|When most people hailed the Camp David summit as the road to peace,
our analysis in July said that the summit would cause serious harm to both
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Since then, the Middle East has seen its worst political crisis in years,
with nearly 200 people killed.
Camp David, Good Intentions and the Road to Hell
10 July 2000
In the final months of his administration, President Clinton has summoned
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat to
Camp David. The president’s goal is a breakthrough and a permanent, lasting
peace. But the administration risks hurting both Barak and Arafat, causing
them severe – if not fatal – political harm at home. The president’s search
for his legacy and the reality of Israeli-Palestinian relations are on
a collision course. Both will likely be damaged at Camp David.
The latest Camp David talks are part of a chain, stretching back to
Wye Plantation and Oslo. All were supposed to lay the groundwork for lasting
peace. But why will the latest talks succeed where all the others have
failed? To begin, what exactly is the president trying to achieve?
With his tenure winding to a close, Clinton is looking to his legacy.
Camp David, after all, is where President Carter presided over an Israeli-Egyptian
settlement. Clinton would clearly like to leave behind the equivalent of
Carter’s Camp David accords. In itself, this is not an ignoble motive.
Presidents have a right to be concerned with their place in history, and
striking an Israeli-Palestinian settlement is not a bad legacy.
The problem that will arise is not one of intention. The problem is
whether the goal – a formal settlement – is first attainable and second,
worth attaining. The attempt to move beyond informal settlements to formal
ones may make the situation worse, rather than better. In seeking his place
in history, Clinton's good intentions may set the stage for a substantial
deterioration of the situation.
To understand the profound difference between the first Camp David accords
and these, consider the difference between Israeli-Egyptian relations and
Israeli-Palestinian relations. In strict geopolitical terms, Egypt and
Israel shared nothing but a border. Indeed, the border itself was artificial;
Israel proper and Egypt proper were separated physically by the Sinai wasteland.
The Sinai created the opportunity for peace because it allowed the separation
of two nations.
But no such buffer is conceivable between Israel and the Palestinians.
Even when Israel blockades the West Bank, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians
and Israeli citizens are intermingled in Israel proper. In Jerusalem, boundaries
are measured not in miles but in streets and buildings.
These two peoples are intimately connected by the economy, as well.
The Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza occupy territories that are
simply not viable without access to other markets, both for products and
labor. Countless Palestinians have migrated to other countries, true, but
those who remain need Israel as a place to work. In turn, Israel depends
on the Palestinian labor force for cheap labor.
Economics aside, the fact is that Israelis and Palestinians cannot get
out of one another’s way. Nor can they easily define their relationship
to each other. In a fundamental sense, Israelis and Palestinians both regard
the other as usurpers and intruders. Each regards the other as a historical
victimizer, and each can make eloquent and persuasive arguments in defense
of its own victimization.
Instead of being marginal, these sensibilities go to the heart of the
political culture of each people. Zionism cannot dispense with the idea
that the Jewish exile and return was a moral imperative and so, whoever
inhabited the land during their absence was a squatter. Palestinian nationalism
is built on the idea that the inhabitants of the land now called Israel
were the unique victims of alien settlers who stole the land and dispossessed
the people. Each political culture is defined over and against the other.
A formal settlement at Camp David would require that one side give the
other some formal, explicit acknowledgement of claims to the land. To do
so, each side would have to modify its own understanding of history. Israelis
would have to treat Palestinians as other than interlopers, with legitimate
rights. Palestinians would have to formally accept that Israelis have real
rights, too. To do this formally would require a wrenching redefinition
of both Zionism and Palestinian nationalism.
The thorn in the heart of this problem is not whether each leadership
is prepared to live with such an understanding; both sides live each day
with the inescapable reality of the presence of the other. The question,
however, is whether the political systems of either Israel or the Palestinians
could endure the formal acknowledgement of the reality. Can either side
cross the chasm between tacit understandings and formal agreement?
The Israeli political system, for one, is a fragmented constellation
of political parties. In election after election, regardless of whether
Labor or Likud wins, neither side has enough votes in the Knesset to govern
without a coalition. As in any democracy, coalition building in Israel
is a mixture of high-minded principle and pork barrel politics. Who controls
the housing budget is intermingled with the relationship between secular
and religious authorities.
The question of the Palestinians is thrown into this m?lange of interest
group politics and deep, principled division. After all, Palestinians and
their rights intersect everything from housing strategy to a Jew’s obligation
to the Torah’s understanding of the land that was promised. The Israeli
political system is not only fragile, but also brittle. In this context,
minor parties threaten to bring down governments over pork barrel issues
and can hold matters of grand strategy hostage to those issues.
