20 years since Camp David summit: There was harm in trying

But historic events are not only successes; failures can also be historic in marking a turning point, a watershed moment. And Camp David was just that.

Barak, Clinton, Arafat at Camp David 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Barak, Clinton, Arafat at Camp David 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
There is no harm in trying, goes a well-worn axiom.
Except that often times there is. Take, for example, the July 2000 Camp David summit.
It was 20 years ago this week that US president Bill Clinton welcomed prime minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat to the storied Camp David compound in the Maryland woods to try and solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
No further proof of the failure of that summit is needed than noticing that the 20th anniversary of the convening on July 11, 2000, of this two-week summit passed without many people taking note. Hardly an academic conference on the matter was held, even via Zoom; few television or radio programs were devoted to the anniversary and the sparse coverage in the print media for the most part sufficed with interviews with some of the participants.
The academic and media festivals that generally take place around anniversaries of what are considered historic events – the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, the 40th anniversary of Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, the 25th anniversary the Jordanian-Israeli peace accords – was absent this week surrounding the Camp David summit.
The reason is obvious: who wants to mark the anniversary of failure?
But historic events are not only successes; failures can also be historic in marking a turning point, a watershed moment. And Camp David was just that.
The summit put paid to the hope born at Oslo seven years earlier, that if the Israelis and Palestinians can just get together into a room and try long enough and hard enough – with an active and very engaged mediator – they can negotiate an end to a conflict more than a century old with roots in religion, identity and history.
The summit deserves notice for another reason as well: as a cautionary tale of how not to proceed in the future.
Barak – politically weak at the time, even though he took office just a year earlier – set off for the summit that he forced on a reticent Arafat and a hesitant Clinton flush in the feeling he was being carried on history’s wings.
“As I embark on a mission of peace on the invitation of president Bill Clinton, I bear with me the aspirations of the entire Israeli people, its hopes and its prayers for peace and security in our country. In Ecclesiastes it is written: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven... A time for war, and a time for peace,” he said with pathos.
“One hundred years of enmity and struggle meet at this point in time. Behind me far too many lie buried, there has been suffering and anguish on both sides – because there is an unbearably high price not only to defeat but also to victory. The time has now come to put an end to the conflict, to give hope the flower of our youth, that they may flourish undisturbed.”
Talk about building up expectations.
But from the very outset – from that first iconic film clip of Arafat and Barak jousting about who will let the other go first into a cabin for a meeting with Clinton – it should have been clear that those expectations could not be met. What looked like innocent horseplay between the two leaders was a harbinger: If the two men could not agree before the cameras and in the presence of the US president who should enter a meeting room first – or if they were unable to figure out that they should just go in together –– then were they really expected to agree on the most contentious issues in the Mideast?
They could not, and what the Camp David summit drove home was that the most a left-wing Israeli prime minister could offer – and he offered far more than anyone before – fell short by a mile of Arafat’s minimum requirements, particularly on the issue of Jerusalem and the refugees.
And the painful ramifications of that realization have been felt ever since.
Arafat’s conclusion was that if he could not get what he wanted from the Israelis by talking to them – and talks had been going on since the Oslo process began in 1993 – then he would get it by bloodying their nose, by pounding them in the face. It was no coincidence, therefore, that the Second Intifada – more than four years of mind-numbing terror – broke out just two months after the Camp David breakdown.
Israel’s conclusion was that there was no partner on the other side, and that the Palestinians were simply not interested in reaching a peace deal.
This message was first delivered through Arafat’s rejection of Barak’s offer of between 90-94% of the territory and dividing Jerusalem, an offer made even sweeter by Barak’s negotiators at Taba in January 2001. And this conclusion was hammered home by the Second Intifada, a tsunami of terror that followed not an Israeli threat to unilaterally annex territory, but rather a generous offer to give territory up.
Barak was the last left-wing prime minister Israel has voted into office, a sign of the degree to which the failure of Camp David and the ensuing violence transformed the country.
“Today I return from Camp David, and can look into the millions of eyes and say with regret: We have not yet succeeded. We did not succeed because we did not find a partner prepared to make decisions on all issues. We did not succeed because our Palestinian neighbors have not yet internalized the fact that in order to achieve peace, each side has to give up some of their dreams; to give, not only to demand,” Barak said upon returning from the US on July 26.
And then came his warning:  “To our neighbors, the Palestinians, I say today: We do not seek conflict. But if any of you should dare to put us to the test, we will stand together, strong and determined, convinced in the justness of our cause in the face of any challenge, and we shall triumph.”
The Palestinians did put Israel to a test with the Second Intifada, and Israel, true to Barak’s word, did stand together and triumph. But that trial fundamentally changed and shifted this country’s political playing field, and the origins of that shift can be traced back 20 years to the failure of the Camp David summit.