The Enigma of Camp David Shimon Shamir



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The Enigma of Camp David

Shimon Shamir
Throughout history, principal leaders of adversary states have occasionally met face-to-face with the aim of settling their disputes. Emperors, kings, princes, presidents and prime ministers convened meetings, either bilateral or multilateral, seeking to conclude peace between them and establish some kind of regional or global order. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, these meetings have gone by such names as conventions, congresses or conferences, and since the 1950s, when they evolved as a quite common type of diplomacy, they have been dubbed “summit meetings.”

The results of summit meetings have varied. Some summits produced agreements which became stabilizing factors in the relevant international relationships. Others appeared to be successful, but the consequences of the arrangements they had agreed on turned out to be disastrous. There were also summits that collapsed entirely, thereby exacerbating the situation and generating frustration and despair. The summit meeting convened at Camp David in July 2000 by President Bill Clinton, with Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Chairman Yasser Arafat, belong to this third category.

The Camp David summit was a defining event in the history of Palestinian-Israeli relations and perhaps in that of the Middle East as a whole. It was the first attempt ever to reach a comprehensive solution to the hundred year-old conflict between the Jewish and Arab communities in the Holy Land. Yet, the summit did not yield any Israeli-Palestinian agreements. It was followed by the eruption of an unprecedented level of violence. Its failure intensified mutual suspicions and nourished bitterness and gloom. Moreover, it created new controversies. On top of all the existing ones, there is now the sharp disagreement over what really happened at Camp David.

Summit meetings are often followed by lively debates about the merits and drawbacks of each party’s performance. Failed summits engender particularly sharp controversies, with each side blaming the other for the failure. It is rare, however, to find cases in which the parties not only blame each other for having held positions that were responsible for the failure, but cannot even agree as to what those positions were.

The debate over the failure of the Camp David summit encompasses a very wide range of questions. Some of these questions can be answered with a reasonable degree of certainty. Some are still being scrutinized by analysts and researchers in search of credible answers. And some, it seems, will never be answered definitely.

What follows is a “menu” of questions, arranged by category, concerning the theme of the conference -- the search for “what went wrong.”



* Factors in the background of the summit. Were the faults of the Oslo process -- in its essence or in its implementation -- detrimental to the prospects of achieving an agreement at the summit? Did the continuation of settlement activity and Palestinian violence undermine the chances of success? Did the postponement of the last stage of the interim redeployment (in expectation of a comprehensive final status agreement) erode Barak’s credibility? Was it eroded by his avoidance of transferring the three promised villages near Jerusalem?

Was there an Israeli “Syria first” policy, and did it delay and undermine the process with the Palestinians?

Did the Israeli unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon create a perception among the Palestinians that negotiations were not the best way to achieve their goals?

How did the Palestinian threat to unilaterally proclaim a Palestinian state affect the prospects of the summit?

Why did Arafat and Barak avoid preparing their respective publics for the need to make painful concessions, and how damaging was this?
* Preparation. Were the Israelis and the Palestinians adequately prepared for the negotiations? Did they effectively employ experts to prepare dossiers on the various issues of the summit? Did they define their red lines and accurately evaluate their opponents’ red lines in advance? Did they work out distinctions between “want” and “need”?

Did they activate back-channel preparatory talks correctly in order to reduce the gap between the positions before the summit began? Why did the Stockholm talks yield so little? How damaging was Barak’s simultaneous employment of two back-channel tracks uninformed about one another?

Why did the two sides not benefit from the potentialities of track-II talks? Were the lessons of track II understandings, such as those between Beilin and Abu Mazen, studied seriously?
* Intentions of the Principals. Did Barak go to Camp David with a sincere intention to reach an agreement, or did he go to “expose the true face of Arafat,” as he explained post hoc?

Was Arafat coerced to go to the summit, which he regarded as a trap, and was therefore determined to do no more than go through the motions without seeking an agreement?


* The time factor. Was the timing of the summit right? Was it expedient to hold the summit when Clinton was on the verge of elections and Barak had a coalition that was falling apart?

How did the time pressure work? Was Arafat the only one who was not affected by it and could walk away with impunity?


* Strategy. Was it clear whether the purpose of the summit was to produce a broad or a detailed framework agreement?

Should the negotiation have begun with the easier issues, with the more difficult ones, or with all of them simultaneously? Should there have been different teams assigned to the different issues?

Was a strategy of tradeoffs systematically applied? Was it really necessary to lay down that “nothing is concluded until everything is concluded,” or was it possible to substantiate agreements reached on particular issues?

Was Barak’s tactic of employing an “oriental bazaar” method in the bargaining over territorial dimensions counterproductive? Did it convince Arafat that by waiting the offer would improve?


* The conduct of the negotiations. Were the negotiations conducted according to an orderly agenda?

Were the Palestinians merely reactive in the negotiations, or did they initiate counterproposals? Did they submit a Palestinian map?

What was the nature of the Israeli proposals? Did the fact that they were submitted only verbally and through the third party diminish their validity? Were they presented in a “take it or leave it” fashion?

Did the two sides share a similar “negotiation culture”?

Were there conflicts within the delegations that affected them negatively?

Were there leaks to the media that damaged the negotiations or facilitated them?


* The chief negotiators. Did Arafat have difficulties understanding the Americans, and perhaps the Israelis as well? Did he refrain from getting deeply involved in the negotiations?

Could Arafat bring himself to sign a final status agreement, or was he committed to a vision of total victory? Did he understand the historic opportunity that the summit offered? Why did he reject, or “accept with reservations,” the Clinton Parameters? Was his encouragement of the intifada an indication that he never believed in a negotiated settlement?

