Clayton Swisher’s book about Camp David and the Middle East peace process follows closely upon the publication of Dennis Ross’s account of these events [see review, p. 150]. Not surprisingly, Ross reiterates his standard refrain: The failure of Camp David was due solely to the intransigence of Yasser Arafat, who also bore primary responsibility for the outbreak and continuance of the al-Aqsa intifada. Ross’s version of events has become the paradigm for most of the press and media since August 2000. It governed the outlook of both the departing Clinton administration and that of George W. Bush.
This version is a myth, but a powerful one whose simplistic formula helped shape the Bush administration’s mantra that Arafat was not a “partner for peace.” This characterization was adopted directly from Ehud Barak’s public-relations blitz initiated during the Camp David talks to absolve himself from any responsibility for failure even before the talks ended. This in turn permitted Bush and his officials, many closely tied to Likud territorial objectives in the West Bank, to laud Ariel Sharon as a leader committed to the peace process at a time when Sharon strove to establish more settlements on the West Bank in open but administration-tolerated defiance of the Roadmap, an exercise in political surrealism whose real costs in blood and lost trust are all too visible.
The myth’s veracity has been challenged by individuals who participated in the events, as well as by later studies. Possibly the best known of these accounts is Charles Enderlin’s Shattered Dreams: The Failure of the Peace Process in the Middle East, 1995-2002, but there are also briefer analyses in my own work and in the articles of Jeremy Pressman, who concludes that the Palestinian version of what occurred at Camp David, though not without flaws, is far closer to the truth than the Israeli/American version. As Pressman notes in an excellent review of Ross’s The Missing Peace, Ross’s conclusions are “highly misleading” and, given his prominence, “his arguments are likely to carry great weight – and do great harm.” Finally, there are the exchanges between Ross and Hussein Agha/Robert Malley in The New York Review of Books.1 What then does Swisher’s book contribute to this discussion?
His study is closest in approach and conclusions to Enderlin’s, though it differs significantly. Enderlin, a veteran French journalist, provides a present-tense account of the events. He is very much “on the scene” throughout his narrative, presenting debates, negotiations, conversations as they occurred, with his own commentary. He has texts of documents otherwise difficult to obtain, such as the European narrative of the January 2001 Taba negotiations, to whose publication the Sharon government strongly objected – along with appendices containing texts of official accords. His footnotes explain that his interviews are videotaped, suggesting a record that cannot be disputed.
Swisher began his book as a master’s dissertation at Georgetown University, but he was not a recent college graduate, nor had he been isolated from Middle Eastern events. Having served as an agent with the State Department’s security service, he had traveled to the Middle East as part of the department’s security escort for the secretary of state on several occasions. He acknowledges Enderlin’s advice and assistance and quotes from his work where appropriate.
But Swisher’s approach differs markedly from Enderlin’s. He has interviewed many more participants in the discussions and preparations for talks; he provides a “behind the scenes” narrative that greatly adds to, rather than merely supplements, Enderlin’s present-tense point of view. Swisher had access to numerous Israeli and Palestinian participants as well as Clinton administration principals and staffers. His is much more a historical version of what occurred, along with the background to the talks as well as the atmosphere within each negotiating team, relying on oral history, a warts-and-all approach that gives insight into personal tensions and disputes both within the State Department and National Security Council groups and between them.
Dennis Ross comes off very badly in this study but receives special thanks from Swisher for his assistance and tolerance of critical questions. Regrettably, Swisher on occasion is forced to refer to interviewees by their functions without personal identification to conceal their identities, a method that may be understandable but which can be faulted by those objecting to the information offered. He notes in his introduction his frustration at the ongoing public comments of individuals he interviewed who offered markedly different opinions when anonymous. I have seen the same phenomenon recently with academics who would privately excoriate Bush-administration policies leading up to the attack on Iraq but glided over such references in public presentations at universities because they were writing position papers for individuals at think tanks within the Beltway.
