Shlomo Ben-Ami was Israel’s top negotiator during the July 2000 Camp David summit. Ben-Ami, who is a history professor, wrote a day-by-day account of what went on at Camp David. In the following excerpts from an interview, Ben-Ami reflects on the summit and his subsequent conclusions about Palestinian intentions.
Question: Shlomo Ben-Ami, what were the assumptions that guided you and the prime minister, Ehud Barak, when you set out, in the spring of 2000, to terminate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Answer: “We had a number of working assumptions, but I think the most important of them was the basic assumption that has been shared by the Americans, the Europeans and the Israeli center-left for years: that Oslo created a rational order in the Middle East based on give-and-take, which in the future would lead to an acceptable compromise; that in 1993 a quasi-state of the Palestinians was established, in terms of orderly international relations. In retrospect, this turned out to be a mistaken assumption, It turned out that for [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat it was a huge camouflage net behind which he fomented, and continues to foment, political pressure and terrorism in different dosages in order to undermine the very idea of two states for two nations.”
Question: Didn’t the Palestinians make a counterproposal?
Answer: “No. And that is the heart of the matter. Never, in the negotiations between us and the Palestinians, was there a Palestinian counterproposal. There never was and there never will be. So the Israeli negotiator always finds himself in a dilemma: Either I get up and walk out because these guys aren’t ready to put forward proposals of their own, or I make another concession. In the end, even the most moderate negotiator reaches a point where he understands that there is no end to it.”
Question: Is this the origin of the Camp David formula for a territorial exchange: 9 percent of the territories in return for 1 percent of sovereign Israeli territory?
Answer: “That formulation was never crystallized in a binding document. But from the beginning of the second week at Camp David, it was in the air. It was our working assumption. And it was based on what Arafat had said. Not on some canton scheme of Israel’s, but on explicit remarks by Arafat. I remember that on the 17th, I went to Ehud’s cabin and I ran into Clinton, who was just coming out of the cabin, and he told me the same: that Arafat’s message is readiness for 8 percent with a token territorial swap in the Gaza Strip.”
Question: Still, in the wake of this dynamic, the Camp David conference became the Jerusalem conference. Isn’t it the case that you didn’t reach a binding territorial agreement, you didn’t formulate a solution for the refugee question, all you did was divide Jerusalem?
Answer: “That is not completely accurate. It’s true that there was a regression at Camp David on the question of the refugees, but the feeling was that there was flexibility on the territorial issue - that the peace would not stand or fall on this issue. And in the security group, there were very positive discussions that advanced the process. The concept of a multinational force was crystallized. I also do not accept the argument that
we divided the city at Camp David. The decision on the division of Jerusalem came only with the acceptance of Clinton’s parameters five months later.
“You have to understand one thing: we at Camp David were moving toward a division in practice but with the aspiration of reaching an agreement that didn’t look like a division. The big problem there was that the Palestinians weren’t willing to help us with that. They weren’t ready for any face-saving formulation for the Israelis. Not on the issue of the Temple Mount, not on sovereignty, not on anything. Arafat did not agree to anything that was nota complete division at Camp David. Therefore, even Bob Malley, whom everyone now likes to quote, told me at some stage that the Palestinians simply want to humiliate us. `They want to humiliate you’ were his words.” [The reference is to an article by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley - a member of the U.S. peace team and a special assistant to President Clinton - “Camp David: The Tragedy of Errors,” The New York Review of Books, August 9,2001.]
Question: I understand that there was a stage at which Barak astonished everyone by agreeing to divide the Old City of Jerusalem into two quarters under Israeli sovereignty and two quarters under Palestinian sovereignty. Did he do that on his own or was it a joint decision made by the entire Israeli team?
Answer: “As I told you, I suggested that a special regime be introduced in the Old City. In the wake of that discussion, some time later, the president put forward a two-two proposal, meaning a clear division of sovereignty. In
a conversation with the president, Ehud agreed that that would be a basis for discussion. I remember walking in the fields with Martin Indyk [of the State Department] that night and both of us saying that Ehud was nuts. We didn’t understand how he could even have thought of agreeing. Afterward I wrote in my diary that everyone thinks that Amnon [Lipkin-] Shahak and I are pushing Barak to the left, but the truth is that he was the one who pushed us leftward. At that stage - this was the start of the second week of the meeting - he was far more courageous than we were. Truly courageous. Clinton told me a few times: I have never met such a courageous person.”
Question: So it was over this that Camp David collapsed, the Palestinian rejection of an American proposal on Jerusalem that you found inadequate?
Answer: “No. Camp David collapsed over the fact that they refused to get into the game. They refused to make a counterproposal. No one demanded that they give a positive response to that particular proposal of Clinton’s. Contrary to all the nonsense spouted by the knights of the left, there was no ultimatum. What was being asked of the Palestinians was far more elementary: that they put forward, at least once, their own counterproposal. That they not just say all the time `That’s not good enough’ and wait for us to make more concessions. That’s why the president sent [CIA director George] Tenet to Arafat that night - in order to tell him that it would be worth his while to think it over one more time and not give an answer until the morning. But Arafat couldn’t take it anymore. He missed the applause of the masses in Gaza.”