Was Barak overconfident in his ability to achieve a final status agreement at the summit and persuade the Israeli public to support it? Did he really believe that a hundred year-old conflict could be solved in two weeks?

To what extent were the two leaders constrained by their constituencies? What were the limits of the concessions they could make?

Were they too suspicious to share their intentions with their teams, thus hampering their efficacy?
* “Chemistry.” Did the fact that Barak and Arafat hardly met face-to-face impede progress in the negotiations?

Did the two sides pay enough attention to the emotional and symbolic needs of the other side? Did the Israelis project an arrogance of power and the Palestinians a victim mentality? Was Barak sufficiently mindful of his counterpart’s dignity and sensitivities?

Do such factors have any importance in negotiations based on interests?
* The third party. Was Clinton too close to Barak to be able to convince Arafat that he was a genuinely honest broker?

Was the US mediation effective in terms of systematic preparation, comprehensive strategy, agenda control, active involvement in the negotiations, and farsighted planning of alternative courses? Were the Americans adequately familiar with the interpersonal dynamics within the two delegations?

Did the Americans apply sufficient pressure on the two sides to further moderate their positions? Should they have presented their plan earlier in the negotiations?

Was a third party necessary at all, or would a bilateral meeting have been preferable?


* The Arab dimension. Was it a mistake not to try to systematically mobilize the support of key Arab states for the negotiations? What would their positions have been?

Was the attempt to solicit Mubarak to put pressure on Arafat too feeble and too late? What was Egypt’s real interest regarding the peace talks?


* The Israeli and Palestinian positions. Territory – The percentage of territory offered by the Israelis for the Palestinian state began in the 60s, climbed to the 80s and ended in the 90s; how far did it actually go? Were the calculations of percentages manipulative? What precisely was the Israeli area offered as a “swap” for annexed Palestinian territories, quantitatively and qualitatively? How viable could the Palestinian state proposed by the Israelis become in terms of contiguity and sovereignty? To what extent did the security arrangements demanded by Israel restrict Palestinian independence? How many settlements were to be dismantled?

To what extent were the Israelis attentive to the Palestinian argument that they had already made their historic compromise by conceding 78% of historic Palestine and accepting the 1967 line?



Jerusalem – How useful was Barak’s decision to put the partition of Jerusalem on the table as a “surprise offer,” without previous mutual consultations? Had the plan’s implications for daily life in the city seriously been considered? What exact status (sovereignty, functional autonomy) were the Palestinians offered in the Arab neighborhoods and in the Old City?

Was Arafat’s denial of any Jewish historical link to the Temple Mount, and his rejection of the “sovereignty of God” and other compromise solutions, a blunder that shattered Israeli trust? Could he have made any concessions regarding the Holy Basin without the approval of the Muslim world?



Refugees – Why was this issue hardly discussed at Camp David? Was it deferred because it was deemed resolvable at the final stage, or because, on the contrary, it was considered so contentious and emotional that bringing it up would shatter the negotiations?

Was there at any point a Palestinian consent to limit the number of refugees returning to Israel, and at what level?



End of the conflict – Was it a mistake to raise this issue, thereby opening up all the historic dimensions of the dispute? Could the Palestinians accept a “finality of claims” formula instead?

General -- Were Barak’s offers fair and unprecedentedly generous, as maintained by the Israelis, or were they still such that no Palestinian could accept them, as argued by the Palestinians?

On which of these issues did the talks break down? Was it the issue of Jerusalem/Temple Mount? Was it the issue of the Right of Return, looming large in the background?


* Post-Camp David talks. Was the Israeli delegation at the Taba talks authorized to continue serious negotiations, or were they sent solely on an exploratory mission, as subsequently claimed by Barak? If Barak had concluded at Camp David that Arafat was “not a partner,” why did he allow any continuation of the talks?

Did the talks at Taba produce a promising basis for a peace plan acceptable by both sides?


* In retrospect. Was blaming Arafat for the failure, by Clinton and Barak, unfair and harmful, or was it an inevitable conclusion from his conduct?

Was it a mistake to allow the summit to collapse without a fallback plan? Once it was evident that the final status talks had reached a dead end, should efforts have been diverted toward another interim agreement, another Declaration of Principles?

Did the Camp David summit prove that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not ripe for solution, and hence should not have been convened in the first place?

These are the questions intensively debated by the participants in the Camp David summit. Some of their accounts have already been published and several more are in the pipeline. Their answers are so divergent from one another, that one wonders if they were present in the same summit meeting. But of course they were, and the diversity of narratives is just another manifestation of the Rashomon syndrome, of the dependence of testimonies on the eye of the beholder. It is another corroboration of the dictum, “There are no truths but only perspectives.”


The inquiry into “What Went Wrong” is only one of the two themes that appear in the conference title; the other is “Lessons for the Future.” If we wish to look at the bright side of the Camp David experience, we may say that in spite of its failure, the peace summit was not in vain, and if properly studied it can teach us many rewarding lessons. Richard Holbrooke aptly wrote in his introduction to Margaret MacMillan’s book on the peace conference that failed to prevent another world war, Paris 1919 (New York: Random House, 2001):

In diplomacy, as in life itself, one often learns more from failures than from successes. Triumphs will seem, in retrospect, to be foreordained, a series of brilliant actions and decisions that may in fact have been lucky or inadvertent, whereas failures illuminate paths and pitfalls to be avoided – in the parlance of modern bureaucrats, lessons learned.


Indeed, if the Palestinian-Israeli peace process resumes, which inevitably it will, negotiators will be better informed about all the pitfalls and obstacles on the road, and hopefully, will come up with a better result.


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