Lessons for an Israeli-Palestinian summit

We were lost. The road to the presidential retreat at Camp David was winding and narrow; it was dark, the way it doesn’t get in the city. We had clearly missed a turn somewhere. I kidded Dennis Ross, the lead U.S. negotiator for the imminent Israeli-Palestinian Camp David summit, that if we couldn’t even find the president’s compound, how were we going to help Bill Clinton negotiate an agreement between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat once we got there?

My gallows humor turned out to be all too prescient.

Ten years ago this month, a risk-ready Israeli prime minister persuaded a risk-ready American president to convene a historic summit with a risk-averse Palestinian leader. The ascent to the mountaintop in search of a conflict-ending agreement and the ensuing descent into a valley of broken trust, bitterness, violence and terror that followed traumatized the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It has yet to recover.

The cautionary tale of the Camp David summit is critically important as another risk-ready Democratic president, having “reset” his relationship with the current Israeli prime minister, approaches his own fateful decisions on Mideast peacemaking: Will he propose a comprehensive American plan? Or, less intrusively, offer bridging proposals on key issues to overcome the gaps between the two sides? Or maybe call a go-for-broke summit to hammer it all out?

Whatever path Barack Obama chooses — and to break the current impasse he may eventually have to try all three — he can’t afford to ignore the lessons of the last serious American effort to address the core issues that drive the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Jerusalem, borders, security and refugees.

Caveat emptor, Mr. President. If you buy a ticket to another go-for-broke summit, you must understand why the last one failed. Twain once quipped that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme, and there are three lessons from July 2000 that echo one another and are worth heeding.

Know where the Israelis and Palestinians stand. In 2000, we didn’t. Not really. Because if we had better understood their positions, we would have known that the gaps were too big, and that neither Arafat nor Barak was willing to pay the price for closing them, let alone ending their conflict.

Of course, no summit is without risk, and no mediator can be sure exactly where each leader stands before the negotiations begin. Indeed, summits are like caldrons: In the heat of negotiation, often in response to pain and gain, leaders may go beyond where they thought they might. But in July 2000, we were faced with a Grand Canyon of distance and an even greater gap in trust and confidence. We foolishly calculated possibilities; we should have been dealing in probabilities, and we should have had more realistic goals.

Know where you stand, and run the summit. Clinton, brilliant and committed, didn’t run Camp David; it ran him. In fairness to the president, we never gave him a strategy that could work. In part, because we let Arafat and Barak pursue their own agendas without an overall American structure to the summit.

Barak to be sure was prepared to risk more, but even here we didn’t play our cards well. The summit would last 13 days, yet by Day 4 it was really over. That day we presented the Israeli prime minister with a paper of possible bridging ideas; he hated it. We dutifully took it back and reworked it. Then we sent it to Arafat, who hated it.

When the small powers say no to the big one without cost or consequence, the big power — the mediator — loses leverage, credibility and respect. We should have had a solid U.S. position and text, and we should have owned it, soliciting feedback from each side, and accepting or rejecting ideas in order to produce an agreement.

Stand for the agreement, not just with one side or the other. We didn’t do this well enough. To use a phrase coined by Henry Kissinger, too often we functioned as Israel’s lawyer instead of understanding that our client was the agreement and that we needed to advocate for both sides.

Admittedly, Arafat didn’t make it easy. He didn’t come to Camp David to negotiate; as the weakest party at the table, he came to survive, to get even with Barak for chasing a Syrian agreement, and to keep on Clinton’s good side. Still, there was no chance of success if our point of departure for our own substantive positions on the issues was what was acceptable to Barak, and if almost everything we came up with after that, we ran by the Israelis first.

Ten years later, the chances aren’t great for a conflict-ending agreement that leads to the end of all Israeli and Palestinian claims on the core issues. But Obama, who sees himself as a transformative leader and who is risk ready, may conclude otherwise.

If he tries to follow in the footsteps of Clinton, he should learn the lessons of July 2000: Be fairly confident of what you can get from each side before you go to a high-risk summit; know where the gaps are and be ready to bridge them; control the pace and the structure of the negotiations with a single negotiating text that you own; and don’t argue for one side at the expense of the other.

Ignoring these lessons will produce another failed summit; and worse still, the president who hopes to deliver a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be the one who ends up burying it.

Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, served as an advisor on Arab-Israeli negotiations to Democratic and Republican secretaries of State. He was a deputy negotiator at Camp David. His new book, “Can America Have Another Great President?,” will be published in 2012.