Behind the Camp David Myth

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Robert Malley was President Clinton's special assistant for Arab-Israeli affairs. He now directs the Middle East and North Africa program at the International Crisis Group.

It took Yasser Arafat many years to persuade his fellow Palestinians of the wisdom of the two-state solution, and it took longer still to convince Americans and Israelis of the genuineness of his views. Yet it took only two weeks at Camp David in the summer of 2000 to wreck all the progress that had been made and for Arafat to regain the pariah status he once held.

Those talks failed, and in the aftermath a myth was born that has had a lasting and devastating effect: that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made the most generous offer possible, but that Arafat summarily turned it down. He did so, the story goes, because he never really believed in the Jewish state’s right to exist in the first place and because he had never really hoped to reach a just, comprehensive and lasting peace with Israel. Since 2000, it is this narrative -- Camp David as a metaphor for Palestinian rejectionism -- that has ravaged the Israeli peace camp, distorted both U.S. and Israeli policy and badly undermined confidence in a peaceful settlement of the conflict.

Why Arafat acted as he did during those 14 days will hover over any appraisal of his life. I was a member of the U.S. delegation at those talks and have never concealed my frustration with the Palestinians’ attitude. Divided, they spent more time backstabbing each other than seeking a deal. Suspicious, they were quick to see potential loopholes and slow to recognize possible leads. Passive, they failed to put forward their own ideas, leaving it to others to present proposals they could then conveniently turn down. In all this, Arafat played his customary role -- sitting back, standing still, staying mum.


Still, some reminders are in order. First, the question is not whether Arafat was up to the occasion -- clearly, he was not -- but whether his attitude reflected an inherent inability or unwillingness to end the conflict. As many Israeli and U.S. participants in the talks now acknowledge, numerous alternative explanations help account for his behavior: utter distrust of Barak, whom he saw as having humiliated and ignored the Palestinians and who he believed violated commitments; a rushed timetable oblivious to Palestinian political constraints; concern about domestic opposition at the popular level and divisions within the elite; and the absence of support from Arab countries for a deal. Arafat, as anyone who dealt with him knows well, moved only when compelled, preferring the ambiguity of deferral to the clarity of choice. At Camp David he had every reason to postpone and, as he saw it, little incentive to decide.

Second, although Camp David undoubtedly was a breakthrough, and although Israel was prepared to concede far more than in the past, the deal nevertheless didn’t meet the minimum requirements of any Palestinian leader. Washington now welcomes the new leadership of Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Korei, but it is worth bearing in mind that neither could have embraced the Camp David ideas -- and neither did.

A third oft-neglected point about Camp David is that the Palestinian positions, though clearly inconsistent with Israel’s, nonetheless were compatible with the existence of a Jewish state: a Palestinian state based on the lines of June 4, 1967; Israeli annexation of limited West Bank territory to accommodate settlement blocs in exchange for the transfer of an equivalent amount of land from Israel proper; Palestinian sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and over its holy sites; and implementation of the refugees’ right of return in a manner designed to protect Israel’s demographic interests. Those stances probably went beyond what the Israeli people could accept. But why is that any more relevant than whether Barak’s stances went beyond what the Palestinian people could stomach?

The more difficult question is not why Arafat rebuffed the Camp David ideas but why he failed to embrace the Clinton parameters five months later in December 2000, which came far closer to meeting the Palestinian principles.

By then, however, everything had changed. The intifada was raging, Palestinians were seething and mourning their dead, and many of Arafat’s advisors were counseling against the deal. Arafat, ever the short-term tactician and with his finger invariably fastened to the public pulse, wanted neither to reject the deal nor embrace it, basking in his reinvigorated popular status and unsure whether he could swiftly turn his people’s mood from anger at Israel to peace with it. With President Clinton only weeks away from leaving office, and Barak not far behind, he probably believed he could wait for a better time, feeling more comfortable riding the wave of popular anger than risking his domestic status with a controversial agreement. Why rush to solve a 50-year-old conflict in a mere five months?

Besides, every previous encounter had suggested that if he held out for more, more would soon be offered. How Arafat will be remembered is a matter of historical interest, but, far more than that, one of great political import. Whoever succeeds him will lack his legitimacy, and any future peace agreement inevitably will be measured against what, in his people’s eyes, would have been his stance. Arafat was a man who resorted to violence and tragically missed several opportunities. But he also was the first Palestinian leader to embrace the two-state solution and recognize Israel’s right to exist. If we wrongly choose to depict Arafat as the man who could only say no, his successors will find it virtually impossible ever to say yes.