Ben-Ami's Camp David Diaries
Shlomo Ben-Ami was Israel's top negotiator during the July 2000 Camp David summit. There has been much speculation and analysis about the reasons for the summit's failure. However, first-hand accounts of what went on behind closed doors have been limited. Ben-Ami, who is a history professor and whose performance at Camp David advanced him to the official post of Foreign Minister in Ehud Barak's government, wrote a detailed, day-by-day account of what went on at Camp David. Following are excerpts from an April 6, 2001 article in the Israeli daily Ma'ariv, which includes excerpts from Ben-Ami's diary and an interview with him:
July 13, 2000
"I told Barak that the American acceptance, for the first time, of the principle that 80% of the settlers would remain under Israel's sovereignty, is an historic shift in its position, since the US always insisted that settlements are illegal and an obstacle to peace. I argued that this summit would enter the pages of history as the event, which legitimated the settlements, and Jewish Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel. These are two values which no one can take away from us ..."
"On the same day I had a one-on-one meeting with Clinton ... the discussion revolved around the American bridging proposal ... Clinton told me that he was very angry with the Palestinians for not coming up with substantive proposals ... all they did was listen while he was asking them to move forward.... That night, Amnon (Lipkin-Shahak) and I met with Muhammad Rashid (Arafat's economic advisor) and with Muhammad Dahlan (head of the Palestinian Preventative Security Apparatus in Gaza). They claimed that the senior leadership was backing away and dodging responsibility. They developed an attitude of indifference and a fear of taking responsibility. They made it clear that they were the only ones who were willing to make tough decisions and to work with us and with Arafat, namely: to try to influence Arafat."
July 14, 2000
"At 7:30 in the evening we had a meeting with President Clinton...I presented the Israeli position. At a certain point Sandi Berger lashed out at the Palestinians for being unwilling to act according to Clinton's request and create the dynamics necessary for negotiations. I said something along the lines of: 'We gave you a territorial proposal and you may reject it if you wish, but you have to reply with a methodical counter proposal. We cannot accept a demand for 'the 1967 borders' and then discuss the agreement [all over again].... Clinton said that he accepts our position regarding borders and our refusal to accept the principle of returning to the 1967 borders. He commented on how the issue of settlements here is very different than the one on the Golan, and he emphasized the importance of including 80% of the settlers under Israel's sovereignty."
July 15, 2000
"... Today we had a work meeting between the two negotiating teams " the Israeli team and the Palestinian team...I presented our positions, maps etc., then Abu 'Alaa presented the Palestinian position. He talked in absolute terms: the 1967 borders, international legitimacy etc. Clinton sat in front of me. I could see how this red head was fuming. Next thing I knew, Clinton lashed out at Abu 'Alaa in a very degrading style. He yelled at him: 'Sir, this is not the [UN] Security Council, this is not the General Assembly. You can give your lectures there, but don't waste my time. I have a lot at stake here as well.' ...Clinton blamed the Palestinians for not fulfilling the promise he received from Arafat (to come up with practical proposals). 'A summit's purpose,' Clinton said, 'is to have discussions that are based on sincere intentions and you, the Palestinians, did not come to this summit with sincere intentions.' Then he got up and left the room..."
July 24-25, 2001
Last night of the summit
"The negotiating teams had a night meeting with Clinton from 9PM to 1PM...prior to the meeting I had a discussion with Clinton. When I discussed the sanctity of the Temple Mount, the president reacted with much enthusiasm: 'not only the Jews worldwide but the Christians support this notion as well."
"George Tenet (CIA Director) tried to persuade Arafat to accept Clinton's proposals. In Clinton's presence I told Saib Ereqat: 'You are barely 4 million Muslim Palestinians and pretend to represent one billion Muslims regarding the Temple Mount. Clinton's proposals are historic and you are about to miss another opportunity'. I added that Arafat placed the Muslim agenda before the national Palestinian agenda. 'Your national agenda is held hostage in the hands of the Muslim agenda and you will pay a heavy price for this..."
Interview with Ben-Ami
Q: "Is it true that the summit failed on the question of Jerusalem?"
A: "...It would be a mistake to assign the summit's failure to the Jerusalem question alone. The Palestinians rejected the entire Camp David package. From that point on, the Palestinians had stopped displaying positive attitudes, and Arafat felt that he could no longer utilize the negotiations."
Q: "Is Arafat to Blame?"
