Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Camp David II: Perils of the Endgame

Camp David II: Perils of the Endgame

On September 5, 1978, then President Jimmy Carter convened a summit conference at the Camp David retreat to save a faltering peace negotiation between Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Twelve days later they produced the Camp David Accords: the first, a framework for achieving peace between Egypt and Israel, and the second, a transitional arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians that stipulated a self-governing authority. Both were heavily underwritten by the United States. A long and difficult eight months later, again with Carter’s personal intervention, Begin and Sadat finally signed a peace treaty on March 26, 1979.

It would take fifteen years, a war in Lebanon, another war in the Gulf, the demise of the Soviet Union, and the immigration of over 160,000 Israelis into the West Bank and Gaza (there were but 10,000 living there in 1978) before the Palestinians would agree to take up the transitional self- governing authority in the Oslo agreement. Now seven years later, the endgame begun with one perilous summit, appears to have reached its destination with another. No one can predict the precise outcome. Still, as the summit begins, there are important similarities and differences between Camp David I and Camp David II that are worth a look.


Every observer and participant at Camp David I was struck by the importance of arranging the circumstances to suit the personalities. Both Begin and Sadat had invested their lives, political fortunes, and sacred honor in an agreement, but not just any agreement. Each was a study in contrasts; Sadat preferred visions and hated detail; Begin loved detail and preferred the biblical prophets for vision. Both were orators who liked to hear themselves, and each saw himself as a man of destiny. By September of 1978, after a year of dramatic encounters, they also knew how to bait one another. Carter decided wisely after the first meeting that they should not negotiate face to face. He became the “shuttle.”

Clinton’s previous experience with the two Wye agreements also gives him a good headstart with the personalities. He, too, will have to perform a shuttle. Barak, a taciturn former general with a self-assurance sometimes criticized as arrogance, has not shown excessive respect for Arafat. The Israeli Prime Minister preferred a deal with the Syrians; he turned completely toward the Palestinians only after Assad rejected him. As for Arafat, no small part of his career has been the search for dignity. Aware that for now his is the only game in town, the Palestinian leader has not been anxious to come to the summit; and once there, he will be in no mood to hear Israeli expositions of Palestinian rights and interests. Moreover, Arafat has his own strange ideas about Israel’s security. In short, the two leaders are a combustible mixture that Clinton will be wise not to combust. After all, they have come to the summit precisely because they could not reach a deal on their own.


Presuming that Clinton, like Carter, will get the role-playing right, we must assess the respective political strengths of the parties. Clinton himself, still popular at the end of eight years and anxious to expand his legacy beyond impeachment and prosperity, would appear to be ideally suited for judgments free of normal political restraints. But this is not entirely the case; both his wife’s election race for senator in New York and Vice President Gore’s presidential campaign will be heavily affected by a Jewish vote.

Then there is the Congress, hostile as usual to foreign aid and not especially happy with these two beneficiaries. Israel’s otherwise strong position has been weakened by the quarrel over its arms sales to China. Arafat’s position depends upon Israel’s clout with the Congress, and even with that, the PA’s financial performance thus far will not encourage generosity. Still, if Clinton can snag a deal that effectively ends the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Congress is not likely to resist, especially when the U.S. Treasury is flush and others, notably the Europeans, the Gulf States, and the Japanese, will be paying much of the freight.

On balance, therefore, while Clinton starts with some important restrictions, he still retains enough of a political hand to perform his job: to bridge the gaps between those who want to make a deal, and to reduce their risks in doing so. But do the leaders want a deal? And even if they want one, can they deliver?

The Israelis have been preparing themselves for this point over two governments and considerable anguish. Precedents offer little help. At Camp David I, Begin returned to the international border with Egypt and uprooted the town of Yamit, but Sinai was not sacred to him (or anyone else), and Yamit, a Labor Party idea, numbered only a few thousand. By contrast, the West Bank is Judea and Samaria, part of the historic Land of Israel, and over 150,000 Israelis live there. During the Mandate period it had no internal borders and after 1948, was divided by cease-fire lines.

A rough Israeli consensus exists around a geopolitical map, expressed verbally by Prime Minister Rabin when he presented the Oslo II agreement to the Knesset in October 1995 and repeated by Barak on the eve of the summit: no return to the 1967 borders, and the majority of settlers under Israeli sovereignty; no redivision of Jerusalem; no return of the Palestinian refugees; and, no military threat from the Palestinians. Under these circumstances, most Israelis appear ready to accept a Palestinian state that also declares an end to the conflict.

These positions are sufficiently vague to allow some creativity around the edges. But how much? That depends on politics. Barak formed his government on the broadest possible basis precisely to avoid a partisan peace that would either threaten Israel with civil strife or leave the agreement vulnerable to a political reversal. On top of that, he added the power and prestige of his direct election as Prime Minister by a wide margin over his opponent— a mandate for action.

