The New York Times
Quest for Mideast Peace: How and Why it
By DEBORAH SONTAG
JUL 26, 2001
JERUSALEM Days before the Palestinian uprising erupted in September,
Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat held an unusually congenial
dinner meeting in the Israeli's private home in Kochav Yair.
At one point, Mr. Barak even called President Clinton and, two months
after the Camp David peace talks had failed, proclaimed that he and Mr.
Arafat would be come the ultimate Israeli-Palestinian peace partners.
Within earshot of the Palestinian leader, according to an Israeli
participant, Mr. Barak theatrically announced, "I'm going to be the
partner of this man even more so than Rabin was," referring to Yitzhak
Rabin, the late Israeli prime minister.
It was a moment that seems incredible in retrospect, now that Mr. Barak
talks of having revealed "Arafat's true face" and Ariel Sharon, the
present prime minister, routinely describes the Palestinian leader as a
But during the largely ineffectual cease-fire effort now under way in
the Middle East, peace advocates, academics and diplomats have begun
excavating such moments to see what can be learned from the diplomacy
right before and after the outbreak of violence. Their premise is that any
renewal of peace talks, however remote that seems right now, would have to
use the Barak-Clinton era as a point of departure or as an object lesson
In the tumble of the all-consuming violence, much has not been revealed
or examined. Rather, a potent, simplistic narrative has taken hold in
Israel and to some extent in the United States. It says: Mr. Barak offered
Mr. Arafat the moon at Camp David last summer. Mr. Arafat turned it down,
and then "pushed the button" and chose the path of violence. The
Israeli-Palestinian conflict is insoluble, at least for the foreseeable
But many diplomats and officials believe that the dynamic was far more
complex and that Mr. Arafat does not bear sole responsibility for the
breakdown of the peace effort.
There were missteps and successes by Israelis, Palestinians and
Americans alike over more than seven years of peace talks between the 1993
Oslo interim agreement and the last negotiating sessions in Taba, Egypt,
Mr. Barak did not offer Mr. Arafat the moon at Camp David. He broke
Israeli taboos against any discussion of dividing Jerusalem, and he
sketched out an offer that was politically courageous, especially for an
Israeli leader with a faltering coalition. But it was a proposal that the
Palestinians did not believe would leave them with a viable state. And
although Mr. Barak said no Israeli leader could go further, he himself
improved considerably on his Camp David proposal six months later.
"It is a terrible myth that Arafat and only Arafat caused this
catastrophic failure," Terje Roed-Lar sen, the United Nations special
envoy here, said in an interview. "All three parties made mistakes, and in
such complex negotiations, everyone is bound to. But no one is solely to
Mr. Arafat is widely blamed for his stubborn refusal to acknowledge
publicly any evolution in the Israeli position, and later to seize quickly
the potential contained in the 11th-hour peace package that Mr. Clinton
issued in late December.
Mr. Arafat did eventually authorize his negotiators to engage in talks
in Taba that used the Clinton proposal as a foundation. Despite reports to
the contrary in Israel, however, Mr. Arafat never turned down "97 percent
of the West Bank" at Taba, as many Israelis hold. The negotiations were
suspended by Israel because elections were imminent and "the pressure of
Israeli public opinion against the talks could not be resisted," said
Shlomo Ben-Ami, who was Israel's foreign minister at the time.
Still, the details of a permanent peace agreement were as clear at Taba
as they ever have been, most participants said. So afterward, United
Nations and European diplomats scrambled to convene a summit meeting in
Stockholm. There, they believed, Mr. Arafat who is known to make
decisions only under extreme deadline pressure was prepared to deliver a
breakthrough concession on the central issue of the fate of Palestinian
refugees, and a compromise was possible on Jerusalem.
For a variety of reasons, the summit meeting never took place. In the
Israeli elections in February, Mr. Barak lost resoundingly to Mr. Sharon.
It was then that peace moves froze not six months earlier at Camp
After Camp David: Much Went On Behind the Scenes
Key Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, as well as several American
and European diplomats keenly involved in the peace talks of the
Clinton-Barak era, were interviewed for this article. Mr. Arafat also gave
an interview. Mr. Barak did not; Gadi Baltiansky, his former spokesman,
said the former prime minister, who has kept a low profile since his
defeat, was unwilling to talk.
