Lost in the Woods: A Camp David Retrospective
By Aaron David Miller, Carnegie Middle East Center, 13 July 2020
Twenty years after Camp David, a one-time negotiator reflects on what was achieved at the historic presidential summit.
If you take US Route 77 out of Thurmont, Maryland, a small town nestled in the eastern foothills of the Catoctin Mountains, five miles or so up the road you will find yourself very near Camp David. It is not visible from the road and very easy to get lost. It gets dark in a way it does not get in Washington, DC, and the road is winding and narrow. And one cool night in July 2000, travelling to a historic Israeli-Palestinian presidential summit, we had clearly missed a turn somewhere.
We stopped at a park ranger station, only to find it closed. There was a pay phone, so I called the U.S. Department of State’s Operations Center and we finally got both our bearings and good directions. I am not superstitious by nature, but I kidded my colleague, the U.S. lead negotiator Dennis Ross, that if we could not find Camp David, how would we even know what to do once we got there? Indeed, as the State Department’s deputy Middle East coordinator for negotiations, I would later think about our lost-in-the woods experience more than once as we struggled to find a successful U.S. negotiating strategy at the summit.
Twenty years ago this week, former U.S. president Bill Clinton brought then Palestinian Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat and then Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak to Camp David in search of a conflict-ending accord. It was only the second time in forty years of U.S. peacemaking that a U.S. president would take such a risk.
The first summit—former U.S. president Jimmy Carter’s September 1978 meeting with former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and then Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin—laid the groundwork for their historic peace treaty six months later. Yet any optimism would soon fade. Our summit would not only fail but would be followed by a second intifada and a hellish descent into terror and violence far removed from the promise of what we hoped to achieve diplomatically that summer. Indeed, today the so-called peace process lies broken and bloodied, trapped between U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace plan, which is clearly not ready for prime time, and the very real possibility of an Israeli annexation that might bury the peace process for good.
The Camp David summit—ill-conceived and ill-advised—should probably never have taken place. It did only because Barak, fresh from repeated failures in negotiations with Syria, wanted to use the last six months of Clinton’s term either to reach a deal with Arafat or expose him as an unreliable partner. Clinton initially resisted, but in truth, ever since the assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin had handed him a piece of history with the signing of the Oslo accords, the then-president was determined to redeem Rabin’s legacy and his own. Arafat, who was in no hurry to reach any kind of agreement, had warned us in June that a premature summit might lead to an explosion. But Clinton promised he would not be blamed if things did go kaput. Accompanying U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright to the helipad, the PLO leader looked like he had swallowed the canary. “I am at Camp David,” he said proudly as he rode off on a golf cart, his kafiyyah flapping in the breeze.
The presidential retreat at Camp David was clearly the right place to hold a momentous summit. It was beautiful, secluded (we blocked cell phone use) and informal. Jackie Kennedy had described the rustic cabins’ décor as “early Holiday Inn.” Unlike in the frigid atmosphere of many of the Israel-Syria negotiations, the Israeli and Palestinian delegations ate and socialized together. There were movies—why we showed Gladiator and the World War II submarine movie U-571 at a peace summit I do not know—bowling, ping pong, and wild rides on golf carts. There were comedic moments, such as when Arafat, watching the Major League Baseball All Star Game, asked in the fifth inning when the game would start. And there was even a crisis when Barak nearly choked to death on a peanut and was saved by the youngest member of his delegation.
We had everything we needed at Camp David—except the key ingredients to make the summit succeed. Clinton, who was at this point in his presidency looking for legacy, realized the odds of success were very long. Indeed, during the second briefing before the summit he made clear that whatever the outcome, trying and failing was better than not trying at all. I was moved at the time, though I have since come to realize that failure costs. The old college try mantra is more appropriate for the University of Michigan football team than for the foreign policy of the world’s greatest power.
In preparing Clinton for his Camp David rendezvous, we had spent considerable time focusing on Carter’s earlier attempt. But nobody was really interested in history. Had we taken those lessons of the 1978 summit to heart, we would have seen that our summit had absolutely no chance of success. Carter succeeded for three reasons: he had strong leaders who were in a hurry, a doable agreement, and, as a strong mediator, he ran the summit. We lacked the first two; as for the third, the summit ran us.
First, unlike Begin and Sadat, Barak and Arafat were prisoners, not masters, of their politics. Barak worried that Arafat would pocket any concessions he made. He was constantly looking over his shoulder at the polls in Israel, and he literally saw his government begin to come apart while at the summit. Arafat came to Camp David to survive, not to make a deal. I heard him say several times, referring to his funeral, “you will not walk behind my coffin.” He was suspicious of Barak’s capacity to deliver. Feeling resentful of being ignored for months as Barak pursued a deal with Syria, and wedded to positions he would not concede, he was in no hurry to conclude anything.
