The Fallacy of Camp David Revisionism

By Weinstein, David | Midstream, November 2001 | Go to article overview

The Fallacy of Camp David Revisionism


Weinstein, David, Midstream


"There will be no peace for the US until we convince Israel to make peace with the Palestinians." So wrote Gary Kamiya of the on-line journal Salon,, shortly after the destruction of the World Trade Center. (1) Kamiya is not alone. Among the chattering classes, there has been much support for the notion that anti-Americanism in the Arab world would greatly diminish, and the American task of coalition building would be made far easier, if only we could prevail upon Israel to permit the establishment of a Palestinian state.

To many who followed the violent collapse of the last effort at Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement, the idea that it is Israel that must be "convinced" to resolve the conflict with its neighbor peacefully may seem quixotic. After all, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had offered the Palestinians a state at Camp David, had he not? And the Palestinians responded to that offer, not by putting forward a counterproposal that sought to test the limits of Israel's willingness to compromise but by launching a violent rebellion that, with virtual inevitability, pushed the Israeli populace into the arms of Ariel Sharon. It would appear, under this version of events, that Israel's most serious attempt at peacemaking did not dim the Arab world's hostility towards Israel or, for that matter, the United States. To the contrary, it seems to have ignited it.

If this understanding of the demise of the peace process is correct, then the onus for returning to the negotiating table lies not with the Israelis but with the Palestinians. Any efforts to pressure Israel into further concessions will accomplish nothing unless the Palestinian leadership shows some genuine interest in a negotiated settlement.

Given the implications of this construction of history, it is not surprising that in the months before the Trade Center attack, Palestinians officials began to challenge what had been the conventional wisdom on Camp David -- that it was Yasir Arafat's intransigence that caused the talks to collapse. On the Palestinian Authority's website, one can find lengthy accounts of the Camp David negotiations, which seek to finger Israel as the obstreperous party. Such revisionism has been embraced in this country as well, albeit in softer form. A spate of articles published this past summer argued that the blame for the present Israeli-Palestinian violence, and for the failure of last year's efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the conflict, should be apportioned equally among the parties.

The premiere advocate of this revisionism has been Robert Malley, the chief Middle East expert on President Clinton's National Security Counsel. In an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times, and in a longer article in The New York Review of Books (co-authored with Hussein Agha, a consultant to the Palestinian negotiating team), Malley contended that the Israeli concessions at Camp David were exaggerated, and that the Palestinians had also made compromises, which had been ignored by the foreign policy cognoscenti. (2)

Malley's argument found a sympathetic echo in other media outlets. In particular, a lengthy front-page article in the New York Times by its former Jerusalem correspondent, Deborah Sontag, embraced Malley's version of events wholesale. (3) According to Sontag, the commonly held view that the Palestinians were at fault for Camp David's failure is "simplistic." Sontag further maintained that the parties were nearing agreement in the subsequent talks held at Taba when the diplomatic process was ended -- not by the Palestinian refusal to move on issues of central importance -- but by the fall of the Barak government, and the concomitant collapse of a potentially fruitful negotiation.

Other commentators have teased out the clear implications of the revisionist thesis for the present conflict: Israel has a way out of its current crisis, if only it would be a little more forthcoming in its negotiating posture. …

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