Few Israelis, Palestinians or Americans realize how much diplomatic
activity continued after the Camp David meeting appeared to produce
nothing. Building on what turned out to be a useful base, Israeli and
Palestinian negotiators conducted more than 50 negotiating sessions in
August and September, most of them clandestine, and most at the King David
Hotel in Jerusalem.
There were also some field trips to examine the practicality of ways to
divide Jerusalem some so complicated that Nabil Shaath, a senior
Palestinian official, joked about fitting residents' shoes with global
positioning devices that would light up in different colors to alert them
as to whose territory they were in.
One day, Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator, accompanied a
high-ranking Israeli security official on what was to be a quiet visit to
the City of David area outside the Old City walls, where some Jewish
families have established homes in the Palestinian residential
neighborhood of Silwan.
The Israeli official gave Mr. Erekat an Israeli paint company cap, and
the burly Palestinian negotiator removed his eyeglasses and dressed
uncharacteristically in casual clothes. He thought himself incognito, he
said, but a young Palestinian boy on a bicycle peered in the window of the
Israeli secret service car and said loudly, "Hi, Dr. Saeb!"
During August and September, Mr. Erekat and Gilad Sher, a senior
Israeli negotiator, drafted two chapters of a permanent peace accord that
were kept secret from everyone but the leaders even from other
negotiators, Mr. Erekat said.
At the same time, American mediators were pulling together Mr.
Clinton's permanent peace proposal. It appeared in December, but Martin
Indyk, the former American ambassador to Israel, disclosed recently that
they were already prepared to put it before the parties in August or
All this behind-the-scenes movement was reflected in the atmosphere at
that dinner party at Mr. Barak's home. The prime minister, who had refused
to talk directly to the Palestinian leader at Camp David, now courted him.
Mr. Ben-Ami, then foreign minister, said he left the dinner and told his
wife that Mr. Barak whom he describes as "deaf to cultural nuance" was
so intent on forging a peace agreement that he was willing to change "not
only his policies but his personality."
But Palestinians drove away from that dinner with something else on
their minds Mr. Sharon's coming visit to what Muslims call the Noble
Sanctuary and Jews know as the Temple Mount. Mr. Arafat said in an
interview that he huddled on the balcony with Mr. Barak and implored him
to block Mr. Sharon's plans. But Mr. Barak's government perceived the
planned visit by Mr. Sharon, then the opposition leader, as solely an
internal Israeli political matter, specifically as an attempt to divert
attention from the expected return to political life by a right-wing rival
Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister.
On the heels of very intricate grappling at Camp David over the future
status of the Old City's holy sites, Mr. Sharon's heavily guarded visit to
the plaza outside Al Aksa Mosque to demonstrate Jewish sovereignty over
the Temple Mount set off angry Palestinian demonstrations. The Israelis
used lethal force to put them down. The cycle of violence started,
escalated, mutated and built to a peak between mid-May and June 1 with the
Israeli use of F-16 fighter jets in Nablus and the terrorist bombing
outside a Tel Aviv disco.
In June and early July, a flimsy, American-brokered cease-fire
rekindled talk by diplomats of what they said remained their goal: to push
the parties back toward "final status" talks. But all acknowledged that
the distance between what was achievable at the negotiating table and what
would be palatable to the Israeli and Palestinian publics had become
greater with every passing month of violence.
Some Israelis and Palestinians, in fact, believe that the clock has
been set back decades and question the very two-state solution that was
the goal of the Oslo accords.
Many Israelis now believe that Mr. Arafat has been completely
discredited as a "peace partner" and that there is no point in negotiating
more agreements with him. They believe that he deliberately resorted to
violence to put pressure on Israel to give him what he could not obtain at
Camp David. And an increasing number believe that he once more has his
sights fixed on destroying Israel.
At the same time, many Palestinians have been led to believe the worst
of the Israelis. Many fear that the inclusion of far-right parties in Mr.
Sharon's coalition government signals a new respectability in Israel for
the extremist belief that Palestinians should be "transferred" to
neighboring Arab lands. In the last 10 months, their frustration has
turned to despair, anger and, in some cases, suicidal and homicidal
The bloom is off the rose for the "peace camps" on both sides as well.