Simply raising the Palestinian issue provides minor parties with tremendous
leverage over any government. The result is the rapid destabilization of
any Israeli government that tries to deal with the matter; most governments
are unstable even if the Palestinian matter is never raised. Until there
is a revolution in Israeli voting patterns, Israelis simply don’t have
the political ability to deal with the fundamental issue on the table.
Nor, for that matter, do the Palestinians. The structure of the Palestinian
polity is such that it must always generate a faction that stands in opposition
to dealing with Israel. Conditions in Gaza are wretched, and conditions
in the West Bank are nearly as bad. Any agreement with Israel threatens
to lock into place a system of political and economic relationships that
are at best barely tolerable. An argument can be made that Israel is an
unavoidable reality and that, for better or worse, accommodation has to
This was the position of Arafat’s elders. Once, he opposed it. Now,
this is Arafat’s position, criticized as it is by younger opponents. The
problem here is the Palestinian version of pork barrel politics. The misery
of the Palestinian people is not equally distributed. Arafat maintains
his position within Fatah and within the Palestine National Authority by
practicing the carrot-and-stick strategy of rewarding friends and coercing
enemies. He is therefore perceived – by some – as an Israeli collaborator.
But more important, he is seen as an obstacle to their economic interest
and political ambition. As in Israel, fundamental matters of principle
intersect with more prosaic political and economic interests. Given the
poverty of the Gaza and West Bank, a fairly large segment of the population
sees itself as the simultaneous victim of both Israel and Arafat’s Palestinian
Authority. Arafat simply doesn’t have enough chips with which to build
a broad enough coalition to support him.
As a result, the promise of peace is only minimally enticing, since
it seems to promise long-term economic misery. Many are frightened by a
formal peace, because they are afraid that it will lock them into a double
marginalization: first behind the Jews, second behind the PNA. This is
compounded by the deep ideological and national principles that block acknowledging
the permanence of Israel.
The result is a permanent faction prepared to block any formal settlement.
This faction understands fully the deepest Israeli fears, fears carefully
fanned by their Israeli counterparts. The Israeli fear is rooted in geography:
Any Palestinian entity will become a staging ground for an army rolling
across Israel’s narrow waist. At the very least, it will be a staging ground
Even if the Clinton administration thinks it has the implicit acquiescence
of Hamas, another faction will arise to carry out the role of spoiler,
giving Israeli hard-liners an excuse to crack down. As the Israelis clamp
down, the anti-Arafat faction in Hamas and elsewhere can claim that Israel
has no intention of allowing Palestinian autonomy. Further, they can argue
that Arafat himself is either a dupe or an agent of the Israelis. As the
situation grows out of control on the Palestinian side, the brittle Israeli
political structure shatters, leading to a political vacuum – a new election
that settles nothing.
It is important to understand that Israeli-Palestinian co-habitation
has come a long way since the end of the Intifadah. While the more extreme
dreams of Oslo have not come to pass, there is a Palestinian government,
however it is called, in increasing control of the West Bank. This is a
tremendous event, unimaginable say, in 1973.
But the most important elements have been the implicit ones, not the
explicit ones – the formal announcements of talks aimed at a final, breakthrough
agreement. In a very practical way, rooted in the Middle East, the formal
understandings and the way in which things actually work are not intimately
connected. Far more progress has been made in accommodating the fears and
needs of both sides – by not addressing them formally.
Which brings us back to Camp David. It seems the president, at the very
least, has chosen the wrong place. It is not that he won’t get a document
out of Camp David. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are going
to be the ones to sabotage the talks. Each side is too savvy about American
power and about the media’s perception to simply walk out of the summit.
Some piece of paper is likely to emerge.
The problem is that whatever emerges will hurt both Barak and Arafat,
the very figures to which U.S. policy is tied. Washington actively supported
Barak against Netanyahu just as it backs Arafat against Hamas. It is, therefore,
extraordinary that the administration is forcing both men into a negotiation
that can cause severe, if not fatal, political damage at home. Formal recognition
– on paper – will provide opportunities for political destabilization rather
than increased security.
Two metaphors are likely to apply. The first – that the road to hell
is paved with good intentions – quickly comes to mind. The second – that
a straight line is not necessarily the fastest route to peace – will do,
as well. Peace is not always best achieved by peace talks. Sometimes, not
discussing peace is the best course. Clinton’s need for a legacy and the
reality of Israeli-Palestinian relations are on a collision course. It
is likely that both will lose at Camp David.