Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 July 2000
Issue No. 490
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Camp David II

By Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

Mohamed Sid-AhmedThe timing of the Camp David summit between Clinton, Arafat and Barak was not determined by the progress achieved in the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority but, rather, by Clinton's personal agenda and whether he could still, in a matter of weeks, intervene effectively to overcome the many stumbling blocks still obstructing a settlement of the Middle East crisis.

The outgoing US president badly needs a spectacular success to offset the damage done to his reputation by a series of scandals and failures. A breakthrough on the Middle East peace front could be just the thing to secure his place in history, maybe even to win him the Nobel peace prize. The Lewinsky affair shattered his image as a family man, if not also as a statesman, and he is hoping to rehabilitate himself with an outstanding contribution towards resolving the long-standing Arab-Israeli dispute. But even granting Clinton's long involvement with and intimate knowledge of the problems in the way of a settlement, any hopes he might be harbouring that the summit will succeed in achieving a breakthrough are not very realistic.

To begin with, the Camp David summit has been designed more to serve Clinton's agenda than to actually satisfy Palestinian, or even Israeli, expectations from the summit. Of course, Clinton has cards that he can eventually use. He can generously reward whoever helps him achieve his aims and, by the same token, harshly punish whoever obstructs his path. It goes without saying that most of the pressure will be brought to bear on Arafat. But it is to be questioned whether issues that negotiators have failed to solve over many years can be solved in a mater of days.

Still, in the information age, illusion and reality are often interchangeable. Thus the Camp David summit is not necessarily about "solving" the crisis, but only about providing a stage on which Clinton can produce a scenario he can sell, thanks to the power of the US media, as a solution of the crisis -- or, at least, as a key step forward towards a solution, a declaration of principles, or a framework agreement that would pave the way to a solution. This need not be an impossible undertaking after years of hard work in search of solutions. Nor is it impossible to come up with a script which, by sidestepping the most intractable issues and addressing only generalities, would allow Clinton to claim that he has made substantial progress towards a final solution.

Both Barak and Arafat are aware that the Camp David summit is, in actual fact, a "Clinton summit." But both have accepted to take part, each for his own reasons, on the grounds that holding the summit is a lesser evil than not holding it. Negotiations on the Palestinian-Israeli track have reached such an impasse that no further step is possible without the direct intervention of the top decision-maker on either side, the only person in a position to assume responsibility for painful concessions. On the Israeli side, Barak is threatened with the collapse of his coalition government. Already Nathan Sharansky, the interior minister and the representative of the most prominent Russian party in Israel, has submitted his resignation. Other members of the coalition have followed suit, including the National Religious Party. Hence Barak's decision, after the failure at the very last minute of a no-confidence vote in the Knesset, to attend the summit and present the results to a national referendum, by-passing both the government and parliament.

Arafat, on the other hand, knows that he will come under strong pressure to make most of the concessions. But he also knows that he holds a number of cards he could eventually use. If he refuses to sign, he jeopardises Clinton's plan to claim credit for a resolution of the Middle East crisis. He also leaves the door open to a resurgence of violence in the region that could exceed anything it has witnessed since the initiation of the Madrid process. Once the rationale of peace is replaced by uncontrolled violence, the voices of Palestinian moderates will be drowned out. The arena will be left to the radicals, who can argue convincingly that it was thanks to Hizbullah's armed struggle that Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon, while Arafat's negotiation line has been a total failure.

Moreover, an eruption of violence in the wake of the failure of the Madrid peace process will discourage the coming US president from according to the Middle East the same high priority it enjoyed under Clinton, in as much as the whole enterprise will have proved to be a costly waste of time. Actually, all the parties have an interest in fostering the illusion that the summit did achieve something, if only because the political cost of admitting failure would be too high.

None of the details of the talks have been disclosed so far, but one can expect an outstanding effort not to have to admit failure and thus to probably initiate a new intermediary stage that would extend over a long period in future, in a way that would offer the moderates the opportunity to announce that the summit has not failed and justify continuing the negotiation process rather than allow the situation to deteriorate into chaos and violence. If the new Camp David summit is unable to achieve peace, let it at least appear as capable of initiating a new stage in the negotiation process that could, over time, tackle the most intractable issues remaining without solution.

So the frame of reference is still how to avoid the worst-case scenario, not how to implement the best. And this raises a paradox, because, contrary to Camp David I between Carter, Sadat and Begin 22 years ago, which inaugurated a process of Arab states signing treaties with Israel, Camp David II is assumed to bring this process to its ultimate goal. In Camp David I, it was possible to defer the most contentious issues to a later stage. The formula devised at the time was for Sadat and Begin to record their contradictory stands in letters addressed to Carter, as the sponsor of the talks, on the understanding that these issues would be tackled in later negotiations. It is a formula that runs counter to the logic of the Camp David II summit, which purports to be a forum for the final stage in the negotiation process between the parties.

In any case, it is senseless to talk of final negotiations on the Palestinian rack when negotiations are still completely stalled on the Syrian track, and the modalities for their resumption following the failure of Clinton's summit meeting with the late Hafez Al-Assad in Geneva have yet to be invented. What is certain is that the new Syrian president will not be able to deliver in weeks what his father failed to deliver in years, and that Camp David II is far from announcing the end of the Arab Israeli dispute.

Actually, the issues that proved to be the most intractable in Camp David I remain the most intractable in Camp David II: Jerusalem, the Palestinian refugees, the Israeli settlements and the Palestinian right of self-determination. Even the issue of a Palestinian state remains unsettled. The PA still finds it necessary to move forward on that issue even unilaterally, the way the Israelis acted in south Lebanon, and irrespective of the fact that such a move could trigger considerable retaliatory measures.

Thus the most one can expect from Camp David II is that it will avoid a worst-case scenario for the time being by initiating a new intermediary stage in which any concessions Israel will be called upon to make in principle would be neutralised by the modalities of their implementation, such as allowing Israel to 'lease' Palestinian land on which settlements have been constructed, to limit any right of return for a given number of Palestinian refugees to cases of family reunion only, or to deprive the Palestinian state of most of its sovereign prerogatives. In the final analysis, the negotiations at the Camp David summit will continue to be determined by the balance of power between the protagonists, a notion that is had to reconcile with the requirements of a just peace.


Related stories:
Beyond Camp David- 3 - 9 June 1999
The future of the Arab-Israeli conflict- 18 - 24 March 1999

 

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