Camp David II: An Israeli-Palestinian peace will be harder

July 11, 2000|By Jim Anderson

WASHINGTON -- If history is to repeat itself at the Camp David Middle East summit, the participants are in for an exhilarating roller-coaster ride of small triumphs, sudden disappointments, mind-numbing details and exhausting debating sessions over arcane issues and definitions.

That's how it was 22 years ago, when President Jimmy Carter summoned Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to the Camp David presidential retreat for a summit that lasted 13 days and came within minutes of crashing failure. Even when it was over and victory was being declared at the White House, there was still a grinding struggle to translate a "framework" into a treaty between Israel and Egypt.

The principal lesson of the 1978 Camp David summit was that the struggle never really ends. Success requires constant effort and good faith on both sides for decades to come. Even then the path to peace can be obstructed by domestic politics, assassination and random events such as increases in the price of oil.

The choice of the 125-acre presidential hideaway in the Catoctin Mountains is one of the positive elements. It truly is secluded, with no pushy reporters marring the monastic atmosphere.

Reporters are kept in nearby Thurmont, with occasional briefings designed to be uninformative about the meat and bones of the negotiations, to remove the temptation of the negotiators to play to their audiences back home. Accommodations in the compound are so limited that there is room only for the principals and two or three of their top aides, thus conveniently cutting off the long list of ambitious would-bes and wanna-bes who tend to accumulate on the fringes of more public summits.

The confined atmosphere tends to encourage people to relate to each other, although Sadat and Begin were so antagonistic that they didn't exchange a word for the first 10 days. On Day 11, when they did talk directly, Sadat was so offended by Begin's intransigence and quibbling over details that he called for his helicopter to take him back to Washington. With great difficulty, Mr. Carter sweet-talked him out of leaving.

The proximity also leads to a kind of informality that permits blunt language, such as when Mr. Carter angrily told Begin to stop interrupting him. Mr. Carter later recalled the summit as "one of the more unpleasant experiences of my life." Begin told Secretary of State Cyrus Vance during the summit, "It's beginning to feel like a concentration camp."

The major difference between Camp David 2000 and Camp David 1978 is that this time the issues under consideration are much closer to the heart of the Middle East problems -- Jerusalem, water rights, resettlement of Palestinian refugees, Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and the drawing of borders.

The 1978 summit dealt mainly with peace between Egypt and Israel, including the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai peninsula. Only peripherally did it touch the Palestinian issue, since neither the Palestinians nor the Jordanians were at the summit and Egypt was designated to represent them.

This time, the Palestinian issue is at the heart of the talks. A September deadline looms when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat says he will unilaterally declare Palestinian statehood if there is no prior agreement with Israel.

Another difference is that Ehud Barak won election on a peace platform while Menachem Begin was elected on his promise to retain the status quo, including preservation of the Jewish settlements. At one point in 1978, Mr. Carter accused Begin of jeopardizing the fruits of peace -- including normal relations with the Arab world, expanding economic relations with the rest of the world and enhanced safety for his nation -- over the future of a few Israeli settlers in the Sinai.

Mr. Barak appears to be reconciled to the idea of a Palestinian state (with limitations on its armament and military alliances). Begin was so opposed to the concept that he rejected the term "Palestinians" or "Palestinian people," maintaining that those terms would include Jews living in the Middle East. Begin insisted on the term "Palestinian Arabs." He wanted every reference to Jerusalem to be followed by the phrase, "the capital of Israel," until his own foreign minister, Moshe Dayan, ridiculed the notion that the Egyptians would sign a document with such language in it.

Despite his differences with Begin's approach in 1978, Mr. Barak has one great similarity. He is essentially bargaining at long distance with his own domestic Israeli constituency, knowing that if he makes too many concessions, without winning firm assurances about Israel's peace and security, the arrangement would be rejected by the Knesset or the increasingly divided Israeli electorate.

In that same sense, Mr. Arafat is more restricted than the authoritarian Sadat was. Mr. Arafat understands that his political survival depends on bringing back an agreement that would provide dignity, security and economic improvement for the Palestinians.

It may well be that such objectives are unattainable, particularly when the mediator is an American lame-duck president who may not be able to guarantee that his successor will keep the political and financial inducements he makes to his guests at Camp David.

Jim Anderson covered the 1978 Camp David summit and the subsequent negotiations leading to the March 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

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