Camp David Redux

A few months ago, nearly five years after the collapse of the July 2000 Camp David summit at which President Bill Clinton expected to forge an historic Middle East peace agreement, a leading member of Clinton’s negotiating team publicly acknowledged that rather than serve as a true mediator in peace negotiations, successive U.S. administrations including Clinton’s have acted as “Israel’s attorney.” Writing on the Washington Post op-ed page in May 2005, Aaron David Miller admitted that Clinton and company followed Israel’s lead “without critically examining what that would mean for our own interests, for those on the Arab side and for the overall success of the negotiations.” The Clinton team’s practice of running everything past Israel first “stripped our policy of the independence and flexibility required for serious peacemaking. Far too often . . . our departure point was not what was needed to reach an agreement acceptable to both sides but what would pass with only one — Israel.” The result was utter failure; in these circumstances, no agreement could possibly meet Palestinian as well as Israeli needs.

Miller is a rarity among generations of senior policymakers who have been unable or unwilling to look back at their own policies and actions with frank honesty. Not surprisingly, the memoirs thus far published by the other policymakers involved in the Camp David collapse exhibit none of Miller’s honesty. One should never, of course, take at face value the testimony of those who oversaw a years-long policy that ended in tatters, but these particular retrospectives are remarkably disingenuous. It is obviously difficult for anyone to acknowledge that a policy so patently misguided was enthusiastically pursued through Clinton’s two terms (and, in the case of people like Miller and senior negotiator Dennis Ross, through three terms, going back to George H.W. Bush). This is what makes Miller’s exposé so telling.

What Miller essentially reveals, although he does not say this explicitly, is that because it could not separate itself from Israel’s interests and Israel’s demands, the Clinton administration is ultimately responsible not only for the collapse of the peace process at Camp David, but for setting in motion everything that has followed: the intifada that erupted two months later, the five years (so far) of Palestinian-Israeli violence since then, the atrocities of Ariel Sharon’s governance of the occupied Palestinian territories, and the end of Palestinian national hopes for a long time to come. Beyond all this, the continuation of the set of policies on the Palestinian issue that Clinton and company put in place probably wipes out any real hope of reducing terrorism against the U.S. and its allies. Although U.S. and other Western policymakers refuse to acknowledge this, Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, supported by the U.S., is a major cause of the hatred and resentment that spawned terror attacks such as September 11. As Israeli historian Avi Shlaim recently observed, “For most Arabs and Muslims the real issue in the Middle East is not Iraq, Iran or democracy but Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people and America’s blind support for Israel.” This perception intensified on Clinton’s watch.

Clinton and his negotiators were so eager, in pursuit of Israel’s interests and of Clinton’s much-ballyhooed “legacy,” to forge a peace agreement at all costs before the end of his term, and were so outraged when the Palestinians refused to relinquish their hope for true independence and sovereignty by complying with Israel’s inadequate offer at Camp David, that they quite deliberately shifted the entire onus for failure onto the Palestinians. At a time when everyone, and certainly every policymaker, should have known that Palestinian frustration with the slow, unproductive pace of the seven-year-old peace process and the continued consolidation of Israel’s occupation was near the point of explosion, Clinton’s obvious effort to blame the Palestinians and side unreservedly with Israel when Israel did not get its way constituted an open invitation to violent upheaval.
The Myths

The myths about Camp David, and particularly about Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s supposedly “generous offer,” have become part of an urban legend by now, particularly among those many commentators, friends of Israel, and instant experts who feel constrained to relieve Israel of any culpability for the Camp David collapse or the intifada that followed. Five years later, whenever the subject of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict comes up in any public discussion or commentary, it is unfailingly asserted that the Palestinians, and specifically Yasir Arafat, acting out of pure cussedness or pure hatred for Jews, rejected an Israeli peace offer of unbelievable generosity, an offer that would have given the Palestinians a state on 90 — or sometimes 95 or 97 — percent of the West Bank and 100 percent of Gaza, with all the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem as a capital. Had it not been for the Palestinians’ turn to violence, so the myth goes, we would not now have Ariel Sharon in office, there would be a satisfactory peace, there would be no killings, and so on.