"The Woodstock-like idea of peace did you hug your Palestinian today?
is over," said Avraham Burg, the speaker of the Israeli Parliament who is
the front-runner to become Labor Party leader in September.
Similarly, Mr. Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator, said: "The rosy
peace is out. I just want my state and to be done with them."
Yet relatively few Israelis, Palestinians or outside observers believe
that there can be a military solution to their conflict or that a
solution can be imposed. Thus the two sides will eventually have to return
somehow to some kind of talks.
"For us living here, we have no alternative in the long run to a
permanent status agreement," said Mr. Sher, the Israeli negotiator. "On
the horizon, we will become a minority on the West Bank of the Jordan
River. And if we don't have recognizable and coherent borders, we will
live through a much worse period than we are living through now."
Progress by Inches: Peace Effort Meets Rising Disaffection
In the Oslo accords signed in 1993, Israel and the Palestine Liberation
Organization agreed to recognize each other's legitimacy and to enter a
transitional period during which a permanent peace was to be negotiated as
Israel gradually transferred land in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to a new
self-governing Palestinian Authority.
In actuality, the "peace process" involved considerably more process
than peace. Still, American mediators believed that it was probably
irreversible and would eventually achieve its goal of two neighboring
states. The mediators devoted themselves to inching the effort forward as
the region withstood assassinations, terrorist attacks and count less
The inching, which produced several interim agreements, went on for
more than seven years, however, and always the big final-status issues
the fate of Jerusalem, of Palestinian refugees and of Jewish settlements
and the future borders were deferred. Mr. Shaath, the de facto
Palestinian foreign minister, said: "The lingo during all those years was
2 percent territory here and 3 percent there. Release 20 prisoners today
and 30 prisoners next week. Open this dirt road. It was bits and pieces.
This did not create any deep understanding between the parties on the big
Many Israelis were not in much of a hurry to get to the endgame. They
simply wanted the terrorism to stop. Right-wing Israeli politicians
complained that the Palestinian leadership was not educating its people
for peace, not collecting illegal weapons and not acting to reduce
incitement against Israel. But many Israelis chose to focus instead on the
relative quiet that they eventually came to enjoy as a result of the
Israeli-Palestinian security relationship.
The Palestinians, however, while they began the process of building a
state, lost faith as land transfers were routinely delayed and as they
watched the West Bank and Gaza sliced up by Israeli bypass roads and
expansion of Jewish settlements. The settler population increased by
80,000 between 1992 and 2001. The expected economic dividends of the peace
path did not materialize; the Palestinian standard of living dropped by 20
percent. The Palestinian Authority proved increasingly corrupt. And Mr.
Arafat kept setting and postponing dates for declaring Palestinian
independence, most recently last Sept. 13.
This created a growing disaffection with the peace effort that was
largely ignored by the Israeli and American negotiators. The Palestinian
opposition the Islamic militants who considered the negotiations to be a
sellout and others frustrated by the corruption of the Palestinian
leadership gained adherents who were more than ready to return to the
streets when the peace effort broke down.
Looking backward, Dennis B. Ross, the long-serving American mediator,
told The Jerusalem Post recently that "one of the lessons I've learned is
that you can't have one environment at the negotiating tables, and a
different reality on the ground."
Yossi Beilin, an Israeli architect of the peace effort, echoed the
sentiment. In an interview in Tel Aviv, he said Israeli advocates of a
negotiated peace, those known as the "peace camp," had not been tough
enough about the settlement expansion and not tough enough on the
Palestinians about incitement from their ranks against Israel.
Rob Malley, the National Security Council's Middle East expert under
Mr. Clinton, added that the Americans had not been tough enough on either
side. Speaking at a public forum in Washington last spring, Mr. Malley
said, "If the fundamental equation had to be land for peace, how can it
have any meaning and any relevance when, on the one hand, land was being
taken away on a daily basis and, on the other hand, the peace was being
maligned on a daily basis."
An Israeli expert on the conflict, Joseph Alpher, who was an adviser to
Mr. Barak at Camp David, argues that the Palestinian uprising, or
intifada, was provoked by the failures of the seven-year interim period
rather than by the Camp David impasse.
