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August 06, 2002
Camp David's thwarted peace

By Alain Gresh


Le Monde diplomatique
July 2002


Camp David's thwarted peace

President Bush has urged the Palestinians to replace Yasser Arafat as a condition of US support for their statehood. This call underscores the failure of the Oslo accords. As Israel tightens its hold on the West Bank and Gaza, peace has never seemed more distant. Yet two years ago Israelis and Palestinians seemed close to agreement: the Camp David summit in July 2000 could have been considered as one further step in the long negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. Instead it was dismissed as a total failure, with Arafat responsible for that failure.


When, a few decades from now, historians return to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of the 1990s they will undoubtedly agree on at least one point. The Camp David summit - a two-week conclave (11 to 25 July 2000) to which President Bill Clinton invited the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, and the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Yasser Arafat - marked the start of the Middle East's long descent into the inferno. As historians decipher the reports on the summit published by the international media, they will probably warn their students that there would be little truth in history if it were based exclusively on information from the press.

For months there was a one-sided version of the summit: Arafat had rejected Barak's "generous offer" and refused the creation of a Palestinian state on 95%, even 97%, of the West Bank and the whole of the Gaza Strip, with its capital in East Jerusalem. His obstinate demands for millions of Palestinian refugees to be given the right to return to Israel had wrecked all hope of a historic peace treaty between Israelis and Palestinians.

One of the prime merits of the book by Charles Enderlin, Le RÍve Brisť (1), is that it firmly contradicts this version of events. Enderlin has been the Jerusalem correspondent for the France 2 television channel for more than 20 years. As the peace negotiations continued, he filmed the main protagonists, on the understanding that material would not be released before the end of 2001. He had access to many of their personal notes, which he has put into perspective, drawing on his exceptional knowledge of the area and its history. The result, which is corroborated by other accounts (2), throws new light on the failure of the Oslo process.

At the end of May 1999 Ehud Barak and the Labour party defeated Binyamin Netanyahu's right-wing coalition, ending its three years in power. Just after the elections, Saeb Erekat, one of the leading Palestinian negotiators, warned his new Israeli counterparts that there was very little room for manoeuvre. Palestinians had lost all hope of peace. Over the last few years they had been stifled and humiliated.

Admittedly the Palestinians had been able to elect the PA, and the Israeli army had evacuated the main West Bank towns, with the notable exception of Hebron. But living conditions had constantly deteriorated. Travel inside the territories was increasingly difficult, with new checkpoints and humiliating searches - worse than before the signing of the 1993 Oslo accords. The standard of living plummeted and the settlements continued their inexorable advance, with more Arab land being confiscated every day. Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, held since 1993, remained behind bars. May 1999 was supposed to mark the end of the period of transition to autonomy, with the setting up of a Palestinian state. But the timeframe had slipped and none of the major issues still outstanding - borders, Jerusalem, settlements, refugees, security and water - had been addressed.

The Palestinian leadership therefore welcomed Barak's election victory, even if there was some anxiety about this relative newcomer to politics. As chief of staff, Barak had opposed the original 1993 Oslo accords and two years later, as minister of the interior, he had voted against the agreement known as Oslo II (September 1995), which provided for the withdrawal of the Israeli army from the main Palestinian towns. Once in power he lost the Palestinians' trust within just a few months.

Barak took the immediate start of negotiations on the final status of the West Bank and Gaza as an excuse for delaying the implementation of the commitments made by his predecessor and the hand-over of new territory to the PA. His decision to comply - only partially - came too late. Moreover he failed to honour his own promises to evacuate villages in the outskirts of Jerusalem - Abu Dis, al-Azzaria and Sawahra - even though the Israeli government and parliament had voted for this concession.

'Dear brothers'

For reasons that had nothing to do with tactics, Barak was clearly attached to the settlements. One of the first things he did, after the election, was to visit the extremist settlers of Ofra and Beit El, addressing them as his "dear brothers" (3). On 31 March 2000 he spoke to the settlers in Hebron, a group of fanatics implanted in the centre of the Arab town who terrorised its population. He affirmed the right of Jews to live in Hebron in safety, protected from any attacks. Under the Barak government building in the settlements continued at a faster pace than under Netanyahu.