What the myths ignore is, first and foremost, that Barak’s offers both at Camp David and six months later at the final negotiating session at Taba, Egypt, were not generous by any objective measure. The offers went further than any previous Israeli proposal had, but, since Israel had never before put forth any proposals on the key, so-called final-status issues, this says nothing. In fact, what the supposedly generous offer would have given the Palestinians would have been a state in four pieces, three in the West Bank plus Gaza, with a capital made up of Palestinian neighborhoods not contiguous either to each other or to the rest of the state. The major Israeli settlements, housing fully 80 percent of the 200,000 West Bank settlers and 100 percent of the almost 200,000 additional settlers in East Jerusalem, would have remained in place; the 300-mile road network throughout the West Bank built to connect the settlements and accessible only to Israelis would have remained in place; the “state” left to the Palestinians would have been a mere colony of Israel — non-viable and indefensible, without borders with any state but Israel, totally at Israel’s mercy.

Jeff Halper, the Israeli anthropologist and activist who heads the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and has extensively studied all aspects of the occupation, frequently points out that territory does not equate to sovereignty and that even a prison gives 95 percent of its space to the prisoners, while the prison walls, the cell doors, and occasional towers and other points of control constitute the controlling five percent. Under Barak’s offer, the five percent (or three or ten percent) remaining in Israel’s control — made up of settlements, Israeli-only roads separating Palestinian from each other, checkpoints impeding movement, all of what Halper calls a “matrix of control” — would have given Israel continued dominance over Palestine.

The ability of Clinton and his negotiators to ignore these realities, at the time of Camp David and to this day, is striking evidence of the truth of Miller’s indictment and stands as testimony to their refusal to view anything about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict except through an Israeli prism.

Another critical truth that the Camp David myths ignore is the abysmal condition in which Palestinians lived during the seven years preceding Camp David, beginning with the Oslo agreement of September 1993, when the peace process was supposed to be moving along smoothly. Israel expanded settlements in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem throughout the Oslo years, nearly doubling the number of settlers, at a time when negotiations over Israel’s withdrawal from these territories should have been in train. The entire system of limited access roads connecting the settlements was constructed in these years. Gazans were imprisoned behind an impenetrable fence built in the 1990s to surround that entire territory. A system of closure was imposed on the West Bank and Gaza that prevented Palestinians from working inside Israel and that consequently severely damaged the Palestinian economy. Israel allocated the West Bank’s underground water resources so that Israeli settlers consumed six or seven times the water per capita that was allocated to Palestinians; Israeli settlements had swimming pools and gardens, while Palestinian villages often went without running water.

The West Bank was divided into a checkerboard of areas under varying types of partial Palestinian or full Israeli administrative and security control, designed primarily to protect Israeli settlements and limit Palestinians to small, non-contiguous segments of land. As a result, Israeli military checkpoints were set up throughout the West Bank, severely impeding the movement of people and goods from one Palestinian town and village to another. Whereas before the Oslo agreement Israel had imposed what one Ha’aretz analyst characterizes as a “hovering occupation” in which the Israeli military and civil administration controlled the external borders of the occupied territories but minimized interference in Palestinian daily lives, when peace became more nearly a real prospect, a relatively distant military occupation turned into an in-your-face reality for Palestinians, with checkpoints and observation towers, a computerized system of permits and movement controls, roadblocks, and Israeli tanks outside their towns. The result, this analyst has pointed out, is that “most Palestinians have not experienced Oslo as a peace process. Instead of hope, they received militaristic strangulation from Israel, a corrupt self-government that depends on Israel in a humiliating way, and prolonged poverty. The long and the short of it is that the Palestinian hope for peace and independence had collapsed long before September 2000,” when the intifada broke out.

These facts put the lie to the Israeli and U.S. claims that the intifada was orchestrated by Arafat for political gain and was motivated by some kind of unfathomable culture of hatred for Jews rather than any legitimate grievance. In actuality, the intifada grew out of years of escalating oppression under Israel’s occupation, along with utter frustration over what appeared after Camp David to be the end of any hope for peace and independence. The concerted U.S. campaign to blame Arafat and the Palestinians for rejecting what they were repeatedly told was “the best deal they would ever get” came as the final straw, convincing the Palestinians that peace with Israel and real independence were not on the horizon. In this atmosphere, Ariel Sharon’s deliberately provocative visit to the site of the al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam, two months after Camp David virtually guaranteed an explosion. The Clinton team’s obliviousness to the facts of the Palestinian situation and to the impact of their campaign of blame is further confirmation that as Israel’s lawyer they were blind to any but Israel’s point of view.

