Ungenerous occupier: Israel’s Camp David exposed

The joke’s on who? US President George W. Bush congratulates President Mahmoud Abbas, left, of the Palestinian Authority, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel during the Annapolis Conference, 27 November 2007. (Chris Greenberg/White House photo)


After seven years of rumors and self-serving memoirs, the Israeli media has finally published extracts from an official source about the Camp David negotiations in summer 2000. For the first time it is possible to gauge with some certainty the extent of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s “generous offer” to the Palestinians and Yasser Arafat’s reasons for rejecting it.

In addition, the document provides valuable insights into what larger goals Israel hoped to achieve at Camp David and how similar ambitions are driving its policies to this day.

The 26-page paper, leaked to the Haaretz daily, was drafted by the country’s political and security establishments in the wake of Camp David as a guide to what separated the parties. Entitled “The Status of the Diplomatic Process with the Palestinians: Points to Update the Incoming Prime Minister,” it was prepared in time for the February 2001 general election.

Although this is far from the only account of the Camp David negotiations, it is the first official document explaining what took place — and one that certainly cannot be accused of being unsympathetic to Israel’s positions.

The document came to light last month after it was presented to current Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to prepare him for his meeting with the Palestinians at Annapolis. Olmert had agreed, under American pressure, to revive negotiations for the first time since the collapse of Camp David, and the follow-up Taba talks a few months later. It is clear that, far from reviewing his stance in light of the Camp David impasse, Olmert chose to adopt some of Barak’s most hardline positions.

The earlier negotiations, in July 2000, were Barak’s attempt to wrap up all the outstanding points of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians that had not been addressed during a series of Israeli withdrawals from the occupied territories specified in the Oslo agreements.

Barak, backed by the US president of the time, Bill Clinton, pushed Palestinian Authority President Arafat into the hurried final-status negotiations, even though the Palestinian leader believed more time was needed to build confidence between the two sides. Contrary to the spirit of the Oslo agreements, Israel had doubled the number of illegal settlers in the occupied territories through the 1990s and failed to carry out the promised withdrawals in full.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Israeli document does not acknowledge the most generous offer of all during the six decades of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the PLO’s decision in the late 1980s to renounce its claim to most of the Palestinian homeland, and settle instead for a state in the two separate territories of the West Bank and Gaza — on only 22 percent of historic Palestine.

So given the massive territorial concession made by the Palestinian leadership 20 years ago, how do Barak’s terms compare? The document tells us that Barak insisted on three main principles in agreeing to end the occupation and establish a Palestinian state:

1. Israel’s illegal settlement blocs would be kept, with 80 percent of the settlers remaining in the West Bank on land annexed to Israel.

The West Bank constitutes the bulk of any future Palestinian state. According to the document, some eight percent of the territory would have been annexed to Israel to maintain the settlements. In return the Palestinians would have been compensated with a much smaller wedge of Israeli land of much less value, probably in the Negev desert.

Israel’s proposal required leaving nearly 400,000 Jews living inside the West Bank and East Jerusalem in fortified communities connected by settler roads, some linked to Israel and others criss-crossing the territory. The settlements and the infrastructure to sustain them would have been off-limits to the Palestinians and guarded by the army, creating effectively closed Israeli military zones deep in the West Bank. All of this was a sure recipe for destroying the viability of the proposed Palestinian state. Arafat was being asked to approve a labyrinth of Israeli land corridors that would have consolidated a series of Palestinian ghettoes under the guise of statehood.

2. A wide “security zone,” supervised by the Israeli army, would be maintained along the Jordan Valley in the West Bank, from the Dead Sea to the northern Jewish settlement of Meholah.

Such a security zone exists already, so we do not need to speculate on what it would look like. A few thousand settlers in the Jordan Valley have ensured that the area, nearly a fifth of the West Bank, has been all but annexed to Israel for decades. Most Palestinians, apart from those living in the Valley itself, are barred from entering it. The Valley is one of the most fertile areas of the West Bank, its huge agricultural potential currently exploited mainly by Israel. Depriving Palestinians of both territorial and economic control over the Valley would again make the Palestinian state unviable.

3. On East Jerusalem, Israel demanded massive territorial concessions in line with its illegal annexation of the part of the city occupied by Israel in 1967.

