Camp David Redux: The Reporter As Chronicler and Participant

By Itamar Rabinovich

Published July 25, 2003, issue of July 25, 2003.
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Shattered Dreams: The Failure of the Peace Process in the Middle East, 1995-2002

By Charles Enderlin

Other Press, 361 pages, $28.

* * *

In the course of six months, between March and September 2000, the most ambitious international effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict collapsed. The effort began in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, in the spring of 1991, reached its zenith from 1993 to 1995 and survived the crisis of the 1995 to 1999 period. In May 1999, Israel’s newly elected prime minister, Ehud Barak, launched a bold initiative: to revive the peace process and conclude it within 15 months, the effective remaining period of President Clinton’s final term. Ironically and tragically, Barak’s effort ended with the collapse of the Israeli-Syrian negotiation in March 2000, the failure of the Camp David conference in July 2000 and the outbreak of the Palestinian-Israeli war of attrition (known as “the second intifada”) in September 2000.

This series of failures has generated a significant body of writing and several heated controversies. Is Yasser Arafat a villain who rejected Barak’s bold proposal for a final-status agreement and, to boot, endorsed the outbreak of violence on September 28? Or is Barak the culprit, the man whose offer was not real and who failed to handle Arafat on a personal level? Or does Clinton carry the blame for failing to exercise the muscular leadership expected from the leader of the world’s only superpower? And what about the collapse of the Syrian negotiation in March 2000? Did Barak develop “cold feet” in the face of an Israeli public reluctant to withdraw from the Golan or did Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, aware of his imminent death, decide to devote his residual strength to securing the succession of his son rather than to making peace with Israel?

Charles Enderlin’s “Shattered Dreams: The Failure of the Peace Process in the Middle East, 1995-2002,” the English version of a book originally published in French, sets out to tell the story of this failure. It begins logically in 1995 with Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, devotes a rather slim portion to the Bibi Netanyahu years and focuses largely on Barak’s tenure. The book’s real core is the detailed account of the Camp David conference.

Enderlin has a view regarding the deterioration and crisis that occurred in the summer of 2000. He depicts Arafat as the victim of an Israeli media campaign that sought to relieve the pressure of international public opinion agitated by “disturbing pictures of Palestinian victims.” This “offensive,” he writes, was directed against Arafat personally for rejecting what Israeli and American negotiators saw as “the Palestinian State generously offered by Ehud Barak” at the Camp David summit, thereby setting off a “war of liberation.”

For long months to come, these accusations will distort the perception of events in the Middle East. For one thing, negotiations were not broken off at Camp David… Moreover, at no time was Arafat offered a Palestinian State on more than 91 percent of the West Bank and, at that, without recognition of his complete sovereignty over the Arab quarters of Jerusalem and the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. This will come only later, in December, when Bill Clinton issues his final proposal….Never, despite the claims of certain Jewish organizations, did the Palestinian negotiators demand the return to Israel of 3,000,000 refugees… Nor was the Intifada triggered by Arafat … [though] … To be sure, Arafat was not displeased at the outbreak of the Intifada…

These paragraphs, though not well written, clearly place this book in the “revisionist school” — the body of writing that challenged the “orthodoxy” established by Clinton, Barak, Shlomo Ben-Ami, Dennis Ross and even Saudi Prince Bandar, who blamed Arafat for failing to say “yes” in Camp David.

Taking sides in this debate is fine. It is a legitimate political and academic debate that will continue to unfold in the coming years as several other memoirs and accounts are published. But there are other flaws in Enderlin’s account.

One problem has to do with proper disclosure. Of the “disturbing pictures of Palestinian victims,” none was more wrenching and damaging to Israel than that of Muhammad, a child shot dead in the arms of his helpless father near Gaza on September 30, 2000. Enderlin provides an account of the incident and meticulously refutes the official Israeli version. But it would take a particularly knowledgeable and perceptive reader to find out that “the images of this tragedy” that went “around the world” were dispatched by none other than France’s second television channel, whose bureau chief in Israel is Charles Enderlin.

Less piquant but of greater import is the preponderance in Enderlin’s account of detail over judgment. As a journalist, Enderlin seems to be writing for the news pages and not for the editorial page. He tells the story but offers little direct commentary. Explicit statements of opinion, such as the one quoted above, are buried by detail. It is awkward to be led by the author through dozens of controversial episodes without the benefit of his own judgment.

And then there is the issue of the reliability of his facts. Reconstructing a complex and controversial course of events is difficult enough to do when one must sift through written records and historical artifacts, but it may be even more difficult to accomplish when working with live, partisan sources. Enderlin’s account is on the whole reliable, but occasional factual errors and careless phrasings shake the reader’s confidence. This happens as early as page xiv of the introduction. Enderlin renders a dramatic account of a dramatic moment — the meeting at Point Magoo Marine Base, when Shimon Peres and a group of Norwegian and Israeli colleagues came to share the news of the Oslo Accord with Secretary of State Warren Christopher and his aides. Peres was anxious about Christopher’s response, fearing he might react negatively. As Enderlin relates:

“Silence. The secretary of state turned to Ross. ‘Dennis, what do you think?’”

“Ross: ‘I think it’s terrific! It’s a historic agreement.…’”

I was privileged to have been present at that meeting. What happened, in fact, was that Christopher chose not to respond instantly and asked instead for a break. To us it was obvious that he needed to call the president and to consult with him. When he came back and endorsed the Oslo Accord, it was indeed clear that the whole weight of the Clinton administration was put behind the new reality.

Enderlin makes a similar error in his brief paragraph describing “the final contacts with Yitzhak Rabin in the Syrian matter.” “Dennis Ross,” he writes, “worked out a compromise proposal involving total retreat from the

Golan and establishment of American observers and detection posts on both sides of the border. But Rabin had flown into a rage, and the proposal was buried.”

The truth of the matter is that in the aftermath of a visibly successful meeting between the Israeli and Syrian chiefs of staff, Syrian President Assad demanded that Israel withdraw its demand for a monitoring station on Mount Hermon as a precondition for further negotiations. Rabin declined, and the negotiations were suspended. On the eve of Rabin’s assassination, a fresh American effort was made to renew the negotiations. Rabin was indeed scheduled to see Ross about this matter in New York in mid-November of 1995 but, as we know all too well, he was assassinated on November 4.

The counter-balance to these flaws is provided in “Shattered Dreams” by other, more appealing, qualities. It is the work of an experienced, professional journalist, and the narrative flows smoothly and vividly. It reflects the writer’s familiarity with the subject matter and the main characters. He was also able to interview several of the principal writers and to obtain the written record of several important meetings. Long quotes from the interviews and the records enrich the narrative and provide the reader with glimpses into the nature of diplomacy and the reality of Arab-Israeli relations.

One of these glimpses is particularly interesting: “On September 24, Gilead Sher [Barak’s negotiator and chief of staff] and Saeb Erekat [the Palestinian negotiator] allow me to videotape one of their secret meetings in the King David Hotel.” Enderlin then proceeds to quote from their dialogue.

We are left wondering: How secret is a secret negotiation videotaped by a journalist? How serious is a negotiation videotaped by a foreign correspondent? Were the negotiators speaking for the historical record? Or was it a case of life imitating the media?

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