Blame for Camp David Talks' Failure Takes a Twist


The bitter collapse a year ago of the Camp David peace talks gave way to the deadliest Israeli-Palestinian fighting in decades. More than 600 people have been killed in 10 months, and there are no discernible prospects for an end to the bloodshed.

All along, there has been a prevailing explanation for what went wrong at Camp David: President Clinton, the host of the talks, put the blame exclusively on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. To the doom of all involved, Clinton said, Arafat was tragically unable to accept the extraordinarily generous offer of Israel's then-prime minister, Ehud Barak.

But participants in the talks have begun to offer new versions of what happened. While not the whole truth, these accounts present a more nuanced picture that reapportions blame and, most important, reveals the depth of the mistrust that then, as now, blocked agreement.

Palestinian officials launched a campaign last week to put out their side of the story in hopes of winning back lost support. With glossy brochures, a Web site and a series of news conferences, they argue that the Israeli offer was not as golden as portrayed and that an arrogant and distant Barak badly bungled the negotiations and insulted his putative partners.

They have received some support for their case from other quarters. Robert Malley, a National Security Council official who was Clinton's special assistant for Arab-Israeli affairs, has written and spoken extensively on what he terms his administration's miscalculations and overly enthusiastic embrace of Barak and his proposals.

Although Malley notes serious failures on all sides, his comments about his former boss and Barak have attracted the most attention. Malley says the Americans ignored how destructive the rampant expansion of Jewish settlements was. (The Americans also were slow to appreciate the Palestinians' failure to teach peace to their society, he says.) And Malley says that although Clinton privately grew angry with Barak for his negotiating tactics and his reneging on key promises, the president decided that the Israeli leader needed U.S. support to shore him up back home.

The Palestinians, not surprisingly, go further. They are less willing to look at their own mistakes but most eager to argue that they did not mess up alone.

By agreeing to attend Camp David, they say, Arafat was cornered into a summit he didn't want and for which sufficient groundwork wasn't laid. None of Barak's famously generous offers were put in writing, nor were they as generous as is generally believed, according to the Palestinian version.

For example, the Palestinians say, Barak's division of territory would have created a truncated Palestinian state made up of four cantons separated by Israeli territory. The Palestinians would have had to give up much of their claim to Jerusalem and allow a continued Israeli presence along the Jordan Valley, and the critical issue of refugees was barely discussed, according to this version.

"The biggest lie of the last three decades is the line that says Barak offered everything and the Palestinians refused everything," said Ahmed Korei, the Palestinians' chief negotiator at Camp David and one of Arafat's closest deputies.

Version Gets an Airing

Korei, better known as Abu Alaa, convened foreign journalists to a meeting last week to lay out the Palestinian version of why Camp David failed--a full year after the collapse and at a time when public opinion, at least in the U.S., has for the most part already assigned blame to Arafat.

The Palestinians believed that they had little reason to trust Barak, Korei said. The prime minister had failed to withdraw troops from portions of the West Bank under a previous agreement, and he had refused to hand over three Arab villages just outside Jerusalem despite legal backing to do so from his own parliament. And he was headstrong about Camp David being a final, take-it-or-leave-it offer.

"We saw this as a summit prepared to impose a solution, more than to convince a partner of a solution," Korei said.

Barak's aloofness at the summit fed Palestinian suspicions, Korei and others say--an assessment that Malley shares.

"The problem is we did not see [Barak's] face at Camp David," said Yasser Abed-Rabbo, another Camp David negotiator and Arafat's information minister. "Barak chose not to deal directly with Arafat, although they had been meeting on a regular basis before that. Maybe he [Barak] thought the Americans were there for that."

Shimon Peres, Israel's foreign minister and a chief architect of the Oslo peace process--for which he shared a Nobel Prize with Arafat--has blamed the Palestinian leader for a "historic mistake" in refusing Camp David offers. But in recent comments to a British interviewer, Peres also criticized Barak for insisting on a final settlement and for failing to understand Arafat's psychology and expectations of honor and respect.

Barak has reacted angrily to these criticisms.

In a speech at Tel Aviv University three weeks ago, he said that Arafat--and only Arafat--was to blame for the region's descent from the brink of peace to the brink of war.

"Arafat chose violence because he had reached the moment of truth at Camp David," Barak told his audience. Referring to two leaders who made peace with Israel, he said of Arafat, "He realized he wasn't [slain Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat or [late Jordanian King] Hussein, and at Camp David he knew it was no longer possible to mislead Israel or the world."

Referring to Arafat as a "liar" and a "rogue," Barak blamed "revisionists" for varying accounts of why Camp David failed. "We never tried to dictate to [Arafat]," Barak told another audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy ten days ago. "Not me. Not President Clinton."

The broad outlines of Barak's offer, as described by the Palestinians, are in line with what was generally already known: More than 90% of the West Bank and Gaza Strip would go to Palestinian control, with Jewish settlers consolidated in three large blocs. And it is true that such an offer was the most generous ever from an Israeli leader.

But the Palestinians suspected that the offer would never be concrete, and they wouldn't accept a state broken into pieces by settlements and bypass roads with all access subjected to Israeli security control.

Korei said Clinton had promised a worried Arafat that if the summit failed, the American leader wouldn't blame the Palestinian chief. In fact, Clinton did blame Arafat publicly and hasn't wavered from the position.

Perhaps inadvertently, Korei confirmed the most damning criticism of the Palestinians: their refusal or inability to present counteroffers.

"I will not float ideas that are less than United Nations resolutions," he said, in a reference to provisions for returning to borders that existed before Israel's 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and for a return of refugees. "Less than that should not come from the Palestinians. I cannot give up a hand that is part of the body."

A Heated Exchange

That attitude, Korei said, led to a heated exchange with Clinton, who accused the Palestinian delegation--riven by its own political divisions and intrigue--of wasting the president's time and of causing the summit's failure.

Clinton's representatives, including former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, have also blamed the Palestinian refusal to acknowledge a basic historical Jewish claim to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City as evidence of intransigence and bad faith that helped kill the talks.

The question of whether Arafat's behavior at Camp David was irrational and obstructionist, as it is often cast, or was based on some logic and history, as the Palestinians now claim, is a critical one. The widespread perception that Arafat inexplicably rejected Barak, coupled with the violence that followed, has led to great disillusion among the Israeli left and the "peace camp," many of whom have concluded that Arafat is incapable of making peace. Their disaffection removes a potential basis for rapprochement.

Two months after Camp David fell apart, the intifada against Israeli rule began. Palestinian and Israeli negotiators attempted another round of negotiations at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba, and both sides concur that they got much closer to an agreement. But the Barak government fell, and hard-liner Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister on a promise not to negotiate "under fire."

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