The seemingly endless volleys of attack and retaliation in the Middle East leave many people wondering why the two sides can't reach an agreement. The answer is simple, according to numerous commentators: At the Camp David meeting in July 2000, Israel "offered extraordinary concessions" (Michael Kelly, Washington Post, 3/13/02), "far-reaching concessions" (Boston Globe, 12/30/01), "unprecedented concessions" (E.J. Dionne, Washington Post, 12/4/01). Israel’s "generous peace terms" (L.A. Times editorial, 3/15/02) constituted "the most far-reaching offer ever" (Chicago Tribune editorial, 6/6/01) to create a Palestinian state. In short, Camp David was "an unprecedented concession" to the Palestinians (Time, 12/25/00).
But due to "Arafat's recalcitrance" (L.A. Times editorial, 4/9/02) and "Palestinian rejectionism" (Mortimer Zuckerman, U.S. News & World Report, 3/22/02), "Arafat walked away from generous Israeli peacemaking proposals without even making a counteroffer" (Salon, 3/8/01). Yes, Arafat "walked away without making a counteroffer" (Samuel G. Freedman, USA Today, 6/18/01). Israel "offered peace terms more generous than ever before and Arafat did not even make a counteroffer" (Chicago Sun-Times editorial, 11/10/00). In case the point isn't clear: "At Camp David, Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians an astonishingly generous peace with dignity and statehood. Arafat not only turned it down, he refused to make a counteroffer!" (Charles Krauthammer, Seattle Times, 10/16/00).
This account is one of the most tenacious myths of the conflict. Its implications are obvious: There is nothing Israel can do to make peace with its Palestinian neighbors. The Israeli army’s increasingly deadly attacks, in this version, can be seen purely as self-defense against Palestinian aggression that is motivated by little more than blind hatred.
Locking in occupation
To understand what actually happened at Camp David, it's necessary to know that for many years the PLO has officially called for a two-state solution in which Israel would keep the 78 percent of the Palestine Mandate (as Britain's protectorate was called) that it has controlled since 1948, and a Palestinian state would be formed on the remaining 22 percent that Israel has occupied since the 1967 war (the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem). Israel would withdraw completely from those lands, return to the pre-1967 borders and a resolution to the problem of the Palestinian refugees who were forced to flee their homes in 1948 would be negotiated between the two sides. Then, in exchange, the Palestinians would agree to recognize Israel (PLO Declaration, 12/7/88; PLO Negotiations Department).
Although some people describe Israel's Camp David proposal as practically a return to the 1967 borders, it was far from that. Under the plan, Israel would have withdrawn completely from the small Gaza Strip. But it would annex strategically important and highly valuable sections of the West Bank--while retaining "security control" over other parts--that would have made it impossible for the Palestinians to travel or trade freely within their own state without the permission of the Israeli government (Political Science Quarterly, 6/22/01; New York Times, 7/26/01; Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories, 9-10/00; Robert Malley, New York Review of Books, 8/9/01).
The annexations and security arrangements would divide the West Bank into three disconnected cantons. In exchange for taking fertile West Bank lands that happen to contain most of the region's scarce water aquifers, Israel offered to give up a piece of its own territory in the Negev Desert--about one-tenth the size of the land it would annex--including a former toxic waste dump.
Because of the geographic placement of Israel’s proposed West Bank annexations, Palestinians living in their new "independent state" would be forced to cross Israeli territory every time they traveled or shipped goods from one section of the West Bank to another, and Israel could close those routes at will. Israel would also retain a network of so-called "bypass roads" that would crisscross the Palestinian state while remaining sovereign Israeli territory, further dividing the West Bank.
Israel was also to have kept "security control" for an indefinite period of time over the Jordan Valley, the strip of territory that forms the border between the West Bank and neighboring Jordan. Palestine would not have free access to its own international borders with Jordan and Egypt--putting Palestinian trade, and therefore its economy, at the mercy of the Israeli military.
Had Arafat agreed to these arrangements, the Palestinians would have permanently locked in place many of the worst aspects of the very occupation they were trying to bring to an end. For at Camp David, Israel also demanded that Arafat sign an "end-of-conflict" agreement stating that the decades-old war between Israel and the Palestinians was over and waiving all further claims against Israel.
