“Distorting Camp David”

This article, excerpted from a longer essay deconstructing Dennis Ross’s book on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process from 1993 to 2000, focuses on the Camp David summit. In particular, it examines the assumptions informing Ross’s account of what happened during the negotiations and why, and the distortions that spring from these assumptions. The article demonstrates that, judged from the perspective of Palestinians’ and Israelis’ respective rights under international law, all the concessions at Camp David came from the Palestinian side, none from the Israeli side. In reflecting on Ross’s narrative, the author explores what he considers its “main innovation”: the subordination of the normative framework of rights to the arbitrary and capricious one of “needs.”



Dennis Ross’s The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace[1] has been widely heralded as the definitive treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” from the 1993 Oslo Accords through the Camp David negotiations of July 2000.[2]


The “one overriding lesson from the story of the peace process,” Ross writes in his prologue, “is that truth-telling is a necessity” (p. 14). The “purpose” of his book as well as the “key to peace,” he similarly concludes, “is to debunk mythologies . . . to engage in truth-telling” (p. 773). Ross’s execution of this debunking and truth-telling enterprise, however, is problematic. His account of the peace process is based almost entirely on his memory and notes. Its authority derives chiefly from the fact that he was the “point person” (p. 106) for the Clinton administration on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Yet his “inside story” of the Camp David negotiations differs fundamentally on crucial points from what other participants have said and written. Rather than go over the ground already covered,[3] I will focus here on the cluster of assumptions informing Ross’s account of what happened during the negotiations and why, and the distortions that spring from these assumptions.


Ross’s interpretation of why Camp David failed gained wide currency almost immediately. His narrative, as is well known, assigns the lion’s share of blame for the summit’s collapse to Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. Nonetheless, Ross situates the failure in a deeper Palestinian pathology.


The root of the problem


It is a central contention of Ross that Palestinians are in thrall to a victim syndrome. While acknowledging that they “surely have suffered” (p. 775), Ross maintains that the Palestinians’ “sense of being victims has . . . fostered a sense of entitlement” (p. 42; cf. pp. 200, 686). For instance, Palestinians harbor the belief that they had been “entitled to the land” on which they were born when Zionist settlers coming from Europe sought to displace them; that the land “was theirs and had been taken” (p. 35). In Palestinian “eyes,” Ross continues, “they were not responsible for what was done to the Jews in Europe” (p. 42). In their “eyes,” consequently, “ending the conflict and agreeing to live with Israel‘s presence” constituted a significant concession (p. 44). Further, Palestinians chafed at the fact that it was Israel that determined the pace and parameters of withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territory because they “believed they were getting what was rightfully theirs” (p. 55) and that “the land is ‘theirs'” (p. 763). Their opposition to Israeli settlement expansion apparently sprang from this misapprehension as well: “it outrage[d] the Palestinians-absorbing land that they considered to be theirs” (pp. 82, 195), “perceived to be theirs” (p. 765), that “they believed was theirs or should be theirs” (p. 332; cf. 44, 55). Finally, Arafat “flew into a rage” and “ranted for several minutes” after seeing the Oslo map because of the “appearance” that the Palestinian areas comprised “isolated islands that are cut off from each other” (p. 205). It so happens, however, that what Palestinians “believed,” “considered,” and “perceived” to be theirs actually was theirs according to international law; that it was not just “in their eyes,” but in those of any rational person that, whatever sins Palestinians might be chastised for, causing the Nazi holocaust is not one of them; and that the Oslo map did in fact shatter the Palestinian territory into a maze of fragments.


Compounding Palestinian misapprehensions regarding their legitimate claims on Palestine, according to Ross, were those regarding the United Nations and international law. For example, Ross writes:


          Palestinians and many in the Arab world continued to see an American double standard. . . . They asked why was Israel permitted to effectively ignore Security Council resolutions while Saddam was forced to comply? They did not see the difference between the Security Council resolutions. Those against Iraq came as a response to Saddam’s eradication of a member state of the U.N.; the resolutions required his compliance, not his acceptance. Noncompliance carried sanctions, and led to the use of force against his absorption of Kuwait. The resolutions that Palestinians and Arabs more generally focused on with regard to Israel were resolutions 242 and 338. They were adopted after the 1967 and 1973 wars. They provided the guidelines or principles that should shape negotiations to resolve the conflict between Arabs and Israelis. The terms of a final peace settlement were not established in these resolutions and they could not be mandatory on either side. But drawing distinctions between Security Council resolutions involving the Iraqis and the Israelis was not satisfying. The Arab world generally rejected the idea that Iraq faced pressure to implement Security Council resolutions while Israel did not. They wanted equal treatment. They wanted to portray all Security Council resolutions as having the force of international law. For the Arab world generally, the resolutions were their face-savers. They would resolve the conflict with Israel, but only on the basis of international law, “international legitimacy,” as they called it. Here was their explanation, their justification for ending the conflict. If Iraq had to follow international legitimacy, so too, must Israel. (p. 43)


