Did Palestinians err in not accepting Israel’s Camp David and Olmert proposals?

A question has been posed to the Ibishblog via the Goldblog. Jeffrey Goldberg linked to some of my recent blog postings on his own blog at the Atlantic, and received the following query from a Goldblog reader:
But could Ibish please explain the two rebuffs? Has he faced up to the two rejected offers? I’d like to know. When the Palestinians do get their state, some of their own will eventually ask why the Barak and Olmert offers were passed up.

I appreciate this question, because it is very high in the list of FAQs presented to pro-Palestinian advocates and critics of the Israeli occupation. The two “rebuffs” in question are the fact that Palestinians did not come to an agreement with Israel at Camp David in the summer of 2000 and in the more recent Abbas-Olmert negotiations. I’ll deal with them one by one, and then in a broader context.

Camp David, is one of the best examples in contemporary international relations of the Roshamon-effect. In other words it’s like that brilliant Kurosawa movie in which all the different characters have completely different perceptions and narratives about exactly the same events. Nothing was in writing, so we’ve no objective corollary at all to know what the Palestinians were, in fact, offered by Israeli negotiators. Indeed, at least three American negotiators who were involved — Dennis Ross, Aaron David Miller and Rob Malley — have all given deeply incompatible accounts of what happened, what went wrong and, especially, what was put before the Palestinians.

As for the Israelis, generally speaking they have insisted that the deal was an amazingly “generous” one, involving figures that range from 94% of the West Bank for a Palestinian state at the low end to Shimon Peres’ incredible claim that Palestinians were offered 100% of everything they ever asked for. Indeed, I remember in the aftermath of the summit watching the percentage of the occupied territories Israeli officials claimed they had offered Palestinians go up by one percentage point a week until we finally reached Peres’ laughable 100%. We were wondering if anyone would ever actually go there, and eventually he did. Of course none of this was ever backed up with any specifics or documents or any other testable evidence. The dissenting Israeli point of view came from Shlomo Ben-Ami, who observed that if he were a Palestinian he would not have accepted whatever it was that was on offer.

As far as I can tell, all the Palestinians involved found the Israeli proposal, as they understood it, unacceptable in multiple ways and so they did not accept it as a final agreement. There is every reason to think that the “generous” offer for various reasons would have amounted to a quasi-state that was a patchwork of non-contiguous territories with extremely limited sovereignty and not having anything like the normal kind of independence enjoyed by almost all member states of the United Nations. Certainly this was the universal Palestinian impression, and obviously that’s a nonstarter from their point of view. Since I wasn’t there and there isn’t any reliable, objective documentary evidence, I can’t really form an independent judgment. But I can say that it strikes me that the Palestinians probably had a very good reason for not embracing the idea in full and instead insisting on continued negotiations.

In spite of the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000, talks did continue with significant progress. The Clinton parameters provided a framework that remains useful to this day as a model for a final status agreement, which demonstrates two things: first that there was significant progress that needed to be made beyond whatever Israel was offering at Camp David, and second that the United States had really useful, interesting ideas that they mistakenly withheld in order to support the Israeli position (Miller has described this as acting as “Israel’s lawyer”). Obviously, had the United States introduced its own ideas at Camp David, we might have been spared a great deal, although there is no way of knowing that with any certainty.

I think it’s also fair to say that one obvious Palestinian failing at Camp David was that they didn’t have any ideas of their own that constituted a systematic, creative response to the Israeli proposal. Those ideas came later, but they were badly needed at the time and had the Palestinians anything more constructive to say other than no, the debacle of Clinton going back on his word and publicly blaming the Palestinians for the failure of the talks might have been avoided. So I’d be the first to agree that there is plenty of blame to go around, and the Palestinians have to take their share, but not for having declined a specific Israeli proposal that obviously needed a great deal more work.

The talks continued at Taba in January 2001, after which most people on both sides said they had never been closer to an agreement. However, they were indefinitely postponed pending the Israeli election and were not resumed following the victory of Gen. Sharon in February. So I think that while there is plenty of blame for failure to go around, it’s hard to conclude on the basis of what is definitively known that the Palestinians made any kind of mistake in not accepting Ehud Barak’s proposal at Camp David and insisting on further negotiations which made further progress.

The Abbas-Olmert negotiations, which were more informal, may have been the most promising of all, and the Palestinian President says they came very close to an agreement, although they were taking place as the Prime Minister was under a growing cloud of suspicion and when his tenure in office was extremely tenuous. Again, not having been involved in the negotiations myself and with no official documents or maps having been released, or in my understanding even provided to the Palestinians by the Israelis (although maps were shown, they were apparently not given to the Palestinian side), it’s very hard for me to make an independent judgment about this. I think what they show is that progress is possible and that negotiations have never reached a dead end when they have been engaged in good faith by both parties. I certainly don’t think they show an unwillingness to negotiate on either side but, to the contrary, that when there is a real commitment to achieving an agreement on both sides negotiations can continuously move the ball forward.

The bottom line is that neither side has yet accepted the other’s proposals for a final status agreement. There have been lots of Palestinian proposals that have been interesting and creative at different times, not to mention the Arab Peace Initiative, and none of them have been accepted by Israel either. Therefore more negotiations in good faith are required. I think there are a lot of myths on the Israeli side about all the supposed “generosity” of various Israeli proposals, and a Palestinian point of view that the fundamental problem is that Israel has never really offered to actually end the occupation at all. As I say, the lack of documentary evidence makes it difficult to evaluate the accuracy of these views, but they are deep-seated opinions.

I think clearly both sides have an obligation to reach out as much as possible to both the leaders and the public on the other side, to make clear exactly what it is they want, how they propose to get there, and why this is in both the Israeli and the Palestinian interest. It’s obvious that most people on both sides want a negotiated agreement but believe that the other side does not. Both sides also have their “evidence” demonstrating this, and the Goldblog reader’s question is a very common Israeli version of that. There is an entire, complex and substantive Palestinian discourse that makes the same case vis-à-vis Israel. I think aggressive public diplomacy from both parties to counter these fears and suspicions is appropriate, but given the political vulnerability of the leaderships on both sides, public diplomacy is usually aimed more at a domestic political audience that really reaching out to hearts and minds on the other side.

I do think it is significant that the PLO’s aims are quite clear and the vision of the future of the mainstream Palestinian nationalists is not particularly murky even if they haven’t done a good job of communicating this, and why it’s a good idea, to the Israeli public. I don’t, however, think it’s clear at all, even to most Israelis, what the Israeli government’s aims are or what its vision for the future might be. They’ve gone to great lengths to construct considerable ambiguity and fog about their intentions and their vision, leaving Palestinians with the strong temptation to conclude that they have absolutely no intention of ending the occupation and that the present Israeli government, or at least some parts of it, views diplomacy as a time-buying measure and a cover for further deepening and entrenching the occupation and ensuring the impossibility of Palestinian independence. I don’t think anything would be more helpful diplomatically, even if it might be very difficult in terms of domestic politics, than for the Israeli government to describe clearly and unequivocally what exactly it wants in a final status agreement. This may cause serious difficulties with the Palestinians, and maybe even with the United States, but I think all parties, the world and, not least, the Israeli public deserves to know what the Israeli vision for the future and intentions are.