Israel wanted to maintain territorial contiguity for its illegal settlements in East Jerusalem, home to nearly a quarter of a million Jews, with the Palestinian inhabitants forced as a result into a series of what Haaretz refers to as “bubbles.”

Maintaining Israel’s current expanded municipal borders for Jerusalem would have had two damaging consequences for the Palestinians: first, it would have severed the city, the economic and touristic hub of any Palestinian state, from the rest of the West Bank; and second, the large settlements of Maale Adumim and Har Homa, built deep in Palestinian territory but now considered by Israel to be part of Jerusalem, would have remained under Israeli sovereignty. The West Bank would have been cut in half, creating further movement restrictions for Palestinians in the West Bank.

In the Old City, Israel demanded that the Jewish and Armenian quarters and parts of the so-called “sacred basin” outside the walls be annexed to Israel, and that the mosques of the Noble Sanctuary (known as Temple Mount to Jews) be placed under an “ambiguous” sovereignty, doubtless later to be exploited by the stronger party, Israel. These demands would ensure that Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem were carved up into a series of ghettoes, a mirror image of Israeli policies in the West Bank.

In addition, Israel hoped Camp David would belatedly legitimize its annexation and ethnic cleansing in 1967 of an area of the West Bank close to Jerusalem called the Latrun Salient. Today the area has been transformed by the Jewish National Fund into an “Israeli” nature reserve called Canada Park using tax-exempt donations from Canadians.

The sum effect of these “generous” proposals was to offer the Palestinians far less than the remaining 22 percent of their historic homeland. They would have had to subtract from a state in Gaza and the West Bank large parts of the expanded municipality of Jerusalem, as well as the Latrun Salient, eight percent of the West Bank to accommodate the settlements, and a further 20 percent for a security zone in the Jordan Valley.

In other words, the Palestinians were being asked to sign up to a deal that would give them a very compromised sovereignty over no more than about 14 percent of their historic homeland — or something very similar to the Bantustans that have been created for them before and since Camp David by the growth of the settlements and the creeping annexation of their land by the separation wall.

In return for Barak’s “generosity,” what counter-demands did the Palestinians make that scuppered the talks and thereby “unmasked” Arafat, as Barak and Clinton have long maintained? What damning evidence is cited?

The Palestinians, according to the document, were willing to accommodate Israel’s “demographic needs” and agree to border changes. They insisted on two conditions, however: that Israel’s annexation of the West Bank not exceed 2.3 percent of the territory, and that any land swap be based on the principle of equality. Israel, it seems, could not accept either term.

The Palestinians also wanted the land corridor connecting the two parts of their state, the West Bank and Gaza, to be under their sovereignty, presumably so that such connections could not be severed at Israeli whim. In addition, Arafat expected the usual trappings of statehood: an army and control of Palestinian airspace. Israel opposed all these demands.

Concerning Jerusalem, the Palestinians wanted an “open city,” much in line with the original United Nations Partition Plan of 1947, connected to both the Israeli and Palestinian hinterlands. The Palestinians objected to the prospect of living in “bubbles” and demanded instead territorial contiguity in East Jerusalem. They also wanted most of the Armenian quarter in the Old City, though appear to have been ready to cede the Jewish quarter ethnically cleansed of Palestinians in 1967.

On the other major contentious issue, Arafat wanted Israel to admit sole responsibility for the Palestinian refugees created by the 1948 war. The document, however, notes that the Palestinians “showed understanding of the sensitivity of the issue for Israel, and willingness to find a formulation that would balance these feelings with their national needs.” This suggested at the very least that the Palestinian leadership was willing to do a deal on the refugees.

According to some critics, Barak entered the Camp David negotiations in bad faith, setting the bar so high that Israel and the Palestinians were bound to fail to reach an agreement. But why would Barak want, or at least risk, such an outcome? The document suggests two related reasons.

First, it notes that parallel to his preparations for Camp David Barak was working on a “separation” plan if the talks failed. The scheme was ready by June 2000, a month before the negotiations, and was approved by the cabinet in the immediate wake of the intifada, in October 2000. According to Haaretz, Barak’s separation proposal encompassed all aspects of Palestinian life and was to be implemented over several years.

