Seventeen years ago this week, the leaders of Israel, the United States, and the putative state of Palestine gathered at Camp David to try their collective hand at what President Trump is now aiming to achieve: the “ultimate deal”—a conflict-ending solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The July 2000 Camp David summit was unique. No subsequent peacemaking effort has brought together two empowered Israeli and Palestinian leaders and a U.S. President willing to mediate at a high stakes summit. And yet they failed.
As one of the Americans at the summit during those fateful 13 days in July, I’ve spent a good deal of time sorting through the reasons why it failed. And as a trained historian, I’m particularly embarrassed to admit that, caught up in the moment, we didn’t pay enough attention to the past, particularly to those lessons we might have drawn from the only successful Arab-Israeli summit a U.S. President has ever brokered: the September 1978 Camp David summit between Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin.
This is not an abstract history lesson: If the Trump Administration wants to avoid a costly and embarrassing failure, it would be well advised to examine the three key reasons we failed and thus learn the lessons that the second Camp David summit still holds for would be U.S. peacemakers.
First, are both sides ready, or at least do they share some sense of urgency? At Camp David the answer was a double no. Convinced that a violent explosion was coming that fall, frustrated by his failure that spring to cut a deal with Assad, and determined to take advantage of the remainder of Clinton’s term to reach at least one peace agreement, Barak was in a hurry to convene a summit with Arafat.
Arafat on the other hand, wasn’t. The PLO leader feared an Israeli-U.S. squeeze play, and had warned us in June of the risks of failure. In the end, he came because Clinton asked him to come, but he arrived profoundly suspicious of Israel even while he saw the significance of being invited to Camp David. I’ll never forget meeting him that first night he arrived and his reminding me that Sadat had been at Camp David, too.
Still, Arafat certainly wasn’t looking to follow the path of the assassinated Egyptian President and would remark several times that we wouldn’t be attending his funeral. The PLO leader was persuaded correctly that Barak needed an agreement more than he did; thus he had a distinct advantage during the summit: the willingness to hold out for what he wanted and to pocket concessions without making many of his own. That asymmetrical sense of urgency made success almost impossible.
Second, is a deal possible? At Camp David, it wasn’t. I don’t care how committed an American President is to reaching an agreement, if the two parties aren’t within striking distance of one, failure is guaranteed. And in the summer of 2000, the gaps between Arafat and Barak on the core issues required to reach an accord, even a partial one, were as wide as the Grand Canyon, well beyond any mediator’s capacity to bridge.
Of course, this was the conundrum of a leaders’ summit. Israel’s logic—accepted by Clinton and his team—was that only in the pressure and urgency of the summit would Arafat and Barak be willing to make the key trade-offs on the big issues: borders, refugees, Jerusalem, and security. Neither leader would share his bottom line before getting into the very thick of the negotiations. In a galaxy far, far away that would have made some sense. But on Planet Earth in 2000, given the suspicions between Arafat and Barak and the gaps on the core issues, there was simply no possibility of a deal, if the goal was a conflict-ending accord.
That May we had participated in secret talks in Sweden (one of only two times that I entered a country anonymously) between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. Maybe it was the Swedish midnight sun, but I left persuaded that neither side was ready or able to reach an accord based on where they seemed to be on the big issues, especially Jerusalem. Instead, Barak seemed to believe that the only way to find out where Arafat stood was an action-forcing presidential summit that would allow the President to broker the necessary concessions. Serious Israeli-Palestinian violence weeks later only deepened his concern that a summit was necessary to prevent a far more serious and sustained convulsion.
Barak was right about the possibility of violence, and at the summit he was bold, going further on some of the issues, especially borders and Jerusalem, than any of his predecessors had gone. But for Arafat, who could afford to wait for better terms (which he would get by December 2000 in the “Clinton parameters”), there was no urgency. Equally important, three months earlier, Barak had offered Hafez Assad 99 percent of the Golan Heights; there was little chance of Arafat accepting Barak’s proposal for 92 percent of the West Bank. As painful as it is to admit now, we—and certainly the Israelis—trivialized, even disrespected, the issues on the table and somehow believed they could be resolved. The bottom line at Camp David was pretty grim: No agreement was possible on any issue, let alone an accord that would end their conflict.
