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.