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.