A Doomed Middle-East Peace
The late PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, was right to reject the peace proposal made at Camp David 20 years ago this month. It was in rejecting the so-called Clinton Parameters, proposed six months later, that he made a grave mistake, effectively burying the prospect of Palestinian statehood.
TEL AVIV – Twenty years ago this month, US President Bill Clinton invited Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat to a peace summit at Camp David, in a bold effort to resolve one of the longest-running conflicts of modern times. Though no agreement was reached, the summit, in which I participated, was not a failure: the framework it produced became the foundation upon which Clinton built his “peace parameters” – the most equitable and realistic rendition of a two-state solution ever created. Why did nothing come of them?
The Palestinian state would include the Arab sections of Jerusalem, which would serve as its capital, while the Jewish sections of the city would become Israel’s capital. This split would give the Palestinians sovereignty over al-Haram al-Sharif (which Jews call the Temple Mount), though Israelis would retain control over the Western Wall and its surrounding area.
A corridor would be created between Palestinian lands – Clinton called it a “permanent safe passage” – making the new state contiguous. Finally, Palestinian refugees would be able to choose to return without restrictions to the new state of Palestine, to return to the state of Israel with restrictions (as part of a family-reunification scheme), to resettle in a third country, and/or to receive financial compensation, funded by the international community.
Israeli negotiators wanted to translate the Parameters into an official settlement. That would have been a deal significantly better for the Palestinians than the one on offer at the Camp David summit. In fact, the improvement in terms vindicates Arafat’s decision to reject Barak’s proposals at Camp David.
But the Palestinians also resisted the Parameters, arguing that they should not be allowed to constrain future negotiations. During a last-ditch attempt to clinch an agreement in Taba, Egypt, Abu Ala, the chief Palestinian negotiator, admitted to us that Arafat was no longer interested in the offer. This was a devastating mistake, the consequences of which Palestinians suffer every day.
Arafat’s decision can be explained less by a particular demand or concession than by the overarching, delusional, and self-defeating worldview to which many Palestinians cling. As the late Fouad Ajami, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, wrote in a 2001 article, the Palestinians suffer from “an innate refusal to surrender to the logic of things, a belief that a mysterious higher power will always come to their rescue, as if the laws of history did not apply to them.”
In a 2002 letter, one of Arafat’s former ministers, Nabil Amr, condemned this approach. “There is something other than conspiracy that has made the whole world either stand against us or incapable of helping us. Because we have a just cause does not mean we are entitled to do what we want.”
Throughout history, repressed nations have achieved liberation not because they had the right – human, legal, or divine – or because they held the moral high ground. Rather, they succeeded through a combination of wisdom, mettle, and restraint. Their emancipation rested on their ability to balance force and diplomacy, tenacity and compromise.
Energized by the scale of the Palestinian tragedy and the indulgence of the international community, Arafat never accepted that. Instead, he sought a deal that he knew was politically impossible for his Israeli interlocutors. This compulsive indifference to the political and strategic context destroyed the Palestinians’ chances of securing a realistic, fair, and viable peace agreement – and not only in that moment. In fact, it may have doomed the Palestinian cause altogether.
“How many times,” Amr continued in his letter, “did we accept, reject, and then accept? Our timing in saying yes or no was never good. How many times were we asked to do something that we could do but we did not do it? When this something became impossible, we begged the world to re-propose it to us.” Amr seemed to recognize that the world would reach its limit, and the proposals would stop coming. Two decades after the Camp David summit, that is exactly what has happened.
Today, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict barely registers on the regional, let alone global, agenda. US President Donald Trump’s administration put forward its own peace plan, but it is heavily tilted toward the Israelis. The rest of the world barely responded.
As for Israel, there are virtually no forces for peace to be found among its leadership. On the contrary, Israel has abandoned any semblance of empathy or compassion for the Palestinian plight. Instead, emboldened by his rogue alliance with Trump, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is now pursuing, more aggressively than ever, his hyper-nationalistic dream of effectively annexing Palestinian lands, by unilaterally “applying sovereignty” over them.
Palestinians in these areas – including up to 30% of the West Bank – would be left stateless or, at best, “politically undefined.” As Hannah Arendt wrote, it is “only with stateless people” that one can do as one pleases – though, of course, she had the Jews in mind.
The Clinton administration did not fail to clinch peace 20 years ago only because of Arafat’s intransigence. The US negotiators viewed an agreement as a sentimental cause, rather than a security imperative. This came through in the talks, weakening their position. Now, as Netanyahu entrenches an apartheid state, Palestinians do not even have sentimentality going for them. And anyone who thinks that Russia, with its growing regional clout, can supplant America as a peacemaker should think again.
The two-state solution is dead and buried. Whatever “solution” may be found in the future will emerge not from an orderly peace process, but from chaos, the precise nature of which is impossible to predict. It could be unilateral annexation. It could be a sudden violent Israeli disengagement from parts of the West Bank. Or it could be direct conflict. This is the iron law of unintended consequences at work.