Perhaps we should add to Lord Acton’s dictum “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” the line that “perceived or hoped-for access to power (or potential power with a change of administration) corrupts as well.”
Although Swisher does not cover as much ground as Enderlin, focusing on the period 19992001, he provides much more detail, making this book an important source for future researchers. His rendering of Barak’s abortive peace talks with the late Hafiz al-Asad of Syria confirms Enderlin’s version of Barak’s reneging on a deal after using Clinton to facilitate it, but he also elaborates on Barak’s attempt to undermine Yitzhak Rabin’s promise to withdraw fully from the Golan Heights, giving Syria access to Lake Tiberias. This was the “deposit” Rabin had left with Asad, which Barak, via Clinton, led the Syrians to expect would be fulfilled while seeking to extricate himself from its obligations. Barak was always seeking new options that would be offered by others. According to Aaron David Miller: “We couldn’t see it at the time, but Geneva [the March 2000 final Clinton meeting with Asad] was a dress rehearsal for what was to come at Camp David. . .
So you [Barak] put down an offer that your interlocutor cannot accept, you hope the Americans can sell it to him, but if they can’t you then go ahead and blame and expose the other side” (p. 353). With, Miller might have added, American acquiescence, as occurred when Clinton broke his promise not to blame Arafat if the talks failed.
What then happened or did not happen at Camp David, and why? How does this account square with previous renditions and the propaganda line of Arafat’s responsibility for failure? A basic problem, stressed by Swisher and many of his sources – Israeli, Palestinian and American – is that there was no record made of the discussions and “offers” exchanged. This, coupled with the disarray and tensions within the U.S. delegation, meant that in essence the talks restarted each day with Clinton taking his lead from Barak.
The reasons were several. First, Dennis Ross was the only note taker and an incomplete and obscure one at that, as one reference to his “chicken-scratch” records puts it. This meant, first, that nothing was written down about progress made in particular meetings. Nothing was “locked in” for future reference, apparently in part to accommodate Barak, who wanted no paper trail of discussions that might be used against him by opponents in Israel (he bragged about this in an ABC interview on October 15, 2000). Thus, American participants in discussions relied on memory to report what had occurred, and no summary was written at the end of each day for use the next. Ross apparently did not share his notes with others at the time.
This lack of record also meant that, when Israelis and Palestinians revived the talks from late August onward, recollections were necessarily fragmentary, and there was no set of notes to which to refer. This, understandably, led to conflicting accounts of what had been said, accepted or rejected.
Secondly, and critical for procedural matters, the Clinton administration convened the conference, but its negotiators had no plan or draft proposals to offer to the parties for discussion. To Miller, the Palestinians as well as the Israelis were better prepared than the Clinton delegation. This meant that the Americans essentially “[surrendered] . . . summit control to the Israelis” (p. 282) to consider U.N. Security Council Resolution (SCR) 242 as the basis for talks because Barak rejected it. Indeed, Swisher cites some telling evidence regarding Ross’s constant efforts to accommodate Barak, to the point that Barak was permitted to claim that his settlement would “fulfill 242 even if it was not based on 242” (p. 269). This is important because, when the Palestinians rejected such “offers” – never written or made by Barak himself – they were adhering more closely to the documents than were the Israelis or the Americans. But the Palestinians were then condemned for not immediately making counteroffers, when in fact they subsequently did, as Pressman argues.
Here Swisher compares the Carter administration’s preparations for Camp David I (1978), noting (pp. 242-47) the differences as well as the similarities. He makes good use of the recollections of William Quandt, who participated in the 1978 talks as an NSC staffer. The Carter people prepared a “simple negotiating text” containing what they thought might work, revising drafts as the talks went on. Though Quandt explained this to Clinton aides, nothing similar was done, meaning that Ross, usually in charge, was responding to Barak’s changing formulations rather than adhering to an independent U.S. plan. One comes away from this book with a picture of the Clinton team in often great disarray, so divided that at one stage Clinton decided to rely on his NSC people, omitting Ross, who was temporarily left to practice shots on the basketball court. As Swisher’s interviewees, Israeli and Palestinian, make abundantly clear, these tensions and disorganization were known to all.
