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Wednesday, 26 July, 2000, 15:52 GMT 16:52 UK
Camp David: What went wrong?
Barak, Clinton, Arafat
Each side got a glimpse of the other's bottom line
By Middle East analyst Roger Hardy

After the high drama of the 15-day summit at Camp David, there are now some hard questions to be answered.

For the Americans, there is the question of whether President Bill Clinton has lost his chance of entering the history books as a peacemaker - or can still, at this late hour, bring a troubled peace process to some sort of conclusion in the next few months?

For the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, there is the difficult question of whether he really wants to declare statehood on 13 September without an agreement with the Israelis - or whether that would be a recipe for disaster.

For Ehud Barak, what's at issue is nothing less than his political survival, now that he has come home empty-handed.

Who was to blame?

Of the three men, none can entirely evade responsibility for the failure at Camp David. Bill Clinton won points for trying. But it is legitimate to ask whether he was right to force the pace, given the intractable nature of the issues the parties were grappling with.

Clinton: Good try, but too late
A leading American specialist, William Quandt, has commented that Clinton was right to try, but should have done so a year earlier, rather than waiting until the tailend of his presidency.

One of the weaknesses of the Oslo peace process, after all, was that it deliberately left the most difficult issues - Jerusalem, refugees, borders - until last, in the mistaken belief that this would make them easier to resolve.

Ehud Barak
Ehud Barak misjudged Palestinian position
For his part, Ehud Barak showed he has guts but is a poor politician. Even Palestinians privately admit that no Israeli prime minister has ever gone so far towards meeting their demands.

Whether bravely or (as his critics allege) recklessly, Barak has pushed the limits of the possible - gambling that he could reverse his political fortunes at home by bringing back a comprehensive peace deal, and then winning convincing endorsement for it in a popular referendum.

For the moment, that gamble has not paid off. But even Barak's enemies grudgingly admit he has shown vigour and single-mindedness.

Arafat: to declare or not to declare a Palestinian State?
Both Barak and Clinton have, in differing degrees, blamed Yasser Arafat for the Camp David breakdown. In their eyes, the Palestinian leader has proved impossibly stubborn and inflexible.

But in one important respect Barak seems to have misjudged Arafat's position, believing that he would bargain away sovereignty in Jerusalem in return for most of the West Bank. For any Palestinian leader, such a trade-off was never on the cards. Jerusalem is as much of a red line for Arafat as it is for Barak.

Moving the goalposts

So did Camp David achieve nothing? It certainly transformed the character of the peace process.

Broken tabooes
Return of Palestinian refugees
Jordan valley Israeli borders
Status of Jerusalem
All previous negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, however fraught, seem trivial compared with those two weeks in Maryland.

The two sides have broken some important taboos - on the Palestinian refugees' right of return, on whether Israel really needs the Jordan valley as its eastern flank, and, above all, on the central, highly charged and deeply symbolic issue of Jerusalem.

But more than that, each side for the first time got a glimpse of the other's bottom line. This is a painful but necessary step towards any eventual agreement.

Difficult step forward

But clinching that final deal won't be easy. Bill Clinton used his personal authority, and his undoubted skills of persuasion, at Camp David. That is unlikely to be repeated.

Israeli Soldiers
Israeli border guards keep on patrolling the Old City of Jerusalem
Moreover Barak and Arafat face considerable uncertainties as they confront their respective constituencies.

Barak must decide whether to limp forward with a minority government, cobble together a new coalition, or call fresh elections.

Arafat, although for the moment enjoying a hero's welcome, must come up with a new strategy - or else risk becoming the prisoner of his own September deadline. And he must somehow fend off the argument of those who say the only way to deal with Israel is through a return to armed struggle.

Camp David has changed the political landscape, but has also plunged the region into a new and uncertain phase.

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See also:

26 Jul 00 | Middle East
Triumphant return for Arafat
26 Jul 00 | Media reports
Barak blames Arafat for talks failure
26 Jul 00 | Media reports
Media post mortem on Camp David
20 Jul 00 | Middle East
Analysis: A faltering peace
17 Jul 00 | Middle East
Analysis: Paying for peace
25 Jul 00 | Middle East
Camp David timeline
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