The fact that the so-called “generous offer” of Ehud Barak is a blatant lie –one that constitutes one of the most serious distortions of the historical record in modern times, ranking at least as high in terms of geostrategic significance as the Bush administration’s lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — goes blithely unnoticed in the mainstream media, among the general public, and in policymaking circles. But unlike the WMD lie, this myth persists, this lie grows like topsy. It comes up whenever a peace plan is put forth; it arises as Israel’s excuse whenever harsh Israeli control measures in the occupied territories are publicized; it was rehashed ad nauseam when Arafat died in November 2004; it was re-rehashed when Mahmoud Abbas was elected to succeed Arafat two months later; and it has been used to propagate further myths, such as that the Palestinians seek Israel’s destruction and, most damaging to prospects for peace, that first Arafat and now Abbas are not proper partners for peace.

The typical assertion about Camp David and its aftermath usually runs along the lines of a New York Times article several years later in which the correspondent (Ethan Bronner, a Times editor, later to become deputy foreign editor, who should know better) recounted a badly skewed “history” of supposed Palestinian hatred of Jews and concluded with what he thought was the “worst of all”: “in 2000, when Israel offered Yasir Arafat more than 90 percent of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip for a Palestinian state, his rejection was accompanied by a terrorist war that shows no signs of stopping.” Something like this line has also become a mantra for Times columnist Thomas Friedman and many others.
A Book of Truths

The truth of things, which comes clear only in bare outline from Aaron Miller’s brief op-ed, becomes crystal clear in a remarkable book by a young graduate student who, with no vested interest in any particular version of the story, interviewed most of the principals involved in the peace process, as well as several lower ranking functionaries, and produced an account of U.S. policymaking that is strikingly honest and revealing. In The Truth About Camp David: The Untold Story About the Collapse of the Middle East Peace Process, Clayton E. Swisher demonstrates that asking the right questions — something no one in the media has yet attempted to do — can unearth the real story beneath the self-interested distortions of those involved and the hype put out by a media completely locked in to the Israeli perspective.

Swisher’s story, covering the peace process during Barak’s two years in office, with an emphasis on U.S. policymaking, is a tale of an incredibly ham-handed diplomatic effort. Clinton and his negotiating team come across as a kind of gang that couldn’t shoot straight. Swisher describes turf squabbles between Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and most particularly between an egotistical Dennis Ross and, at one time or another, virtually everyone else. Albright, it comes clear repeatedly, knew virtually nothing about the issues; both Israelis and Palestinians, in fact, generally avoided her because she lacked mastery of the topic. Summit meetings, between Syrians and Israelis and later Palestinians and Israelis, are shown to be extremely poorly prepared. The U.S. mediators made little effort to narrow positions before the summits, and there was little of the give-and-take essential in negotiations. One State Department official tells Swisher that at Camp David everything was “very loosy-goosy,” with no prepared texts and no detailed position papers, because “that’s the way Dennis liked to run things.”

Throughout the Camp David summit, no one ever presented a formalized, written proposal covering the major issues. Nor, incredibly, did the U.S. keep any written record of what went on during the two weeks of negotiations. When the Israelis asked Ross a month later for a reconstruction of what had occurred at the summit, Ross acknowledged that there was nothing in writing. Things got no better as the final months of Clinton’s administration went on. Miller confesses to Swisher that the so-called “parameters” that Clinton finally presented in late December 2000 — the first time the Clinton team had ventured to adopt a policy position — were still being revised the very day they were presented, meaning that, as Miller notes, “we were not ready.” This was less than a month before the end of eight years in office. Clinton and company lacked a clear strategy and “dithered” over what exactly the parameters were to define.

The dithering over its own position even months after Camp David and the poor preparation for the summit in the first place were entirely attributable to the utter reluctance of Clinton et al. to take any steps without Israel’s approval. The ruinous effect on the peace process of this obeisance to Israel comes through loud and clear in Swisher’s account, one interlocutor after another making it patently evident that the strong tilt toward Israel is what ultimately upended negotiations. Albright, in a rare mood of candor, all but apologizes several times for not having pressed Israel harder. She tells Swisher that when Barak first came to office in 1999, succeeding the very intransigent Benjamin Netanyahu, the Clinton people were so pleased to see him that they simply assumed he had “enough of a political strategic view” to move ahead on negotiations, but they were mistaken. She acknowledges that throughout the process “we should have been much harder” on Israel, particularly on Israeli settlements, which Barak was expanding at a faster rate than Netanhayu had.

