Don't Let the Light Go Out

By Evan Goldstein

Last month, the three-year anniversary of the Camp David debacle was marked by a three-day seminar hosted by Tel Aviv University, titled: "The Camp David Summit: What Went Wrong?" The revelations that have emerged from that summit pose a disquieting question: Was the meltdown of the peace process an avoidable consequence of misguided American diplomacy - President Clinton's affinity for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his Labor Party?

On July 25, after two weeks of negotiations, the summit was concluded without an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. Prime Minister Barak had staked his tenure in office on concluding an agreement with the Palestinians and, as a result of this failure, his political survival was placed in jeopardy. His strategy, worked out in documents before the summit, stipulated that he place the blame for the failure squarely at the feet of Palestinian Chairman Yasir Arafat. In his statement to the press, Barak famously declared that, "Today we can look in the mirror and say that, during the past year, we have exhausted all the possibilities for ending the hundred-year-old conflict pitting us against the Palestinians …Arafat was afraid of making the historic decisions [that were called for] to put an end to the conflict." Barak maintained that Arafat's rejection of his "generous offer" had exposed his "true face."

In the new book Shattered Dreams, the French journalist Charles Enderlin portrays the final discussions of the summit, when the decisions were made.

The Palestinians had worried about conducting such a high-risk summit from the outset. Arafat's insecurity is reflected in his repeated pursuit of guarantees from the Americans, often directly from President Clinton, in which he was reassured that if the negotiations collapsed he would not be labeled as the guilty party.

During the final meeting at Camp David, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat stressed that, should final overtures fail to bridge the gap between the two parties, the discussions must be portrayed as a success. "If you present it as a failure," Erekat said, "the light will go out in the region, and I don't know when it will go back on." Later he reiterated this point. "Don't cast blame on anyone because that will lead to bloodshed!" But as the Palestinians were packing their bags, television was already broadcasting American and Israeli accusations that Arafat had made no concessions while Barak had staked his career on the premise of peace. Enraged, Erekat phoned Clinton's envoy to the Middle East, Dennis Ross. According to Enderlin, Ross explained that, "Barak needs this so he can face his internal difficulties in Israel."

To bolster Barak's Government?

Ross's statement reflects an effort by the Clinton administration to bolster the languishing Barak government, a futile policy that would come at the expense of the peace process itself. Barak's statements condemning Arafat had precipitated the collapse of the peace movement in Israel. In an interview with Israeli television the day after the summit, Clinton corroborated Barak's account of the negotiations, even going so far as to threaten to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. "We already have a plot of land," Clinton ominously added. These statements added to the perception that the region yet again faced a conflagration.

Negotiations continued through secret back channels in the following weeks, climaxing at Taba, where the parties moved closer toward agreement, though Barak's poll numbers at home plummeted. In September, with violence escalating, Dennis Ross received a call from Israeli Minister of the Interior, Shlomo Ben Ami, who notified him of an impending visit to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif by Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon. The visit may have been technically legal, but it constituted an explosive provocation. Ross recalls replying: "I can think of a lot of bad ideas, but I can't think of a worse one."

Oslo collapsed under the strain. None of the parties bear the whole blame. Arafat is no paragon, but it is simplistic to attribute such a cataclysmic failure to one individual.

Three years later these two nations stand even further apart. Discredited by the collapse of the peace process, the Israeli Left has been cast adrift. Yet the outlines of a fair agreement remain intact, while core issues - Jerusalem, the Temple Mount /Haram al-Sharif, and refugees - require greater compromise by both sides. The conflict must be managed before it can ever be solved. Too much is at stake to allow the light to go out in the region again.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2003

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2003, page 23. Some rights reserved.

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