How Not to Host a Summit

The 2000 peace talks at Camp David offer three key lessons on how not to solve the world's most intractable conflict.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Twelve years ago this week, U.S. President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat gathered at Camp David to launch a historic bid to put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Twelve years ago this week, U.S. President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat gathered at Camp David to launch a historic bid to put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The historic nature of the gathering can’t be denied. The discussions there began the excruciatingly painful process of coming to terms with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s toughest issues. Indeed, for nearly two weeks in Maryland’s stunningly beautiful Catoctin Mountain Park, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators wrestled with the core issues of the conflict — territory, refugees, security, and, of course, Jerusalem — in front of a U.S. president. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is finally resolved, what happened at Camp David that summer will be viewed as an important part of the negotiating history.

There were movies — Gladiator and the submarine World War II classic U-571 (wasn’t this a peace summit?) — and spectator sports (watching Israelis and Palestinians race around the narrow walking paths on golf carts at breakneck speeds chattering in Arabic and Hebrew). One of the carts went missing at the summit’s end. We joked that maybe one of the Palestinians and Israelis had tried to drive it home.

There were crises (Barak nearly choked to death on a peanut, only to be saved by the youngest member of his delegation). There were comedic highs (Arafat watching the baseball All-Star Game and earnestly asking in the fifth inning when the game was going to start). And dramatic lows — Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in an effort to cheer up a brooding Barak, offered to move a piano into his cabin after he retreated there, sulking like Achilles at Troy over prospects that Arafat really wasn’t interested in reaching an accord. And there was fantastic food, and plenty of it — three squares and then some. Indeed, the food was about the only thing at Camp David Israelis and Palestinians seemed not to complain about.

What was not evident at the Camp David summit was a sustained, well-organized, and serious negotiation, let alone a directed effort, to reach an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

The debate over who lost Camp David rages on still. Many blame Arafat (rightly) for failing to negotiate in any meaningful sense of the word; others, mostly the Palestinians, blame the Israelis for not putting enough on the table if what they sought was a conflict-ending agreement (true enough) and the Americans for siding with the Israelis.

As one of the dozen or so Americans at the summit, my view of these matters is decidedly less personal and moralistic. To put it bluntly, this summit should never have been held with the goal and expectation of reaching an agreement — any agreement, let alone one to end the conflict. None of the big three — Arafat, Barak, and Clinton — were ready, willing, or able to pay the price for that.

Instead, Camp David represented the ultimate How Not to Summit — a poster child for what to avoid, what not to do, and how not to think about reaching an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

Let’s be clear: America didn’t cause the failure of the summit. The gaps on the big issues were simply too large to be bridged, and neither the Israelis nor the Palestinian were willing or able to do it. But it was our house, our credibility, and our good name. We invited them to only the second negotiating summit at the leader’s level in the history of America’s involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and thus we do bear a share of the responsibility as a facilitator of the failure. But as I look back now 12 years later, three mistakes on our side seem emblematic of the summit’s fate.

Mistake 1: Don’t issue the invites before you brief the president and gauge your chances.

To this day, the more I think about this, the more extraordinary it seems. Before we had a chance to actually sit down with Clinton to determine where the gaps on the key issues were, to assess whether they could be bridged, and whether the president was prepared to develop a strategy to bridge them, we had already issued invitations to the party.

To the president’s credit, he resisted Barak’s repeated calls for the summit at an earlier date, but in the end, he wouldn’t or couldn’t hold out against Barak’s determination to plunge headlong into a last-ditch effort to achieve an agreement and test Arafat’s intentions and his own desire for legacy. Having failed to achieve a Syrian agreement, worried about the possibility of violence and a collapsing ruling coalition, Barak was a man in a hurry.

Barak was bold and ready to take risks. The proposals he offered went further than any of his predecessors’ (more land, more flexibility on Palestinian sovereignty on parts of Jerusalem). But they were nowhere near what was required to end the conflict. And from Arafat’s perspective, as the weakest party, they were not nearly close enough. After all, Barak had offered Syria’s Hafez Assad earlier that year all of the Golan Heights minus 300 meters off the northeastern shore of Lake Tiberias; the offer of 90 to 92 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians just wasn’t going to cut it.

Clinton cared a great deal about the issue. He was emotionally affected by both Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s murder and Jordanian King Hussein’s death, and he saw Middle East peace as the altruistic legacy it was his obligation to forge. And saying no to a willful Israeli prime minister is never easy.

But none of this is a justification for not thinking things through. That none of his advisors made the counterarguments strongly enough, or much at all, didn’t help much. There are no guarantees in this business. Risks are part of the job description, as are moving forward often with imperfect options. But gauging those risks honestly and weighing the consequences of failure are critical. And it wasn’t done. I blame myself plenty: I remember how impressed I was by Clinton’s comment after the briefings that trying and failing was better than not trying all.

But what was I smoking? This was a presidential summit. And while it was long on good intentions, it was short on honesty, clarity, and good analysis. The president’s credo was appropriate for high school and college sports; it can’t be the working assumption on which the world’s greatest power bases its approach to negotiations or foreign policy.

Clinton had a great relationship with both Arafat and Barak. He should have said separately to each leader before the invitations went out: Give me your bottom lines in confidence on the core issues. And while both would have held something back, to be given up only in the heat of the summit, we would have had a pretty good sense of where the gaps were.