“But when all is said and done, Camp David failed because Arafat refused to put forward proposals of his own and didn’t succeed in conveying to us the feeling that at some point his demands would have an end. One of the important things we did at Camp David was to define our vital interests in the most concise way. We didn’t expect to meet the Palestinians halfway, and not even two-thirds of the way. But we did expect to meet them at some point. The whole time we waited to see them make some sort of movement in the face of our far-reaching movement. But they didn’t. The feeling was that they were constantly trying to drag us into some sort of black hole of more and more concessions without it being at all clear where all the concessions were leading, what the finish line was.”
... I remember that at a certain point, I proposed to Arafat that we delay the discussion on Jerusalem for two years. `Not even for two hours,’ Arafat said, waving two of his fingers.”
Question: Are you suggesting that the Intifada was a calculated move by the Palestinians to extricate them from their political and diplomatic hardships?
Answer: “No. I am not attributing that kind of Machiavellian scheme to them. But I remember that when we were at Camp David, Saeb Erekat said that we had until September 13. And I remember that when I visited Mohammed Dahlan and from his office spoke with Marwan Barghouti, he also said that if we didn’t reach an agreement by the middle of September, it would not be good. There was a tone of threat in his words that I didn’t like. So, when you look at the course of events and see that the violence erupted exactly two weeks after September 13 [the seventh anniversary of the Oslo accords], it makes you think. One thing is certain: the Intifada absolutely saved Arafat.”
...”By September we were talking about 7 percent [of the West Bank to be retained by Israel] in return for 2 [percent of sovereign Israeli territory to be transferred to the Palestinians]. I think we also dropped the demand for sovereignty in the Jordan Rift Valley.”...
Question: Throughout this whole period, didn’t the Palestinians present maps of their own? Was there no Palestinian geographical proposal?
Answer: “They did not present maps at all. Not before Taba. But at Camp David I did chance to see some sort of Palestinian map. It was a map that
reflected a concession of less than 2 percent on their part in return for a territorial swap in a 1:1 ratio. But the territories they wanted from us were not in the Halutza dunes, they wanted them next to the West Bank. I remember that according to their map, Kochav Yair, for example, was supposed to be included in the territory of the Palestinian state; they demanded sovereignty over Kochav Yair.”
Question: When the talks resumed in November-December, as the violence raged, but with elections for prime minister in the offing, in what area did they make progress?
Answer: “Mainly on the Jerusalem question. By this stage, we had agreed to the division of the city and to full Palestinian sovereignty on Haram al-Sharif, but we insisted that some sort of attachment of ours to the Temple Mount be recognized. I remember that when we held talks with Yasser Abed Rabbo at Bolling Air Force Base, I raised the following idea without consulting anyone: the Palestinians would have sovereignty on the Temple Mount, but they would undertake not to conduct excavations there because the place was sacred to the Jews. The Palestinians agreed not to excavate, but under no circumstances would they agree to give us the minimal statement, ‘because the site is sacred to the Jews.’
“What particularly outraged me on that occasion wasn’t only the fact that they refused, but the way in which they refused: out of a kind of total contempt, an attitude of dismissiveness and arrogance. At that moment I grasped they are really not Sadat [Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979]. That they were not willing to move toward our position even at the emotional and symbolic level. At the deepest level, they are not ready to recognize that we have any kind of title here.”
Question: Three days later, on December 23, 2000, at the end of the Bolling talks, Clinton convened you again and presented his narrow parameters. What were they?
Answer: “Ninety-seven percent: 96 percent of the West Bank [to the Palestinians] plus 1 percent of sovereign Israeli territory, or 94 percent of the West Bank plus three percent of sovereign Israeli territory. However, because Clinton also introduced into this formulation the concept of the safe passage route - over which Israeli sovereignty would be ethereal - it could be argued that the Palestinians got almost 100 percent. Clinton constructed his proposal in such a way that if the Palestinians’ answer was positive, they would be able to present the solution to their public as a solution of 100 percent.”
Question: And Jerusalem?
Answer: “As the reports said: what is Jewish is Israeli, what is Arab is Palestinian. The Temple Mount would be under full Palestinian sovereignty, with Israel getting the Western Wall and the Holy of Holies. But Clinton, in his proposal, did not make reference to the `sacred basin’ - the whole area outside the Old City wall that includes the City of David and the Tombs of the Prophets on the road to The Mount of Olives. We demanded that area, in which there are hardly any Arabs, but the Palestinians refused. During the night, there was a very firm phone call between Barak and Clinton on this subject, because we were afraid he would decide against us. As a result of that call, the subject remained open. Clinton did not refer to it.”
Question: What about the refugees?
Answer: “Here Clinton tried to square the circle. He went toward the Palestinians to the very end of the farthest limit of what we could accept. His formulation was that `the two sides recognize the right of the refugees to return to historic Palestine’ or `to return to their homeland,’ but on the other hand, he made it clear that `there is no specific right of return to Israel.’ We were pleased that he talked about a two-state solution and that the Palestinian state was the homeland of the Palestinian people and Israel the home of the Jewish people.
