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2000 Camp David Summit: Background & Overview

by David Shyovitz

The Camp David summit took place from July 11-24, 2000, at the presidential retreat in Camp David, MD. Attending were President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and PA Chairman Yasser Arafat. The intention of the gathering was, ostensibly, to negotiate a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in accordance with the 1993 Oslo Agreement.

While Clinton made clear that Barak had been prepared to make peace, apologists for Arafat insisted that the only offer made by Barak was a fragmented state divided into four “cantons,” none of them connected with the Gaza Strip; that Arafat eventually accepted a settlement offer, which was withdrawn when Ariel Sharon was elected Prime Minister; and that this final offer was not a serious one, and was never put on paper by the U.S. or Israel. These myths, in varying forms, have become the backbone of the Palestinian revisionist account, supported most vocally by New York Times journalist Deborah Sontag, U.S. negotiator Robert Malley (and co-author Hussein Agha, and the Palestinian Authority itself.

The firsthand accounts of other officials, however, have confirmed the conventional wisdom and cast doubt on the revisionist assertions. These include Ambassador Dennis Ross, the chief negotiator for the U.S.; Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel’s chief negotiator; and President Clinton and Prime Minister Barak themselves.

At Camp David, Ross has said, there was no comprehensive final settlement offered. The Israeli and American negotiators put forth ideas regarding borders, Jerusalem, and land transfers. One of those was a Palestinian state comprised of four cantons. Arafat rejected these suggestions but did not raise a single idea himself. Ben-Ami, who kept meticulous diaries of the proceedings, said that Clinton exploded at the Palestinians over their refusal to make a counteroffer. “‘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.” [1]

According to Ben-Ami, Israel tried to find a solution for Jerusalem that would be “a division in practice...that didn't look like a division;” that is, Israel was willing to compromise on the issue but needed a face-saving formula. The Palestinians, however, had no interest in helping the Israelis; to the contrary, they wanted to humiliate them.” Nevertheless, Ben-Ami said Israel dropped its refusal to divide Jerusalem and accepted “full Palestinian sovereignty” on the Temple Mount and asked the Palestinians only to recognize the site was also sacred to Jews.[1a]

Arafat’s only contribution was the assertion that, in reality, no Jewish Temple ever existed on the Temple Mount, only an obelisk; the real Temple existed in Nablus, he said. Not only did he not make any accommodations to Israel, Ross said, “he denied the core of the Jewish faith.” [2] This stunning remark illustrated how Arafat had become caught up in the mythology he had created and indicated to the Americans that he was incapable of the psychological leap necessary — the one Anwar Sadat had made — to achieve peace. As a result, President Clinton’s press conference following the summit laid most of the blame for the outcome on Arafat. [3]

Malley and Agha, in an article that came to define the revisionist view, attributed tactical errors to the Israelis and Americans as well as the Palestinians. Those errors included the neglect of several interim agreements and land transfers by Barak, who was too caught up in the search for a permanent agreement. As a result of those errors, Malley and Agha claimed, Arafat came to view Camp David as “a trap,” and to distrust both Barak and Clinton. Backed into a corner and afraid of losing whatever gains he had already made, he reverted to passivity. [4]

But Ross, the head of the negotiating team of which Malley was a member, has countered that Malley’s defense of Arafat ignores the larger context of the negotiations:

[Malley’s] account of “the tragedy of errors” of Camp David — though correct in many aspects—is glaring in its omission of Chairman Arafat's mistakes. One is left with the impression that only Barak did not fulfill commitments. But that is both wrong and unfair, particularly given Arafat's poor record on compliance… Did Prime Minister Barak make mistakes in his tactics, his negotiating priorities, and his treatment of Arafat? Absolutely. Did the American side make mistakes in its packaging and presentation of ideas? Absolutely. Are Prime Minister Barak and President Clinton responsible for the failure to conclude a deal? Absolutely not. Both Barak and Clinton were prepared to do what was necessary to reach agreement. Both were up to the challenge. Neither shied away from the risks inherent in confronting history and mythology. Can one say the same about Arafat? Unfortunately, not — and his behavior at Camp David and afterward cannot be explained only by his suspicions that a trap was being set for him. [5]

