Saturday, August 25, 2007

Doomed to Fail: The Story of the Camp David and Taba Negotiations

Doomed to Fail: The Story of the Camp David and Taba Negotiations

Introduction and Background

The Camp David negotiations in the year 2000 and the subsequent Taba discussions that were held, represent in many ways both the potential for a permanent negotiated solution to the Middle East crisis as well as the failed methods of negotiating that have haunted all sides in the conflict since the birth of the State of Israel. The Camp David meetings, which can only be summed up as an initiative that came too late and had involved too little on all sides, would ultimately fail and would come on the heels of a lot of other high-profile meetings that would become international disappointments, including Oslo in 1993 and the Wye River Plantation talks in 1998.

Previous Negotiating Experience

The parties involved in the discussions, the Israelis and the PLO, as hinted earlier, have engaged in numerous protracted negotiations in the past. The current chapter of this history can be said, to begin with the Oslo accords in 1993. After the election of a moderate Labour government under Rabin in Israel, serious negotiations would be given a boost. Secret backchannel discussion would begin between Israel and the PLO, under Norwegian tutelage, and an interim agreement would be reached by 1995. The next major negotiations would take place at the Wye River Plantation, with the Israelis now under the new leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, and much distrust continued to exist between the two sides. For the Palestinian side, the ambiguous nature of the agreement would be problematic as well as the continued construction of settlements in the post-Wye period. For the Israelis, Wye would represent yet another failure of the Palestinian authority to live up to its agreements regarding security arrangements and plans. The final major negotiating chapter, in the lead up to Camp David, would climax on September 4, 1999 with the Sharm El-Sheik memorandum, signed by Arafat on the Palestinian side, and the new Prime Minster Ehud Barak for the Israelis. It must be said that many of these larger negotiations, while often seen as failures in the end, were interspersed with smaller and sometimes more successful negotiations, such as the Gaza-Jericho (1994) and Hebron agreements (1997).

Purposes and Motives

Despite the history of failures and contemporaneous feelings of distrust and dislike among many of the negotiators, there existed many motivations that would ultimately propel the many sides to join new negotiations at Camp David. For Ehud Barak, one major issue was domestic Israeli politics. He felt that the only chance of surviving as leader, especially after the reduction in the status of his party in the Knesset, was to try to achieve peace quickly with the Palestinians; in other words, offer the Israeli public an alternative to the death and destruction as well as the to the rhetoric of the hardliners.

Another motive for Barak, very clearly stated, was security. This was the primary concern of all the previous Israeli leaders. For Palestinian leaser Arafat, I would argue that he feared his own weakening status in Palestinian politics and society. He was making further threats about declaring statehood but yet knew that such a tactic, while popular back home, would not have been realistic internationally and would have received a prompt response from Israel. Therefore, the renewed negotiations became for Arafat a hope to save face among the Palestinians in a way.


The timing that prompted all the negotiators to commit to renewed discussions have been hinted to previously, such as the internal political turmoil in Israel. It also must be said that the larger Middle East political scenario was a fitting one. Israel would remove its troops from Lebanon, removing another potential source of strain and therefore improving any timing for further Israeli/Palestinian negotiations. Further, it could be argued that given the nearing of another change of administrations in the United States, as the political cycle for Clinton was coming to a close, this signaled an increased sense of impatience and spurred the negotiations.

Status of the Negotiators

The negotiators, depending on which side they were on, would often have all the necessary power to put words into actions, boosting the hopes at the Camp David talks. But on the other hand, some of the participating negotiators were working with one hand tied behind their back. One could easily illustrate this by referring to the PBS documentary Shattered Dreams in which Ehud Barak states that the Palestinian negotiators in Washington were not able to deliver on their promises given that they were continuously forced to seek the acceptance of Yasser Arafat for their decisions. Therefore, this would subsequently convince Barak that direct negotiations were necessary with Arafat. Of course, some have argued that even Arafat himself was in no position to deliver on any promises made. For example, the lead Israeli negotiator Gilead Sher would later argue that

“Arafat was never ready — mentally, personally, or historically, at Camp David or afterwards — to conclude a deal; he is a leader of a national movement and not a statesman.”

But this ought not to put the blame only on the Palestinian side. Ehud Barak would also have his ability to deliver on his promises undercut by Israeli realities. He was the leader of a coalition government and the leader of a divided country that contained a highly visible and influential settler movement that opposed any concessions. President Clinton also was doomed to fail given that his term was nearing, with no possibility of reelection.

Psychological Obstacles

The Camp David and the subsequent Taba amendments proposed reflected in many ways a psychological maturation among the negotiators themselves and the Israeli and Palestinian publics. The PLO had always been shunned by the Israelis until the first Oslo accords. But since then, with the changes that took place in the interim (for example the rise of Netanyahu), it had once become difficult to envision direct PLO/Israeli meetings. Thus, the Camp David accords, once they came to light, would move the psychological plane from one of disbelief to a more positive outlook. Once the leadership had broken down these mental barriers, it would be much easier for their populations to accept the new dynamism of the unraveling negotiations. By the same token, the Taba negotiations were doomed to fail from the beginning. The negotiators like Saeb Erakat for example, knowing full well that the Clinton presidency was nearing the end, had mixed feelings. Also, Erakat had been personally invested for so long in the peace process that his vantage point was one of continued success and failure. Further, the disappointment of Camp David would signal the faltering of hope, which often has a more devastating effect on morale than if no hope existed to begin with.

The Gap Between Proposals

The main proposal that was put at the table for Camp David involved the following main points: Israel would offer to withdraw from over 91% of the West Bank and 100% of Gaza while annexing the most contiguous and populous of settlements to Israel. In return, territory would be given to the Palestinians from elsewhere in exchange. Autonomy would be given to some East Jerusalem areas, which would become a capital for a new Palestine, but would not be sovereign. While this represented the basis of the deal being offered, the Palestinians would see major gaps that would ultimately prove unacceptable. For Arafat, he emphasized the need to have land that was in “value and in the area;” in other words, he did not want to receive desert. Ahmed Qureia, a chief Palestinian negotiator, had a different take on the basis of negotiations that was presented. He argued that the offer would have created a series of cantons in the West Bank and not a basis for a Palestinian country. Yasser Arafat would further elaborate on the gaps involved at Camp David: that the borders in the agreement must be those of pre-1967 and in addition, East Jerusalem must be under sovereign control of Palestinians.

In regards to the Clinton amendments and subsequent Taba agreement, a few important disagreements can be identified. These include the Palestinian right of return and the final status of the religious institutions in Jerusalem. The Palestinians argued that only portions of the Waling Wall were to be considered holy for Israelis whereby the rest of the adjacent tunnel systems were in fact part of the Haram Al-Sharif. The Israelis disagreed with the scenario. The Israelis proposed an interim solution regarding the refugees whereby there would be a fifteen year resettlement program for a number of refugees. The Palestinians insisted on respecting all previous agreements.

Role of Third Parties

The most important third party negotiator was the United States. Clinton would spearhead the Camp David and Taba talks by reaching out to both parties and inviting them for the meetings. Clinton would continue this tradition that was laid down by Carter whereby the United States president would take forceful charge of the situation in order to move the parties forward.


I would argue that this case study clearly demonstrates that the Palestinians and Jews are locked in an intractable conflict where two groups are vying for the same piece of land. But it also must be said that these two groups in many ways have been beholden to the interests of their respective minorities who have not been accepting of any compromise. While outside pressures have often been involved to the detriment of these two groups, both Palestinians and Jews face a situation of immense difficulty.

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