Three years ago today, on July 10, 2002, the Israeli prime minister at the time, Ehud Barak, flew to a summit with Yasser Arafat at Camp David. Upon leaving Israel, Barak spoke of an historic mission with the goal of ending the 100-year-old conflict with the Palestinians. Arafat left for Camp David that same night from Gaza, via Cairo. He made no speeches. His mood was angry and depressed. His associates told the media: “The summit is doomed to fail.” President Bill Clinton,a few months shy of ending his second term and still tainted by the Monica Lewinsky affair,put on an optimistic face but admitted candidly: these will be the hardest negotiations of my life.

The Camp David summit ended two weeks later in frustration and failure: no agreements were reached. Barak returned to Israel disappointed and prepared for the worst; Arafat returned as a popular hero who could not be extorted, and Clinton went back to his business bitter and prepared to continue to the end attempts to persuade Arafat what is good for him.

The question “what really happened at Camp David” has been discussed and debated since in books, articles, speeches and memoirs. In the wisdom of hindsight, three conclusions rise from the confusion:

  1. Arafat never had any intention of reaching an agreement at Camp David; even if the State of Palestine had been handed him on a silver platter, with all the territories captured in 1967, he would have evaded accepting it. He didn’t want a separate Palestinian state, he wanted (and still wants) a continuous Palestinian revolution. Arafat has never doffed his military uniform, has not dropped the mentality of the “national liberation organization” and has never become a civilian in his land.
  2. At Camp David, Ehud Barak did not have a mandate from the people to propose the compromises he proposed and that is why they rang in Palestinian ears as non-committal theoretical statements, as hypothetical phrases without the ability to implement them on the ground. Barak did not clash with the settlers, he did not go to the Israeli public to receive a minimum of support before leaving. His isolation was his weakness. He should have gone to Camp David after elections, not before them.
  3. Bill Clinton was not willing to put real pressure on Arafat. And so it happened that the head of the little Palestinian Authority, dependent for its existence on the good will of America, gave the US president the finger, left the room, slamming the door behind it, and did not only go unpunished for this, but even was privileged to be invited to the White House again and again for a prolonged begging campaign.

The Palestinians concluded from Clinton’s soft and confused reaction to their rejectionism that one could snub the US, that one could lead the president by the nose and still enjoy American money and support and enormous international and internal-Arab prestige. It was only the Bush administration that put Arafat in his place once and for all.

Three years to Camp David, it is obvious that no such summit will be held again. There is no sane Israeli statesman who would give a kashrut certificate and a guarantee to Yasser Arafat; as Israel sees it, Arafat is finished. His presence only gets in the way and is harmful. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen-courageous statesmen, honest and truthful-met and will meet in the Middle East, with no need to go far afield to the cabins of Camp David.

Fear of the “Palestinian state,” which was the avowed reason for holding the Camp David summit, has faded as if it never was. And as for the role of the US: its current president, George Bush, does not see himself as the servant of two masters, Israeli and Palestinian, who must satisfy their conflicting wishes. The reverse is true: it is vigorously demanded of them that they satisfy his wishes.

Jews and Arabs were not within “touching distance” of an agreement at Camp David, they were a war’s distance away. Only after the Camp David illusion died completely, in the thousand days of fire, blood, terror and prevention, has the time now come to begin a new and realistic political discourse between the two stiff-necked peoples.

This piece ran on July 10th, 2003 in Yediot Aharonot