Lessons from Camp David
Ten years ago this month, Israelis and Palestinians gathered at Camp David, under the guidance of President Bill Clinton, for negotiations aimed at reaching a final agreement. The talks ended in failure, and by the end of September, the second intifada had begun.
The Camp David talks have largely been remembered in the context of apportioning blame. This was particularly true in the first months and years of the Palestinian uprising, as Israel spun the narrative of a rejectionist Palestinian leadership that had turned down an incredibly “generous offer” and instead opted for a campaign of violence.
A host of western commentators and diplomats embraced this propaganda, despite the wealth of contradictory evidence: the misleading percentages, the Israeli/US intention of annexing illegal settlement blocs, the trickery over Abu Dis, and indeed, according to Robert Malley and Hussein Agha, the fact that “strictly speaking, there was never was an Israeli offer” beyond “orally conveyed” proposals.
With American officials acting, in the words of US state department veteran Aaron David Miller, “as Israel’s attorney”, it shouldn’t be too surprising that Arafat refused the Camp David offer that even former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami said he himself would have rejected.
But simply analysing and debating who was responsible for the lack of a deal at Camp David is not enough; nor is it the most important lesson that the anniversary can offer. In the light of Oslo’s ruined remains, a collapsed peace process and an entrenched occupation, a more profound insight is sorely needed.
The Camp David summit was the fruit of the Oslo years, where the international community believed that mutual “confidence-building measures” would lead to final status talks and a permanent deal. In reality, the winners were successive Israeli governments who oversaw settlement expansion and West Bank colonisation, and a Palestinian political-economic elite.
Some thus concluded that the solution is to try and hash it all out together – including “final status” issues – rather than leave the “sensitive” questions to the end. Others have tried to repackage the approach of incrementalism under occupation as grassroots “state-building”. A sense of déjà vu about Israel “handing over” cities to well-behaved Palestinian Authority forces is understandable.
But the real lesson of the anniversary is not a reworking of the Oslo/Camp David framework, but rather the futility of negotiations between unequals. The common thread running from Clinton through to Obama via Bush is one of US partisanship – the world’s most powerful country aiding and covering for an occupying regional superpower against a stateless people.
A decade on from Camp David, it is clear that there can be no resolution of the conflict through the methods of occupation-lite, temporary borders, and “easing of restrictions”. The concepts of honest broker and envoys are bankrupt; what meaning can there be in a peace process that staggers on while Israel – with total impunity – practises collective punishment and facilitates the accelerated colonisation of East Jerusalem? Furthermore, the majority of the Palestinian people – specifically the refugees and those inside Israel – remain unrepresented in the “peace process”.
In the seven years I’ve been going to Palestine/Israel, I’ve watched illegal settlements expand street by street, and the Israeli mechanisms of control of the Palestinians grow ever more sophisticated and entrenched. The facts on the ground multiply each day, as more acres of Palestinian land are transformed into colonies that “everyone” knows will stay under Israeli control.
Israeli and Palestinian leaders will ultimately need to sit down and talk, but it is time for our understanding of how and when to be radically reshaped by Nelson Mandela’s famous words: “Only free men can negotiate.”
Israeli leaders have no intention of relinquishing control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, nor of recognising fundamental Palestinian rights already spelled out in countless UN resolutions and global treaties. The response of the international community, if it is serious about a sustainable peace, must be enforcement and accountability, not more doomed summits and road maps.
First published in The Guardian’s Comment is Free.