The Truth About Camp David
by Jude Wanniski - 11 January 2005
"Hope springs eternal in the human breast," Alexander Pope wrote in 1733, but even he might have given up after more than half a century of "peace talks" between Israelis and Palestinians.
Yet here we are again, coming into a brand new year, with supposedly really, really serious discussions just around the corner, as soon as the Palestinians elect a leader to replace the late Yasir Arafat.
Indeed, it has quickly become conventional wisdom in the United States - across all party lines - that a true peace built around a Palestinian state may now be possible because Arafat is no longer around to obstruct the process.
In American political circles, the idea has become firmly embedded that peace could have been achieved in 2000, then president Bill Clinton's last year, had it not been for the hard-headed stubbornness of Arafat.
At the crunch at the Camp David meetings arranged by Clinton, the courageous Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak had gone further than any other Israeli leader in offering a generous settlement that even gave Arafat major concessions on the status of Jerusalem.
And Arafat turned him down and walked away.
The story of what really happened in the summer of 2000 has now been told by a young American in a book that should be read by all the participants in the coming peace talks.
Clayton Swisher, not yet 30-years old, was in graduate school in 2000. In the summer of 2001, he wrote a paper for his class on the Arab-Israeli conflict, concluding -
"The biggest missed opportunity was Camp David 2000. At Camp David, both parties were ready for conflict resolution. Ehud Barak showed the ability to think in abstract terms - outside of conventional wisdom.
"Barak's bold move toward territorial compromise belongs in a category with [Egyptian President] Anwar Sadat's 1977 visit to Jerusalem.
"What was lacking at Camp David was a Palestinian leader with the ability to take risks and accept that he would not get 100% of concessions.
"Barak's honourable intentions of settling all claims came as a shock to Arafat."
In fact, this was my view at the time, because it was the universal account that I had read about in the American press.
It was not until I read an account by two of the negotiators at Camp David in the New York Review of Books on 13 June 2002 that I realised my belief was almost certainly in error.
As a result, I wrote a brief defence of Yasir Arafat on my website, having come to the conclusion that he was almost certainly not the villain of the piece as he had been portrayed.
Swisher read the same account, but went much further than I did, devoting much of his next two years doing first-hand research and producing his new book, The Truth About Camp David: The Untold Story about the Collapse of the Middle East Peace Process.
I had heard about the book several weeks ago from a mutual friend and was most sceptical that an unknown young man could produce a credible work to match the title.
After reading it, though, I realised his youth and status as a graduate student, not a journalist, made it work.
The several dozen key people involved in the Camp David talks and others in the Middle East who were important to its outcome would probably not have talked so openly to reporters working on deadline.
But high-level officials such as then secretary of state Madeleine Albright, chief US negotiator Dennis Ross, and senior negotiators for the Israelis and Palestinians were clearly open and happy to talk to a student who seemed interested only in getting to the bottom of things.
His book, 455 pages long, is not only thoroughly documented and persuasive, but as well written and gripping as a detective whodunit.
And if Arafat is not the villain, who is? The simple answer is, there is none.
The talks broke down because they were not carefully prepared in the way president Carter's Camp David summit with Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Menachim Began were.
They could not have succeeded because Barak was not prepared to make a critical concession to Arafat regarding Jerusalem.
The closest Swisher comes to blaming anyone for the collapse is in his accounts of the behaviour of president Clinton himself, who refused to accept the fact that Arafat was in no position to accept the deal offered by Barak.
After all, Arafat was only representing the interests of the Palestinians and could not speak for the Islamic world on the holy places of Jerusalem.
Clinton was dazzled by Barak's offer to "put Jerusalem on the table" - the first time that had ever been done by an Israeli leader - and tried to browbeat Arafat into accepting.
But in only offering "custodial control" of the Temple Mount to Arafat, ie the right to collect garbage and run security patrols in that part of Jerusalem, Barak had to know Arafat could not possibly have accepted it, and if he had, his own people would have assassinated him.
Swisher quotes from notes taken at one session, with Arafat horrified that Barak had persuaded Dennis Ross - who spent 90% of his private time at Camp David with Barak - to alter the wording on Jerusalem.
Instead of stating: "The Jerusalem municipal area will host the national capitals of both Israel and the Palestinian state," Ross crossed out "municipal area" and wrote in: "The expanded area of Jerusalem will host the national capitals of both Israel and the Palestinian state."
"Expanded area", of course, meant giving the Palestinians a capital in the suburbs.
Clinton still thought this was a good deal and hammered at Arafat to accept. Swisher quotes the notes taken of Arafat's response -
"The Palestinian leader who will give up Jerusalem has not yet been born. I will not betray my people or the trust they have placed in me. Don't look to me to legitimise the occupation.
"No one can continue indefinitely to impose domination by military force - look at South Africa. Our people will not accept less than their rights as stated by international resolutions and international legality."
President Clinton could see time was running out on his administration and a chance of leaving the Oval Office with an Arab/Israeli deal dwindling.
If he could not get a deal, it could not be his fault.
Even though in order to get Arafat to the slapdash summit, the president had promised that if there could be no deal, there would be no blame assessed, Clinton went back on his word.
He did so by announcing to the world that there was no deal even though Barak had been courageous in offering Arafat a great deal.
In Swisher's account, Arafat's big mistake was to fly back to Ram Allah without holding a press conference to challenge Clinton's assessment of why the talks failed -
"For these reasons, Barak's government and its supporters in the United States unleashed one of the greatest PR frauds in history, still dominating the US and Israeli media to this day."
There is nobody in the book who comes out as bad as Dennis Ross, however.
After the talks failed and Arafat flew home, there still seemed time to work something out in the last three months of 2000, with Clinton still eager to make a deal.
The problem was Ariel Sharon and his Likud Party, who knew the deal-breaker was the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
Sharon knew Arafat could never accept a "generous deal" on the West Bank and Gaza - which he was clearly prepared to offer - if he could not give the Islamic world of 1.2 billion people assurances that they would not have to go through Jewish checkpoints to visit their holy places.
In this high stakes chess game, Sharon then made it known that he would make a personal visit to the Temple Mount, a clear signal that it was Israel's and all the Palestinians could expect in any deal was to be able to collect the garbage, Barak's "custodial" offer.
It is part of conventional wisdom that Arafat was responsible for the second intifada, when he returned to Ram Allah empty-handed.
But The Truth About Camp David makes it clear Arafat did everything he could to prevent Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount, knowing it would incite violence.
The myth that Arafat cultivated the intifada and was psychologically unable to make peace with Israel took deep root in America too, of course.
A 35-year veteran clandestine CIA officer and adviser to former director George Tenet told me, first, that Arafat did not plan the second intifada; second, that the status quo theory that "he couldn't get what he wanted so he chose the path of violence" is a lie.
Third, Jibril Rajub, head of the Preventive Security Organisation for the West Bank, had predicted that violence would erupt, and was the one who told Arafat to urge Barak to block Sharon's visit.
Finally, Arafat even phoned the White House on the eve of Sharon's visit to beg Clinton to weigh in on Barak.
Amid the internal finger-pointing in Washington that would later arise, the CIA officer told me that he took the unusual step of confirming this himself: Arafat's message was not taken by Clinton; rather it was handled by Ross.
Jude Wanniski is a former associate editor of The Wall Street Journal, expert on supply-side economics and founder of Polyconomics, which helps to interpret the impact of political events on financial markets.
- from Aljazeera.net