Who Killed Camp David?

The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East

Peace By Dennis Ross • Farrar, Straus and Giroux • 864 pages • $35.00

The historic Camp David talks during the summer of 2000 failed, so the conventional wisdom goes, because Yasir Arafat rejected an extraordinarily generous offer that Ehud Barak put on the table. This view has achieved the status of unassailable truth in the United States and Israel by virtue of its constant repetition by pundits and politicians alike. It is not an explanation for the talks' failure that Dennis Ross, the chief Middle East peace negotiator from 1988 to 2001, disputes. But his epic 864-page play-by-play account of the peace process gives far more nuance to the story and suggests that the Israelis also bear some responsibility for the outcome.

Ross clearly supports the special relationship of the United States with Israel, a view that places him squarely in the pro-Israel camp. Yet, except for the late Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli leaders do not emerge unscathed from Ross' account. He depicts Yitzhak Shamir as the bane of the first Bush administration and chronicles Benjamin Netanyahu's tenure with barely disguised contempt. Although the entire Clinton team, not to mention the Palestinians, had high hopes for peace when Barak came into office, Ross does not hesitate to describe him as somewhat socially inept, egotistical, and tactically clumsy.

One of the most surprising elements in Ross' memoir concerns failed negotiations between Syria and Israel. Until now, only the Arab media have accepted the narrative that Syria offered serious compromises in 2000 and Israel walked away. But as Ross demonstrates, Barak balked when the Syrians showed they were ready for a deal, and in so doing blew a major opportunity for peace with Syria at high-level talks that he himself had pushed for. When the moment of reckoning came, at the January 2000 summit in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, Barak backtracked from earlier commitments, infuriating Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara. According to Ross, it was a “fundamental mistake,” and he prophetically warned Barak that “you may not have another round.” Indeed, Shara was lambasted in Syria, and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad took Shepherdstown as a slap in the face, concluding that Barak was not a serious negotiating partner. When Bill Clinton met al-Assad in Geneva, Switzerland, several months later (again at Barak's request), the Syrian leader was dismissive. Preoccupied with his waning health and succession, al-Assad no longer showed any interest in peace with Israel.

Though his chronicle of more than a decade of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations finds many faults on both sides, Ross is ultimately unequivocal in attributing blame for the final failure of Clinton's peacemaking effort. “Only one leader,” he writes, “was unable or unwilling to confront history and mythology: Yasir Arafat.” Whether or not one accepts this conclusion depends on some intricate points of interpretation.

The most credible view that Arafat was not solely responsible for the failure of negotiations comes from an account that appeared in The New York Review of Books in August 2001 by Robert Malley and Hussein Agha, who were both present at Camp David. Malley was Clinton's special assistant on Arab-Israeli affairs; Agha, an Oxford academic, served as an adviser to the Palestinian delegation. Malley appears frequently throughout Ross' book and, on occasion, was the only note-taker present in the room when Clinton met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

According to Malley and Agha, Arafat arrived at Camp David afraid that the Israelis and Americans would gang up on him and force a deal, given Clinton's impending departure and Barak's tenuous grip on power. More-over, in the effort to achieve a final-status, end-of-conflict deal, Barak had discarded many interim steps that Arafat regarded as critical. Most notable was Barak's failure to carry out an agreement to transfer control of three West Bank villages near Jerusalem. On June 15, in their final meeting before Camp David, Arafat complained to Clinton that Barak had reneged on the villages and was holding all the cards. As Malley and Agha write, “Unfulfilled interim obligations did more than cast doubt on Israel's intent to deliver; in Arafat's eyes, they directly affected the balance of power that was to prevail once permanent status negotiations commenced.” Malley and Agha go on to argue that Arafat-bashers who believe he favored incrementalism over a historic deal misunderstand the situation. “Like Barak,” they write, “the Palestinian leader felt that permanent status negotiations were long overdue” -- but “unlike Barak, [Arafat] did not think this justified doing away with the interim obligations,” which Arafat insisted were “inextricably linked.”

On Day 7 of the Camp David talks, the Israelis cloistered themselves for 13 hours, and, with no word from them, Clinton became angry. As he was about to break up the meeting, word came that Barak had choked on a peanut and required the Heimlich maneuver. When the members of Barak's team arrived, they backtracked on key points while still refusing to transfer the three villages. In an episode related by both Ross and Malley, Clinton was irate, yelling at Barak, “I can't go see Arafat with a retrenchment … . There is no way I can. This is not real. This is not serious.” Reviving his anger at Barak's game-playing over Syria, Clinton continued: “I went to Shepherdstown and was told nothing by you for four days. I went to Geneva and felt like a wooden Indian doing your bidding … . I will not let it happen here. I will simply not do it.”

But at this point the narratives diverge. Ross characterizes Barak's next move as a courageous, serious offer giving Palestinians 91 percent of the West Bank, custodianship of the Temple Mount, half of the old city, and much of East Jerusalem. Malley and Agha contend that the Palestinians never saw it as an offer at all, as it never appeared in writing and they were hesitant to trust Barak on permanent-status promises given his disregard of interim steps. Nevertheless, the image that emerged from Camp David in the Western press, buoyed by Clinton's own statements, was clear: Barak had taken a huge risk, and Arafat had walked away.

Though pundits have depicted Camp David as the make-or-break moment for an agreement, the most serious negotiations actually took place in the ensuing months. Barak invited Arafat to his home for dinner days before Ariel Sharon's notorious visit to the Temple Mount and the subsequent outbreak of the second intifada. (Interestingly, Ross asked Israel's internal-security minister to forbid Sharon's visit on security grounds. The minister said “no,” citing intelligence reports showing no threat of violence.) Even after violence erupted, negotiations continued with some creative ideas about the controversial Temple Mount, including, at one point, granting sovereignty to God.

As the year came to an end, time was running out, and Clinton made a final proposal on December 23. It was far more favorable to the Palestinians than the Barak “offer” at Camp David. Now they would have approximately 95 percent of the West Bank and a 2-percent land swap, sovereignty over the Temple Mount and “all that is Arab” in Jerusalem, and refugees' right of return to the new state of Palestine.

It is Arafat's rejection of these ideas that led Ross to conclude that Arafat bears the blame for the failure of the talks and the subsequent descent into mayhem. Malley and Agha maintain that Arafat feared these were only “parameters” and not a deal. And with less than a month left with Clinton in power and only six weeks with Barak, the Palestinians feared that they would obtain nothing tangible. Ross warned Ahmed Qureia (currently the Palestinian prime minister) that George W. Bush would disengage from the peace process and that the 97 percent on offer would shrink to 45 percent under Sharon's leadership.

He was right. It will be left to the historians to decide from these and future eyewitness accounts whether the deal failed, as Malley and Agha put it, “less by design than by mistake, more through miscalculation than through mischief” -- or whether, as Ross contends, Arafat was simply unable to transform himself, à la Nelson Mandela, from a revolutionary into a peacemaker.
Sasha Polakow-Suransky is a Prospect senior correspondent.