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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

American Evenhandedness in the Mideast Peace Process: Lessons from Camp David II and the Al-Aqsa Intifada

Filed under: Palestinians, Peace Process, U.S. Policy
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 444    December 2000

A Legacy of U.S. Evenhandedness

Ask Israelis or Arabs to characterize the U.S.-Israel relationship and most, particularly on the Arab side, will argue that the picture is one of unwavering support for the Jewish state. Indeed, the outgoing Clinton administration has been widely perceived and labeled as the closest to Israel in the history of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Though the ties between the U.S. and Israel are indeed close, deep, and institutionalized, a closer examination reveals a constant tension between support for Israel and “evenhandedness” between Israel and the Arab world.


Surveys of the last half-century of U.S.-Israel relations note that the closeness of ties has oscillated from the tension of the first Eisenhower term, parts of the Nixon administration, the post-Camp David Carter administration, and much of the Bush administration, to periods of closer coordination, such as the administrations of Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton. Since 1967, despite these oscillations, a constant tension was maintained between two currents: increasing U.S. support for Israel’s military needs and increasing U.S. commitment to a peace process centered upon deep Israeli territorial withdrawals and, lately, the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat, in his historic speech to Israel’s Knesset, neatly captured the relationship between these two seemingly conflicting strains of U.S. policy:

Even the USA — your first ally, which is most committed to the protection of the existence and security of Israel and which has been giving Israel and continues to give it moral, material and military aid — I say even the USA has opted for facing up to reality and to facts, to recognize that the Palestinian people have legitimate rights, and the Palestine question is the crux and essence of the conflict.1

Sadat could have put it another way: we, the Arabs, have had to come to terms with you, Israel, because you are so strongly backed by the United States; but you have to come to terms with the Palestinians because even the U.S. backs their claim to statehood.

The current balance within U.S. policy can be understood on two levels: in strategic terms, a commitment to both Israeli survival and Palestinian nationhood; and in tactical terms, an attempt to be an “honest broker” between Israel and the Palestinians on the terms of a final status agreement between them.

The strategic side of the bifurcated U.S. policy has, by and large, worked well. As Sadat’s statement implicitly acknowledges, the concrete successes of the peace process — Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan — were testimony to a tentative Arab conclusion that Israel cannot be eliminated, a conclusion derived from Israeli military strength and American financial and diplomatic backing. This Arab conclusion can only be termed tentative because opposition to normal peaceful relations with Israel runs high within Egypt and Jordan.2 On the Israeli side of the strategic equation, there is little doubt that American support, first for Palestinian rights in general and eventually for a Palestinian state in particular, were critical in moving Israelis from regarding such a state as an unthinkable taboo to accepting it as an inevitable reality.

The tactical component of the attempt to balance Israeli and Arab interests — that of brokering an Israeli-Palestinian agreement — was thrown into crisis by the failure of Camp David II. This crisis should force a reexamination of the assumptions behind the U.S. tactic of “evenhandedness,” particularly in response to the Palestinian resort to violence following Camp David II.


The Aftermath of Camp David II

Camp David II is, from both a content and a process point of view, still somewhat of a black box. It is unclear to what extent the depth of the Israeli concessions offered were a function of U.S. pressure or a strategic decision by Barak. It is also not clear to what extent Barak was prepared to accept the Clinton proposals as given, or only as a basis for further negotiation. Whatever the case, the contrast between Israeli flexibility and Palestinian intransigence was so stark as to elicit a rare departure from “evenhandedness” as it is generally practiced.

At this point, it is necessary to make a distinction between “evenhandedness” as it is applied to the peace process, and the usual sense of the word, which implies fairness. A truly evenhanded approach would require treating both sides according to an equal standard of behavior — for example, criticizing aggression by either side and defending either side’s right to self-defense. Instead, what is being called “evenhandedness” is actually anything but even, or fair, in the normal sense of these words, since it entails criticizing both sides equally, regardless of the true balance of blame or praise that should be accorded in a given situation.

