Essential lessons from the Camp David summit

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Camp David, which followed intensive preparatory negotiations in Sweden, was for Israel an important benchmark in the process, rather than a final conclusion of it. It aimed at bringing about an end to the occupation, and, it was hoped, an end to the conflict.

The Palestinians’ approach to the summit stemmed from a search for historic justice. In addition, it entailed exploiting political negotiations as a phase in the ongoing clash of cultures, religions and peoples.

There was thus a significant gap in the way both parties conceived of the purpose of the summit. This conceptual gap affected the unfolding of events far more than any of the mistakes made by either of the parties or the mistrust that characterized their relationship along the way.

At Camp David, it was Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat who critically failed. This is my view, indeed, but I also believe that the bulk of Palestinian society understands it now as well: the tragedy that has befallen them over the past two and a half years has a nametag on it. The talks in Camp David and pursuant to it could have paved the way towards ending the occupation, much as the roadmap does.

When the dialogue does resume, as we have to believe it will, it is absolutely vital that we draw the lessons of the collapse of the Camp David summit. Among numerous such lessons I would suggest the following:

First, there must be preparation of public opinion. The “historic compromise” concealed in the agreement almost reached at Camp David was not well explained to the respective constituencies. In Israel, commentaries focused on what we were likely to be giving up rather than the benefits of transformation or the fruits of peace. It seems almost obvious that concerted effort and attention must be given to continuous, comprehensive public relations–explaining to the public the thinking behind the political process.

But this did not happen, or at least not sufficiently. Arafat for his part never clearly projected a readiness to reach a true historic compromise with Zionism, based on the partition of the Land of Israel into two independent political entities. And in the absence of any other directive from above, the ongoing hostility and wild incitement fell on fertile ground. To this I would add the need to establish moderate international and Arab coalitions to sustain United States policy, a lesson already well learned and implemented by President George W. Bush.

Second, attention must be paid to both sides’ perceptions, not just to the objective facts. On the issue of the refugees, for example, it was the image of things that held sway over the substance. Here was an ethos that had been built up and nurtured over decades as one of the cornerstones of the Palestinian national struggle. The Palestinian negotiators considered it their duty to show that the suffering of the refugees had come to an end and that their dream was about to be realized, even if only formally. As a result, for many of our Palestinian counterparts, the wording of this section in the draft agreement was far more important than the practical mechanisms to be set up to help rehabilitate the refugees, or the effort to mobilize the international community on their behalf.

Third, careful thought must be given to the question of process management. Sometimes it may be as important as the substance and content of negotiations. When parties move towards closing such a dramatic “deal”, the process must be kept very well defined and very strict. A rigid framework is needed with a rigid agenda from which the parties cannot be allowed to deviate. This was definitely not the case at Camp David. Indeed, it started with an orderly procedure of presenting positions, setting out respective interests and then giving each of the sides their respective “assignments”. The facilitator hosting the summit got off to a good start. However, there was no follow-up. The mechanism later collapsed, and the business-like, pragmatic atmosphere that had marked the beginning simply fell away. The process was unclear and disorganized. I hope that the same pattern does not repeat itself in the process of pushing President Bush’s Middle East roadmap forward.

Fourth, the permanent status core issues are all interlinked. It is not possible to isolate any single issue from the others. The approach adopted by the Israeli negotiators was predicated on a readiness to discuss far-reaching ideas for solving all these issues, as long as nothing was considered agreed and binding until everything was agreed. For their part, the Palestinians’ suspicion that Israel was seeking a way to deceive the world and perpetuate the occupation prevailed over any reasonable explanations to the contrary.

Fifth, timing is crucial. The Clinton proposals of December 2000 were ready as early as August 2000. They followed up on as many as 50 extensive daily negotiations, recapping the convergences reached in Camp David between the parties. Had President Clinton presented them then, capitalizing on the momentum remaining from the summit, I believe the outcome might have been different. In the event, a very different momentum of violence was brought into being and the historic opportunity was lost. Sadly enough, there was no realistic US contingency plan in place, and no fallback or exit strategies prepared in anticipation of the summit’s failure.

Gilead Sher acted as co-chief negotiator in 1999-2001 and at the Camp David and Taba summits as well as in extensive rounds of covert negotiations. Sher later joined Ehud Barak as the prime minister’s bureau chief and policy coordinator up to the elections of 2001. He recorded his experiences from this period in his book Just Beyond Reach.

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