The book is filled with statements by U.S. officials indicating an almost automatic deferral to Israel’s demands. One unnamed senior White House official, asked why it took so many months after Camp David to release Clinton’s parameters, tells Swisher, “There were certain proposals that Barak didn’t want put forward because he didn’t think he could sell them back home. Also, realize that the U.S. is pro-Israeli. Clinton was the first president who first reached out to Palestinians — like no other — but at the end of the day, Clinton was a pro-Israeli president. When push came to shove . . . if Barak said don’t put this in front of him, [Clinton] wasn’t going to.”

This very neatly sums up the entire story of the Clinton administration’s role in the peace process. Swisher himself concludes that the U.S. acted as “an extra negotiator for the Israelis and an apologist for Barak’s plans to sustain the occupation.” One State Department official who was present at Camp David says, “Look, you never go into a negotiation without knowing an endgame! We went in to the most high-stakes of negotiations not only not knowing the endgame; we didn’t know what Israel’s positions were. . . . We saw them unfolding in front of us.”

At the most critical point in 50-plus years of dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict, the United States, in a breathtaking abdication of responsibility, allowed Israel alone to set the starting point, the pace, and the agenda of what was to have been an historic, conflict-ending peace agreement.

Probably most appalling in this story of a monumental U.S. policy failure is that the major U.S. players had virtually no understanding of the Palestinians, despite seven years of what can only be called intense dealings with them. Clinton’s policymakers did not understand what the Palestinians were enduring under Israeli occupation; conveniently forgot the huge concession the Palestinians had made a dozen years earlier by recognizing Israel’s existence in 78 percent of original Palestine; had no appreciation of the significance for Palestinians of the massive spread of Israeli settlements throughout the only territory remaining for a Palestinian state; did not understand the critical need from the Palestinian standpoint for a reasonable resolution to the refugee problem; and fathomed nothing of how totally impossible it was for Arafat or any Muslim or Arab leader to agree to Israel’s demand for sovereignty over Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. They simply did not “get it,” and Swisher’s interviews demonstrate that most of these U.S. movers and shakers, with the belated exception of Miller, still steadfastly refuse to recognize the reasons for their failure.

Even an Israeli negotiator laments that “The American team didn’t know the substance. It is one thing to know the principles of an agreement, and another to master the details. If you don’t have a rich, sophisticated understanding of the issue, when you are confronted by reality you are left paralyzed,” without the breadth of knowledge to be creative or to be able to compromise. At Camp David, Swisher himself notes, even after seven years, “Ross was still nowhere near the most basic understanding of what the Palestinians would consider minimally acceptable regarding territory.” Fundamentally, as Swisher points out but Ross has apparently never grasped, as the occupying power with total control over “the very thing the Palestinians wanted — a state — the Israelis would naturally have to be more forthcoming [than the Palestinian side]; this could only occur if the central mediator stood between both parties and demonstrated a willingness to ‘swing elbows.'” But neither Ross nor any of his colleagues, including Clinton, saw the need to do this.

For most of the Americans, the basic issue came down to a mere mathematical one, and they lost themselves in a forest of percentages. Clinton used to boast that he knew the geography of the West Bank so well he could draw a map in his sleep, but in fact he only saw that map in two dimensions; neither he nor any of the others understood the territorial issue as it played out on the ground. Ross was fond of saying that in any negotiation, neither side could expect to gain 100 percent of what it wanted — a statement intended pointedly to tell the Palestinians that they could never expect the return of all of the occupied territories, despite the fact that those territories constituted less than one-quarter of original Palestine and the Palestinians had long since conceded Israel’s right to the other three-quarters.

Within this limiting parameter, the U.S. simply played around with percentages of territory. Even Miller failed to get it. One leading Palestinian negotiator tells Swisher that shortly before Camp David he had asked Miller how much of the occupied territories Miller thought the Palestinians could accept for a state and Miller responded, astoundingly, 70 percent. This would be 70 percent of the West Bank, which constituted only 22 percent of original Palestine. The Palestinian exploded angrily, telling Miller he was “miserably misinformed,” that in fact the Palestinians could not accept anything less than 100 percent, plus or minus a few small parcels of land to be swapped on a one-for-one basis for parcels of Israeli territory. Miller was shocked, indicating an almost unbelievable level of ignorance after more than a decade in which he had personally been involved with the Palestinian issue. If the Americans had not all been operating from an Israeli perspective, they could not possibly have so badly misunderstood the Palestinians.