“The mechanism he referred to was more or less that of Stockholm. He obligated a certain absorption of refugees in Israel, but subject to Israel’s sovereign laws and its absorption policy.”
Question: What about the security arrangements and demilitarization?
Answer: “We insisted that the Palestinian state be demilitarized. The president suggested a softer term: a `non-militarized state.’ He also asserted that we would have a significant military presence in the Rift Valley for three years and a symbolic presence at defined sites for three more years. We were given three early-warning stations for a 10-year period with the presence of Palestinian liaison officers.”
Question: What was the Israeli reaction to Clinton’s parameters? Did Barak accept them wholeheartedly?
Answer: ...”The proposal was difficult for us to accept. No one came out dancing and singing, and Ehud especially was perturbed. At the same time, three days later, the cabinet decided on a positive response to Clinton. All the ministers supported it, with the exception of Matan Vilnai and Ra’anan Cohen. I informed the Americans that Israel’s answer was yes.”
Question: And the Palestinians?
Answer: “Arafat wasn’t in any hurry. He went to Mubarak and then to all kinds of inter-Arab meetings and dragged his feet. He didn’t even return Clinton’s calls. The whole world, and I mean the whole world, put tremendous pressure on him, but he refused to say yes. During those 10 days there was hardly any international leader who didn’t call him - from the Duke of Liechtenstein to the president of China. But Arafat wouldn’t be budged. He stuck to his evasive methods. He’s like one of those stealth planes. Finally, very late, his staff conveyed to the White House a reply that contained big noes and small yeses. Bruce Reidell, from the National Security Council, told me that we shouldn’t get it wrong, that there should be no misunderstandings on our part: Arafat in fact said no.”
Question: But didn’t Israel also have reservations?
Answer: “Yes. We sent the Americans a document of several pages containing our reservations. But as far as I recall, they were pretty minor and dealt mainly with security arrangements and deployment areas and control over the passages. There was also clarification concerning our sovereignty over the temple Mount. There was no doubt that our reply was positive. In order to remove any doubts, I called Arafat on December 29, at Ehud’s instructions, and told him that Israel accepted the parameters and that any further discussion should be only within the framework of the parameters and on how to implement them.”
Question: Is it the case that Israel would have to uproot about a hundred settlements according to the new map [Israel prepared for meetings in Taba after Camp David]?
Answer: “I don’t know the exact number. But we are talking about uprooting many dozens of settlements. In my view, that map also fails to meet the goal we set ourselves and to which Clinton agreed - 80 percent of the settlers in sovereign Israeli territory.”
Question: Did the Palestinians accept this map?
Answer: “No. They presented a counter-map that totally eroded the three already shrunken [settlement] blocs and effectively they voided the whole bloc concept of content. According to their map, only a few isolated settlements would remain, which would be dependent on thin strings of narrow access roads. A calculation we made showed that all they agreed to give us was 2.34 percent.”
Question: Shlomo Ben-Ami, you and Ehud Barak set out on a journey to the bowels of the earth, as it were, to the very heart of the conflict. What did you find?
Answer: “I think that we found a few difficult things. First of all, regarding Arafat, we discovered that he does not have the ability to convey to his Israeli interlocutors that the process of making concessions has an end. His strategy is one of conflict.”
Question: Are you saying that he is not a partner?
Answer: “Arafat is the leader of the Palestinians. I cannot change this fact; it is their disaster. He is so loyal to his truth that he cannot compromise it. But his truth is the truth of the Islamic ethos, the ethos of refugees and victimization. This truth does not allow him to end his negotiations with Israel unless Israel breaks its neck. So in this particular aspect, Arafat is not a partner. Worse, Arafat is a strategic threat; he endangers peace in the Middle East and in the world.”
Question: So he still does not recognize Israel’s right to exist?
Answer: “Arafat’s concession vis-a-vis Israel at Oslo was a formal concession. Morally and conceptually, he didn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist. He doesn’t accept the idea of two states for two peoples. He may be able to make some sort of partial, temporary settlement with us - though I have doubts about that, too - but at the deep level, he doesn’t accept us. Neither he nor the Palestinian national movement accept us.”
Question: Your criticism goes beyond Arafat personally to include also the Palestinian national movement as a whole?
Answer: “Yes. Intellectually, I can understand their logic. I understand that from their point of view, they ceded 78 percent [of historic Palestine]at Oslo, so the rest is theirs. I understand that from their point of view, the process is one of decolonization, and therefore they are not going to make a compromise with us, just as the residents of Congo would not compromise with the Belgians.
“But when all is said and done, after eight months of negotiations, I reach the conclusion that we are in a confrontation with a national movement in which there are serious pathological elements. It is a very sad movement, a very tragic movement, which at its core doesn’t have the ability to set itself positive goals.
“At the end of the process, it is impossible not to form the impression that the Palestinians don’t want a solution as much as they want to place Israel in the dock of the accused. They want to denounce our state more than they want their own state. At the deepest level they have a negative ethos. This is why unlike Zionism, they are unable to compromise....”