Malley and Agha acknowledged that “Barak was eager for a deal, wanted it achieved during Clinton’s term in office, and had surrounded himself with some of Israel's most peace-minded politicians. As early as July 1999, during their first meeting, Barak had outlined to Clinton his vision of a comprehensive peace.“ They also reported that Clinton was furious with Arafat and told him, ”If the Israelis can make compromises and you can't I should go home. You have been here fourteen days and said no to everything.” [5a]

Abu Mazen, one of the lead Palestinian negotiators, said even before the summit, the Palestinians ”made clear to the Americans that the Palestinian side is unable to make concessions on anything.“ He also maintained the whole process was some sort of trap. [5b]

Following the summit’s failure, Arafat asked for another meeting and, in preparation, established a channel of communication between his own negotiators and Israel’s.

In the meantime, a wave of Palestinian violence engulfed Israel. In September 2000, according to Ross, Arafat knew that the U.S. was preparing to present its ideas for the new conference and ordered a new intifada. The U.S. asked Arafat to prevent violence following Sharon’s Temple Mount visit, and “he didn’t raise a finger.” [6]

Nonetheless, another round of talks was held at the White House from December 19-23, 2000, again aimed at negotiating a final settlement. Because both Clinton’s and Barak’s terms in office were ending, a final settlement, and not merely an interim agreement, was seen as vital.

On December 20, Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and PA negotiator Saeb Erekat met with President Clinton to try to hash out terms acceptable to the principals. The Israelis offered to withdraw from 97% of the West Bank and 100% of the Gaza Strip. In addition, Barak agreed to dismantle 63 isolated settlements. In exchange for the 3% annexation of the West Bank, Israel would increase the size of the Gaza territory by roughly a third. Barak also made previously unthinkable concessions on Jerusalem, agreeing that Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem would become the capital of the new state. The Palestinians would maintain control over their holy places and have “religious sovereignty” over the Temple Mount. The proposal also guaranteed Palestinian refugees the right of return to the Palestinian state and reparations from a $30 billion international fund that would be collected to compensate them.

On December 23, Clinton presented the sides with an outline of the parameters for a final status agreement that closely mirrored Barak’s proposal (Clinton elaborated on them in a speech to the Israeli Policy Forum on January 7, 2021). Clinton’s plan would have given the Palestinians 97% of the West Bank (either 96% of the West Bank and 1% from Israel proper or 94% from the West Bank and 3% from Israel proper), with no cantons, and full control of the Gaza Strip, with a land-link between the two; Israel would have withdrawn from 63 settlements as a result.

In exchange for the three percent annexation of the West Bank, Israel would increase the size of the Gaza territory by roughly a third. Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem would become the capital of the new state, and refugees would have the right of return to the Palestinian state and would receive reparations from a $30 billion international fund collected to compensate them. The Palestinians would maintain control over their holy places and would be given desalinization plants to ensure them adequate water. The only concessions Arafat had to make were Israeli sovereignty over the parts of the Western Wall religiously significant to Jews (i.e., not the entire Temple Mount) and three early warning stations in the Jordan Valley, which Israel would withdraw from after six years. [7]

The offer was never written down. The reason for this, according to Ross, was the recognition by both the U.S. and Israel of Arafat’s fundamental negotiating tactic of using all concessions as a starting point for future negotiations. Afraid that the leader might once again revert to violence and expect future settlement offers to be based on the generous concessions offered to him now, President Clinton gave him no written version. Instead, he read it to the Palestinian delegation at dictation speed “to be sure that it couldn’t be a floor for [future] negotiations... It couldn’t be a ceiling. It was the roof.” The Palestinian negotiators wanted to accept the deal, and Arafat initially said that he would accept it as well. But, on January 3, “he added reservations that basically meant he rejected every single one of the things he was supposed to give.” [8] He could not countenance Israeli control over Jewish holy spots, nor would he agree to the security arrangements; he wouldn’t even allow the Israelis to fly through Palestinian airspace. He rejected the refugee formula as well.

