Diplomacy: Is Obama leading us to a new Camp David?

Posted: August 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

Last week, the Arab League authorized Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to engage in direct negotiations with Israel. Abbas is still refusing the talks, but estimates are it’s only a matter of weeks before negotiations will be launched. So it seems that the US administration finally got its first achievement: Palestinians and Israelis will be talking again.

In recent months, the US administration abandoned its initial policy, of applying pressure on the Israeli government, and instead put the heat on the Palestinians. Whether the change of course was taken due to the political price the president was paying at home for his public disagreements with the Israeli government or simply because those in the administration closer to Israel finally had the upper hand, the shift in the American policy remains unmistakable.

According to Palestinian sources, in a letter to president Abbas, the administration threatened that failure to resume negotiations will have “grave consequences” for American-Palestinian relations. On the other hand, if Abbas agreed, he was promised a Palestinian state “within a couple of years”.

I won’t go into why the Palestinians refused to negotiate with Netanyahu’s government to begin with (I addressed this issue here). What’s important is that unlike Israel, president Mahmoud Abbas has no leverage in Washington. He can’t disobey an American president in the way an Israeli PM can. If Washington and Jerusalem want direct negotiations, they are all but inevitable.

On the verge of a new round of talks, it’s important to look on the lessons of the past.  the last time the Palestinians were forced to negotiate with Israel against their will was at Camp David. Back then, the Oslo agreements reached a dead end (a leaked video recently revealed PM Netanyahu boosting on how he managed to stop Oslo), hostility and mistrust were on the rise, and an Israeli leadership, with the help of an American administration eager for immediate success, tried to impose a final agreement. Just like today, at first the Clinton administration rejected the idea of a summit on the final agreement, but Prime Minister Ehud Barak was able to convince them that this was the only way to go.

In his important article on the failed 200o summit, Robert Malley, who was a member of the US team to the talks, analyzed the internal dynamic both on the Palestinian and on the Israeli sides coming to Camp David and during the negotiations. The similarities to the situation today are striking:

Barak’s team was convinced that the Israeli public would ratify an agreement with the Palestinians, even one that entailed far-reaching concessions, so long as it was final and brought quiet and normalcy to the country. But Barak and his associates also felt that the best way to bring the agreement before the Israeli public was to minimize any political friction along the way. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had paid a tremendous political (and physical) price by alienating the Israeli right wing and failing to bring its members along during the Oslo process. Barak was determined not to repeat that mistake.

Much in the same way, Netanyahu’s main concern today is to keep his government intact and the public behind him. He made it clear that he would not make any step that would put his coalition in danger.

Barak saw no reason to needlessly alienate the settler constituency. Moreover, insofar as new housing units were being established on land that Israel ultimately would annex under a permanent deal—at least any permanent deal Barak would sign—he saw no harm to the Palestinians in permitting such construction


In Barak’s mind, Arafat had to be made to understand that there was no “third way,” no “reversion to the interim approach,” but rather a corridor leading either to an agreement or to confrontation. Seeking to enlist the support of the US and European nations for this plan, he asked them to threaten Arafat with the consequences of his obstinacy: the blame would be laid on the Palestinians and relations with them would be downgraded. Likewise, and throughout Camp David, Barak repeatedly urged the US to avoid mention of any fall-back options or of the possibility of continued negotiations in the event the summit failed.

This logeic was interpreted by the Palestinians as an attempt to force on them accepting an agreement that they couldn’t swallow. I suggest reading the next part carefully (my italic):

behind almost all of Barak’s moves, Arafat believed he could discern the objective of either forcing him to swallow an unconscionable deal or mobilizing the world to isolate and weaken the Palestinians if they refused to yield. 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.


On June 15, during his final meeting with Clinton before Camp David, Arafat set forth his case: Barak had not implemented prior agreements, there had been no progress in the negotiations, and the prime minister was holding all the cards. The only conceivable outcome of going to a summit, he told Secretary Albright, was to have everything explode in the President’s face. If there is no summit, at least there will still be hope. The summit is our last card, Arafat said—do you really want to burn it? In the end, Arafat went to Camp David, for not to do so would have been to incur America’s anger; but he went intent more on surviving than on benefiting from it.

