How generous is generous? What happened at Camp David

Settlement Report | Vol. 10 No. 8 | Winter 2000
Foundation for Middle East Peace

These are momentous days in the history of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The July summit at Camp David and the battles that have been raging in its aftermath have opened a new chapter not only in the process begun after the 1991 Gulf War, but also in the long history of antagonism between Israel and the Arabs.

Determining the exact nature of the progress achieved by negotiators has proven difficult not only for the public at large but also for the negotiators themselves. Israel's acting foreign minister, Shlomo Ben Ami, has spoken of "the collective memory of Camp David." Yet, in the months since the summit, it has become manifestly clear that there is less a collective memory of what was on offer than a myriad cluster of memories that agree on some points and clash on many more.

The ambiguity inherent in negotiations conducted at and since Camp David, however, has not prevented a conventional view from emerging in Washington of what exactly transpired, and who in fact is to "blame" for their failure. Proponents of this view consider the offer that Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak put on the table to be "generous" and "unprecedented." Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's rejection of the "fair compromise" on offer is evidence of the tragic Palestinian insistence on "never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity," as Abba Eban once charged.

The reference by Eban is instructive in another way as well, for, in its time, it formed the core of an Israeli strategy aimed at delegitimizing the Palestinian view of the world and of their predicament as well.

The conventional wisdom about Camp David and the violence that followed in its wake, promoted most assiduously in Washington and Jerusalem, has a similar purpose--to paint the Palestinians, Arafat in particular, as responsible for rejecting a fair deal that is the best offer that he is likely to see from an Israeli leader, and whose inability to compromise has understandably left Israel no choice but to halt the Oslo process.

Unlike all of his predecessors, Barak believes that he can win Palestinian acceptance of a final status agreement that will legitimize long-standing Israeli territorial, strategic, and settlement objectives and formally end all Palestinian claims against Israel. An Israeli offer conditioned by this intention is described as generous and unprecedented. Had offers in this spirit been put to Israel's other Arab neighbors, Jordan and Egypt, it is certain that Israel would still be facing their armies across a hostile frontier.

A close look at what was on offer at Camp David II on the subjects of territory and Jerusalem should force a reconsideration of the prevailing one-sided and self-interested view. Barak's "offer" at Camp David, to the extent that the imprecise, unrecorded discussions could be construed as such, included the following:

Territory

Barak made two imprecise territorial offers at Camp David, according to Israelis and Palestinians participating in or advising the talks. The first proposed Israel's annexation of 10.5 percent of the West Bank and Israeli security control over an additional 8.5 to12

percent (the "green areas") with no provision for making reciprocal land trades of a like amount and quality of Israeli territory. One variant of this proposal was said to have included Israel's annexation of a narrow strip of territory along part of the Jordan River. A second offer is said to have proposed Israel's annexation of 9 percent of the West Bank in return for 1 percent of compensatory Israeli land (without any reference to the land's quality) to be annexed by Palestine.

-- The status of settlements located within the territory of the Palestinian state--estimated at around 60 with a population of 40,000, and a key factor in assessing the degree of Palestinian sovereignty--was not addressed. Provisions for the security of all settlements, including those that may be placed under nominal Palestinian sovereignty, is expected to form an important component of Israel's negotiating position. Israeli statements subsequent to the summit suggested that no settlement will be evacuated, ever, as part of a pact with the Palestinians.

Jerusalem

The parameters of Israel's offer on Jerusalem have been the subject of much discussion. According to Israeli and Palestinian reports as well as discussions with negotiating principals and their advisors, Israel proposed Palestinian sovereignty over some outlying Palestinian suburbs and administrative control over other neighborhoods near and in the city center. In return Israel demanded Palestinian acknowledgment of Israeli sovereignty over at least one-third of East Jerusalem, where almost 200,000 Israelis reside, as well as the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, where Israel, incredibly, also demanded Palestinian agreement to the construction of a synagogue. The precise sovereign and administrative division of East Jerusalem, including the disposition of its critical green areas where construction is currently prohibited, was not addressed. Barak also offered Palestinians dedicated "local safe passage" to the Temple Mount. Barak's plan for the Haram al-Sharif, with the prominent exception of the demand for a synagogue, has been described in Israeli reports as consecrating the status quo on the Temple Mount.

The Clinton administration has internalized support for Barak's preferences, establishing a point of view that most Americans have accepted without criticism. The clearest expression of this support was offered by the oral presentation at Camp David of an "American plan"--the first time that a U.S. administration has presented its view of a final status agreement. This plan, the bridging proposals that Washington has developed but not publicized, and Clinton's unprecedented and outspoken criticism of Arafat as the cause of Camp David's failure convinced Arafat that the Clinton administration had all but lost its credibility as a mediator and its ability to fashion policies independent of those adopted by Barak. Palestinian despair about Washington's good offices was a critical factor transforming the violence that began in earnest on September 28 into the al-Aqsa intifada--Arafat's attempt harness a popular revolt to reshuffle the cards dealt to him by Clinton and Barak at Camp David in his favor in order to win a more explicit and expansive Israeli withdrawal from territories Palestinians consider to be their own.

Barak, who wanted to do right by the settlers as well as the keepers of the holy places, and also wanted to boast about not having made any concessions, tried to dictate an agreement, with Clinton's help, that Arafat could not accept.

~ Joel Marcus, Ha'aretz, November 24, 2000