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Camp David 2000

Reply to Robert Malley

2. "Camp David: The Tragedy of Errors"

This article by Robert Malley and Hussein Agha(1) is the one most often cited, and thus deserves close scrutiny. The article's aim is to demolish the "dangerous orthodoxy" that Arafat is to blame for having turned down a "historic, generous proposal." The errors in Malley's earlier, shorter piece persist and are amplified in this one.

In the opening section of their article Agha and Malley search for reasons to explain Arafat's mistrust of Barak. They point to Barak's failure to honor a number of "interim steps," notably the third redeployment under Wye and the failure to transfer the three Jerusalem villages.

The problem with their analysis is that they present it exclusively from Arafat's point of view. In truth, both sides felt distrust for the other. The third redeployment was problematic. There was no agreement about what it entailed. Dennis Ross makes the following comment:

So [Arafat] was entitled to a third further deployment, although he wasn't entitled to a certain kind of third further redeployment. He always had in his mind that the third further redeployment ordained a certain amount of territory, and it did not.

But one of the reasons that Barak was so reluctant to do the third further redeployment was because, on the one hand, he knew he could never, ever satisfy Arafat on the third further redeployment, and yet he knew that if he provided any significant amount of territory, he would create a political firestorm in Israel that would then tie his hands when it came to trying to do the big issues. So from his standpoint, he wanted to see if he could avoid the third further redeployment. From Arafat's standpoint, there was what he felt he was entitled to, according to the agreement, which was correct, and also, his desire to get more territory, simply because it would improve his negotiating position going into the end game. So he was given an assurance that there would be a safety net, but it was based on the principle of good-faith negotiations.(2)

Here, as well as in his book The Missing Peace, Ross recognizes the perceptions of both sides, something Agha and Malley fail to do.

Agha and Malley's logic seems to be, Barak didn't live up to certain "interim obligations"; therefore whatever Arafat subsequently did was excusable if not exactly worthy of praise. However, they do not mention the commitments Arafat failed to keep. Harping on Israel's not honoring all of its obligations, which Agha and Malley do repeatedly, while ignoring Palestinian violations is deceptive. Some of Arafat's failures were mentioned in the previous section. One particularly egregious example of Arafat's duplicity: on March 9, 1997 he met with terrorist leaders and gave them the green light to renew their attacks. On March 21 three Israelis died in a bombing in Tel Aviv. At that time the Palestinian police were also involved in terrorist activities.(3) Other more recent Palestinian violations of peace process obligations have also been documented.(4) So exactly who had reason to mistrust whom?

In the next section of their article Agha and Malley continue their efforts to explain and downplay Palestinian intransigence. Once again they present only the Palestinians' perceptions:

Seen from Gaza and the West Bank, Oslo's legacy read like a litany of promises deferred or unfulfilled. Six years after the agreement, there were more Israeli settlements, less freedom of movement, and worse economic conditions.

This is a partial truth. Israeli settlement activity did increase, which was unfortunate, but the question of settlements was an issue for the final status negotiations yet to come. It is disingenuous to mention "less freedom of movement" without mentioning the flare-ups in terrorism that preceded.(5) And economic conditions certainly could not be expected to improve as long as Palestinians continued their terrorist war instead of fulfilling their own peace process obligations.

Agha and Malley mention Israel's having placed greater priority on negotiations with Syria as the "perhaps most disturbing" factor in generating Palestinian mistrust. Certainly Arafat was not happy about that and may have felt it humiliating. But the Camp David Summit was intended precisely to restore the focus of attention to the Palestinians. It was supposed to remedy any problem created by Israel's previous diversion of its attentions elsewhere. Israel's dealings with Syria were no excuse for the Palestinians' failing to approach the Camp David negotiations in good faith.

Agha and Malley do not deny that Arafat and the Palestinians were uncooperative at Camp David. This is the message their search for excuses conveys: the Palestinians resisted the process, but they had reasons to be mistrustful. Well, so did the Israelis. That is why the negotiations were necessary to begin with.

Next Agha and Malley make a rather odd statement:

Barak's stated view that the alternative to an agreement would be a situation far grimmer than the status quo created an atmosphere of pressure that only confirmed Arafat's suspicions - and the greater the pressure, the more stubborn the belief among Palestinians that Barak was trying to dupe them.

