Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak recently summed up a three-day-long seminar devoted to the July 2000 Camp David summit with this succinct verdict: “Yasser Arafat refused — and all the rest is gossip.”
Most Israelis would agree with Barak’s binary, black-or-white assessment of that ill-fated trilateral summit that led, in short order, to the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada. As far as the overwhelming majority of Israelis are concerned, there is no need for any retrospective soul-searching or Monday-morning quarterbacking. Thus, the third anniversary of the Camp David debacle, marked this week, was hardly mentioned at all in the Israeli press or in the public discourse.
Quite a different and much more complex picture emerged from the seminar, recently hosted by Tel Aviv University, titled “The Camp David Summit — What Went Wrong?” A host of lecturers — American, Israeli and a smattering of Palestinians — tried to reconstruct those fateful days of July 2000, raising troubling questions about the wisdom of convening the summit in the first place, the undisciplined and sometimes amateurish management once it got under way and the inevitability, or lack thereof, of its failed and subsequently tragic conclusion.
Most of the Palestinians who were invited declined to attend the seminar, wrongly wary, perhaps, of being “surrounded” by accusing Israelis and Americans. Most of the Israelis, led by Barak, stuck to their guns, continuing to pin the entire blame for the failure of the summit squarely on the shoulders of Arafat and his cohorts. But three former American administration officials — former ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, former State Department senior adviser for Arab-Israeli negotiations Aaron Miller and former National Security Council Middle East specialist Robert Malley — took it upon themselves to raise doubts about the conventional wisdoms and widely accepted narratives of the trilateral meeting.
Both Indyk and Miller recounted the fateful ramifications of the “Syria First” emphasis in Israeli and American foreign policies during the first year of Barak’s term as prime minister. Indyk, who championed these policies, and Miller, who opposed them, now concur that the singular and all-out pursuit of a peace agreement with the late Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad in the months prior to Camp David probably played a pivotal and potentially fatal role in determining the summit’s ultimate failure. Barak and former president Bill Clinton pushed Arafat and the Palestinians to the sidelines while trying to pursue an accord with Assad. By the time these efforts failed, in March 2000, it was probably too late to launch an ambitious effort to achieve a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian agreement in the short time that Clinton had left. And Arafat, who had all the time in the world, was intent on exacting his revenge for having been shoved aside.
The Americans also agreed that once summoned, the summit was spectacularly ill prepared. The Americans had no blueprint for managing the inevitable crises that were bound to arise, nor did they formulate a fallback position, in case of collapse. From the outset, the summit was conceived as an ultimate “do or die” endeavor, and the outcome, in retrospect, was the latter.
Indyk also recalled American insensitivity that may have inflamed internal tensions in the Palestinian delegation, thus eliminating the potential for a moderating influence on Arafat’s decisions. Arafat’s deputy (and current Palestinian prime minister), Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, was miffed by what appeared to be overt American courtship of Palestinian strongman Mohammed Dahlan and opted out of the meetings altogether. Another Palestinian moderate, Abu Ala, was publicly upbraided by Clinton at one of the summit’s pivotal junctures, and he never recovered from the insult.
All the speakers, including some of Barak’s own deputies, also criticized the Israeli leader’s decision to refrain from any one-on-one meetings with Arafat throughout the entire summit, claiming that Barak’s boycott only deepened Arafat’s suspicions of the entire venture. Arafat, after all, had only reluctantly agreed to come to Camp David in the first place, after his plea for a “series of summits” had been rejected by both Clinton and Barak.
But it was left to Malley to challenge the heart of the matter and the widely accepted version that Barak had offered Arafat “everything.” While acknowledging that Barak had gone further than any previous Israeli leader on such issues as borders and Jerusalem, the Israeli offer nonetheless left much to be desired, and negotiated, on borders, as well as settlements. Arafat rejected the proposal, Malley asserted, but so would any other Palestinian leader, bar none.
Throughout the seminar, Barak sat in the front row, accompanied by his wife, Nava, in what at times appeared to be more of a mock trial of his own performance rather than an academic discussion of the complex events. When he finally got up to speak, Barak retorted in a harsh and fiery address, rejecting all of the
nuances, criticisms and reservations voiced by the others. Arafat refused, he said, and everything else, including latter-day nuances, is nothing but gossip.
“Arafat has not, does and will not recognize the existence of a Jewish state, nor of a Jewish people,” Barak said. “He has neither the leadership nor the courage of the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat or the late Jordanian king Hussein. As long as he is around, there will be no agreement.”
Barak recounted a recent conversation with Clinton that dealt with the emerging and sometimes conflicting versions of Camp David, in which Clinton said: “Even if we had made 50 mistakes, the end result would have been the same.” Nonetheless, for his part, Barak failed to admit to even one little error.
It was left to the president of Tel Aviv University, Professor Itamar Rabinovitch, to catalog and sum up for the audience the four narratives emerging, in retrospect, in the many books being published about Camp David. First, there is the “orthodox” version offered by Barak, Clinton and former American ambassador Dennis Ross, which espouses the “Israeli-good, Palestinian-bad” narrative. Then there is the “revisionist” attitude of Malley and those Israelis who view Camp David as Oslo gone wrong. Third is the “deterministic” narrative, espoused by Henry Kissinger and top Israeli intelligence officials who claim that Camp David was bound to fail because Arafat would not and could not agree. Finally, there is the “eclectic” narrative offered by Barak’s former bureau chief Gilad Sher and Israeli ultra-dove Yossi Beilin, who seek to find a middle ground between the black-and-white versions but wind up with an altogether incoherent thesis.
As far as most Israelis are concerned, it’s an open-and-shut case anyway. Whatever doubts they may have had at the time about Barak’s performance at Camp David were subsequently swept away by the onslaught of Palestinian terrorism and violence that confirmed their sinister intentions. Indeed, many Israelis — including the current chief of staff, Moshe Ya’alon — are declaring an Israeli victory in what is now being called the “Thousand Days War” for the very reason that the Palestinians failed to move Israel even one inch away from its negotiating positions at Camp David.
“Ultimately, we will have to deal with the same difficult issues, but in the meantime hundreds and thousands of innocent lives will be lost,” Barak told his Cabinet colleagues only a few months before going to Camp David. An incisive prognosis, say Barak’s supporters, or a self-fulfilling prophecy, according to his detractors, but as Prime Minister Sharon and Abu Mazen come to the White House this week for political talks, it is, indeed, back to square one, whoever is to blame.