of return to their former homes, which raises existential
fears in Israel. But Mr. Beilin, the Israeli who ran the negotiations on
refugees at Taba, said the two sides were exploring an "agreed
narrative" that would defuse the explosive nature of this issue and
protect the Jewish identity of Israel.
They noted that about 200,000 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem would
drop off the Israeli demographic rolls, and they devised a mechanism
giving refugees more financial incentive to settle outside Israel.
Mr. Abu Ala said: "When other issues move, this will move. It's not a deal
breaker." The negotiations at Taba were interrupted by Mr. Barak after
two Israelis were killed in the West Bank. The talks resumed and then
halted again with the agreement to pick up after the elections.
They never did.
"If Camp David was too little, Taba was too late," Mr. Shaath said.
Mr. Larsen, the United Nations envoy, said he believed that a final peace
deal could have been hammered out after Taba if both Mr. Barak and Mr.
Clinton had remained in office.
But that is a big if. Mr. Sher noted, for instance, that the status of
Jerusalem's holy sites -- always a potential deal- breaker -- was barely
touched during the Taba sessions.
In any case, on leaving office, Mr. Barak declared that his successor
would not be bound by the negotiations that began with Stockholm and
ended with Taba. Similarly, Mr. Clinton said his peace plan would expire
when he stepped down.
Yet a year after Camp David, with the reality on the ground so transformed
by bloodshed, most of those who took part in or observed the
negotiations still believe that a permanent peace agreement is possible.
Although they acknowledge little likelihood of final-status talks under
Mr. Sharon, they still believe in the inevitability of a future
agreement that is very near to what they were designing.
"Even at this darkest of hours, I believe that peace is achievable," Mr.
Erekat said in an interview in his Jericho office. "Clinton took us on a
futuristic voyage. We have seen the endgame. It's just a matter of
time." Mr. Sher agreed. "I still think that peace is doable, feasible
and reasonable," he said in his Jerusalem office, which is decorated
with photographs from Camp David. "That's the tragedy, because the basis
of the agreement is lying there in arm's reach."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times
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