This argument poses some problems, however. Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq, we are told, focused on its violations of international law, thereby requiring “compliance” and carrying “sanctions,” whereas Security Council resolutions regarding Israel focused on “principles” for a settlement, thereby requiring “acceptance” and envisaging “negotiations.” Yet the international community over the last thirty years has reached broad consensus on the principles for settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict. They are embodied in UN resolution 242 and subsequent UN resolutions calling for full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza and the establishment of a Palestinian state in these areas in exchange for recognition of Israel’s right to live in peace and security with its neighbors.[4] Each year the overwhelming majority of UN member states votes in favor of this two-state settlement, while each year Israel and the United States (along with this or that South Pacific atoll) oppose it. It is unclear why principles that find overwhelming support in the UN require compliance and carry sanctions in the case of Iraq‘s refusal to withdraw from occupied Kuwait but not in the case of Israel‘s refusal to withdraw from the occupied Palestinian territory. In fact, Israel‘s refusal to abide by this longstanding international consensus apparently puts its occupation squarely in the same category as Iraq‘s illegal occupation of Kuwait. “[A]n occupation regime that refuses to earnestly contribute to efforts to reach a peaceful solution should be considered illegal,” Tel Aviv University law professor Eyal Benvenisti opines:


          Indeed, such a refusal should be considered outright annexation. The occupant has a duty under international law to conduct negotiations in good faith for a peaceful solution. It would seem that an occupant who proposes unreasonable conditions, or otherwise obstructs negotiations for peace for the purpose of retaining control over the occupied territory, could be considered a violator of international law.[5]


“The continued rule of the recalcitrant occupant,” Benvenisti adds, should be construed “as an aggression.”[6]


In addition, Arabs and Palestinians have focused not, as Ross alleges, on UN resolutions 242 and 338 when calling for Israel’s compliance and sanctions against it, but rather on Israel’s violation of scores of Security Council and General Assembly resolutions deploring its illegal annexation of Jerusalem (and the Syrian Golan Heights), its illegal settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza, its illegal invasion and occupation of Lebanon (and other Arab countries), and numerous other flagrant violations of international law.[7] If the Arab world has not drawn “distinctions” between these resolutions and those directed at Iraq, it is perhaps because there are none to be drawn. It merits notice that Israel falls into a category all its own regarding compliance and sanctions. Although the Security Council has imposed sanctions on member states on some twenty different occasions since 1990, often for violations of international law identical to those committed by Israel, the U.S. veto has shielded Israel from any such sanctions.[8] Again, if the Arab world “continued to see an American double standard,” it is perhaps because there in fact has been one, and if the Arab world demanded “equal treatment” for Palestinians “on the basis of international law,” it is not self-evident why this should be objectionable.


Ross as witness


Before scrutinizing Ross’s influential thesis on why Camp David failed, it bears pausing for a moment on his reliability as a witness to these negotiations. Although acknowledging that he was publicly the whipping-boy for the Palestinians, Ross is emphatic that in reality they “respected me” (p. 608). He reports telling Palestinian negotiators, “You know that I understand your problems, your needs, and your aspirations very well. You know that I often explain them better than any of you do” (p. 755). Yet, the evidence suggests that, whether deservedly or not, Ross’s Arab interlocutors “couldn’t stand” him and believed he was “in league with the Israelis.”[9]


Moreover, where Ross’s allegedly verbatim account of the actual negotiations can be crosschecked, it proves misleading. Consider the volatile exchange between U.S. President Bill Clinton and the Palestinian delegation on day five of the summit. The Palestinians apparently insisted that before bargaining over land swaps, Israel had to accept the June 1967 borders as a baseline: whatever land Palestinians conceded on these borders would have to be compensated. Clinton, however, demanded that Palestinians exchange maps with Israel without Israel committing itself to the June borders as the baseline. Here is Ross’s rendering of what ensued:


          The President had had enough, and he let it rip. He said this was an outrageous approach. He had risked a great deal in having this summit. He had been advised not to take this risk. He disregarded this advice because he felt it necessary to do all he could to reach an agreement. But this was an outrageous waste of his time and everyone else’s time. He had offered a reasonable approach that did not compromise Palestinian interests. They lost nothing by trying it, and Abu Ala was simply not willing to negotiate. No one could accept what he was asking for. He [Clinton] would not be a part of something not serious, and this wasn’t serious, it was a mockery. Arafat had given his agreement to what the President was asking for and now he comes to the meetings and finds an outrageous approach-and he repeated, shouting now, “an outrageous approach.” At this point, the President stood up and stalked out. (p. 668)


Yet, judging by authoritative accounts, Ross omitted a crucial passage from Clinton‘s reproach to the Palestinian negotiators: “This isn’t the Security Council here. This isn’t the UN General Assembly. . . . I’m the president of the United States.”[10] Thus, even while rejecting the Palestinian position, Clinton implicitly acknowledged – correctly – that the Palestinians were merely reiterating UN resolutions and international law calling for full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territory, with allowance for minor and mutual land swaps.


Barak gives, Araf

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