Second, the issues at Carter’s earlier Camp David were tough to resolve: withdrawal from the Sinai peninsula, evacuating settlements, and a peace treaty. But the issues at the second Camp David were mission impossibles. Issues like borders, security, refugees, and of course Jerusalem’s ownership were all dealbreakers, and the gaps between the two sides were Grand Canyon–like in scale. Barak went further than any Israeli prime minister had gone before, but his proposals were nowhere close to what Arafat needed, even if the Palestinian leader had been interested in closing a deal. On Jerusalem there was no way Arafat could have made any concessions without Arab state backing. But given Barak’s sensitivity to leaks, we ensured there was no Arab state involvement. Clinton’s short phone calls to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah and then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to brief them on U.S. proposals about Jerusalem were hardly serious substitutes.
Third, there was the matter of the U.S. role at the summit. Carter ran his summit while keeping control of a negotiating text that went through more than twenty drafts. Our summit ran us, or more precisely ran over us. We could have managed things better. After all, this was our house, our invitation, our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to score a historic breakthrough. Granted, none was possible given the positions and personae of the two main actors. But our performance would have extinguished any chance, had there been one. We really were lost in the woods.
The mistakes were numerous. We needed a comprehensive package of answers to all the issues to have any chance of making headway. But given our unwillingness to adopt independent bridging proposals, particularly those that departed from Barak’s, we were stuck. Our no-surprise policy with Israel, which in essence meant showing everything first to Israel, and Clinton’s unwillingness, in his words, to “jam” Barak, stripped away any hope of being an effective mediator. By day four—when we gave Barak a paper he forced us to amend—for all practical purposes the summit came to an end.
Without a negotiating text that we controlled, there really was no organizing road map for the summit. It was like bumper cars in an amusement park, as then Clinton special assistant Rob Malley said. Every time we encountered an obstacle, we would go off in another direction. Add to that the fact that the president left for the G8 in Japan in the middle of the summit (thanks to our unrealistic hope of forcing a deadline for decisions), no Arab state support for Palestine on Jerusalem, and totally unrealistic expectations on what the Palestinians needed to close a deal, and you have a prescription for a predictable failure.
In December 2000, shortly before leaving office, Clinton would put on the table a set of negotiating parameters far closer to what might have been a basis for a serious negotiation. Had we done this at the summit, the outcome might have been different. But given where we were in July, Clinton would never have offered such parameters; Barak would never accepted them; and more than likely—as he did that December—Arafat simply would have said no, or nothing at all.
Clinton’s summit was not a complete waste of time. Looking back two decades later, I have come to understand that Camp David was far more than just another failed U.S. effort in the elusive search for Israeli-Palestinian peace. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is ever resolved—and that is a huge if—the discussions at Camp David and the December 2000 Clinton parameters might well become an integral part of the deal.
And yet, the summit was also a cruel touchstone of sorts that taught lessons about when to convene a presidential summit and, more importantly, when not to; how the US should behave as an effective mediator and what not to do; and perhaps above all, the critical importance of respecting issues such as Jerusalem’s ownership, rather than assuming they could be easily solved through clever U.S. fixes. Far from offering hope that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was ripe for resolution in the hands of a committed U.S. president, the Camp David experience showed precisely why it was not.
The politically inconvenient truth is that the three factors necessary to have any chance of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—strong leaders who are eager to get things done fast, a workable deal, and effective U.S. mediation—have never been present. Not at Camp David, not in the twenty years of subsequent peacemaking, and certainly not now. Indeed, what we have witnessed during the Trump years is a dystopic world where leaders are neither strong, nor interested, nor ready to rise to any occasion other than the keeping of their own seats. It is a parallel universe where a doable deal exists only in the minds of would-be peacemakers who will not abandon their own illusions or who propose other illusions, like one state where everyone has equal rights and lives happily ever after. In this world, the United States’ image as a credible mediator has been hopelessly blackened by an administration whose approach to solving the Israeli-Palestinian problem is tethered to Trump’s reelection and the giving of all the honey to Israel—and nothing but vinegar and ashes to the Palestinians.
The illusions I held about peacemaking are now long gone. But somehow, an illogical, almost irrational hope in the future remains. And even that seems now as fleeting and fragile as the memories of a historic summit twenty years ago.