Richard N. Haass was a principal Middle East adviser to President George Bush.
President Bill Clinton convenes a Mideast summit today with Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Authority. It promises to be a long shot, but one the president correctly calculated was worth trying, given the almost certain Mideast crisis that will erupt in two months if events simply run their course.
What is more, at first glance, prospects for a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians seem fairly good. The two sides have been negotiating face-to-face for years, and the fact that the two leaders have accepted Clinton’s offer to come to the United States suggests they are prepared to meet each other halfway.
Moreover, the Israeli government is reportedly ready to hand over to a Palestinian state more than 90 percent of the territory of the West Bank and Gaza that it gained in the 1967 war from Jordan and Egypt. The new state would be recognized by Israel and would control its borders with Jordan and Egypt.
Most of those Israelis living in settlements would find themselves on Israeli territory. While Israel would maintain some sort of security zone in the Jordan valley, it would give the Palestinians a foothold in Jerusalem and make it possible for a limited number of Palestinian refugees to return and live in their new state. Still, “Camp David II” promises to be even more difficult than its famous predecessor. The hurdles are enormous.
First, while the government of Ehud Barak is willing to make these compromises, it is not clear it can. Desiring peace is never enough; one must also be able to negotiate it and sell it at home. Barak’s domestic base is in disarray; what he has put on the table was too much for his coalition partners.
Whether it will also prove too much for the Israeli public—which would likely have to approve any peace agreement in a referendum—remains to be seen.
Barak’s position may be too little for the Palestinians. Arafat wants Israel to hand over all the territory it gained in 1967. He wants an unlimited right for Palestinians living anywhere to “return home.” And he wants more of Jerusalem than Israel is prepared to part with.
Moreover, there is no evidence that Arafat has prepared Palestinians or Arabs anywhere that they might need to compromise their long-held positions.
How will events unfold? There are three possible scenarios involving the summit and what comes after.
The first is the most optimistic. In principle, Israelis and Palestinians could hammer out a comprehensive peace pact. The problem with imagining this scenario is that it is extremely hard to see the two sides bridging all that divides them, given their respective domestic politics.
A second scenario could hardly be more different. The summit could fail to solve the core issues of the conflict; the two sides would then return home, frustrated and angry. On Sept. 13, the Palestinians would make good on their threat to declare an independent state.
Israel would almost certainly match this unilateral step with unilateral actions of its own, including land annexations. Armed conflict would be all but inevitable, the chances of restoring negotiations and momentum toward peace remote.
A third scenario is more modest than the first, but still far from assured.
After several days at Camp David, Clinton could come to realize that a comprehensive solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict is beyond reach. He would then be wise to switch gears and settle for a framework that settles some issues but leaves others still unresolved.
This version of the future would be less a new Camp David accord than another partial arrangement along the lines of what the two parties agreed to at Oslo. But even this approach is not lacking in problems.
Israel might well balk at handing over more territory and making other concessions without receiving anything meaningful in return. And the Palestinians may be tempted to reject what they will see as a half loaf at best.
Still, it is far preferable to each side taking matters into its own hands and trying to achieve on the ground what it could not gain at the bargaining table.
The Israeli side knows this, but its hands are mostly tied. Barak has already put forward a package more generous than any Israeli government before him has ever proffered. He is not in a position to offer much more.
As a result, the real question is how Arafat decides to play his hand and whether he is willing to compromise. His situation is reminiscent of another nationalist leader who, some 50 years ago, took the difficult decision to accept an offer of a state much smaller than he and his colleagues sought. The leader was David Ben-Gurion; the movement was Zionism; the state created was Israel. Arafat could do worse for inspiration.