Beyond the question of organization and intramural disputes within the American team, heretofore obscured, is that of specific information. What new points emerge from Swisher’s account that serve to verify or challenge the charges and claims issued after Camp David, particularly regarding territorial “offers”? To take one example, West Bank land: did Barak offer 90 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians or not? The propaganda answer is “yes.” The accurate answer is “maybe,” especially when we keep in mind that such offers were never made in isolation, but were accompanied by commentary about Jerusalem, refugees, etc. They were always oral, and, as in this case, were immediately withdrawn when challenged so that they technically no longer existed except as propaganda points.
We must keep in mind that the background to Camp David established the psychological as well as political framework for what occurred during the talks. Extensive Palestinian-Israeli discussions had taken place the previous April and May once the Syrian gambit collapsed. The inconclusive nature of these conversations had convinced the Palestinians that a summit should not be held and that they were being pressured to meet in order to accommodate Barak’s domestic political needs.
First, in early May, Barak offered the Palestinians 66 percent of the West Bank, excluding expanded East Jerusalem, the same amount he had proposed to them in April. He increased the area to be permanently annexed by Israel from 12 to 20 percent, however, leaving 14 percent for indefinite occupation. This divided the West Bank into three segments, offering no territorial contiguity. This was typical of Barak, setting the stage for further “concessions” without regard for the impact of mistrust that his initial ideas made. The episode recalls his approach to Asad over Syria, misleading him regarding Rabin’s deposit, suggesting a settlement on a 1923 line in order to preserve Israeli control of the Lake Tiberias shoreline, but always reassuring his American friends that he would eventually make the necessary concessions without defining what they were. In this case, his gambit, coming after having ignored the Palestinians for months to pursue the Syrian option, further entrenched their mistrust.
Barak then approved a new offer, in mid-May, that remained the framework when Camp David began. It included a Palestinian state on 76.6 percent of the West Bank, with 13.5 percent annexed by Israel, down from 20 percent, and 10.1 percent to be occupied from ten to twenty years, down from the original 14 percent. As many know, Barak intended to provide for at least 80 percent of the settlers and major settlement blocs, but this second offer at least gave the Palestinians territorial contiguity, something lacking in the original 66-percent scheme. This too was unacceptable to the Palestinians but offered a talking point. They insisted on SCR 242 as the basis for talks, working down from the entire West Bank, not starting from much less.
At Camp David, Clinton backed Barak in offering the 76.6-percent state as a starting point, according to Swisher. When Abu Ala insisted on starting from the June 1967 line and refused to simply draw a map of Palestinian demands for Clinton, the president erupted, possibly a staged tirade that nonetheless contributed to a Palestinian sense of isolation confronted by an American-Israeli alliance; Barak refused to talk to Arafat or acknowledge his presence throughout the summit. This offer was later increased to 78 percent for a state immediately, 12 percent to be annexed, and 10 percent under “temporary” Israeli occupation along the Jordan River valley, meaning ten to thirty years and only abandoned under “mutual agreement.” In other words, Israel could keep the land if it wished, encircling the Palestinian state.
On July 18, Barak did “offer,” via Clinton (though Arafat learned of it from Israelis also), 90 percent of the West Bank, annexing 9 percent for Israel along with 1 percent of the Gaza Strip, but the ideas were presented as “talking points” to remove any official aura about them. This was an extraordinary proposal that included, as well, Palestinian sovereignty over outlying areas of expanded East Jerusalem, but Israeli sovereignty with Palestinian municipal control over inner areas. And Barak suggested Palestinian sovereignty over Christian and Muslim quarters of the Old City but custodianship, not sovereignty, over the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount (p. 295ff). Arafat rejected the ideas, but Swisher’s recounting suggests it was more because of Palestinian lack of sovereignty over areas of East Jerusalem and the Haram al-Sharif than the West Bank proposals. Discussions like these were often part of a package. Much further progress would be made at Taba, without American supervision, in January 2001.