The contrast between Clinton’s immediate post-Camp David stance and the change in tone once the Palestinian attacks began serves to illustrate this distinction between a truly fair approach and what is called “evenhandedness.” In his statement summing up almost two weeks of talks at Camp David, Clinton fairly described why the parties failed to reach agreement:

Prime Minister Barak showed particular courage and vision, and an understanding of the historical importance of this moment. Chairman Arafat made it clear that he, too, remains committed to the path of peace….[T]he Prime Minister moved forward more from his initial position than Chairman Arafat….[M]y remarks should stand for themselves, because not so much as a criticism of Chairman Arafat, because this is really hard and never been done before, but in praise of Barak.3

The post-Camp David picture of Barak having moved mountains and Arafat not budging an inch led to strong support for Arafat within the Arab world and an unusual degree of support for Israel internationally. Even at the millennium summit of the United Nations, a classic pro-Palestinian venue, Barak was the man of the hour and Arafat was under significant pressure not to destroy the chance for peace.

In response, Arafat decided to initiate a new round of violence. The U.S. might have been expected to respond with harsh criticism of the Palestinians, given that Arafat’s rejection of peace at Camp David had now been compounded by the launching of a shooting war. In fact, the U.S. moved in the opposite direction — toward strict “evenhandedness.”


An Orchestrated Attack

The Israeli security establishment, which shares intelligence in these matters with the U.S., had concluded that the violence emanated directly from Palestinian Authority incitement rather than from a spontaneous outburst of the Palestinian street in the aftermath of Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount.4 Palestinian officials later confirmed this.5 Indeed, official Palestinian television broadcasts had for some time been preparing the public for war, even when Israeli expectations for the peace process were at their height.

In a survey issued weeks before Sharon’s visit, an organization monitoring Palestinian television broadcasts reported:

Palestinian Authority [PA] television broadcasting of violence and hate has reached unprecedented levels this summer and has created an atmosphere of the eve of outbreak of war. Palestinian television is currently broadcasting a systematic campaign that negates the peace process and reconciliation. Included are abundant violence clips, the depiction of Israeli soldiers as rapists and murderers, calls for eternal war against the Jews, military marches, libelous accusations, denial of Israel’s right to exist, and education of Palestinian children to see all of Israel as stolen “Palestine.” These inciting broadcasts appear frequently each day, beginning with afternoon children’s programming and ending with the closing of the programs at night.6

The Al-Aqsa intifada was characterized not by stones or mass demonstrations, but by pitched live-fire battles between Palestinian militias that report to Arafat and fixed Israeli positions. Palestinian security forces did nothing to calm the situation and at times joined in firing at Israeli forces. The orchestrated nature of the Palestinian attack became increasingly evident as it continued for weeks and then months.

The United States knew that the link between Palestinian episodes of violence and the events that supposedly precipitated them has been tenuous at best. The triggering incident of the initial intifada that began in December 1987 was a car accident in which Palestinians were killed, but no one confused this incident with the real cause of the intifada: a Palestinian decision to use violence to catalyze negotiations. Similarly, the first time Palestinian guns were turned on Israelis following Oslo — the September 1996 riots over the opening of a door at the end of an ancient tunnel near the Western Wall — it was quickly clear that the Palestinian attack was not about the tunnel but about accelerating the Netanyahu government’s implementation of Oslo’s withdrawals.

Despite the poor relations between the Clinton and Netanyahu governments, in the 1996 episode, when Secretary of State Warren Christopher was asked if the tunnel should have been opened in the first place, he replied: “My business is not the blame business. My business is trying to get in the fix-it business.”7

Four years later, the U.S. was in the business of blaming the party that in its own view had gone the extra mile for peace, rather than the party that chose war over compromise.


Blaming the Victim

The assignment of blame is not solely a question of diplomatic niceties or sparing one side or the other embarrassment, but the heart of the matter. A policy of not assigning blame is the same as a refusal to label one side as an aggressor, which in turn amounts to granting permission to carry out aggression. Further, so long as blame remains unassigned, or is assigned to the victim, the victim is essentially deprived of the right of self-defense.

The centrality of the “blame business” can be seen in the importance to the Palestinians of rushing to the United Nations Security Council to obtain a condemnation of the Israeli action that supposedly justified their attack. In both 1996 and 2000, the United States failed to veto such Security Council resolutions, even while admitting that they were unfair to Israel and harmful to the peace process.

In 2000, however, in a parallel to the paradoxically direct relationship between Israeli flexibility and Palestinian violence, the UN condemnation of Israel was sharper in the face of even greater use of force by Palestinians. While the 1996 UN resolution criticized Israel, the 2000 version condemned Israel’s “excessive use of force.” Neither resolution contained a word of criticism regarding the Palestinian initiation of the use of force.