Many of these secret dealings by Barak are recorded in my book Blood and Religion, including the fact that his deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, drew up a “separation map” shortly before Camp David. Shlomo Ben Ami, Barak’s chief negotiator at the talks, observed later: “He [Barak] was very proud of the fact that his map would leave Israel with about a third of the [West Bank] territory.” According to Ben Ami, the prime minister said of the ghettoes he intended to leave behind for the Palestinians: “Look, this is a state; to all its intents and purposes, it looks like a state.”

After Barak lost office in early 2001, he lobbied publicly first for unilateral separation and later for disengagement. His military mentor and successor as prime minister, Ariel Sharon, was persuaded reluctantly to abandon his maximalist positions and settle for Barak’s plan. He agreed to separation’s logical outcome, the West Bank wall, in summer 2002, and to disengagement from Gaza in early 2004.

From the document, it seems clear that Barak and much of the Israeli leadership assumed from the outset that they would need to cage the Palestinians into ghettoes, or Bantustans familiar from South African apartheid. The failure of Camp David simply gave Barak and his successors the pretext to implement the policy.

Second, the document reveals that Barak made a demand of Arafat he must have known the Palestinian leader could not accept. Barak wanted formal recognition not of Israel, but of Israel as a Jewish state. Much more than semantics depended on extracting this concession. It required of Arafat that he renounce the rights of two groups that constitute the overwhelming majority of Palestinians.

Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state would have forfeited the right — protected by international law and United Nations resolutions — of the refugees to the homes they were ethnically cleansed from by the Israeli army in 1948. Their right of return, whether realized in practice or not, has been sacrosanct for Palestinians ever since.

And recognition would have further condemned more than one million Palestinian citizens of Israel to permanent status as marginalized outsiders in an ethnic state that privileges the rights of Jews over non-Jews. In effect, Arafat was being asked to give his blessing to Israel’s attempts to outlaw the Palestinian minority’s campaign for the country’s reform into a “state of all its citizens” — or a liberal democracy.

Both Olmert and his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, were briefed about the Camp David document before they met current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at Annapolis. It is therefore notable that, rather than abandoning a demand that had wrecked the Camp David talks, both made recognition of Israel as a Jewish state a deal-clincher before the two sides had even met.

Also interesting is that, whereas Barak was reluctant to divulge the demand he made of Arafat at Camp David, Olmert’s government has been trumpeting it from the rooftops. Why the about-turn?

The most likely explanation is that Barak expected Camp David to fail and was fearful that his demand for recognition might give away Israel’s ulterior motives. Olmert, on the other hand, has succeeded in dressing up recognition of Israel as a Jewish state as the ultimate test of whether the Palestinians are serious about accepting a two-state solution. It is a maneuver he mastered last year when he needed to turn world opinion against Hamas following its election victory.

In truth, Israel’s need for recognition as a Jewish state is proof that it is not a democratic state, but rather an ethnic state that needs to defend racist privilege through the gerrymandering of borders and population. But in practice Olmert may yet use the recognition test to back Abbas, a weak and unrepresentative Palestinian leader, into the very corner that Arafat avoided.

Before Annapolis, Livni declared: “It must be clear to everyone that the State of Israel is a national homeland for the Jewish people,” adding that Israel’s Palestinian citizens would have to abandon their claim for equality the moment the Palestinian leadership agreed to statehood on Israel’s terms.

Olmert framed the Annapolis negotiations in much the same way. It was about creating two nations, he said: “the State of Israel — the nation of the Jewish people; and the Palestinian state — the nation of the Palestinian people.”

The great fear, Olmert has repeatedly pointed out, is that the Palestinians may wake up one day and realize that, after the disappointments of Oslo and Camp David, Israel will never concede to them viable statehood. The better course, they may decide, is a South African-style struggle for one-person, one-vote in a single democratic state.

Olmert warned of this threat on another recent occasion: “The choice … is between a Jewish state on part of the Land of Israel, and a binational state on all of the Land of Israel.”

Faced with this danger, Olmert, like Sharon and Barak before him, has come to appreciate that Israel urgently needs to persuade Abbas to sign up to the two-state option. Not, of course, for two democratic, or even viable, states, but for a racist Jewish state alongside a Palestinian ghetto-state.

Jonathan Cook is a journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest book “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” will be published next month. His website is www.jkcook.net.

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