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  • So Close and Yet So FarLessons from the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process
  • Shlomo Ben-Ami (bio)

"Instead of repeatedly rejecting the Israelis' proposals, make counter proposals,"1 US President Bill Clinton would tell the Palestinians at Camp David. The President's advisor, Robert Malley, in a judicious and balanced analysis of the summit co-authored with Hussein Agha, repeated this remark: "Indeed, the Palestinians' principal failing is that, from the beginning of the Camp David Summit onward, they were unable either to say yes to the American ideas or to present a cogent and specific counterproposal of their own."2

Tactical shortcomings were not, of course, a Palestinian monopoly. Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak was full of them. For example, he was too slow to grasp the centrality of the issue of Jerusalem in this conference, and hence was unprepared for the far-reaching concessions that were required, and his condescending attitude toward the Palestinian leader was anything but helpful.

Yet, it would be incorrect to dwell excessively on the tactical shortcomings of the parties during the summit as an explanation for the collapse of the Oslo process. It would also be wrong to address Camp David separately from the overall peace process; that is, independently of the negotiations that preceded the summit and that followed it up to the presentation of the Clinton Parameters on 23 December 2000 and later the Taba talks.

The collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was the result of misconceptions, of which none of the parties was free. It was a tragic, and so far irreconcilable, clash of ethos and an impossible political environment that desperately limited the maneuvering space of the parties.

Of course, as critics asserted, the conference at Camp David could have been better prepared, although it is not clear at all what is really meant by that. We made enormous progress through the secret channel in Stockholm between Abu Ala and myself. But the exposure of the channel destroyed any possibility for further progress. The channel stopped because [End Page 72] it was not producing anymore. From that moment on it became clear that Yasser Arafat's insistence that the summit be better prepared was a euphemism that meant that Israel should come closer to his positions.

I must admit, however, that Abu Ala came to me on the eve of Camp David with an initiative to renew the secret channel, this time in Cairo, and he advanced flexibilities he had been unwilling to show before, in order to increase the bait. I failed to convince Barak, who feared an erosion of his positions before the summit, while it later became clear that Abu Ala was not authorized to make those concessions, and his initiative was his way to recover the political ground he had by then lost in much of the Palestinian political family. "We need more time to prepare" was a legitimate Palestinian argument, but nothing was being done to facilitate the process of "preparation."

It is also true that the lack of trust between Barak and Arafat was not especially helpful. It is difficult to imagine a greater incompatibility than the one existing between the Israeli Prime minister, an intellectually arrogant, undoubtedly brilliant general, totally blind to cultural nuances, and always convinced that he possessed the powerful Cartesian logic that would surely convince his interlocutor of the invalidity of his own arguments, on one hand, and Arafat, a mythological leader who, to this day, continues to embody the general will of his people, but who, at the same time, is full of personal complexes and is incapable, or pretending to be incapable, of conducting a fluid dialogue. He would only speak in slogans, catchwords, Islamic metaphors; and he left his interlocutor with the frustrating feeling that, whatever concessions he might be willing to make, he was still owed much more. At no point throughout the entire process as it unfolded after Oslo, not even in the best days that now Arafat claims to miss—those he shared with Yitzhak Rabin, whom he says was his friend—did Arafat convey in private or in public a positive message of hope, or a promise of friendship...


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