New York Times, Robert Malley, Fictions About the Failure of Camp David

July 08, 2001

WASHINGTON -- A year ago this week, President Bill Clinton, Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel and the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat gathered at Camp David for what, in retrospect, many consider a turning point in Israeli-Palestinian relations. From right to left, hawks to doves, comes unusual harmony of opinion both here and in Israel: Camp David is said to have been a test that Mr. Barak passed and Mr. Arafat failed. Offered close to 99 percent of their dreams, the thinking goes, the Palestinians said no and chose to hold out for more. Worse, they did not present any concession of their own, adopting a no-compromise attitude that unmasked their unwillingness to live peacefully with a Jewish state by their side.

I was at Camp David, a member of the small American peace team, and I, too, was frustrated almost to the point of despair by the Palestinians' passivity and inability to seize the moment. But there is no purpose -- and considerable harm -- in adding to their real mistakes a list of fictional ones. Here are the most dangerous myths about the Camp David summit.

Myth 1: Camp David Was an Ideal Test of Mr. Arafat's Intentions

Mr. Arafat told us on numerous occasions that he had not wanted to go to Camp David. He thought that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators had not sufficiently narrowed the gaps separating their positions before the summit, and once there, he made clear in his comments that he felt both isolated from the Arab world and alienated by the close Israeli-American partnership. Moreover, the summit occurred at a low point in Mr. Arafat's relationship with Mr. Barak -- the man with whom he was supposed to strike a historic deal. A number of Israeli commitments, including a long-postponed Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank and the transfer to Palestinian control of villages abutting Jerusalem, remained unfulfilled, and Mr. Arafat believed that Mr. Barak was simply trying to skirt his obligations. It also took a genuine leap of faith -- for Mr. Barak as for the United States -- to imagine that the 100-year conflict between Jews and Palestinians living in this region, with roots going back thousands of years more and tens of thousands of victims along the way, could be resolved in a fortnight without any of the core issues -- territory, refugees, or the fate of Jerusalem -- having previously been discussed by the leaders.

Myth 2: Israel's Offer Met Most if Not All of the Palestinians' Legitimate Inspirations

Yes, what was put on the table was more far-reaching than anything any Israeli leader had discussed in the past -- whether with the Palestinians or with Washington. But it was not the dream offer it has been made out to be, at least not from a Palestinian perspective.

To accommodate the settlers, Israel was to annex 9 percent of the West Bank; in exchange, the new Palestinian state would be granted sovereignty over parts of Israel proper, equivalent to one-ninth of the annexed land. A Palestinian state covering 91 percent of the West Bank and Gaza was more than most Americans or Israelis had thought possible, but how would Mr. Arafat explain the unfavorable 9-to-1 ratio in land swaps to his people? In Jerusalem, Palestine would have been given sovereignty over many Arab neighborhoods of the eastern half and over the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City. While it would enjoy custody over the Haram al Sharif, the location of the third- holiest Muslim shrine, Israel would exercise overall sovereignty over this area, known to Jews as the Temple Mount. This, too, was far more than had been thinkable only a few weeks earlier, and a very difficult proposition for the Israeli people to accept. But how could Mr. Arafat have justified to his people that Israel would retain sovereignty over some Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, let alone over the Haram al Sharif? As for the future of refugees -- for many Palestinians, the heart of the matter -- the ideas put forward at Camp David spoke vaguely of a satisfactory solution," leading Mr. Arafat to fear that he would be asked to swallow an unacceptable last-minute proposal.

Myth 3: The Palestinians Made No Concession of Their Own

Many have come to believe that the Palestinians' rejection of the Camp David ideas exposed an underlying rejection of Israel's right to exist. But consider the facts: The Palestinians were arguing for the creation of a alestinian state based on the June 4, 1967, borders, living alongside Israel. They accepted the notion of Israeli annexation of West Bank territory to accommodate settlement blocs. They accepted the principle of Israeli overeignty over the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem -- eighborhoods that were not part of Israel before the Six Day War in 1967. And, while they insisted on recognition of the refugees' right of return, they agreed that it should be implemented in a manner that protected Israel's demographic and security interests by limiting the number of returnees. 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.

If peace is to be achieved, the parties cannot afford to tolerate the growing acceptance of these myths as reality.

The facts do not indicate, however, any lack of foresight or vision on the part of Ehud Barak. He had uncommon political courage as well. But the measure of Israel's concessions ought not be how far it has moved from its own starting point; it must be how far it has moved toward a fair solution.

The Palestinians did not meet their historic responsibilities at the summit either. I suspect they will long regret their failure to respond to President Clinton -- at Camp David and later on -- with more forthcoming and comprehensive ideas of their own.

Finally, Camp David was not rushed. It was many things -- inadequately prepared for, perhaps; too informal, possibly; lacking proper fall-back options, without a doubt -- but premature it was not. By the spring of 2000, every serious Israeli, Palestinian and American analyst was predicting an outbreak of Palestinian violence absent a major breakthrough in the peace process. The Oslo process had run its natural course; if anything, tackling the sensitive final status issues came too late, not too soon.

The gloss that is put on the past matters. The way the two sides choose to view yesterday largely will determine how they choose to behave tomorrow. And, if unchallenged, their respective interpretations will gradually harden into divergent versions of reality and unassailable truths -- that Yasir Arafat is incapable of reaching a final agreement, for example, or that Israel is intent on perpetuating an oppressive regime. As the two sides continue to debate what went wrong at Camp David, it is important that they get the lessons right.

Robert Malley was special assistant for Arab-Israeli affairs to President Bill Clinton from 1998 to 2001. He is joining the Council on Foreign Relations as a senior fellow.


Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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