Violence or negotiation?
The Camp David meeting ended without agreement on July 25, 2000. At this point, according to conventional wisdom, the Palestinian leader's "response to the Camp David proposals was not a counteroffer but an assault" (Oregonian editorial, 8/15/01). "Arafat figured he could push one more time to get one more batch of concessions. The talks collapsed. Violence erupted again" (E.J. Dionne, Washington Post, 12/4/01). He "used the uprising to obtain through violence...what he couldn't get at the Camp David bargaining table" (Chicago Sun-Times, 12/21/00).
But the Intifada actually did not start for another two months. In the meantime, there was relative calm in the occupied territories. During this period of quiet, the two sides continued negotiating behind closed doors. Meanwhile, life for the Palestinian population under Israeli occupation went on as usual. On July 28, Prime Minister Barak announced that Israel had no plans to withdraw from the town of Abu Dis, as it had pledged to do in the 1995 Oslo II agreement (Israel Wire, 7/28/00). In August and early September, Israel announced new construction on Jewish-only settlements in Efrat and Har Adar, while the Israeli statistics bureau reported that settlement building had increased 81 percent in the first quarter of 2000. Two Palestinian houses were demolished in East Jerusalem, and Arab residents of Sur Bahir and Suwahara received expropriation notices; their houses lay in the path of a planned Jewish-only highway (Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories, 11-12/00).
The Intifada began on September 29, 2000, when Israeli troops opened fire on unarmed Palestinian rock-throwers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, killing four and wounding over 200 (State Department human rights report for Israel, 2/01). Demonstrations spread throughout the territories. Barak and Arafat, having both staked their domestic reputations on their ability to win a negotiated peace from the other side, now felt politically threatened by the violence. In January 2001, they resumed formal negotiations at Taba, Egypt.
The Taba talks are one of the most significant and least remembered events of the "peace process." While so far in 2002 (1/1/02-5/31/02), Camp David has been mentioned in conjunction with Israel 35 times on broadcast network news shows, Taba has come up only four times--never on any of the nightly newscasts. In February 2002, Israel's leading newspaper, Ha'aretz (2/14/02), published for the first time the text of the European Union's official notes of the Taba talks, which were confirmed in their essential points by negotiators from both sides.
"Anyone who reads the European Union account of the Taba talks," Ha'aretz noted in its introduction, "will find it hard to believe that only 13 months ago, Israel and the Palestinians were so close to a peace agreement." At Taba, Israel dropped its demand to control Palestine's borders and the Jordan Valley. The Palestinians, for the first time, made detailed counterproposals--in other words, counteroffers--showing which changes to the 1967 borders they would be willing to accept. The Israeli map that has emerged from the talks shows a fully contiguous West Bank, though with a very narrow middle and a strange gerrymandered western border to accommodate annexed settlements.
In the end, however, all this proved too much for Israel's Labor prime minister. On January 28, Barak unilaterally broke off the negotiations. "The pressure of Israeli public opinion against the talks could not be resisted," Ben-Ami said (New York Times, 7/26/01).
Settlements off the table
In February 2001, Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister of Israel. Sharon has made his position on the negotiations crystal clear. "You know, it's not by accident that the settlements are located where they are," he said in an interview a few months after his election (Ha'aretz, 4/12/01).
Meanwhile, Ehud Barak has repudiated his own positions at Taba, and now speaks pointedly of the need for a negotiated settlement "based on the principles presented at Camp David" (New York Times op-ed, 4/14/02).
In April 2002, the countries of the Arab League--from moderate Jordan to hardline Iraq--unanimously agreed on a Saudi peace plan centering around full peace, recognition and normalization of relations with Israel in exchange for a complete Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders as well as a "just resolution" to the refugee issue. Palestinian negotiator Nabil Sha'ath declared himself "delighted" with the plan. "The proposal constitutes the best terms of reference for our political struggle," he told the Jordan Times (3/28/02).
Ariel Sharon responded by declaring that "a return to the 1967 borders will destroy Israel" (New York Times, 5/4/02). In a commentary on the Arab plan, Ha'aretz's Bradley Burston (2/27/02) noted that the offer was "forcing Israel to confront peace terms it has quietly feared for decades."