Time Unlikely To Be a Friend of Middle East Peace

Richard N. Haass was a senior Middle East adviser to President George Bush.

Just days after the Camp David summit ended without agreement, two very different views of what it accomplished are circulating. The first view is the obvious one of failure. The second is much more positive, reflecting a belief that the meeting accomplished a great deal and could well be a critical step on the path to peace.

Three factors—the ability of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to make peace, the desire of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and the approach of President Bill Clinton—will determine which of these two interpretations ultimately proves correct.

The case for seeing Camp David as a failure is straightforward, a result of the parties leaving the presidential retreat empty-handed. The bottom line is that the Palestinian side was not willing to sign on to the package agreed to by Israel, despite the fact that what Barak offered was unprecedented in its generosity and scope. As we now know, the absence of Palestinian sovereignty over half of Jerusalem was the principal deal breaker.

The glass-half-full perspective takes heart from all that was agreed to in principle: the establishment of a Palestinian state consisting of some 95 percent of the occupied territories; the ability of a limited number of Palestinians to return to live in the area along with financial compensation for resettlement; special provisions for Israeli security; Israeli annexation of land holding some three-quarters of the Jewish settlers, with the remaining one-quarter able to remain on their settlements but inside the Palestinian state; and an approach to Jerusalem that gave the Palestinians a mix of control, presence and limited sovereignty. Optimists also are encouraged by the fact that talks between Israelis and Palestinians resumed less than a week after Camp David’s end.

Which of these two views will win out? We are likely to know sooner rather than later, as time is unlikely to be a friend of Middle East peace. Barak’s domestic base is fast eroding, something underscored by the surprising election of an opposition candidate as Israel’s next president. Meanwhile, it is now only some six weeks until Sept. 13, the date on which Arafat has threatened to declare a Palestinian state unilaterally.

Violence and confrontation would likely be the result—if they do not come earlier.

It is hard to see how the embattled Israeli prime minister can modify his offer to meet Palestinian objections. First Syrian and now Palestinian rejection of Israeli offers have seriously weakened Barak at home. This places the bulk of the pressure on the Palestinians and the Americans.

Arafat and his chief aides need to prepare their people for compromise if they want a state of their own; indeed, Palestinian leaders need to shape public opinion to do now what they should have done before Camp David. The fact that Arafat returned to a hero’s welcome after refusing to compromise does not bode well. Middle East peace is only likely to come when he is lauded for making the tough decisions that make an agreement possible.

At the same time, the United States needs to reconsider its approach to promoting progress. While it was correct to convene the summit, it was a questionable tactic to push so hard for a comprehensive peace at Camp David, given that it was the first time so many of the permanent status issues were ever formally addressed and given the lack of public preparation on the Palestinian side in particular. Diplomacy must always be sized to match the scale of the opportunity; at Camp David, Clinton appears to have tried for too much, too soon.

This logic suggests the desirability of developing a partial but still substantial agreement if a comprehensive accord remains beyond reach. Such an agreement would enshrine much of what was negotiated at Camp David apart from Jerusalem. In addition, each side would have to forswear unilateral actions (and Palestinians would have to ban the use of force) in pursuit of remaining objectives.

Neither side will embrace such an approach: The Israelis will resist making concessions without receiving a public, written pledge that the conflict is over once and for all; the Palestinians will resist signing on to an accord that they fear will leave them little leverage to pursue their remaining aims, including those in Jerusalem.

These objections are real and won’t be easy to overcome, but the likely alternative—unilateral declaration of statehood, followed by unilateral annexations of land by Israel and violence—would set back peace prospects for years to come. Here it would help if the United States would also do something it should have done more of in the run-up to Camp David—namely, to urge Arab and Islamic leaders to endorse approaches to peace that may be possible to negotiate. Sometimes, contexts favorable to compromise need to be created for leaders unable or unwilling to create them by themselves.