As for the US, what damaged its role as a mediator more than anything was an exaggerated understanding to the Israelis’ political concerns at home.

As the broker of the agreement, the President was expected to present a final deal that Arafat could not refuse. Indeed, that notion was the premise of Barak’s attraction to a summit. But the United States’ ability to play the part was hamstrung by two of its other roles. First, America’s political and cultural affinity with Israel translated into an acute sensitivity to Israeli domestic concerns and an exaggerated appreciation of Israel’s substantive moves. American officials initially were taken aback when Barak indicated he could accept a division of the Old City or Palestinian sovereignty over many of Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods—a reaction that reflected less an assessment of what a “fair solution” ought to be than a sense of what the Israeli public could stomach. The US team often pondered whether Barak could sell a given proposal to his people, including some he himself had made. The question rarely, if ever, was asked about Arafat.

A second constraint on the US derived from its strategic relationship with Israel. One consequence of this was the “no-surprise rule,” an American commitment, if not to clear, at least to share in advance, each of its ideas with Israel. (…) the “no-surprise rule” held a few surprises of its own. In a curious, boomerang-like effect, it helped convince the Palestinians that any US idea, no matter how forthcoming, was an Israeli one, and therefore both immediately suspect and eminently negotiable.


Ehud Barak was warned by the Israeli intelligence that failure in Camp David would end in another round of violence, yet he chose to try and impose on the Palestinians the final agreement he wanted to have. The US Administration had its issues with this approach, but it decided to back Barak. Dennis Ross, the US special envoy to the Middle East at the time, played a key role in this decision. Later, Ross had a major part in creating the American tendency to back the Israeli side and ignore the Palestinians during the negotiations. Aaron David Miller, who was on Ross’ team, accused him of leading the US to act as “Israel’s lawyer“. This policy had resulted in disastrous consequences for both Palestinians and Israelis.

Barak and Netanyahu, The Israeli hawks that rejected the Oslo accord, are in power again, and Dennis Ross is again advocating pressure on the Palestinians so that they would agree to an agreement the Israeli public would have no troubles with.

The frightening part is that nothing really changed in the Israeli-American position since the year 2000. Israel still refuses land exchange that would leave the Palestinians with a territory equal to the occupied land of 1967 (according to Mr. Malley’s account that was a major part of the reason negotiations broke in Camp David). If anything, it seems that the current Netanyahu-Barak government is willing to fewer concessions then those of the Barak’s 1999-2001 government. Just like in the 90′s, Netanyahu is still refusing to evacuate the Jordan Valley and East Jerusalem. The only difference is that now he is willing to call the remaining territory “a Palestinian state”.

The year 2000 was not that long ago, and I remember well the failure of Camp David. Back then, no one imagined how bad the second Intifada would be for both sides, just as it’s hard to imagine what a new round of violence might bring. I hope the Obama administration, whose motives I don’t doubt, would look deep into those lessons, and avoid taking the same path.

Talking to Israelis is so useless

Posted: October 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: The Left, The Right, The Settlements | Tags: , , , | 75 Comments »

Being part of the lefty ultra-minority in Israel – and obsessed with politics at the same time – I get mixed up regularly in political debates (fights?) with friends, family members, coworkers, writers and readers of pro-Israeli blogs, and basically, whoever is around. But lately, I have to admit, I’m getting tired of this habit. I feel that no matter what the issue at hand is, Israelis and their supporters fall back to the same argument:

The Palestinians want to destroy us, and therefore, whatever we do to them is justified.

It doesn’t matter that A doesn’t necessarily leads to B (even in war not everything is justified), it doesn’t even matter we are talking about something else completely, say racism towards Arab Israeli citizens or the future of Jerusalem. Whatever I say, wherever we go, we end up at the same station. The Palestinians want to destroy us, and therefore, whatever we do to them is justified.

I try to speak about Gaza, and say, the illegal use of phosphorus bombs against civilians.