Perhaps this was the beginning of Miller’s enlightenment, but the lesson did not take with any of the other senior members of Clinton’s team. Whenever in the lead-up to Camp David the Israelis proposed to return 66 percent or 76 percent of the West Bank, the U.S. team, still failing to understand the Palestinian position, never objected and never attempted to narrow the huge gap. When the gap did narrow at Camp David — a function of increased Israeli but not U.S. recognition of the possibilities — the U.S. members were still merely dickering with numbers. At one point Albright considered it a simple matter just to split the difference between a Palestinian demand for 98 percent and an Israeli readiness to relinquish no more than 92 percent — as if the mathematical mid-point of 95 percent, although not based on anything real on the ground, could somehow magically resolve all outstanding Palestinian territorial problems. Arbitrarily flipping off two or three or ten percent here or there does not make the territory remaining to the Palestinians contiguous or viable or defensible, does not address fundamental issues of control over territory, and does not make the Palestinians truly independent or sovereign in their own territory.

As has been evident since the day Camp David collapsed, Yasir Arafat became the focus and the easy scapegoat for all the Americans’ frustrations over their own failures. Their excuses for the collapse of negotiations — almost all adopted wholesale from Barak — centered entirely on Arafat. He could not bring himself to end the conflict, he could not make the change from revolutionary to statesman, he wanted and indeed fostered turmoil and violence in order to improve his bargaining position, he rejected Barak’s generous offer without offering any counterproposal, he rejected even Clinton’s “parameters,” and so on. According to Swisher, the Palestinians he spoke to, as well even as some Israelis and Americans, believed that putting the entire onus of blame on the Palestinians — which Clinton had sworn before the summit he would not do and which left the Palestinians with virtually no hope of ever ending the occupation — was the proximate cause of the intifada that erupted two months later.

The deliberate distortions and myths about supposed Palestinian intransigence have been repeated and perpetuated by each of the principals and picked up and made into legend by media commentators. Clinton spent Inauguration Day 2001, according to Swisher, telling the incoming Bush team about his disappointment with Arafat, who he said had torpedoed the peace process, and he urged Colin Powell not to invest any energy dealing with the Palestinian leader. Ross, who actually worked with an Israeli negotiator in the middle of the night before the summit collapsed to draft Clinton’s “blame speech,” casting Arafat as the bad guy and Barak as the courageous risk-taker, also briefed the Bush team. He spent four hours with Powell during the transition and reportedly told the incoming secretary of state not to believe a word Arafat said because he was “a con man.”

Ross has continued to play the blame game ever since. In voluminous interviews (including with Swisher) and commentaries over the last several years, as well as in his own memoirs, Arafat always figures as the culprit and as Ross’s central obsession. The obsession — fed by Barak, shared to a great degree by Clinton, and magnified by an Israel-centric media in the U.S. — became a comfortable retreat for Americans who could not acknowledge U.S. responsibility and would not acknowledge Israel’s responsibility, so closely bound was the U.S. to Israel. Swisher ends his account with a semi-apology from Miller, who participated in Ross’s four-hour briefing of Powell. “You don’t want to give centrality to how you fucked up,” Miller confessed. “Dennis could have never brought himself to do it, and neither could I.”
The Roots of Failure

Because of its thorough examination of the thinking and the policy path followed by the Clinton negotiating team and, as noted, because he thought to ask the right questions about the policymakers’ motivations, Swisher’s book stands as probably the best and certainly the most revealing of several retrospectives on Camp David and the peace process. (One other book that also stands out as an honest and disinterested account is Shattered Dreams, by French journalist Charles Enderlin. Although it too is based on interviews with all the principals from the U.S., Israel, and Palestine, it does not focus as Swisher’s account does on U.S. motivations. Among the myriad article-length recaps of Camp David, an August 2001 New York Review of Books piece co-authored by Robert Malley and Hussein Agha, participants at Camp David on the U.S. and the Palestinian delegations respectively, provides a very well informed if brief assessment of the negotiations and is virtually the only one not written from a U.S.-Israeli perspective.)