"Postponing the discussion of the contradictions between the most
fundamental Israeli and Palestinian narratives allowed the
Israeli-Palestinian dynamic to be invaded by a virus that has now
paralyzed it," he wrote in a recent study for the Bertelsmann
The Blame Game: Why Did Talks End in Collapse?
Assuming the mantle of Mr. Rabin, Mr. Barak came to office in July 1999
trumpeting his intent to end the conflict with the Palestinians in short
order. But then he chose to direct his energy at seeking peace with the
Syrians, and ignored the Palestinians long enough to make them suspicious.
He also brought the settlers representatives, the National Religious
Party, into his coalition and gave them the Housing Ministry, which led to
a significant expansion of the settlement enterprise.
Four years late by the original peacemaking timetable, the first
substantial final-status talks began secretly only in late March 2000,
after the Israeli-Syrian talks died. "It all started too late and on the
wrong footing," said Mr. Larsen, the United Nations envoy.
As a signal of his good faith, Mr. Barak promised to transfer to the
Palestinians three Jerusalem-area villages, a promise that was relayed to
Mr. Arafat by Mr. Clinton. Mr. Barak even won Parliament's con sent to do
so. But, on the day of the vote, an intense spasm of violence erupted in
the West Bank, which seems in retrospect a harbinger of what was to
Mr. Barak indefinitely deferred the transfer because of the violence.
Both Mr. Arafat and, according to Mr. Malley, Mr. Clinton later said they
felt burned by Mr. Barak's broken promise.
Nonetheless, what became known as the "Stockholm track" consisted of 15
substantive sessions, culminating in three long weekends, two in Sweden
and one in Israel. Israelis and Palestinians who took part say now that
the discussions were groundbreaking and that the mood was positive. They
made progress on the issues of territory, borders, security and even
refugees, although there were both advances and retreats on every
In mid-May, the fact and the substance of the talks were leaked to
Israeli newspapers, and what was printed about potential concessions
caused political problems for both Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat. That in
effect brought the talks to a halt and led Mr. Barak to seek a summit
meeting before the Palestinians considered the groundwork laid.
"Stockholm died once revealed," Mr. Indyk, the former American
ambassador, said in an interview in June. "If Stockholm had continued, it
might have laid a better foundation for Camp David. But Barak felt the
leaks would lead to the breakup of his coalition and he'd never get to the
Mr. Ben-Ami said the negotiators had supported Mr. Barak's decision to
push for an American-led summit meeting at that point.
"We didn't feel there was a purpose in eroding our positions further
before a summit where we'd have to give up more," he said.
For other reasons, though, Mr. Ben-Ami said that in retrospect he
considered it a pity that the Stockholm track was aborted. Referring to
Abu Ala, he said: "The Palestinian negotiator there was an extraordinarily
talented and able man who had the trust of the chairman. And he liked
discreet channels. The moment they collapsed, he became an enemy of the
process. He thought Camp David was a show."
The palpable displeasure of Mr. Abu Ala, whose given name is Ahmed
Qurei, at Camp David was considered by many to have contributed to the
talks' failure just as his subsequent leadership role at Taba was
believed to have contributed to greater success there.
Mr. Abu Ala himself said Mr. Barak had doomed Camp David by cutting
short the preparatory session. "We told him without preparation it would
be a catastrophe, and now we are living the catastrophe," Mr. Abu Ala said
in an interview in Abu Dis, his village in the West Bank. "Two weeks
before Camp David, Arafat and I saw Clinton at the White House. Arafat
told Clinton he needed more time. Clinton said, Chairman Arafat, come try
your best. If it fails, I will not blame you.' But that is exactly what he
The Palestinians went to Camp David so reluctantly that the failure of
the talks should have been foreseen, many now say. "The failure of Camp
David was a self-fulfilling prophesy, and it wasn't because of Jerusalem
or the right of return" of refugees, said Mr. Beilin.
Mr. Larsen agreed: "It was a failure of psychology and of process, not
so much of substance."