The Truth about Camp David offers a much-needed corrective to the official, privileged narrative that has dominated discussion and that Ross encapsulates in his own memoir. Swisher notes Palestinian errors and discusses Arafat’s rejection of the idea that the Temple Mount really was the site of the temple itself – an absurd, irrational conjecture easily exploited by his critics. This book, along with the sources noted above, provides a counter narrative that is far more convincing than the official line, especially because of the range of sources used and individuals interviewed, and the allocation of responsibility to more than one person and side.
One leaves this book with contrasting images of Ross as offered by Enderlin and Swisher. Enderlin quotes Ross in a reflective mood as admitting that “we,” the Americans, should have done things differently, including holding both sides “accountable for the commitments they made” (p. 360) and objecting not only to Palestinian violations but Israeli as well, including settlement expansion. Ross acknowledged that once it was thought that commitments could be made but not fulfilled, a “mindset” was created that commitments meant nothing, even if proclaimed. This, along with Israelis “constantly” doing things that created a sense of powerlessness among the Palestinians, was highly destructive to the negotiating atmosphere. Compare this to the Ross who bitterly tells Swisher regarding Arafat’s request for renewed negotiations, after Arafat received a hero’s welcome in Gaza: “Like, ‘well fuck you! [more laughter]. You know? We just shot our wad! You [Arafat] go out as a hero for being defiant – on what conceivable basis should we convene a summit without having some confidence that you’ll actually behave differently?’” (p. 362).
This last, parting shot is Ross’s legacy to the versions that have prevailed, especially the notion that Arafat or other Palestinians should “behave differently.” This parental stipulation denotes a demand for obedience that assumes powerlessness, clearly not to be requested of Israelis and condemned by Ross himself when referring to Israeli attitudes toward Palestinians, as quoted by Enderlin. One would hope that Swisher’s book will contribute to wider interest in reconsidering past events in a more detached manner, even if that means questioning the American role in fostering future negotiations. American sponsorship, based on the Camp David II experience, may be more destructive than positive if this account is to be believed, seeking more to protect Israeli leaders from their domestic political rivals rather than to foster the foundation for stability in the region.
1 Enderlin, New York: Other Press, 2003; Charles D. Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, fifth edition. (Boston: Bedford Books, 2004), Ch. 12; and Jeremy Pressman, “Visions in Collision: What Happened at Camp David and Taba?” International Security, Vol. 28, No. 2, Fall 2003, pp. 5-43. Pressman’s review of Ross’s The Missing Peace is in Boston Review, December 2004/January 2005, pp. 44-46. As he points out, Barak also had numerous reservations to U.S. proposals, which Ross prefers to ignore while stressing Arafat’s recalcitrance. Two other reviews of Ross’s book are a trenchant evaluation by William Quandt, Middle East Journal, Summer 2004, pp. 503-506, and a sympathetic review by Samuel Lewis, “The Receding Horizon,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2004, pp. 140-45. Lewis calls for renewed Palestinian-Israeli talks under the guidance of the United States, “a sympathetic but objective third party,” an evaluation totally contradicted by Swisher’s account of Ross’s backing of Barak, and also by Quandt, who notes that Ross’s longstanding attitude has been one of “unwavering American commitment to Israel on core issues” and divesting Arabs of the expectation that the United States would put forward ideas of its own.Swisher confirms that Ross and Clinton conveyed Barak’s ideas but had virtually no initiatives to propose themselves. Quandt also observes that Ross never engages other accounts such as Enderlin’s or the views put forth by Robert Malley and Hussein Agha in “Camp David: Tragedy of Errors,” The New York Review of Books, August 9, 2001, pp. 59-65, and in the exchanges between Ross and Malley-Agha in The New York Review of Books, September 20, 2001. Ross’s book is apparently based on his notes, unseen by his colleagues during the actual talks if Swisher’s interviews are correct, as they appear to be.