This strategy has now come undone. Unlike Begin at Camp David I, Barak comes to Camp David II having already lost his parliamentary majority. His inability to manage the conflict between the Meretz and Shas parties slowly sapped his political strength over the past year, and his style of leadership— now roundly criticized by friend and foe alike— compounded the problems of managing a large coalition. Few know his plans, fewer still are his confidantes. Barak has paid heavily for disdaining traditional politics at home and abroad.

While concealing his hand to his Cabinet, Barak dribbled out concessions through the Americans and private emissaries, arousing opposition to what he seemed ready to give but with no indication of what he might get. And, as he loses political support, it becomes riskier for his Arab partner. Arafat cannot be sure whether Barak can deliver. Meanwhile, he too will have to offer concessions.

Still, Barak’s self-confessed failings as a politician have probably made him look weaker than he is. To judge by recent Israeli opinion polls, the important element— the map of geopolitical consensus— appears still intact. If Barak can bring home from Camp David an agreement arguably within that consensus, then his political fortunes will rise as rapidly as they have fallen.

Against this picture of confusion, Arafat stands out in bold relief. He has shown his usual talents for retaining power, but none for clean or effective government, much less democracy. His objective has now emerged clearly enough: a state, under American and international patronage, but not necessarily an end to the conflict because that would involve concessions on land, Jerusalem, security, and refugees he is unwilling or unable to make. Arafat also nurtures the threat of widespread violence. He knows, however, that Israel is preparing for such violence and ought to know that Clinton will not help him if he takes the plunge.


As they ascended the mountain for Camp David I, Begin and Sadat knew that they could achieve the minimum: a framework for Egyptian-Israeli peace. What divided them was the future of the Palestinians and the linkage of that future to their own new relationship. Is there a minimum available at Camp David II? The essence of this summit is to bridge the gap between Arafat’s demands (Israel’s return to the 1967 lines, the refugee right of return, a palpable hold on the Old City of Jerusalem, and control over borders and security) and Barak’s map of consensus. Clinton must somehow persuade Arafat that Barak’s consensus map is the best the Palestinians will ever get, and that a bout of violence will forfeit American patronage. Simultaneously, he must persuade Barak to concede enough so that Arafat can convince himself— and others — that his minimums have been met. The Israeli has to descend the mountain with the consensus map intact and the declaration that the conflict is over; the Palestinian has to leave with a state and, if possible, some issues deferred so that a statement about the end of the conflict can be ambiguous. This is magician’s work but then so was the original Camp David. The memoirs of various participants make clear their inner sense of foreboding about the significant ambiguities they left on unresolved issues.

None of those attending Camp David II can draw much comfort from the fate of those who made Camp David I. When Begin left Camp David (“concentration camp deluxe” he called it) he took important misunderstandings on settlements and autonomy with him that bedeviled and eventually soured his relationship with President Carter. He won a parliamentary majority thanks to the opposition, but was never able (or perhaps willing) to carry out the generous version of autonomy sought by Egypt and the United States. Sadat, in that respect, was almost a spectator to a U.S.-Israeli quarrel; his essential decision, following the logic of his whole policy since 1973, had been to free himself of a Soviet, Palestinian, and Syrian veto over Egypt’s decision for war or peace. He paid the price: the United States failed to deliver the Gulf states (the rejectionist front— Syria, Iraq, the PLO — intimidated them) and failed to deliver autonomy. Beset by domestic opposition, he became increasingly dictatorial and finally lost his life when fundamentalist soldiers assassinated him.

As for Carter, his great achievement did not help him in the election of 1980. He left his successor a very costly, partly begun process. The Reagan Administration managed to hold the strategic relationship among Israel, Egypt, and the United States, but never made headway on the Palestinian issue. It took the Gulf War and the demise of the USSR to revive the peace process in 1991 at Madrid.

Camp David II, like Camp David I, would seem to share a singular strength: the alternative to agreement, even one shot full of ambiguities, looks terrible. In this respect, the new Camp David, like its predecessor, would seem doomed to succeed. Still, one or another of the participants may be tempted to brave the terrors of the alternative. As in the recent Geneva summit, Barak can turn failure to his political account if he is seen to have done his best. Arafat, too, may believe that a blow-up at Camp David, followed by one last bout of violence, may panic Barak and Clinton into giving him a better deal. And Clinton himself may simply judge that his two partners see too much advantage in refusing to compromise, loading him with the responsibility for failure. A man-made miracle may yet be fashioned from this perilous encounter. We should do well to remember, however, that, like its famous predecessor, Camp David II may be just one more step in the agonies of the endgame, a game possibly without a clear ending.