The reason for Arafat’s rejection of the settlement, according to Ross, was the critical clause in the agreement specifying that the agreement meant the end of the conflict. Arafat, whose life has been governed by that conflict, simply could not end it. “For him to end the conflict is to end himself,” said Ross. [9]

Ben-Ami agreed with this characterization: “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.” [10]

Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, concurred: “The failure of Camp David is largely attributed to the fact that Arafat did not even negotiate....It didn't matter what he put on the table; he put nothing on the table.” Kurtzer added that he would never understand why Arafat withdrew from the talks without even offering a maximalist position. [10a]

Ross later revealed that he had briefed Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to America, and encouraged him to persuade Arafat to accept the Clinton proposals. Bandar told Ross, “If Arafat rejects this, it won’t be a mistake, it will be a crime.” [10b]

Instead, Arafat pursued the path of terror in the hope of repositioning the Palestinians as victims in the eyes of the world. “There’s no doubt in my mind,” Ross said, “that he thought the violence would create pressure on the Israelis and on us and maybe the rest of the world.” [11] That judgment proved to be correct.

Barak had agreed to the terms of the Clinton plan with reservations and, despite Arafat’s rejection, many Israeli were angry at the concessions he had offered.

Clinton’s term in office soon ended, and with Barak’s premiership waning, he agreed to a meeting with the Palestinians in Taba, Egypt. That meeting ended with an optimistic joint communiqué being issued but with no actual settlement or agreements.

The Palestinians and some commentators have subsequently claimed that breakthroughs were achieved at Taba, particularly on the refugee issue; however, this was disputed by one of the principal Israeli negotiators, Yossi Beilin. “The discussions in Taba revolved principally around the ‘narrative,’ regarding the history of the creation of the refugee problem and the number of refugees that Israel will agree to absorb,” according to Beilin. “We did not reach any agreements....Regarding the number of refugees, an anticipated disagreement erupted, but once the discussion turned to quotas, we were no longer talking about a ‘right.’ The numbers that we agreed to were symbolic and took humanitarian problems and family reunification issues into account. The numbers proposed by the Palestinians were far higher.” Beilin said the Palestinians should tell the refugees that once peace is achieved and their state is established, “they will be allowed to immigrate to [the Palestinians state] and live in it in dignity. Not in Haifa.” [12]

Barak was subsequently replaced as Prime Minister by Ariel Sharon, and as the violence and Palestinian terrorism intensified, negotiations were put on hold in favor of security arrangements. Barak has since condemned his “peace partner,” and publicly supported Sharon’s tougher security tactics. [13] Clinton, too, did an about-face on Arafat at the conclusion of his presidency. In his last conversation with Clinton, three days before his term ended, the PA Chairman told Clinton that he was “a great man.”

“The hell I am,” Clinton responded. “I’m a colossal failure, and you made me one.” [14]

Sources: [1] Ma’ariv, (April 6, 2001).
[1a] Saul Singer, ”Camp David, Real and Invented,“ Middle East Quarterly, (Spring 2002).
[2] Interview with Dennis Ross, Fox News Sunday, (April 21, 2002).
[3] Press conference, (July 25, 2000).
[4] Robert Malley and Hussein Agha, “Camp David: Targedy of Errors.” New York Review of Books, (August 9, 2001).
[5] “Camp David: An Exchange.” The New York Review of Books. 9/20/01.
[5a] Robert Malley and Hussein Agha, “Camp David: Targedy of Errors.” New York Review of Books, (August 9, 2001).
[5b] Robert Malley and Hussein Agha, “Camp David: Targedy of Errors.” New York Review of Books, (August 9, 2001); Saul Singer, ”Camp David, Real and Invented,” Middle East Quarterly, (Spring 2002).
[6] Ross interview.
[7] “Myths of the Intifada,” by Fred Barnes, The Daily Standard. 4/25/02; Dennis Ross, speech at Georgetown University, March 3, 2003 in Near East Report, (March 17, 2003).
[8] Ross interview; Dennis Ross, “Yasir Arafat,” Foreign Policy, (July/August 2002).
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ma’ariv interview, (April 6, 2001).
[10a] Jerusalem Post, (May 4, 2006).
[10b]Dennis Ross, “Bandar speaks out: the changing landscape in the Mideast,” The Hill, (October 19, 2020).
[11] Ibid.
[12] Yedioth Ahronoth, (August 18, 2003).
[13] MSNBC, (March 26, 2002).
[14] Ibid.