The Palestinians felt that they were being dragged to the verdant hills
of Maryland to be put under joint pressure by an Israeli prime minister
and an American president who, because of their separate political time
tables and concerns about their legacies, had a personal sense of
The Palestinians said they had been repeatedly told by the Americans
that the Israeli leader's coalition was unstable; after a while, they
said, the goal of the summit meeting seemed to be as much about rescuing
Mr. Barak as about making peace. At the same time, they said, the
Americans did not seem to take seriously the pressures of the Palestinian
public and the Muslim world on Mr. Arafat. Like Mr. Barak, Mr. Arafat went
to Camp David dogged by plummeting domestic approval ratings.
Mr. Indyk, who is planning to write a book on the peace effort called
"Unintended Consequences," said Mr. Barak's requirement that Camp David
produce a formal end to the conflict had put too much pressure on the
The discussions on some issues actually went backward during the two
weeks at Camp David, Mr. Sher and Mr. Ben-Ami said. Mr. Sher said he
believed that it was because Palestinian negotiators had kept Mr. Arafat
in the dark about key details of the Stockholm talks, which they deny. He
said he and Mr. Ben-Ami had traveled to Nablus, in the West Bank, to see
the Palestinian leader shortly before Camp David and were stunned to
discover that Mr. Arafat did not know precisely what had been
The Israelis and the Americans describe a "bunker mentality" on the
part of the Palestinians at Camp David. In response, the Palestinians say
that at one point Mr. Barak did not come out of his cabin, the Dogwood,
for two days and that he refused to meet with Mr. Arafat personally except
for one tea.
"There was also one dinner in which Barak was on the right side of
Clinton and Arafat was on the left," said Mr. Shaath, the Palestinian,
adding in reference to Mr. Clinton's daughter: "But Chelsea sat to the
right of Barak all evening, and she received his undivided attention. Why
the hell did he insist on a summit if he did not intend to meet his
partner for a minute?"
Western diplomats here say the Palestinians believed that they were
being manipulated by the Americans. They said American officials had made
a crucial mistake in trying to nurture special relationships with two
younger-generation Palestinian officials whom they thought were pragmatic:
Muhammad Rashid, Mr. Arafat's Kurdish economic adviser, and Muhammad
Dahlan, the Gaza preventive security chief. That angered the veteran
Palestinian negotiators, they said, who felt that the Americans were
seeking to divide and weaken them.
In the middle of Camp David, one of the negotiators, Abu Mazen, flew
back to the Middle East for his son's wedding. He was furious about the
American tactics, a European diplomats said, and pledged that Camp David
would never succeed if such games continued and that he would use the
refugee issue to foil it, if need be.
Mr. Sher said the Palestinians had never put forward any
counterproposals to what the Israelis were suggesting. They just said no,
he said. Mr. Malley, who was at Camp David, wrote in an op-ed piece in The
New York Times in mid-July that the American mediators were "frustrated
almost to the point of despair by the Palestinians' passivity and
inability to seize the moment."
The two sides had discussed territorial swaps at Stockholm, in which
the Palestinians would cede a percentage of the West Bank for settlement
blocs in exchange for territory elsewhere. They continued the conversation
at Camp David. But Mr. Abu Ala said the Israelis had talked of an unfair
swap annexing about 9 percent of the West Bank and giving the
Palestinians the equivalent of about 1 percent elsewhere.
"I said, Shlomo, I cannot look at the maps. Close them," Mr. Abu Ala
said, describing a conversation with Mr. Ben-Ami. He declared that he
would discuss only the 1967 borders. "Clinton was angry at me and told me
I was personally responsible for the failure of the summit. I told him
even if occupation continues for 500 years, we will not change."
But at Taba, the Palestinians were more than willing to look at maps.
Now the Israelis were talking about annexing 6 percent of the West Bank in
exchange for land else where that was equivalent to 3 percent. That would
have given the Palestinians some 97 percent of the total land mass of the
West Bank, which is much closer to their long-held goal that the Israelis
should return all the territories captured in 1967.
At Camp David, Mr. Ben-Ami said, the Israelis discovered very late in
the game how differently the two sides perceived the final status
"That the Palestinians would agree to less than 100 percent was the
axiom of Israeli politics since 1993," he said.