At that point, we could have assessed whether those gaps could be bridged and whether the president was willing to try. If the answer was no, they can’t be bridged, Clinton could have said to both: We need more time; or he could have said: We’ll have a different kind of summit, with the expectation that we can meet again if we can’t work matters out. But neither of you will blame the other.

But Barak’s desperation, combined with the president’s own determination to try, made this impossible. The rest — the summit’s failure, blaming Arafat, the mounting frustrations of Palestinians under occupation, even resumed talks, and Arafat’s decision in September to exploit Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif and embrace violence — is history.

Mistake 2: Don’t coordinate with one side only.

America has a special relationship with Israel. You can hate that fact or revel in it, but it’s unlikely to change anytime soon. A unique confluence of shared values, moral obligation, domestic politics, and strategic concerns have created a unique bond quite different from America’s ties with just about any other country, with the possible exception of Britain.

Yet, to be an effective and successful mediator, even facilitator, you need detachment, credibility, and enough impartiality to get all sides to trust and do the deal. In every example of successfully brokered U.S. diplomacy — Henry Kissinger’s disengagement agreements of 1973 to 1975; Jimmy Carter’s 1977 Camp David Accords and the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty; and James Baker’s 1991 Madrid peace conference diplomacy — the United States was able to play this role.

At the second Camp David summit, it didn’t. Not only did we consistently coordinate our positions with the Israelis, showing them our negotiating texts first — a practice I might add the Palestinians had come to expect — but we saw the issues largely from Israel’s point of view. I remember how impressed we all were when we learned that Barak was willing to concede 80 percent of the West Bank.

There were two parties to this deal, and while that registered on one level, it didn’t really on another. In the end, our own views of the issues were guided by and large by what the Israelis would accept. On the security issues, this might have been understandable, but when it came to Jerusalem — even borders — we just weren’t thinking clearly about factoring in the needs and political requirements of both sides.

The Israelis’ red lines, which would later became pink ones, reflected our baseline, even if we were prepared to push them a bit further. We rationalized this of course by the historic nature of what Barak was prepared to give and by Arafat’s refusal to budge much off his need for 100 percent of everything. But the idea that the Palestinians would have to come down to Israel’s positions rather than the Israelis moving closer to theirs was built in to our negotiating DNA.

The irony, of course, is that if you look at the 10 years of on-again, off-again negotiations since Camp David, precisely the opposite has occurred, and most of the time without American involvement. During the last round of serious discussions, those between then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, in 2007 and 2008, Israel has moved much closer to the Palestinians on almost every issue.

Mistake 3: Don’t lose control.

Camp David lasted 13 days, but the summit actually was over on the fourth day. That was the day we lost control of the negotiations and undermined our own credibility and respect as a mediator. Again, let’s be clear: This conflict isn’t owned by the United States, and the country isn’t going to be in a position to force either side to do things it doesn’t want to do. But to succeed, the American side requires the respect of both sides and a refusal to be pushed around at key moments.

One of those moments arrived on the summit’s fourth day, and it involved something we never took seriously enough — a negotiating text. Samuel Goldwyn, the great Hollywood producer, once quipped that a verbal agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. At the first Camp David summit, involving Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin, and Carter, the Americans controlled the text — incorporating changes from each side, working through compromises, accepting some, and rejecting others. That text went through 20-plus drafts before an agreement was reached.

On that fateful fourth day, July 14, we had prepared a text designed to identify where the gaps were on key issues. We showed it to Barak first. He hated it, and we changed it to accommodate him. We then showed it to the Palestinians, and Arafat rejected it too.

The exercise was dead — and so, frankly, was our credibility. The president was reluctant to "jam" the Israelis, as he put it. Lead negotiator Dennis Ross reflected that we did have a substantive approach of our own, "but Barak says no, so we back off." The summit would go on for another nine days. That night, I concluded it was over.

In America, everything seems to begin today or yesterday. Maybe, we’ll be more respectful of history’s power and lessons next time around.

We also have to understand something else: Failure has consequences. There’s no doubt that Clinton’s successor — George W. Bush — and his advisors drew the conclusion that Camp David and the strategy of engaging Arafat (the most frequent visitor to the Oval Office in 2000) had been a disaster, sparking violence and making America look weak. And that, combined with the Second Intifada, persuaded them to walk away. Even Secretary of State Colin Powell — without a doubt the most sympathetic voice in the Bush administration on the peace process — couldn’t believe that his predecessor had sat with Barak and Arafat for nearly two weeks (Albright really does deserve a medal for it). Powell quipped to me in early 2001: I’ll be damned if I’d let my young president do that.

Had we bothered to take seriously the reasons why the 1977 Camp David summit succeeded, we might have understood why the 2000 Camp David gathering was doomed to fail. What made the earlier summit a success? Two strong leaders willing and able to make a deal, issues that were deemed to be manageable where the gaps were bridgeable, and a relentless mediator in Jimmy Carter.

There’s no way to fairly compare the two experiences. Camp David 2000 was simply much harder — with leaders who were more constrained and issues such as Jerusalem and refugees that were infinitely more complex than Sinai and airfields.

But that’s exactly the point, isn’t it? Jonathan Schwartz, our lawyer on the delegation and perhaps the most gifted mind in the negotiating business, said it best: We had no respect for the issues and how complex they really were. Perhaps, if there’s ever another Camp David summit, we will.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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