The importance of Swisher’s book is that it pieces together all the evidence necessary to demonstrate inescapably that Clinton and company’s pronounced tilt toward Israel was the major, and perhaps the only, reason for the collapse of the peace process. A pro-Israeli tilt in U.S. policy was obviously not unique to the Clinton administration, but it was under Clinton that the Israel-centered mindset that had always determined U.S. policymaking finally ran up against a need for the kind of balanced approach that would have taken Palestinian concerns into account equally with Israeli concerns. The Clinton team was unable to overcome its biases and the blindness those biases produced long enough to function as a truly honest mediator between the two sides.

Clinton and company dropped all pretense of U.S. neutrality after Camp David. One of the most significant but least noted comments in the virulent U.S.-led campaign to paint Arafat as the culprit was Clinton’s veiled accusation on Israeli television that Arafat had actively worked at the summit to thwart Israel’s aspirations. “I kept telling the Palestinians,” he said, “and I will say again to the world, that you cannot make an agreement over something as important as Jerusalem . . . if it is required of one side to say I completely defeated the interest of the other side.” Clinton’s attribution to Arafat of such malevolence, charging that his purpose was to “completely defeat” Israel’s interests rather than advance a Palestinian interest in part of Jerusalem, was indicative of the kind of Israel-focused mindset that had long pervaded American thinking. (It was no doubt also indicative of Clinton’s desire to boost the electoral prospects of his wife Hillary, then running for a Senate seat from New York, where pro-Israeli credentials are thought to be essential.) Because of this focus on the Israeli perspective to the exclusion of the Palestinian viewpoint, all Palestinian actions are viewed according to their impact on Israel, as if Palestinians always act only against Israel, never for themselves.

For the same reasons, the U.S. tends to take Israel’s maximum position as the norm and the standard of reasonableness, and “progress” in negotiations is judged according to that maximum: any Israeli movement away from the maximum, however insignificant, is applauded; any Palestinian failure to accept Israel’s position is condemned. Although he would undoubtedly not acknowledge that he was describing anything inappropriate, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman captured the Clinton attitude, and the general American attitude, a few days after Camp David when he observed that Clinton’s criticism of Arafat had demonstrated that “there is in the U.S. view a level of Israeli compromise that is right and fair, and beyond which Israel should not be expected to go. It is not just a bottomless pit of give-aways.” Israel’s interests are supreme, in other words, both to Friedman and to Clinton, and Palestinians are judged according to how well they accommodate, or at least refrain from interfering with, those interests.

Given this general attitude, one can only assume that Clinton must have been totally dismissive, or perhaps mystified, when near the end of the summit Arafat responded to Clinton’s anger, according to Swisher, by trying to put the situation in perspective. “You say the Israelis moved forward,” Arafat said to Clinton, “but they are the occupiers. They are not being generous — they are not giving from their pockets but from our land. I am only asking that UN Resolution 242 be implemented. I am speaking only about 22 percent of Palestine, Mr. President.” (Emphasis added.)

Camp David was the culmination of a mindset that had been forming and molding itself for decades. Despite the understanding Clinton had exhibited for broad Palestinian concerns, when negotiations came down to the specifics of critical questions like Jerusalem and borders, he proved unable to shift his thinking away from a primary focus on Israel’s needs and Israel’s demands. Like many Americans, particularly in the Southern Baptist tradition, Clinton had grown up on myths about Israel. He writes in his 2004 memoir, My Life, that an old pastor and mentor had told him while he was governor of Arkansas that he would probably be president some day but that God would “never forgive you if you don’t stand by Israel.” The pastor did not argue that Israel had not mistreated the Palestinians, but he thought God intended the Jews “to be at home” in the Holy Land and that the Palestinians’ problems could only be solved through peace and security for Israel.

Such notions of the priority of Israeli interests, taught early in life, inevitably find their way into policy. All of Clinton’s principal negotiators, moreover, had what they all acknowledged was an emotional commitment to Israel. This conditioning and ingrained way of thinking is evident in the memoirs thus far published. Clinton’s own memoir and others by Albright and Ross add up to an embarrassing collection of apologias for a badly misguided U.S. policy and provide striking evidence of how little the U.S., in its myopic attitude toward Israel, understood the Palestinian position.

