The failure of the Palestinian-Israeli-American summit at Camp David did not surprise most Palestinians or those who understand Palestinian opinion on the issues. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s well-publicized “red lines” going into the negotiations delineated a position very far from the minimum that the Palestinian national consensus could accept as a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Barak loudly announced that Israel would not return to its pre-1967 war borders. He sought to annex settlement blocs containing about 80 percent of the 180,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank (excluding Jerusalem) to Israel. Like every Israeli leader since 1967, Barak demanded that the Palestinians accept all of Jerusalem as Israel’s “eternal capital.” And Barak insisted that Israel would accept no moral or legal responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. In essence, Barak demanded that the Palestinians give their blessing to Israel’s many violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention and dozens of UN resolutions since 1967–most notably the confiscation of land for civilian purposes, settling civilians in occupied territories, the unilateral and internationally unrecognized annexation of East Jerusalem and the installation of some 175,000 Jewish settlers there.
Deep Flaws in the Oslo Process
Nor is it surprising that Prime Minister Barak, and less directly, President Clinton blamed Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat for the failure of the summit. In remarks following the breakup of the talks, Clinton praised Barak for moving much farther from his initial positions than Arafat during the negotiations. Clinton apparently expected that both parties would meet midway between their opening positions at Camp David. This is a deeply flawed understanding of what can produce a just and stable Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement. Clinton’s unreasonable expectations stem directly from the structure of the Oslo process and the US alliance with Israel.
All international parties except the United States were excluded from an active role in the negotiations. The 1993 Oslo Declaration of Principles only nominally acknowledged the relevance of UN resolutions 242 and 338 requiring Israel to withdraw from the territories it occupied in 1967. Other UN resolutions–recognizing the Palestinian right to statehood, censuring Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, affirming the Palestinian refugees’ right of return and condemning Israel’s illegal actions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since 1967–were ignored, as were the relevant principles of international law. Well-established historical facts detailing Israel’s forcible expulsion of many Palestinian refugees in 1948 and 1967 were disregarded.
Arafat’s Many Compromises
The Palestinians made their principal concessions at the beginning of the Oslo process. They agreed to abandon armed struggle against Israel and recognize a Jewish state occupying about 78 percent of their historic homeland of Palestine (stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea). In exchange, they expected that Israel would recognize a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and acknowledge some measure of responsibility for the Palestinian refugees. However, Israel refused, with support from the US, to codify any of these Palestinian expectations in any agreement signed by the two parties at Oslo or subsequently.
Until Camp David II, Israel refused to make commitments on any of the key Palestinian national demands. Despite the 1993 Oslo agreement, both Labor and Likud governments continued to expropriate land in the West Bank, to build new settlements, to expand existing settlements, especially in and around Jerusalem, and to construct a vast network of bypass roads intended to divide Palestinian population centers from each other and facilitate the annexation of Jewish settlements. Until only weeks before the Camp David summit, no Israeli prime minister was willing to acknowledge that some Jewish settlements would be included in territory transferred to the Palestinians as part of a peace agreement. When Barak announced that some 20 percent of the settlers would not remain under Israeli sovereignty in the final status settlement he envisaged, he infuriated the Israeli right wing, leading to the collapse of his government the day he left for the summit.
Movement in Israel’s Position
Barak apparently did go far beyond his opening positions at Camp David. He agreed to recognize a Palestinian state on as much as 94 percent of the West Bank and to transfer some desert areas near the Gaza Strip to Palestinian control in exchange for annexing territory, including three large Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank, to Israel. He broke the Israeli taboo on negotiating over Jerusalem and talked about Palestinian administrative autonomy over Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and Muslim control and a Palestinian flag flying over the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount, though Israeli sovereignty over the entire city would remain. He agreed to the resettlement of some 100,000 Palestinian refugees inside Israel proper in the framework of a family unification program, and to Israeli participation in an international fund to compensate the 4-5 million other refugees. Certainly, no other Israeli leader has gone this far.
Coming to Terms with History
Both Barak and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat agreed that the main sticking points were Jerusalem and the refugee question. Barak refused to accept any form of Palestinian sovereignty in Jerusalem. The Palestinians do not demand that a border be erected dividing Jerusalem. They are open to creative arrangements for joint administration and divided sovereignty of the city with open access to the holy places of the three religions. Barak announced that on the refugee issue the differences are “conceptual” and not “technical.” In other words, he continued to insist that Israel had nothing to do with the Palestinians becoming refugees. The Palestinians do not insist that every refugee exercise the right to return. They do expect that Israel acknowledge that the creation of the Jewish state entailed the destruction of Palestinian society. Recognition of this historical reality can go a long way towards reconciling both peoples to the fact that Israel/Palestine is now the homeland of two national communities who cannot easily be physically separated from each other.
Israel’s failure to come to terms with its own history and that of the Palestinians and its inability to accept the principle that two peoples have equal rights to the land they jointly inhabit, presaged the failure of the Camp David summit. Prime Minister Barak may well face a bruising political fight in the coming weeks and months. He will be attacked by hard-line settlers and their supporters for going as far as he did at Camp David. He will need to reconstruct his government or call new elections. Israeli opinion polls indicated that 59 percent of the public hoped that Barak would return from Camp David with a peace agreement, but only 42 percent would support an agreement that included a change in the status of Jerusalem. Is Israel ready for peace? The real debate has only now begun.