A: "Retrospectively, it is possible today to put things in perspective, and it would be a mistake to get into that box [of accusing Arafat for the failure]. [The failure was due to] an element that is much more rudimentary and it relates to the 1993 Oslo Agreement. When Arafat signed the Oslo Agreement in 1993, his understanding was that he would eventually get all of his demands. This is the whole story in a nutshell. But no one bothered to give us the heads up on this matter...why didn't they tell us beforehand: 'guys, its worthless to go for a summit since for us its either all or nothing'...my argument is that there is a problem with a mythological Palestinian leader and leadership that presupposes it has already made its concessions."
"The interesting fact is that on that same night Clinton told them 'if you reject my proposal, at least offer your own, since at that point in time " and this is the heart of the matter " Arafat realized that the entire Camp David deal, even if minor adjustments were made, is not congruent with Palestinian mythology, and thus he did not think it was worth while..."
Q: "Was Camp David a waste of time?"
A: "In my opinion, Camp David was a momentous achievement for Israel, since it set the blueprint for any future agreement between us and the Palestinians. Clinton constructed his proposals based on this blueprint, and Israel should not abandon it...Clinton's proposals guarantee the basic principles for a just agreement with the Palestinians...they give us three blocks of settlements, through the principle of land exchange, and they recognize Jewish Jerusalem ...the solution to the refugee problem will be based on a solution for two countries, whereby the right of return will be allowed only into a Palestinian state and not into Israel."
Q: "But there were reports claiming that we agreed to a limited number of refugees into Israel proper. Some reports were talking about us agreeing to the return of 100,000 refuges."
A: "These reports were nothing but absolute lies. Never, not during any stage or under any circumstance did we agree to the return of refugees..."
Q: "Is it at all possible to discuss the likelihood of [bilateral] negotiations?"
A: "Today, I come more and more to terms with the realization that we cannot resolve our conflict with the Palestinians by ourselves. It is true that we always demanded direct negotiations, which was good during those points in time. Today, after being exposed to the Palestinian modes of operation I no longer see a chance [for a bilateral solution]. I can not conceive of a point in time in which Arafat will tell himself: 'This is the deal I got, I am not fully satisfied with it but I am going to go with it.' Such a point in time does not exist for the PLO. Arafat is not a leader. He is a myth. A leader makes decisions, which sometimes devastate his constituency, and he sometimes must pay the price with his own career. De Gaulle was a leader. Arafat is not a leader who faces the waves, but rather he is riding them..."
Ben-Ami: "Throughout the entire negotiation process, Arafat has not even once explicitly demanded the return of refugees into the borders of Israel. All he wanted is that we get him out of this 'trouble,' he asked us to put together some kind of a formula. He agreed, for instance, to the principle that some of the refugees be relocated to Canada and others to Australia..."
Q: "Did Abu 'Alaa agree to this?"
A: "Of course he did. We began negotiating over numbers. Later, Abu 'Alaa went to meet Abu Mazen who prohibited him from discussing refugee figures, and ordered him to leave this issue open. To that, of course, we could not agree..."
"Concluding from this, and from other events, Ben Ami does not think that Arafat is the man Israel will be able to conclude peace with."
"'The root of the problem,'" Ben-Ami says, "'is that in Oslo we negotiated with the leader of the Palestinian people and not with the leader of the [Palestinian population in the] territories. Do you know who was the first to understand this concept? It was King Hassan of Morocco. In January of 1993 I met him. At that time I was not in any official role. King Hassan told me he contacted Abu Mazzen and told him: 'The Israelis will never negotiate with the PLO. Stop putting pressure on the population of the territories and let those who truly suffer from the occupation negotiate with Israel''"...
"Today, Ben-Ami has a clear and sober understanding regarding the only possible solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how to achieve it. On the one hand, this solution must be based on Clinton's proposals - as he presented them at Camp David - for a permanent agreement. On the other hand, this solution must be given an international cloak, maybe even have the UN Security Council's stamp of approval."
"...Ben-Ami rejects Sharon's alternative to a permanent agreement: long term interim agreements. 'An interim agreement is based on the assumption that we are unwilling to pay the heavy price and that, ostensibly, we don't have a partner for a permanent agreement. The situation in the territories today is the reason I don't see a chance for [an interim agreement to be successful]."