Clinton’s memoir is actually most notable for how little it says. For a man of such widely recognized analytical acumen, this much-heralded policy wonk writes a remarkably unwonkish memoir, a prosaic compendium of “who struck Johns” and “who said what to whoms” almost totally lacking in analysis. But he does manage to insert frequent snide asides about Arafat’s failure to do as Clinton and the Israelis wanted and his inability to move forward as rapidly in negotiations as Clinton’s time in office was receding. The memoirs reveal a president wholly dedicated to safeguarding Israel’s interests and unable even to fathom the Palestinians’ interests. Clinton’s anger that Arafat would not take risks for Israel’s security, or for Clinton’s own legacy, is obvious.

Albright’s memoir, Madam Secretary, is an even more abject statement of U.S. devotion to Israel’s perspective. The Israelis gave “all they could” at Camp David, in Albright’s view, whereas Arafat gave “no sign that his vision extended to anything more forward-looking than victory over Israel.” When the intifada broke out, “Barak was personally involved in trying to calibrate the response in ways that would minimize loss of life” (an outrageous distortion after Israel fired more than a million rounds at Palestinian protesters in the first few days of the intifada, before any suicide bombings had occurred, and killed 117 Palestinians, one-quarter of them children, in the first month). In the end, she says, the “core failure was the Palestinians’ obsessive focus not on how much could be gained but on the relatively little they would be required to give up.” Palestinians could have had a state but instead they brought on the election of Ariel Sharon and they are left with “their legalisms, their misery, and their terror.”

Barak and Sharon themselves could not have improved on this astounding anti-Palestinian catalog. Little wonder that the Palestinians got nowhere toward getting their point across at Camp David, to say nothing of advancing toward a just peace.

Clinton’s and Albright’s retrospectives are strikingly self-centered, even in their titles, but the prize for self-absorption goes to Dennis Ross, whose memoir, The Missing Peace, is an 800-page pat on his own back. Clinton is always asking Ross what to do, according to Ross’s account, based almost entirely on his own notes over the years. He knew the parties better than anyone; he was always on the phone or in a private meeting with this or that leader; in the first Bush administration, “I persuaded [James] Baker and [George H.W.] Bush” to take various actions. Frequent comments like “knowing Rabin as I did” dot his pages; Rabin frequently “shared highly sensitive views with me.” But far more important than his manifestations of ego are Ross’s frank statements of the pro-Israeli perspective from which he was coming. Early in the book, he lays out his policy parameters: “Any effort at peacemaking must be premised on a strong U.S.-Israeli relationship. . . . Criticism was legitimate, but creating a breach in the relationship was not. . . . My approach to the peace process was shaped by the conviction that Israel must feel secure if it was to take risks for peace.” If there were no other evidence of his extreme tilt toward Israel, this alone would stand out as an unmistakable clue to his devotion to Israel and whatever it demanded. One wonders why, as a supposed middleman in negotiations, Ross did not also operate under the conviction, to paraphrase what he says of Israel, “that the Palestinians must feel secure if they were to take risks for peace.”

But the Palestinians received no such consideration. More’s the pity, for a just, more or less equitable peace forged at Camp David would have prevented the intifada, which might then have headed off Osama bin Laden and prevented September 11, which would in turn have prevented the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The possibilities are intriguing to imagine; the consequences of a too-pronounced leaning toward Israel are frightening to dwell on.
Lost Hope

Although an honest Aaron Miller acknowledged to Swisher that none of the principal U.S. players in the negotiations was capable of giving a frank appraisal of what occurred because “the personal agenda and heat of the moment have colored it,” the media and public opinion throughout the U.S. know only the distorted story as it emerged from these principal players when the summit collapsed. Clinton and company set the mood and cast the story in concrete on that day five years ago, and no amount of reappraisal, none of the second thoughts or reconsiderations, have made it through the media curtain that dropped across the Palestinian side of the story on that day. Like the old cliché about the correction to an erroneous but much-publicized newspaper story appearing only on page 30, buried deep inside the paper and never getting anything like the attention of the original story, the damage done by the U.S. at Camp David was done permanently the day Clinton gave the “blame speech.” The Palestinians lost hope; the peace movement in Israel felt it had been betrayed by the Palestinians; the media in the U.S., ever eager to blame the Palestinians, picked up the message and have never since retracted or reassessed. Very few know, or are likely ever to know, the real story of how the Clinton administration undermined the Palestinians and undermined all prospects for peace.

KATHLEEN CHRISTISON is a former CIA political analyst and has worked on Middle East issues for 30 years. She is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession. She can be reached at: