President Clinton turned delicate talks into a high-risk, high-speed haggle

'Make no mistake, for all the grand words, this "process" is about playing hardball Middle-East style'

Share

The suitcases were barely packed at the Camp David summit before the villain of the piece - the wrecker of the talks - had been cast in his role and identified before the outside world.

The suitcases were barely packed at the Camp David summit before the villain of the piece - the wrecker of the talks - had been cast in his role and identified before the outside world.

Just after the summit had been officially pronounced dead, Bill Clinton calmly, but unequivocally, made it clear that he felt the bulk of the blame should be laid on the shoulders of Yasser Arafat. The US president's friend and ally Ehud Barak, Israel's Prime Minister, had showed "courage, vision and an understanding of the historic importance of this moment", he told a press conference. By contrast, Mr Arafat, had... well, he had moved his position, but less than the Israelis.

To a Western world which was taught for so long to view Arafat, the Palestinian revolutionary with the funny headdress, as a terrorist, it was an explanation that was easily embraced. Nice, kind Mr Barak, man of peace. Nasty, unhelpful, unreconstructed Mr Arafat.

Mr Clinton was, of course, tired and bitterly disappointed having seen his efforts of the last fortnight, produce nothing for him to brandish at the waiting public beyond a vague five-point statement about the principles governing future talks, and the mutual willingness to go on trying. His decision to single out Mr Arafat may also be intended as a coded reminder to the Palestinians that they can expect to get no more US aid, or recognition, if they go ahead with plans unilaterally to declare a Palestinian state in September. But it was unfair and dishonest, and paid no heed to the basic fact that Israel, as the conquering power, holds most of the cards, while the Palestinians, a defeated people, do not.

Why did Mr Clinton not also attribute blame to the summit's ridiculously ambitious ground rules? He went into Camp David knowing that this would be his last shot at sealing an historic peace deal which would establish him as a president whom history would remember more for his successes in foreign policy than for his tawdry sexual exploits. With time running out, he decided to go for broke - by supporting an effort to secure a comprehensive agreement.

The result was that the summit was conducted under conditions that sharply increased the odds of failure. These stated that in the absence of an overall agreement no party would be bound by any proposal that was discussed - or agreed - during the talks. It was to be all or nothing.

The result, or course, was nothing. No framework agreement, no partial deal - with some issues (for instance, West Bank territory) sealed, and others (Jerusalem and its Old City) deferred. No smaller agreements, confirming the overdue third Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, or the release of Palestinian prisoners. Not even a specific timetable for future meetings (although a senior Palestinian negotiator told CNN yesterday that talks would resume on Sunday).

These rules may not have been directly of his making - the Americans point out that it was the Israelis and the Palestinians who established a 13 September deadline for an overall agreement. Israeli reports suggest that it was Arafat who rejected an offer by Clinton to put the Jerusalem issue aside for future negotiation. The Palestinians insisted on "now or never".

But Mr Clinton, as mediator, bears considerable responsibility for allowing them to turn extremely delicate negotiations into a high-risk, high-speed haggle. He allowed his ambition to interfere with the immensely complicated process of settling an ancient conflict that can probably only be solved by advancing one inch, one small agreement, at a time.

Mr Clinton sought to console himself by talking about the progress made on "profound and complex questions that long had been considered off-limits". This is surely true, even though it does not square with the American and Israeli post-summit spin, which maintained that Arafat refused to budge an inch on the biggest "off-limit" question of all: Jerusalem. Mr Clinton's words also suggest that he believes that, despite the all-or-nothing clause, some of this progress can be quietly carried through to future talks, when the post-summit recriminations and acrimony die away.

This is being highly optimistic. There is little doubt that there was some real headway in some areas - but will it stick? Ehud Barak is a ruthless negotiator at the best of times. He has carried on building Jewish settlements on the West Bank in contradiction to all the rules of the UN resolutions while presenting himself as a sympathetic and flexible "concession" maker.

He is also operating in a highly restrictive political environment, because of the demands of the right-wing elements in the frail coalition that he is likely now to cobble together in order to limp on in office.

The taboo of talking about sovereignty over Jerusalem - an issue that arouses fierce passions throughout the Arab and Jewish worlds - has been broken by Camp David. What pressures will the hardline opponents to sharing the Holy City exert on Mr Barak next time he sets off for the mountains of Maryland? And what will the pressures be on Mr Arafat, who was yesterday basking in the unfamiliar sunshine of Arab approval for having refused to give in to Israel.

At his press conference just after the talks folded, the Israeli leader was at pains to stress that all the positions put forward by Israel during the 14-day marathon were now "invalid" and "null and void" because of the summit's failure to produce a comprehensive agreement. His remarks were chiefly to protect himself from assault by the Israeli right-wing, which will accuse him of making lasting concessions to the Palestinians.

But he may also actually mean it - at least, in some cases. It is already clear that Mr Barak is capable of tearing up past proposals and replacing them with new, even tougher ones - witness, his general "modus operandi" of building on Arab land while negotiating over its return.

In the cautious language of the Camp David statement, the two sides have formally agreed to "understand the importance of avoiding unilateral actions that prejudice the outcome of negotiations" - a reference to Israeli settlement-building as well as a unilaterally-declared Palestinian state.

Grand words. But, make no mistake, this "process" is about playing hardball Middle-East style. Past agreements have been broken. Next time these two men meet, there could be even more Jewish homes on the West Bank, even more "facts on the ground", even more "red lines".

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Digital Marketing Manger,Mill Hill,London

To £55kpa (12 Month Contract): Charter Selection: Major household name charity...

Project Co-ordinator/Administrator - Central London

£25000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based i...

Linux Systems Administrator - UNIX, Linux, Shell, Bash

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Linux Systems Administrator - UNI...

UNIX Systems Administrator - Oracle DBA, UNIX, Scripting

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Systems Administrator - Orac...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Labour Party are announcing that they would spend £5.5 billion to guarantee a job for every young person who has been out of work for a year and every adult unemployed for two years  

Growing up in an age of austerity has left its mark on today's young people

Simon Kelner
 

Here's how to turn the tables on tax avoiders

James Moore
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
10 best girls' summer dresses

Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

Westminster’s dark secret

Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

Naked censorship?

The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil