Beyond Images Challenging myths and presenting facts about Israel 
CAMP DAVID AND TABA: What did Israel offer?
London - published on 14 May 2003
Beyond Images Ref: 21

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“Most supporters of Israel say that Israel’s Prime Minister Barak offered the Palestinians “basically everything they wanted” at the negotiations at Camp David and Taba in 2000-2001, and that Mr Arafat rejected this offer.

This is not true. Israel never offered the Palestinians a viable Palestinian state. Israel’s spokesmen and supporters are rewriting history in order to blame the Palestinians for the violence which followed.”

The purpose of this Briefing is to describe Israel’s offers at Camp David and Taba, and to analyse the various critiques of Israel’s account of what happened.

From Camp David to Taba

By July 2000, Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic negotiations as part of the Oslo process had been continuing – occasionally fast, but usually slowly – for 6 years.

That month, Israeli negotiating teams led by then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat met at the Camp David retreat in the USA for final-status negotiations on the conflict. The talks were mediated by President Clinton and lasted for 2 weeks. They ended without agreement.

Although the Palestinian intifada and Israel’s military response began two months later (at the end of September 2000), negotiations at a lower level continued between the two sides through the autumn of that year, culminating in fresh high-level negotiations at the Egyptian coastal resort of Taba in January 2001.

The Taba talks also ended without agreement. No peace negotiations have taken place since then, though the so-called ‘Road Map’ is intended to trigger fresh negotiations.

Israel’s account of its offers to the Palestinians at Camp David and Taba

Shlomo Ben-Ami (an academic and a prominent “dove” on the Israeli political scene) was Israel’s foreign minister at the time, and took a leading part in these talks. His account of the talks was published in Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz on 14 September 2001. He says that Israel’s proposals to the Palestinians in those talks included the following:-

  • 97% territorial withdrawal: Israeli withdrawal from 97% of the territory of the West Bank and Gaza

  • Further 3% land swap: In exchange for keeping 3% of West Bank territory (containing the principal settlements) Israel would hand over a further 3% of territory from within pre-1967 Israel, to enable the Palestinians to argue that they had achieved the return of 100% of territories occupied since 1967

  • Independent Palestinian State: Israeli recognition of an independent Palestinian state on that territory, with agreed borders, and a peace treaty between that new state and Israel

  • East Jerusalem as Palestinian capital: The capital of the Palestinian state to be East Jerusalem, which would be a physically open but politically redivided city serving as the capital of both Israel and the Palestinian state

  • Claims of Palestinian refugees to be addressed – in part: Israel to accept a limited number of Palestinian refugees into Israel proper, under a scheme of family reunification, with rights of entry for Palestinian refugees into the new Palestinian state, and an internationally established compensation fund

  • The parties to agree an “end-to-the-conflict” declaration: Israel demanded that once the above package had been agreed the parties should enter into a comprehensive agreement which would confirm an “end to the conflict”, with each party renouncing all claims against the other.

It is this package of measures which Israel’s supporters describe as “very generous… the best that the Palestinians are ever likely to receive…” and that it includes “basically everything that they wanted…”.

Yet, the Palestinian leadership and their supporters challenge this strongly. Here are the main elements of their critique:-

“The territory from which Israel offered to withdraw was not 97% but 88%.”

Response: In preparatory talks between the two sides in Stockholm (two months before Camp David) Israel presented a map conceding 88% of the territory to the Palestinians. That is where the Palestinians get the “88%” figure from. Shlomo Ben-Ami confirms that “officially” Israel repeated the 88% offer at Camp David. However, he says that in “one-to-one” meetings between top Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, the figures discussed were in the range of 90-96%.

Furthermore, by the time of the Taba talks, there is no real dispute that Israel offered 97% and a 3% land swap. Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, and top negotiator Abu Ala, was quoted as saying in the Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayam on 29 January 2001 that Israel had offered the Palestinians “97% of the territory” (statement quoted in Israeli newspaper Hamodia, 4 February 2001).

“The Palestinian state which Israel offered was not viable. Israel offered “cantons” only: disconnected parcels of land surrounded by retained Israeli territory. There was no territorial contiguity…”

Response: Israeli spokesmen have always denied this: the Palestinian state proposed was not “disconnected parcels of land”.

This has been confirmed from the Palestinian side. Palestinian leader Abu Ala was reported in Al Ayam (see report referred to above) to have said that Israel offered the Palestinians “territorial contiguity”.

Shlomo Ben-Ami describes how at one point he showed the West Bank maps under discussion in the talks to Egyptian Prime Minister Hosni Mubarak. Ben-Ami describes how Mubarak “asked aloud why the Palestinians were claiming that they did not have contiguity” [ie when it was obvious to Mubarak that they did].

“The Palestinian state which Israel proposed was not viable – water and other resources would have stayed under Israeli control”.

Response: If this was the Palestinians’ concern, why did they not address this in the course of the negotiations by making counter-proposals to Israel’s offers?

The Israelis claim that the Palestinians never negotiated at Camp David. They simply received Israel’s offers and waited for more. This has been confirmed by President Clinton who is quoted as having said to Mr Arafat:-

“If the Israelis can make compromises and you can’t, I should go home. You have been here [at Camp David] for 14 days and said no to everything. These things will have consequences. Failure will end the peace process….”

- quoted by US official Robert Malley in the New York Review of Books, Summer 2001

“Israel did not take account of Palestinian national interests”

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 proper”).

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” issues were.

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 inevitable.

“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 reality.


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.