To blame Barak for stating the obvious - that without an agreement, the situation would deteriorate - is bizarre. Barak did not "create an atmosphere of pressure." The pressure was real, and much of it was coming from the Palestinians. Dennis Ross describes it, citing the Israeli security chief:

On the violence, Ami Ayalon was the head of the Shin Bet until the spring of 2000, and he had been pressing me to press Barak to get off of Syria and to focus on the Palestinians in December 1999, and January 2000, on the grounds that the level of frustration on the Palestinian street was something we were not hearing from the Palestinian negotiators, we were not hearing from Arafat, his leadership was not understanding, and he was very concerned that you were going to have an explosion for the following reasons:

As I was saying before, a process that had gone on for a long time; a process that had not fulfilled the expectations; a process that, instead of ending Israeli control of Palestinian life seemed to cement it; a Palestinian authority that was seen as corrupt created a lot of anger, as well, a Palestinian authority that blamed every grievance on the Israelis.

These combinations of circumstances were building, in Ami's eyes, a level of tension on the street that required getting to a deal fast.(6)

So Barak himself needed a prod, and so did Arafat. Barak was responding to the pressure, not creating it.

Yet Agha and Malley appear to criticize Barak for trying to push through a comprehensive summit too quickly. They call Barak's position an "all-or-nothing approach," a "take-it-or-leave-it proposition," "high-wire summitry, designed to increase the pressure on the Palestinians to reach a quick agreement while heightening the political and symbolic costs if they did not." This blatantly contradicts a statement from Malley's earlier article:

Finally, Camp David was not rushed. It was many things - inadequately prepared for, perhaps; too informal, possibly; lacking proper fall-back options, without a doubt - but premature it was not. By the spring of 2000, every serious Israeli, Palestinian and American analyst was predicting an outbreak of Palestinian violence absent a major breakthrough in the peace process. The Oslo process had run its natural course; if anything, tackling the sensitive final status issues came too late, not too soon.(7)

For the fourth time in this article Malley mentions Barak's failure to transfer control of the Jerusalem villages. This time Malley claims Barak "reneged on his commitment" to transfer them. Such a statement is odd coming from someone who claims to want "a more nuanced and realistic analysis." In the previous section, which discussed Malley's earlier article, it was already noted that Barak agreed to the transfer at Arafat's request, had tried to put the transfer into effect, but was frustrated when Palestinian violence broke out. Arafat did nothing to stop the violence, in spite of President Clinton's request that Arafat intervene. Nevertheless, Agha and Malley condemn Barak and assign to Arafat no share of the responsibility. This appears to be their general strategy throughout: magnify Barak's mistakes, ignore Arafat's, and conclude that Arafat was not to blame for the failure of negotiations.

The same applies to another issue Agha and Malley have raised repeatedly: Barak's failure to honor a promise to release Palestinian prisoners. Barak held up this release because of the same Palestinian violence.(8) At a time when even Palestinian security forces were firing on Israeli soldiers, Arafat could not reasonably expect Israel to release more Palestinian prisoners to join the fray. If getting Barak to fulfill his interim commitments had really been Arafat's top priority, he could have done much more to have made it possible.

Agha and Malley take Clinton to task for blaming Arafat for the summit's failure, after Clinton promised earlier that "there will be no finger-pointing." But Clinton's earlier pledge was based on the assumption of good faith. When it became clear that Arafat was not negotiating in good faith, Clinton felt the blame was appropriate. By the logic of Agha and Malley, who focus only on Barak's mistakes, Clinton's blaming Arafat can only be seen as a political move to help Barak. But when the full record is examined, it becomes clear that Clinton's blaming Arafat makes perfect sense even when taken at face value. The original promise not to blame cannot be taken as a blank check for Arafat to manage the negotiations any way he pleased.

In the next section of their article Agha and Malley criticize Barak's negotiating style. They complain that Barak kept shifting his bottom line, so how was Arafat to recognize Barak's true final offer? "Bottom lines and false bottoms: the tension, and the ambiguity, were always there."

This is another odd criticism. It is normal in negotiations for the two sides to make successively better offers until they determine a solution both can live with. The strange thing about these negotiations is that only Israel was making the offers, while the Palestinians kept waiting for Israel to make successively better ones. Israel modified its positions, the Palestinians mostly stood pat, and somehow Agha and Malley find Israel to blame.

In addition, by making this criticism Agha and Malley contradict themselves. They already called Barak's approach "all-or-nothing" and "take-it-or-leave-it." Now they fault Barak for modifying his positions!

