Why Camp David II Failed

, July 27, 2000

Wall Street Journal

Since the peace process was launched in 1991, the Middle East has become a much more dangerous place. Mr. Arafat is now less willing to compromise.

According to a multitude of commentators, the Camp David summit failed this week because of an unbridgeable gap between Israelis and Palestinians on the issue of Jerusalem. But in fact the parties did not reach agreement on a single issue. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was willing to make plenty of concessions – too many, in my view – but the position of the Palestinians has hardened because the strategic landscape of the Middle East has changed. In this climate, hopes of achieving an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict – President Clinton’s goal – seem far-fetched.

Russian Meddling

The Arab-Israeli peace process that began at Madrid in 1991 was born as a result of a very specific geopolitical configuration that emerged from the Gulf War. Iraq, which had challenged Israel in three Arab-Israeli Wars, had been defeated and removed from the calculus of relations between Israel and the Arab world. Iran had not yet recovered from its eight-year war with Iraq and could not throw around its full weight. The Soviet Union, which had provided strategic backing for Arab states hostile to Israel, was crumbling.

By the end of the decade, those initial conditions – which led to the Oslo Accord in 1993 – had evaporated. Helped by Russia, which has both financial and strategic interests in strengthening Iran, the mullahs are developing longer-range missiles and a nuclear program that may eventually supply them. The Clinton administration, concerned as it is with strengthening Russia, has voiced insufficient objection. Even as the Camp David talks were going on, Iran tested a missile with a range of 1,300 kilometers – easily capable of striking Israel within minutes of launch.

Iraq, meanwhile, used the support of Russia, China and France to shake off UN weapons inspectors in December 1998. As a result, it is only a matter of time until Saddam Hussein unleashes whatever he has been quietly building over the last 18 months. This too the Clinton administration has failed to stop.

In short, the Middle East today is a far more dangerous region than it was in 1991, when the peace process began. It is not surprising that the negotiating positions of Yasser Arafat and the late Syrian president, Hafez Assad, hardened over the last year. It is also not surprising that the Arab states balked at the idea of backing proposed Palestinian concessions on Jerusalem.

The U.S. understood this connection between the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the wider regional balance of power right from the start. In 1993, the Clinton administration linked “dual containment” of Iran and Iraq to the Arab-Israeli peace process. Successful U.S. containment policies were supposed to help isolate and weaken anti-Israeli radicalism. The emergence of new peace partners was supposed to help end Israel’s isolation. But Washington had no answer for what Israel was supposed to do if dual containment failed.

Peace is important to Israel, but a secure peace cannot be achieved without regard to what is happening elsewhere in the Middle East. Even after the Camp David failure, peace discussions could still lead to some sort of limited modus vivendi between Israel and the Palestinians. But considering what was on the table at Camp David, Israel would likely be forced to relinquish the natural defense provided by the eastern slopes of the West Bank hills, which rise from below sea-level in the Jordan Valley.

This formidable zone was conceived by every Israeli defense minister, from Moshe Dayan to Yitzhak Rabin, as the front-line of Israel’s defense against the combined forces along Israel’s eastern front. Iraq is the largest immediate military power along this front, and is not far away. It would take the advance units of an Iraqi division less time to reach the Jordan River (about 36 hours) than it would take Israel to mobilize its reserves. It would take an Iraqi missile about seven minutes to arrive. For these reasons, Mr. Rabin, and his mentor Yigal Allon, spoke about Israel retaining nearly 40% of the West Bank for “defensible borders” and would not have considered going down to the 5% or 7% mooted at Camp David.

If implemented in a final accord, these far-reaching Israeli territorial concessions would mean increased vulnerability along Israel’s eastern border – at the same time that threats from Iraq and Iran are growing. No amount of compensatory American military aid to Israel can make up for the vulnerability that Israel will be risking. Under such conditions, the declared goal of Camp David, “the termination of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” simply cannot be achieved.

The Palestinians in Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza have developed strong affinities with Iraq, and the Lebanese Shiites have developed similarly close ties to Iran. Any significant shift in the regional balance of power resulting from Iraqi or Iranian missile programs will undoubtedly affect the long-term stability of the peace arrangements with the Palestinians that the Clinton administration would like Israel to accept. The announcement of an Iraqi nuclear capability could embolden the Palestinians, sweeping away a future Israeli-Palestinian treaty and leaving Israel in a much more exposed position.

The Camp David summit was, among other things, about fixing a border between Israel and the Palestinians, and by so doing supposedly creating a more stable Middle East. It is based on the dubious assumption that if the Palestinian problem is solved, the rest of the Middle East will fall into place. This is highly unlikely.

Partial Diplomacy

The only way to bring about an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict is to advance a policy that addresses the Middle East as a whole. This would be an entirely new paradigm for Arab-Israeli diplomacy. But partial diplomacy that deals with only one of Israel’s borders, while ignoring the implications of the Iranian missile test, will fail to bring peace. It may even plant the seeds of the next Middle Eastern war.

Mr. Gold served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in 1997-1999 and was a member of the Israeli delegation at the Wye summit in 1998.

Amb. Dore Gold

Ambassador Dore Gold has served as President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs since 2000. From June 2015 until October 2016 he served as Director-General of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Previously he served as Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN (1997-1999), and as an advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.