“Israel did not take account of Palestinian national
Response: The reality is the precise
opposite. Israel’s offers, as outlined above, fulfilled
substantially all Palestinian demands (with the exception of
the unlimited right of return of Palestinian refugees into “Israel
It was the Palestinians at Camp David who revealed their unwillingness
to recognise basic Israeli and Jewish interests – most
notoriously when Mr Arafat challenged the Jewish claim to have
a connection to the holy sites in Jerusalem.
“The USA was biased towards Israel and against
the Palestinians in the negotiations”
Response: This argument distracts attention
from the substance of what Israel put on the table. President
Clinton frequently supported the Israeli position in the talks
not because he was “biased”, but because Israeli
made constructive suggestions and meaningful concessions, whereas
the Palestinians did not.
Even despite this, it was from Israel, not the Palestinians,
that the President extracted the most far-reaching concession.
He persuaded Mr Barak in December 2000 to offer the Palestinians
a plan for the re-division of Jerusalem so that it should serve
as the capital of both Israel and the Palestinian state. This
was a concession by Israel in favour of Palestinian claims which
would have been unthinkable only six months previously, and
was achieved due to the President’s intervention. This
cannot be described as the USA being “biased towards Israel”.
“Israel rushed the Palestinians at Camp David
by pressing for an “end-of-the-conflict” declaration.
It was not wise for Mr Barak to press for this declaration which
forced the Palestinians into a corner”.
Response: Since 1994, Israel had insisted
that the negotiations should proceed by means of interim agreements
on single issues, and that the “final status” issues
should be postponed for later talks: indeed this is the approach
which the Oslo accords required. The Palestinians and their
supporters became the strongest critics of this approach, arguing
that Israel was “buying more time” for settlements,
and stalling when it knew full well what the “final status”
When Mr Barak put all these issues on the table at Camp David,
he was thus fulfilling what his Palestinian critics had been
demanding for several years. It is very ironic that they themselves
now criticise Israel for having done so.
A more genuine reason why the Palestinians objected to Israel
demanding an “end-to-the-conflict” is that Israel’s
boldness caught them by surprise. It revealed the fact that,
despite having 6 years to prepare a negotiating stance, the
Palestinians did not have a position capable of ending the conflict.
“It was Israel, not the Palestinians, who broke
off the Taba talks”
Response: This argument is used to counter-balance
the argument that it was Mr Arafat who caused the failure of
the Camp David talks some months earlier.
At the final news conference of the Taba delegations in January
2001 both parties suggested that they were genuinely near to
agreement on all outstanding issues. Some Israelis say that
it was indeed Israel that stopped the talks, other Israelis
say that the Palestinian delegation at Taba also agreed that
they should be halted.
The important point is not who exactly initiated the decision
to end the talks without agreement, but why. Mr Barak was days
away from an Israeli election, and he had taken great political
risks by continuing to negotiate with the Palestinians in the
election run-up, and with violence continuing.
During the Taba talks Mr Arafat made a fiery and uncompromising
speech in Davos Switzerland, in which he accused Israel of conducting
a “brutal and barbaric war” using “fascist
methods”, and imposing “economic strangulation”
on the Palestinians. This speech shattered all remaining prospect
of a political relationship between Mr Barak and Mr Arafat.
It was this speech, and its impact on Israeli pre-election opinion,
which forced Mr Barak to pull out of the talks.
There was, he reasoned, no point in striving for a diplomatic
agreement when the political relationship had collapsed.
It may have been Mr Barak who made the formal decision to end
the Taba talks: but it was Mr Arafat who made that decision
“The Israeli public were never behind Mr Barak.
His offers were a public relations ploy which would have been
rejected by the Israeli public”.
It is true that Mr Barak was a somewhat isolated figure on
the Israeli political scene going into the Camp David talks.
But he also knew that a majority of the Israeli public stood
behind the concept of a peace agreement with the Palestinians
and a two-state solution, provided that Israel’s security
could be assured.
His calculation was that if he could come back with a deal
that ensured Israel’s security, he would achieve majority
backing in the Israeli electorate.
His judgment of Israel’s willingness to accept far-reaching
compromise appeared to have been borne out. When he tabled the
redivision of Jerusalem, public opinion was not as hostile as
virtually every commentator and expert had expected.
This has been the pattern for decades. Opportunities for peace
have initially made the Israeli public nervous because of the
risks, but the same public has swung behind them if they are
shown to be delivering results and providing security for Israel.
So what was really behind the failure of the talks?
If the above challenges to Israel’s version of events
do not stand up to critical scrutiny, why did the talks fail?
Two key answers may be offered:
1. Mr Arafat was temperamentally and ideologically
unwilling to reach a peace agreement:
His approach is best summed up in another quote from the account
of Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami:-
“Arafat is not an earthly leader. He sees himself as
a mythological figure…. Therefore even the concrete real-estate
issues don’t interest him too much. At Camp David it was
clear that he was not looking for practical solutions but was
focussed on mythological subjects: the right of return, Jerusalem,
the Temple Mount. He floats on the heights of the Islamic ethos
and the refugee ethos and the Palestinian ethos.
Arafat’s discourse is never practical, either. His sentences
don’t connect and are not completed. There are words,
there are sentences, there are metaphors – there is no
clear position. The only things there are are codes and nothing
else. At the end of the process you suddenly realise that you
are not moving ahead in the negotiations because you are in
fact negotiating with a myth…”
- quoted in Haaretz magazine, 14 September 2001
2. The Palestinians are seeking an unlimited right
of return into Israel
More significantly still, the talks failed not because of Israel’s
position on borders, or on the territories, or on the occupation
or on Jerusalem, but because the Palestinians still pursue an
unlimited right of return of Palestinian refugees (as the Palestinians
themselves define them) into Israel, and they refused, either
at Camp David or at Taba, to compromise that right.
It was the Palestinians’ “right of return”
claim which proved to be the immovable obstacle to agreement.
Palestinian challenges to Israel’s account of what happened
in the Camp David and Taba are intended to conceal that basic
Israel’s proposals at Camp David and at Taba constituted
the most far-reaching proposals made by Israel since the 1967
Six Day War. The Palestinians showed themselves to be simply
unwilling to respond. No amount of rewriting of what happened
at the talks can change that reality.
Palestinian spokesmen are now calling for Israel to return
to its position at Taba as the basis for new talks under the
so-called Roadmap for peace. But unless the underlying reasons
for the failure of the Camp David and Taba talks are addressed,
these fresh talks stand no chance of succeeding.