Finally, Agha and Malley criticize Barak for not presenting his ideas in written form but only orally. There was a reason for this, which Dennis Ross has made clear in his discussion of the presentation of the Clinton Parameters:

“The offer was never written” is a refrain uttered time and again by apologists for Chairman Arafat as a way of suggesting that no real offer existed and that therefore Arafat did not miss a historic opportunity. Nothing could be more ridiculous or misleading. President Clinton himself presented both sides with his proposal word by word. I stayed behind to be certain both sides had recorded each word accurately. Given Arafat’s negotiating style, Clinton was not about to formalize the proposal, making it easier for Arafat to use the final offer as just a jumping-off point for more ceaseless bargaining in the future.(9)

Even Agha and Malley recognize how these Palestinian negotiating tactics made it difficult for Israel to act in any other way. They talk about "Palestinian salami-tactics": "pocketing Israeli concessions that become the starting point at the next round." They also state:

Barak's worst fear was that he would put forward Israeli concessions and pay the price domestically, only to see the Palestinians using the concessions as a new point of departure.

The Palestinian tactic was to take each successive Israeli offer and make it the starting point for new Israeli concessions, without producing any offer of their own. This naturally made Barak hesitant to telegraph his true bottom line - which would only have become another starting point for concessions Israel could no longer make. It also made Barak reluctant to put his ideas in writing, which would have allowed the Palestinians to seize upon those written records as new "official" points of departure. Barak had to cope with these tricky Palestinian tactics, but he continued negotiating in good faith. It was the Palestinians who never truly engaged.

In another strange section of their article Agha and Malley present abundant evidence of Palestinian intransigence, yet still manage to blame Israel. Here is some of what they say about the Palestinians:

For all the talk about peace and reconciliation, most Palestinians were more resigned to the two-state solution than they were willing to embrace it; they were prepared to accept Israel's existence, but not its moral legitimacy....

While insisting on the Palestinian refugees' right to return to homes lost in 1948, they were prepared to tie this right to a mechanism of implementation providing alternative choices for the refugees while limiting the numbers returning to Israel proper. [In other words, the Palestinians still insisted on the right of return as an inviolable principle, and on the return of Palestinian refugees into Israel in significant numbers. The Palestinians actually proved inflexible on the right of return, as outlined in the first article of this series.] ...

Indeed, the Palestinians' principal failing is that from the beginning of the Camp David summit onward they were unable either to say yes to the American ideas or to present a cogent and specific counterproposal of their own.... When Abu Ala'a, a leading Palestinian negotiator, refused to work on a map to negotiate a possible solution, arguing that Israel first had to concede that any territorial agreement must be based on the line of June 4, 1967, the President burst out, "Don't simply say to the Israelis that their map is no good. Give me something better!"...

Unlike the situation during and after Oslo, there was no coalition of powerful Palestinian constituencies committed to the success of Camp David....

Nowhere was this [Palestinian desire for clear and unequivocal understanding] more evident than in the case of what is known as the Haram al-Sharif to Palestinians and the Temple Mount to Jews. The Americans spent countless hours seeking imaginative formulations to finesse the issue of which party would enjoy sovereignty over this sacred place - a coalition of nations, the United Nations Security Council, even God himself was proposed. In the end, the Palestinians would have nothing of it: the agreement had to give them sovereignty, or there would be no agreement at all.

Domestic hostility toward the summit also exacerbated tensions among the dozen or so Palestinian negotiators, which, never far from the surface, had grown as the stakes rose, with the possibility of a final deal and the coming struggle for succession. The negotiators looked over their shoulders, fearful of adopting positions that would undermine them back home. Appearing to act disparately and without a central purpose, each Palestinian negotiator gave preeminence to a particular issue, making virtually impossible the kinds of trade-offs that, inevitably, a compromise would entail. Ultimately, most chose to go through the motions rather than go for a deal.

It would be difficult to find a better list of examples of Palestinian inflexibility. Agha and Malley say it all: the Palestinians neither said yes to the American ideas nor offered proposals of their own; they only "chose to go through the motions." To the Palestinians, simply allowing Israel to exist was the greatest concession of all.

How then do Agha and Malley still manage to blame Israel? Here's how:

Barak's strategy was predicated on the idea that his firmness would lead to some Palestinian flexibility, which in turn would justify Israel's making further concessions. Instead, Barak's piecemeal negotiation style, combined with Arafat's unwillingness to budge, produced a paradoxical result. By presenting early positions as bottom lines, the Israelis provoked the Palestinians' mistrust; by subsequently shifting them, they whetted the Palestinians' appetite. By the end of the process, it was hard to tell which bottom lines were for real, and which were not.