Mr. Sher said most members of the Palestinian leadership "knew and
agreed that this is a historic compromise that requires the Palestinians
yielding on some issues all except one: Arafat."
At the end of Camp David, the three parties agreed that the chemistry
had been bad. That was about all they agreed on. The Americans were deject
ed, although months later Mr. Clinton described Camp David as a
"transformative event" because it forced the two sides to confront each
other's core needs and al lowed them to glimpse the potential con tours of
a final peace.
At the close of July 2000, however, the Israelis felt that their
generosity had been rebuffed. And the Palestinians felt that they were
being offered a state that would not be viable "less than a bantustan,
for your information," Mr. Arafat said in a recent interview.
"They have to control the Jordan Valley, with five early warning
stations there," Mr. Arafat said. "They have to control the air above, the
water aquifers below, the sea and the borders. They have to divide the
West Bank in three cantons. They keep 10 percent of it for settlements and
roads and their forces. No sovereignty over Haram al Sharif. And refugees,
we didn't have a serious discussion about."
Mr. Ben-Ami said he spent considerable time after Camp David trying to
explain to Israelis that the Palestinians indeed did make significant
concessions from their vantage point. "They agreed to Israeli sovereignty
over Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, 11 of them," he said. "They
agreed to the idea that three blocs of the settlements they so oppose
could remain in place and that the Western Wall and Jewish Quarter could
be under Israeli sovereignty."
Mr. Malley added that the Palestinians had agreed to negotiate a
solution to the refugee issue that would not end up threatening Israel's
Jewish majority. "No other Arab party that has negotiated with Israel
not Anwar el-Sadat's Egypt, not King Hussein's Jordan, let alone Hafez
al-Assad's Syria ever came close to even considering such compromises,"
In the public analysis, the summit meeting fell apart in bitter
disagreement over how to share or divide Jerusalem. Mr. Clinton recently
said it was the refugee issue that did it in. But Mr. Malley and others
who took part said there were gaps on every issue.
But at the end, Mr. Clinton praised Mr. Barak's courage and vision and
said Mr. Arafat had not made an equivalent effort.
Mr. Shaath said: "I personally pleaded with President Clinton: Please
do not put on a sad face and tell the world it failed. Please say we broke
down taboos, dealt with the heart of the matter and will continue.'"
"But then the president started the blame game, and he backed Arafat
into a corner," he added.
Mr. Ben-Ami expressed a similar sentiment. "At the end of Camp David,
we had the feeling that the package as such contained ingredients and
needed to go on," he said. "But Clinton left us to our own devices after
he started the blame game. He was trying to give Barak a boost knowing he
had political problems going home empty hand ed but with his concessions
revealed. But in doing so he created problems with the other side."
Mr. Arafat "rode home on a white horse," Mr. Shaath said, because he
showed Palestinians that he "still cared about Jerusalem and the
refugees." He was perceived as having stood strong in the face of
incredible pressure from the Americans and the Israelis.
Nonetheless, Mr. Erekat said he had traveled from Bethlehem to Gaza
preaching that "Camp David was good, Camp David was progress." He also
said Mr. Arafat had made such comments, but if he did, they were very
But after Camp David, negotiators plunged back into their work at the
King David Hotel. And the results were positive enough that Mr. Barak and
Mr. Arafat held their upbeat dinner meeting, and the Clinton
administration summoned negotiators to Washington on Sept. 27. On Sept.
28, Mr. Sharon visited the Temple Mount. On Sept. 29, the situation began
disintegrating with a rapidity that shocked everyone.
Each side blamed the other. The Israeli government has said the
Palestinians initiated the uprising to force the Israelis to give them
what they could not get at Camp David. Mr. Arafat said in an interview
that Mr. Barak in effect conspired with Mr. Sharon "to destroy the peace
process" once he could not get the Palestinians to accept his offer. Mr.
Arafat called Mr. Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount "a vehicle for what
they had decided on: the military plan."