Worse still, Barak neglected the Palestinian issue for months and gave priority to negotiations with Syria. He later attempted to justify this approach: "I always supported Syria first reaching peace with Syria would greatly limit the Palestinians' ability to widen the conflict. On the other hand, solving the Palestinian problem will not diminish Syria's ability to existentially threaten Israel" (4). He appointed Oded Eran to lead negotiations with the Palestinians. But he did not listen when Eran told him that the Palestinian problem was central to the Israeli-Arab conflict and no solution to the conflict with Syria would be found nor any agreement reached until it was settled.

Once more Barak would take no advice and again he failed. Enderlin's account provides details of Barak's personal responsibility in this fiasco. Dennis Ross, the US Middle East coordinator, who can hardly be suspected of pro-Arab sympathies, once complained that whereas the Syrians had made progress on all fronts, Barak had made none.

By the time talks with the Palestinians resumed in spring 2000, Barak had wasted almost a year. His government majority had disintegrated and the suspicion of the Palestinians - both the PA and public opinion - had increased. Barak decided to force the issue and organise a summit meeting to settle all outstanding issues. Was his offer sincere, or did he aim to trap the PA, making it responsible for failure? The Palestinian leadership had serious misgivings. It explained that preparatory talks were needed to ensure that a meeting between Barak and Arafat was truly productive, warning that a hastily organised summit could lead to disaster. The warning went unheeded.

Barak convinced Clinton, nearing the end of his term as president, that he could crown his career with a spectacular success. The two men met for the first time on 15 July 1999 and, according to Enderlin, it was love at first sight. Clinton could not conceal his admiration for Barak, going so far as to say that he was "eager as a kid with a new toy". Their affinity influenced the course of events at Camp David. Despite his efforts, Clinton always felt closer to Barak. It required little effort on his part to understand, accept and defend Israeli positions.

In his book Enderlin devotes a long chapter to the Camp David meeting. He describes the life of the summit, its participants, the discussions within each of the three delegations. But should it really count as a summit? Barak refused to negotiate directly with Arafat, whom he never met alone. Two years later he tried to justify this attitude: "Did Nixon meet Ho Chi Minh or Giap [before reaching the Vietnam peace deal]? Or did De Gaulle ever speak to [Algerian leader] Ben Bella?" (5). But neither Nixon nor De Gaulle had demanded a summit meeting with their adversaries. Barak's obvious disdain for Arafat merely fuelled Palestinian suspicions.

Enderlin's account confirms that Arafat was never offered a Palestinian state controlling more than 91% of the West Bank. Nor was his full authority over the Arab districts of Jerusalem and the Haram al-Sharif (the precinct on which al-Aqsa mosque is built) recognised. Contrary to claims by several Jewish organisations, the Palestinian negotiators never demanded the return of 3m refugees to Israel. The figures mentioned during the talks varied from a few hundred to several thousand Palestinians, whom Israel would allow to return.

Arafat had already made clear to Clinton at a meeting in Washington on 15 June 2000 that he recognised the existence of UN Resolution 194 (of 11 December 1948, on refugees' right to return to their homes) but said that a balance had to be struck between Israel's demographic concerns and Palestinian demands. According to Robert Malley and Hussein Agha, the refugee problem "was barely discussed between the two sides" (6) at the summit. At the subsequent press conference, Barak attributed its failure to disagreement on Jerusalem, before changing tack and highlighting the refugee problem.

So Camp David ended without agreement. This was not the end of the world. Progress had been achieved and taboos shattered. For the first time the Israelis had considered sharing Jerusalem in some way. The Palestinians had accepted that certain territories on the West Bank or in East Jerusalem, where there were large concentrations of settlers, could be annexed by Israel.

But instead of building on these advances, Barak put all the blame for the summit's failure on Arafat. Above all he resuscitated an old right-wing slogan that he had no valid opposite number on the Palestinian side. The claim was taken up by journalists and the media, and gained credence. Barak then threw all his energy into revealing what he called "the true face of Arafat". He stopped negotiating for a solution, preferring to demonstrate there was no solution.

But negotiations did continue, particularly at Taba, Egypt, in January 2001. They brought the positions of the two parties closer on most of the issues under discussion, particularly territory and sharing of sovereignty in East Jerusalem. Arab quarters would be integrated in the Palestinian state and Israel would annex Jewish neighbourhoods. The Israeli delegates even made novel proposals on the refugee question (7). But it seems unlikely that these offers reflected Barak's own position, for he never endorsed them.