“How do you know the IDF did that?” the answer comes. “Don’t say you believe that self-hating Jew, Goldstone?”

-    Well, there are pictures of the bombs exploding, there are people with phosphorus-like burns, and I know that every combat unit in the IDF carries standard phosphorus ammunition, because I’ve been there and I even used it in training.

-    You don’t get it, do you? The Palestinians want to destroy us all. What we did in Gaza was self-defense, like everyone else would have done. We didn’t want to kill those children. We did what’s necessary. It was justified.

And that’s basically it. Read the rest of this entry »

Back to the 90′: the “Phased Plan” argument strikes again

Posted: June 10th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: The Right | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Whenever the prospect of renewed negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians remerges, those who oppose the peace process bring up again the famous “Phased Plan” or the “Phased Strategy” argument.

At the base of this argument is the assumption that the Palestinians don’t want peace, pure and simple. They might negotiate with Israel in the hope of winning concessions, but this is only in order to move to the next phase – from which they will start fighting again, to win more concessions, and so on, until all Jews – much like the Crusaders – are kicked out of the Middle East (“thrown into the sea”). During his lifetime, Yasser Arafat symbolized this approach in the eyes of the Israeli Right Wing and its supporters, and now they try to pin this to Abu Mazen.

It is almost impossible to argue against this logic – not because it’s true, but because the people who hold it claim to know the hearts and minds of the other side. Nothing the Palestinians do would satisfy the Phased Plan prophets: even if they abandon the armed struggle completely and start teaching Zionism in their school, it would only be perceived as a trick, aimed at getting more concessions out of Israel. And if the Palestinians continue the armed struggle – well, this is just further proof that they don’t want peace. It’s a perfect circle, who’s only possible conclusion is that you should never sign an agreement with the Palestinians or offer them any territorial concessions.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Camp David Casualties

Posted: March 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: The Left, The Right | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Shlomo Ben Ami, Israel’s Foreign minister and Internal Security minister under Ehud Barak, was interviewed this weekend by Maariv (in fact, I edited this article). Ben Ami, who took part in the failed Camp David summit between Barak, Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat, has retired from politics and now heads the Toledo Peace Center. Talking from his office in Spain, he had some warm words for Barak, Ehud Olmert, and most notably, Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he described as a “very intelligent, knowledgeable and brave politician”.

And that’s what he had to say about the peace process:

“There is no such thing as a ‘peace process’ anymore. The idea of two states for two people is irrelevant and unattractive both to us and to the Palestinians… Hamas doesn’t want the two states solution. The Palestinians have reached a very similar situation to ours: they don’t believe that Abu Mazen will bring peace, and they think Hamas will do a better job. We don’t believe that Bibi or Tzipi (Livni) will bring peace as well. And we are all right.”

Q: who then will bring peace?

“We should let the Palestinians have their national unity government, Fatah with Hamas, overcome our emotional barrier, and negotiate with both. It was very foolish not to agree to that in Mecca. I’m not sure that Hamas will oppose (negotiations). Sometimes I think the problem will be with the Fatah.”

And later on:

Q: what shall we talk about with Hamas?

“We should talk about ending the occupation and establishing a Jordanian-Palestinian state in the West Bank… an agreement with a state like Jordan can be maintained. They have order, discipline and real state administration. The Palestinians never had their state, they remain an anarchic movement with no direction, no patron, that’s why it is so hard to reach an agreement with them”.

It is almost unimaginable that Jordan will take the Palestinian state on its tiny shoulders, and on top of all things, accept Hamas as its partner. It will bring only trouble to the fragile kingdom. It seems that much like Ehud Barak and the rest of the Camp David casualties, Ben Ami is so disappointed with the Fatah, that he prefers to negotiate with anyone else. The only problem is that there is no one else. Not really. Whether we like it or not, there is no real alternative to the two states solution.

(On one thing I do agree with Ben Ami: that we have to talk to Hamas. It’s only appropriate. After all, we got our own Hamas elected as well).