"A long term interim agreement is based on the philosophy that we will get security in exchange for territory. But Arafat has already past this stage, and now he wants everything. This very concept collapsed in front of our eyes. An interim agreement would leave three issues open: Jerusalem, refugees and borders. As long as these issues are not resolved, Arafat will do everything in his power in order to shape the permanent agreement. He will continue to violate agreements, and the world will be complacent, since the West accepts the legitimacy of agreements being violated by the occupied. As long as the Palestinian Authority is not a state, it will not be obliged to play by the rules of the international game which demand the honoring of agreements. Thus, I argue that an interim agreement will not be able to create the essential transformation necessary for good neighborly relations with Israel."
Q: "So what is the solution?"
A: "Since I don't see a chance in negotiations that would take place only between us and the Palestinians, the solution is a formula similar to the one presented in the Madrid conference -- an international framework based on Clinton's proposals and acceptable to both sides. Since we both accepted these proposals (with some reservations), we need to work with the international community and clarify that Israel will not backpedal from the proposals. This is our line of defense..."
"Ben-Ami believes that the real meaning of an 'international envelope' to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is for pressure to be applied on Arafat and not Israel. 'The current Israeli government received from us an entry pass into the international community. This entry pass says: 'the debate over whether Israel is ready for peace or not is over'. Now that Israel has proven that which needed to be proven, the role of the international envelope is to tell Arafat: 'you have no escape routes left.'"
"But even the former Foreign Minister is not deluding himself in thinking that it would be possible to reach such an international agreement based on Clinton's proposals. 'We will be able to start the construction work only following an explosion. We will be able to get to this when everyone realizes that they only have something to lose from the continuation of the current state of affairs."
Q: "Including a regional war?"
A: "Yes. Or following a serious deterioration of the current situation. Nations and leaders arrive at the right decisions only after examining other all possibilities..."
Q: "What you are actually saying is that there is no chance for an interim agreement but only for a permanent agreement in the framework of an international envelope, and that such envelope will be available only following an immense explosion."
A: "That is exactly right. This could possibly look different had the current [American] administration continued where Clinton left of, but they repealed Clinton's proposals and had not offered an alternative. This was an irresponsible thing to do. Today, the Middle East is in a very dangerous situation. There is no Oslo and there is no alternative for Oslo. This has produced a very dangerous vacuum here."
Q: "Throughout the negotiation process, did you ever get the sense that Arafat prefers joining his forefathers' rather than signing an agreement that is less than every single one of his demands?"
A: "Absolutely yes..."
[The interviewer asked Ben-Ami whether it is still feasible to search for a peace agreement with Arafat]
Ben Ami: "...I certainly believe that Arafat is a problem if what we are trying to achieve is a permanent agreement. I doubt that it will be possible to reach an agreement with him. The dilemma King Hassan pointed out to me in 1993 is still the central thorn in the peace process today. Will the young Palestinian generation, the one who matured in the different Intifadas, be the one to shape the future dynamics and will he truly think in realistic terms of establishing a Palestinian state in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, leaving peacefully side by side with Israel."
"At Camp David I wrote to my self: 'we witness here a battle of the Palestinian generations. The older generation is disconnected -- it knew what it wanted, but it also realized it was not getting there. The young Palestinian generation at Camp David tried to be pragmatic but it did not have enough legitimacy. The tension between the two generations was obvious."
Q: "Do you think an agreement could be reached if the young Palestinian generation had legitimacy?"
A: "Yes. I have no doubt. But let's not delude ourselves, it all starts and ends with Arafat. They don't know what he wants. They can only guess. Autocracy has two characteristics. One is that the ruled never know what is on the leader's mind. The other is that the ruled never tell the leader the truth because they fear him..."
A: "And what if something were to happen to Arafat?"
Q: "It is true that the Palestinian society is experiencing an unrest, but I caution us from the illusion that all of the mythical obstacles will disappear during the sharp shift from Arafat to a post-Arafat reality. Continuity will be necessary for a legitimacy to exist [in any future Palestinian leadership]. Those who wish to succeed Arafat will have to establish their position based on them being successors..."
"I know what little support Arafat has in the Persian Gulf and that they had it with him. [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak told me once that his grandson hates Arafat, precisely because they meet frequently. We know that the regional Arab leadership is not suffering from excess love for Arafat, but they must find a solution for the Palestinian problem. The Arab world is not holding Arafat hostage, it is the other way around. Arafat is the key for regional stability."