Third, make sure the U.S. government runs the summit. At Camp David, the summit ran us. We didn’t have a sustained strategy, partly because we really had very little sense of how far the parties were prepared to go; and it wasn’t until late in the summit that Barak shared some of his final positions. Moreover, unlike the Carter-brokered 1978 Egyptian-Israeli summit, where the U.S. side controlled the text, (which went through more than twenty drafts), we were whipsawed by both Barak and Arafat. Our no-surprises policy, in which we agreed to clear language with Israel in advance, made it very hard to maintain the independence necessary to develop our own bridging proposals. On the summit’s third day, we put a paper on the table intended to start narrowing the gaps; Barak hated the text; the President wouldn’t push him. So we pulled and revised it. And this time Arafat rejected it, too. My own conclusion was that the summit basically came to an end that day.
History, said Mark Twain, doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme. The circumstances of 1978 were different from those of 2000, and certainly different from today. There may be no repeats or strict parallels in peacemaking, but there are clearly rhythmic patterns worth considering.
For the Trump Administration the past offers up some very bitter truths and cruel realities that shape the current climate for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. And while the Administration may actually have several elements going for it—an unpredictable President; a close relationship with Israel; and an emerging alignment between Israel and the Arab states—the lessons of the past would seem to outweigh them.
What we ignored—or at least didn’t have the benefit, let alone luxury of, at the second Camp David summit—was what made the first Camp David summit work. Two strong leaders in Sadat and Begin, who were masters of their political houses and not complete prisoners of their ideologies; and the former in particular, a larger-than-life heroic figure who ten months before the summit astounded the world with an historic visit to Jerusalem. What’s more, we had a doable deal—returning Sinai for a peace treaty with none of the religious or identity baggage associated with refugees or Jerusalem. And finally, in 1978, the United States had a President driven, disciplined, and dedicated enough to push and pull the two sides to an agreement, and to broker a follow-up peace treaty six months later in March 1979.
We had none of that at the second Camp David, and we were dealing with issues far more complex than the ones Carter had encountered 13 years earlier. Even so, the circumstances of 2000 were in many respects far more advantageous for peacemaking than the ones the Trump Administration faces today.
Then, we had a risk-ready Israeli Prime Minister; today, we have one who’s risk-averse and doesn’t see his mission as fathering a Palestinian state which will require major concessions on borders and Jerusalem.
Then, we dealt with a popular Palestinian leader who had the legitimacy to reach a deal if he wanted one; today, we have a Palestinian leader who is weak, unpopular, and who presides over a national movement that looks more like Noah’s Ark, with two of everything: statelets, constitutions, security services, and visions of where and what Palestine should be.
Then, we had a relatively stable Middle East; today, we confront a broken, angry, and dysfunctional region where Iran is rising; four Arab states are in various phases of chaos, conflict, and disorder; and ISIS, while on the verge of losing its Caliphate proto-terror state, is by no means a spent force (not to mention the rise of al-Qaeda and its affiliates). And while Saudi Arabia and the Emiratis seem more risk-ready when it comes to dealing with Israel, it’s hard to see how they can compensate for the absence of a serious Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process. Indeed, those same Gulf States would almost certainly argue that no deal is preferable to a bad one or an agreement that produces another weak or failing Arab state.
None of this is intended to persuade the Trump Administration to hang a “closed for the season” sign on the peace process.
The recent agreement on water—apparently brokered by Trump’s envoy Jason Greenblatt—shows that if the two sides are ready to do business on interim, functional, and practical issues, a U.S. mediation role can be important. And the recent terror attack on the Haram/Temple Mount—and Israel/Palestinian efforts to de-escalate them—is reason enough for Washington to pay attention, particularly for an Administration that was initially prepared to move the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
This walk down memory lane is intended more as a note of caution to a new Administration that seems far too often caught up in its own version of reality. If President Trump continues to see the world of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking the way he wants it to be rather than the way it is, he will almost certainly fail.
It’s unclear what kind of gains the Trump Administration can achieve on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But at least for now, barring some unanticipated, unpredictable, and unforeseen development, the so-called ultimate deal won’t be one of them.