The Problem with Barak

Posted: November 2nd, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: The Left | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Colonel Yaakov Vilian had one of the most sensitive jobs in the Israeli administration: until a year ago, he was the intelligence officer of the Prime Minister’s office. Every day he had to prepare a resume of the most important information gathered by the IDF and the other security services, including the Mossad and the Shabak, report it to the PM, and be prepared to answer any question. To Ariel Sharon he even read the daily briefing out loud sometimes.

Vilian was considered a very professional and non-partisan officer. That’s why he was able to serve under four different PMs, from the right and the left alike. This weekend he gave Ben Caspit from Maariv his first interview ever, in which he revealed some very interesting inside information on Ehud Barak’s negotiations with the Palestinians and the Syrians during his short term in office (the second Intifada started after the failure of the Camp David talks between Barak and Arafat on the summer of 2000; the negotiations with Syria collapsed several months earlier). Here are some experts from this interview:

Q: Didn’t the Intelligence warn PM Ehud Barak from another round of violence in case the Camp David negotiations fail?

A: “They did. And there were memos written, but the head of state can decide do what he wants. That’s why he’s there. He has the right to ignore the intelligence. Maybe he thinks the intelligence units are unaware of all factors, that he can still make it. In his view, [going to] Camp David was a daring move, a leap forward, and one couldn’t tell which way it would turn. So he was warned that if he fails it will end in a clash, but in his mind he didn’t give up anything there, not an inch of land. By the way, it wasn’t only the intelligence that warned him. [Then ministers] Shimon Peres warned him, Haim Ramon warned him. Everyone did.”

Q: Did Yasser Arafat initiate the Intifada, or was he dragged into it?

A: “when the violence started, Barak sent me a note asking me just that. I wrote him my opinion… it could well have been that Arafat had lost control over the events. It could have been that even if he would have ordered to stop the violence, his people wouldn’t understand how to interpret this, if it’s for real or not. The Intifada fed itself. It moved on i’s own.”

Q: The Question is whether Arafat wanted it or not.

A: “I can’t say if Arafat planned for it to go on for years. He might have wanted something much shorter, but it got out of hand. I don’t know of any meeting between Arafat and his people in which he ordered them to start the Intifada. But I don’t know of any opposite order as well.”

In his famous 2002 interview to Bennie Morris in the “New York Review of Books”, Barak (who already left his office) rejected the notion that the Palestinians were dragged to Camp David, and that the talks were bound to failure. He also claimed that the level of violence on the Palestinian side was under Arafat’s complete control at all times. But as we learn now, Barak was warned that he is pushing the Palestinians into a corner, and that the outcome might be catastrophic.

In the months and years to follow Camp David, Barak continued insisting it was a bald move that “exposed Arafat’s true face.” He continue to claim so even now. I think Camp David also exposed some things about Ehud Barak, his style of decision making and his political philosophy.

On two matters it seems that Barak did do the right thing, at least in Colonel Vilian’s opinion:

The first is that contrary to what some of Barak advisors had said in the past, Vilian believes that there was no real opportunity to reach a peace agreement with Hafiz al-Assad when Israel and Syria met in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, on January 2000.

Assad the father was in no condition for a move like that at the time,” says Vilian. “He was shifting between Alzheimer and Parkinson, and suffered from dementia attacks, and Barak knew it. I wrote him a memo on the matter. Physically, Assad couldn’t have gone for such a move.”

Vilian also gives Barak credit for a correct reading of the situation on the matter of the withdrawal from South Lebanon:

He [Barak] was warned [by the intelligence] from something that eventually didn’t happen. He was told that if we were to leave Lebanon, the North of Israel will immediately turn into a war zone. He was warned that it will be a catastrophe. It didn’t happen. You got to give him credit for that.”

What’s the final score for Barak? It has been, and will be for some time, the big debate in the left wing in Israel. I think Barak has a tendency towards dangerous arrogance, that leads him believe strongly in unilateral acts (even when they are disguised as a bilateral process, like in Camp David). But some people, like Meretz’s Zehava Gal-On, think he is the only leader willing and able to take the bald steps necessary to move forward the peace train. This has yet to be proven.