The disastrous peace summit that led to a Palestinian terror war remains an object lesson in hubris and an unwillingness to accept the truth about an insoluble conflict
By: Jonathan S. Tobin
It’s one anniversary that no one is celebrating. Twenty years ago this month, President Bill Clinton welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to a peace summit at Camp David. Looking back on it now, even Clinton administration veterans understand that it was an act of monumental folly. As former State Department Middle East peace processor Aaron David Miller wrote, the effort was doomed even before it began.
The problem is that even those who have, in retrospect, acknowledged that they were mistaken still cling to the delusion that smarter diplomacy and different American, Israeli and Palestinian leaders might still produce a different outcome. Even those who are striving to be self-critical about being, as Miller noted, “lost in the woods” at Camp David in July 2000, are only gradually coming to grips with the fact that some problems have no solution.
Even worse, some of those who followed them, like White House senior adviser and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, who was in charge of President Donald Trump’s Mideast peace efforts, seem to have failed to learn all of the appropriate lessons from the Camp David fiasco, even as he strove to do better than his predecessors.
Unlike the backdrop to the signing of the Oslo Accords seven years earlier, the circumstances that led the events of July 2000 are no longer much discussed. The famous photo op on the White House Lawn in September 1993 is still celebrated by some as a historic triumph, despite the catastrophic consequences of that agreement. But the ignominious conclusion to the 2000 summit has largely been thrown down the Orwellian memory hold by the foreign-policy establishment and the mainstream media.
They don’t want to draw appropriate conclusions from these events because the conclave exploded the entire concept behind the Oslo process from which it sprang as based on a myth. The assumption on the part of all those involved in that effort was that the divide between Israelis and Palestinians could be bridged by painful compromises and smart, patient diplomacy based on developing relationships.
They all believed that if the Israelis were willing to make the tangible concessions in terms of territory and endangering their security—and the Palestinians were truly willing to finally accept that the long war against Zionism was over—then two states coexisting in peace alongside each other was possible.
By the summer of 2000, sensible observers had already figured out that the Palestinians had no such intentions. Arafat was not interested in, as the assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin hoped he would be, fighting the terrorists who threatened peace. He was still planning and paying for terrorism, while both the American and Israeli governments ignored or cover up the truth about his actions and non-compliance with the terms of the accords because they thought doing so would harm the cause of peace.
Even worse, Barak was a man in a hurry. After a failed attempt to trade in the Golan Heights to the Hafez Assad regime in Syria (a stroke of luck for Israel considering the chaos and bloodshed that has destroyed that country since then), Barak turned to Arafat. Throwing caution to the winds, he discarded the red lines that had guided both Rabin and Benjamin Netanyahu (who is often wrongly blamed for the failure of a peace process he actually tried to advance during his term of prime minister from 1996 to 1999) by offering to divide Jerusalem and hand over almost all of the West Bank and Gaza to create a Palestinian state.
But not even this grandiose gesture was enough to tempt Arafat.
The veteran terrorist walked away from an offer that gave him more or less everything Palestinian advocates said they wanted. Two months later, convinced of Barak’s weakness and thinking bloody attacks on Israel would produce even more such suicidal concessions, he launched a terror war of attrition known as the Second Intifada. That traumatic conflict, which took the lives of more than 1,000 Israelis and many more Palestinians, blew up any remaining support for Oslo. It set in place a broad consensus among Israelis —further reinforced by the disastrous results of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, which led to a Hamas-run terrorist state in the strip, as well as the refusals of Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate in good faith—that peace is out of reach in the foreseeable future.
As Miller now concedes, the summit didn’t have any of the elements that could lead to success, such as “strong leaders,” a “workable deal” and “effective U.S. mediation.” Barak’s desperation and the Clinton administration’s poor planning made things worse. He is also correct in pointing out that Clinton’s belief that trying and failing was better than not trying at all was horribly wrong. The consequences of his hubris were paid in the blood of those slaughtered in Arafat’s intifada.
Nevertheless, Miller still holds onto the delusion that more American pressure on the Jewish state, coupled with a set of parameters for a deal that would have given the Israelis no wriggle room on Jerusalem and other intractable issues, might have made a difference.
He disdains the efforts of the Trump administration to advance peace, thinking its leaders are far too close to Israel. But although Kushner seems to have tried to avoid making the same mistakes as Clinton, he, too, doesn’t seem to fully understand why even his more realistic “Prosperity to Peace” vision had as little chance of achieving an agreement as the 2000 summit.
In an interview with Newsweek, he exhibited some magical thinking of his own. Kushner believes that the key to peace was pushing the Arab states closer to Israel. Doing so is a good thing in and of itself, but like every other formula for a settlement, it failed because the Palestinians just aren’t interested.
The lessons of the Camp David Summit rest on understanding that better diplomacy, planning and help from outside parties is never going to be enough. Until the Palestinians give up their vision of a world without a State of Israel—one that is now sadly shared by Jews like Peter Beinart, who think the failure to make peace means that the Zionist project should be discarded in favor of a dangerous utopian vision that will lead to far more bloodshed than any intifada—no peace process, no matter how skillfully conducted will ever succeed.
Most Israelis understand this bitter truth and have adjusted their expectations accordingly. It is to be hoped that future American governments, including a putative one led by former Vice President Joe Biden, which will likely be staffed by Clinton and Obama administration veterans, will be capable of understanding that in the absence of a sea change in Palestinian political culture, further negotiations are simply a waste of everyone’s time.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.