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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 
Summary 

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 presidents 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 presidents search for his legacy and the reality of Israeli-Palestinian relations are on a collision course. Both will likely be damaged at Camp David. 

Analysis 

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 Carters 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 anothers 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 Jews obligation to the Torahs 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 dont 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 take place. 

This was the position of Arafats elders. Once, he opposed it. Now, this is Arafats 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 Arafats Palestinian Authority. Arafat simply doesnt 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 Israels narrow waist. At the very least, it will be a staging ground for terrorists. 

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 wont 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 medias 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. Clintons 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. 

MidEast


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