An international fact-finding committee headed by former Senator George
J. Mitchell did not hold either side solely responsible for the breakdown
and described a lethal dynamic on the ground that grew from the behavior
of both sides and took on a destructive life of its own. More than 650
people have been killed since Sept. 29, the over whelming majority of them
Too Late' at Taba: Some Still Look to Eventual Peace
Both sides, in recent interviews, wondered aloud why Mr. Clinton could
not have presented his peace proposal at Camp David or immediately
afterward. In late December, when he finally did so, the timing was very
tight. Mr. Clinton was due to leave the presidency on Jan. 20, and Mr.
Barak faced elections on Feb. 6.
The proposal offered more to the Palestinians than what was on the
table at Camp David, but they initially responded with skepticism. The
plan was too vague, they said. In the midst once more of a violent
relationship with Israel, they were not emotionally poised to abide by the
political timetables of others and to rush into a fuzzy deal, they
A European diplomat said the Palestinians did not understand the
imminence and implications of a victory by Mr. Sharon; another said they
did not want to waste their time with Mr. Barak, who was predicted to
Still, in early January, Mr. Arafat visited Mr. Clinton at the White
House. In a subsequent interview, he said he had suggested that the
president summon Israeli and Palestinian negotiators immediately for
marathon talks. Mr. Arafat said he had told Mr. Clinton that he believed a
deal was possible in 14 days.
Instead, the negotiators met later that month without the Americans and
without their leaders at the Taba Hilton on the Red Sea. With the
exception of Mr. Sher, who said Taba was little more than "good ambience,"
most of the Israelis and Palestinians who took part felt that it was a
very successful session.
"Peace seemed very possible at Taba," Mr. Ben-Ami said. And Mr. Abu Ala
said, "In Taba, we achieved real tangible steps toward a final
In Taba, the Israelis for the first time accepted the Palestinian
principle of a return to 1967 borders, the Palestinians said. The
Palestinians therefore agreed to settlement blocs, provided there would be
a swap of equivalent land. Mr. Shaath said they were to end up with 10
percent more territory than they were offered at Camp David.
The Israelis also agreed for the first time to give the Palestinians
full sovereignty over all Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, both sides
said, and to give the Palestinians air rights over their land. The two
sides were still grappling with the precise terms under which Israel could
retain small bases and radar posts in the Jordan Valley, at least
Many Israelis believe that throughout the final-status talks, the
Palestinians were inflexible in their demand that all refugees be given
the right of return to their former homes, which raises existential fears
in Israel. But Mr. Beilin, the Israeli who ran the negotiations on
refugees at Taba, said the two sides were exploring an ``agreed
narrative'' that would defuse the explosive nature of this issue and
protect the Jewish identity of Israel. They noted that about 200,000
Palestinians living in East Jerusalem would drop off the Israeli
demographic rolls, and they devised a mechanism giving refugees more
financial incentive to settle outside Israel.
Mr. Abu Ala said: ``When other issues move, this will move. It's not a
The negotiations at Taba were interrupted by Mr. Barak after two
Israelis were killed in the West Bank. The talks resumed and then halted
again with the agreement to pick up after the elections. They never
``If Camp David was too little, Taba was too late,'' Mr. Shaath
Mr. Larsen, the United Nations envoy, said he believed that a final
peace deal could have been hammered out after Taba if both Mr. Barak and
Mr. Clinton had remained in office.
But that is a big if. Mr. Sher noted, for instance, that the status of
Jerusalem's holy sites -- always a potential deal-breaker -- was barely
touched during the Taba sessions.
In any case, on leaving office, Mr. Barak declared that his successor
would not be bound by the negotiations that began with Stockholm and ended
with Taba. Similarly, Mr. Clinton said his peace plan would expire when he
Yet a year after Camp David, with the reality on the ground so
transformed by bloodshed, most of those who took part in or observed the
negotiations still believe that a permanent peace agreement is
Although they acknowledge little likelihood of final-status talks under
Mr. Sharon, they still believe in the inevitability of a future agreement
that is very near to what they were designing.
``Even at this darkest of hours, I believe that peace is achievable,''
Mr. Erekat said in an interview in his Jericho office. ``Clinton took us
on a futuristic voyage. We have seen the endgame. It's just a matter of
Mr. Sher agreed. ``I still think that peace is doable, feasible and
reasonable,'' he said in his Jerusalem office, which is decorated with
photographs from Camp David. That's the tragedy, because the basis of the
agreement is lying there in arm's
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