Camp David II
The summit at Camp David was a significant attempt to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian agreement through lengthy, detailed, and substantial talks. Barak made far-reaching concessions and altered long-held Israeli positions. Barak apparently offered the idea of recognizing a Palestinian state, accepting 100,000 Palestinian refugees in Israel, and granting broad autonomy to Palestinians in East Jerusalem.
His position remained, however, that there would not be full withdrawal to the 1967 lines, no recognition of a right of return for Palestinian refugees, no removal of all settlements beyond the 1967 lines, no remilitarization of the West Bank and Gaza, and no return of parts of East Jerusalem.
As the talks proceeded, it looked as though Barak was ready to go further than anyone could have imagined to reach an agreement. At one point, he put as much as 90–95 percent of the West Bank and Gaza on the table to be returned to Palestinian control and even went so far as to put Jerusalem on the table.
In the end, the talks collapsed, and the parties went home. Clinton told reporters at the White House on July 25: “After 14 days of intensive negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, I have concluded with regret that they will not be able to reach an agreement at this time.” Clinton went out of his way to praise Barak for his efforts at Camp David. “I think it is fair to say that at this moment in time … the prime minister moved forward more from his initial position than Chairman Arafat, particularly on the questions of Jerusalem.” Clinton’s assessment was widely shared by the media and public opinion in the United States and elsewhere.
Barak came to the talks at tangible political risk to himself but ready to make serious compromises. He found Arafat unprepared to make the hard compromises needed to reach an accord. Clinton’s gamble at Camp David had failed, and no deal was made. Each side blamed the other.Barak had convinced himself that his proposals could not be refused and was shocked by Arafat’s reaction. Arafat did not realize that Barak gave him the best offer ever made by Israel, and he did not suggest a counter offer. By simply opposing each idea, Arafat missed a historic opportunity to move forward and reconfirmed the generally held view that he was inflexible and unwilling to take serious risks in exchange for peace.
Arafat was not satisfied with Barak’s offer. For him, full Israeli withdrawal from all the occupied territories, including all of East Jerusalem with the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount), was the only acceptable solution. A Palestinian state would need to be established and recognized with East Jerusalem as its capital. Refugees would need to have the right to return to their homes or would need to receive compensation for their loss. To Arafat, what was offered was inadequate: The refugee problem was only vaguely mentioned, land exchange was not balanced, and both the Haram al-Sharif and parts of Arab Jerusalem were to stay under Israeli sovereignty.
Clinton vented his frustrations over the collapse of the peace process and directed his anger at Arafat. Clinton believed that Arafat turned down the best peace deal he ever was going to get and was guaranteeing the election of the more hawkish Ariel Sharon. Clinton also revealed that in his perspective, the key issue that prevented accord was not the division of Jerusalem and the role of the Israelis and Palestinians there but the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees to locations inside Israel. Arafat continued to insist on the right of return of large numbers of refugees from the 1948 and Six-Day Wars, and these numbers were unacceptable to Israel.
Barak’s Deteriorating Political Position
Arafat was greeted in Gaza with acclaim for having refused to abandon his core demand for a sovereign East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state. Barak returned to a more somber and sober homecoming where he faced protests and demonstrations and the potential disintegration and fall of his government in a vote of no confidence. In addition to the ministers who had resigned just before he went to Camp David, Foreign Minister David Levy resigned after his return on the grounds that Barak had broken the agreements under which his government had been established by offering the Palestinians control of parts of Jerusalem.
Levy argued that he could not explain things with which he did not agree. With the resignations from his cabinet, Barak’s government was reduced from a total of 75 of the Knesset’s 120 seats in July 1999 to only 30 seats as of August 2000, although the prime minister could rely on some support from outside the government for retention of power.
At the end of July, the Knesset passed the first reading of a law concerning Jerusalem, by a vote of 71 to 27. It would amend the Basic Law: Jerusalem the Capital of Israel and fix the boundaries of Jerusalem. Any subsequent transfer of any neighborhoods or quarters then included within the city’s municipal boundaries to the Palestinian Authority or another non-Israeli entity would now require a majority of 61 votes in the Knesset for approval.
Barak’s government noted that the law was superfluous, as there was already one on the statute books from 1998 that determined that a majority of 61 members of the Knesset was required to relinquish any sovereign Israeli territory. Nonetheless, the argument lost, and Barak was further embarrassed as his proposals at Camp David were clearly the target of the proposed law.
Also awaiting Barak upon return from Camp David was the election for the post of president, which had been vacated with Weizman’s resignation the day before the summit began. Barak proposed that Shimon Peres be elected in the hope that Peres would represent the state well in the international community and would be able to use the platform of the largely ceremonial presidency to support peace efforts. Opposing him was Moshe Katsav, a relatively unknown Israeli political figure nominated by the Likud Party.
His views were more reflective of and representative of Israel’s majority population, the Sephardim, and the Second Israel, but the conventional wisdom was that Peres would win by a significant margin because he was well known and Katsav was barely recognizable. The polls indicated Peres was a public favorite by nearly a 2 to 1 margin. In a stunning upset, however, Katsav won in a second round of voting by a margin of 63 to 57 (getting 52.5 percent of the Knesset vote to Peres, who received 47.5 percent). In the first round neither candidate received the requisite 61 votes.
Katsav’s victory marked what appeared to be a humiliating end to Peres’s political career and was another blow to Barak. Katsav was one of the first of Israel’s political leaders to rise to prominence from a poor, new-immigrant town on the nation’s socioeconomic and geographic periphery. Iranian born, Katsav started his political career as Israel’s youngest mayor of Kiryat Malachi in 1969, when he was but 24. He was elected to parliament in 1977 and became tourism minister and deputy prime minister.
Within this setting, after the summit’s collapse, there was a general realization of the need to regain some momentum in the peace process and to sustain some of the positive achievements of the summit. Senior negotiators sought to move forward from the compromises that were achieved on such issues as security, borders, refugees, and settlements. But the Palestinians were talking about unilaterally declaring a Palestinian state if no agreement was reached by September 13. Clinton, in turn, suggested that the United States might move its embassy to Jerusalem, thereby giving recognition to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.