'The true face of Arafat'

Menahem Klein, an advisor to the former Israeli foreign minister, Shlomo Ben Ami, recently confirmed this view. According to Klein, Barak told him that he had sent a delegation to Taba solely to reveal "the true face of Arafat" and not to conclude an agreement (8). Barak succeeded in convincing Israeli public opinion that it was a case of "us or them", dealing a fatal blow to the peace camp. The Israeli peace campaigner, Uri Avnery, rightly called Barak "a peace criminal".

The aim is not to exonerate the Palestinian leaders of all blame, and Enderlin is careful to avoid this mistake. Arafat was often indecisive, incapable of taking drastic measures. He totally underestimated the risk of the right winning the elections in February 2001 and invested quite unjustified trust in the Bush administration. Above all he could not understand the undercurrents of Israeli opinion and failed to draw up a clear programme, particularly after the second intifada started.

Enderlin rejects outright the idea that the Palestinian leadership planned the uprising. Georges Malbrunot, a fellow journalist, seconds this view in a well-researched book on the intifada (9). According to him, on 31 July 2000, well before the start of the uprising, Erakat told all the Israeli heads of security that Camp David had failed, but its achievements had to be protected. Negotiations were continuing and there was a real chance of success. He added that in the coming weeks they would have to prevent any friction that might trigger violent confrontation.

But it was already too late. The PA was faced with the revolt of the Palestinian rank and file who demanded an immediate end to 35 years of occupation. It is perhaps worth remembering that several weeks later the intifada became a military operation, in response to Israeli army reprisals. Malbrunot recalls the scale of repression: "Israeli soldiers killed 204 Palestinians between 28 September and 2 December, including 73 youths aged less than 17 and 24 members of the security forces. The Palestinian leaders all agreed that they could not afford to lose 10 children a day and that the human cost was too high. They must find another strategy" (10).

By now the Oslo accords were defunct. The causes of their demise and the personal responsibility of the various players have been the subject of endless debate. Above all, the peace was lost because the occupying power - the Israeli government and a large part of public opinion - was incapable of treating the Palestinians as equals. The Israelis always put their own rights before Palestinian rights to dignity, freedom, security and independence. If progress is to be made in the future they will have to break with this colonialist attitude, now defended by Barak.

In a recent interview Barak supported Sharon's strategy of terror and in particular this April's Operation Defensive Wall, but claims he would have acted "more forcefully and with greater speed, and simultaneously against all cities" (11). Barak shows his true colours in his references to the Arabs. "They are products of a culture in which to tell a lie ... creates no dissonance. They don't suffer from the problem of telling lies that exists in Judeo-Christian culture. Truth is seen as an irrelevant category."

This simplistic view, levelling accusations at an entire culture, is reminiscent of the racist obsessions of the French authorities in Algeria, advocated by Camille Brunel, a French colonialist writing at the beginning of the 20th century. He wrote: "A French officer pardoned an Arab rebel who had deserved death a hundred times. The Arab said: 'I am in debt to you. To show my gratitude, I shall give you a piece of advice that you must never forget as it will always be useful when dealing with my people. Never trust an Arab, not even me'" (12).

(1) Charles Enderlin, Le rÍve brisť. Histoire de l'ťchec du processus de paix au Proche-Orient. 1995-2002, Fayard, Paris, 2002, 366 pages. Unless otherwise indicated all quotes are taken from the book.

(2) See, in particular, Robert Malley and Hussein Agha, New York Review of Books, 9 August 2001. Amnon Kapeliouk was one of the first writers to contradict the dominant line on Camp David. See "Camp David dialogues" and "Conducting catastrophe", Le Monde diplomatique English edition, respectively September 2000 and February 2002.

(3) Michel Warschawski, Sur la frontiŤre, Stock, Paris, 2002.

(4) New York Review of Books, 13 June 2002.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ibid, quoting from Robert Malley, who took part in the summit as one of Clinton's presidential advisors.

(7) See "The Middle East: how the peace was lost" and "The Middle East: how the war cannot be won", Le Monde diplomatique English edition, September 2001.

(8) Ha'aretz, Tel Aviv, 2 May 2002.

(9) Georges Malbrunot, Des pierres aux fusils. Les secrets de l'Intifada, Flammarion, Paris, 2002.

(10) Ibid.

(11) New York Review of Books, 13 June 2002.

(12) Quoted by Alain Ruscio, Le Credo de l'homme blanc, Complexe, Bruxelles.

Translated by Harry Forster

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