We have been here before. The Palestinian "salami tactic" of treating every Israeli proposal as a starting point for new concessions, while making no proposals of their own, made Barak reluctant to divulge his "bottom lines." Again Agha and Malley focus only on "the Palestinians' mistrust," even after having just given a whole list of reasons for Israeli mistrust. The Israelis did indeed have ample grounds for mistrust, but this did not prevent them from making unprecedented offers.

But at least Agha and Malley admit "Arafat's unwillingness to budge."

Here Agha and Malley question the role of the United States as Israel's ally. They assert that Israel's closeness to the United States, which led to the United States "presenting Israeli negotiating positions and couching them as rock-bottom red lines beyond which Israel could not go," made the Palestinians believe "that any US idea, no matter how forthcoming, was an Israeli one, and therefore both immediately suspect and eminently negotiable." This is trying to have it both ways. We have already noted that normally in negotiations each side does not reveal its final position right away, and that in this particular case Barak needed a way to deal with the Palestinian "salami tactic." To the Palestinians, any position, final or not, was negotiable.

Israel's relationship with the United States was not without benefit to the Palestinians. The United States had leverage with Israel, which it used. As Agha and Malley state:

Time and again, and usually without the Palestinians being aware of it, the President sought to convince the Prime Minister to accept what until then he had refused - among them the principle of land swaps, Palestinian sovereignty over at least part of Arab East Jerusalem and, after Camp David, over the Haram al-Sharif, as well as a significantly reduced area of Israeli annexation. This led Barak to comment to the President that, on matters of substance, the US was much closer to the Palestinians' position than to Israel's. This was only one reflection of a far wider pattern of divergence between Israeli and American positions - yet one that has systematically been ignored by Palestinians and other Arabs alike.

The alliance between the U.S. and Israel cannot be used as a reason to invalidate the summit. No other broker could have had as much influence on Israel.

In this final section of Agha and Malley's article the authors mention for the first time the December 2000 Clinton Parameters. The excuses they give for Arafat's refusal are flimsy: first, it was too close to the end of President Clinton's term - well, that was the reality, there was nothing either the President or Israel could do about it. Second, it would have substituted "fuzzy" principles for international resolutions - this supposedly refers to U.N. Resolutions 194 and 242. But those resolutions are also "fuzzy" and subject to different interpretations: as is well known, Resolution 242 does not require Israel to withdraw from all territories gained in 1967.

And here is the clincher:

Besides, and given the history of the negotiations, [the Palestinians] were unable to escape the conclusion that these were warmed-over Israeli positions and that a better proposal may still have been forthcoming.

The salami strikes again. It is hard to escape the conclusion that no matter what Israel might have proposed, the Palestinians would never have been satisfied. Indeed, the official Palestinian rejection of the Clinton Parameters,(10) outlined in the first article of this series, was unequivocal, comprehensive, and absolute, and not simply based on a sense of bad timing.

In conclusion, Agha and Malley provide nothing convincing to suggest that Arafat's handling of the negotiations was in any way excusable. In fact, they present much evidence damaging to the Palestinian case. Both sides believed they had reasons for mistrust. The Israelis had as much reason for mistrust if not more than the Palestinians. Nevertheless, that did not stop Israel from making what Malley himself calls a "far-reaching offer,"(11) nor does it negate the fact that the Palestinians under the leadership of Yasser Arafat refused to respond to a serious offer of peace and chose violence instead.

May 2005


1. Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, "Camp David: The Tragedy of Errors," New York Review of Books, August 9, 2001.

2. Dennis Ross, Margaret Warner, and Jim Hoagland, "From Oslo to Camp David to Taba: Setting the Record Straight," Washington Institute for Near East Policy, August 8, 2001.

3. "PA Has Failed to Fulfill Its Commitments Under Hebron Accord," Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, July 20, 1997.

4. "Major Palestinian Violations of Agreements," Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, October 11, 2000.

5. See "Is 'Occupation' an Excuse for Terrorism?" elsewhere on this web site.

6. Ross et al., "From Oslo to Camp David to Taba."

7. Robert Malley, "Fictions About the Failure at Camp David," New York Times, July 8, 2001.

8. Dennis Ross, The Missing Peace (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 625.

9. Dennis Ross, "Think Again: Yasir Arafat," Foreign Policy, July/August 2001.

10. Palestinian Negotiating Team, "Official Palestinian Response to the Clinton Parameters," PLO Negotiations Affairs Department.

11. Robert Malley, "Fictions About the Failure at Camp David," New York Times, July 8, 2001.


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