In the UN, the U.S. had gone beyond “evenhandedness” to effectively join in blaming Israel for an attack it was still in the process of defending against.8 The Clinton administration’s own words did not go so far as to blame Israel, but the studied “evenhandedness,” even in the face of repeated Palestinian violations of two cease-fires mediated by the United States (Paris and Sharm e-Sheikh), has allowed the Palestinians to continue their attacks without diplomatic cost.

At times, U.S. efforts to be evenhanded reach absurd and embarrassing proportions. After a car bomb exploded next to a bus in the Israeli town of Hadera during rush-hour, killing two and wounding dozens, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had this to say:

A terrorist bombing in Israel has claimed Israeli lives and wounded many more. We condemn this act of terror and call on the Palestinian Authority to do everything it can to prevent such acts and resume security cooperation. Israelis were not the only victims today, though. This morning in Gaza a number of Palestinians were killed by the IDF in circumstances that remain unclear. There is a cycle of violence that must be broken.9

According to the IDF and press reports, the Palestinian “victims” were four Tanzim militiamen killed in a firefight with Israeli soldiers.10 Albright had unflinchingly lumped the terrorist bombing of innocent civilians with military action against armed Palestinians suspected of killing Israelis in the same seamless “cycle of violence.”

From such a perspective, self-defense and aggression, terrorism and the response to it, are essentially equivalent. An analogous situation would be if, after Libyan terrorism against Americans and U.S. retaliation against Libyan targets, it was stated that the Americans are not the only “victims,” and that what was needed was an end to the “cycle of violence.” The distinction between aggression and self-defense is among the most fundamental in international relations. Without such a distinction, the concepts of morality and the rule of law are meaningless.

When pressed, American officials might admit that blurring the distinction between aggression and self-defense removes a powerful deterrent to aggression. However, they might then explain that the need to distinguish between aggressor and victim must take a back seat to maintaining America’s role as “honest broker” in the peace process.


Questioning the Basis of “Evenhandedness”

It is an article of faith among many in the American foreign policy establishment that strict “evenhandedness” is an absolute requirement to preserve the U.S. role in the peace process. This notion is based upon a number of assumptions that bear reexamination.

Assumption 1: If the U.S. is to be accepted as a mediator by the Arab side, it must suspend its support for Israel when it comes to the peace process.

This assumption was formulated during the Cold War when the United States competed with the Soviet Union for influence in the Middle East. But even at the height of the Cold War, the main attraction to the Arab world of the U.S. as a mediator was precisely its strong support for Israel.

In fact, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger used the close relationship between the U.S. and Israel to undercut the Soviet position in the Middle East during the post-1973 cease-fire negotiations. In Kissinger’s diplomacy, a strong relationship with Israel actually increased America’s influence in the region. Soviet Middle East diplomacy, by contrast, suffered repeated setbacks because of their unfavorable relationship with Israel.

The reason for this paradox was that the Arab world has always believed that only the U.S. could “deliver” major Israeli concessions in the peace process. Ironically, it was the Carter administration, not the Arab world, that tried to bring the Soviet Union into the peace process in 1978, and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat who short-circuited this U.S. effort with his dramatic visit to Jerusalem.

Assumption 2: Arab-Israeli agreements require detailed and deep American involvement.

While there are certainly examples of agreements reached with heavy U.S. involvement, such as the 1996 Hebron agreement, the three most significant Arab-Israeli agreements were reached in the main through direct negotiations between the parties.

The peace between Egypt and Israel was largely negotiated bilaterally and in opposition to the U.S. conception at the time, which was concerned that a separate Egyptian-Israeli peace could relieve pressure on Israel to solve the “Palestinian problem.” The Camp David negotiations themselves focused more on the Palestinian component of the agreement than on the Egyptian-Israeli peace itself.

Though the 1991 Madrid Conference was a U.S.-driven effort, it was overtaken by the 1993 Oslo Declaration of Principles, which was negotiated secretly and directly, and which came as a great surprise to the United States. Similarly, the U.S. was not particularly involved in the negotiations over the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan, which again took the U.S. largely by surprise.

This record reinforces the traditional Israeli view that direct negotiations are the ideal format for arriving at peace treaties. The U.S. has been and will continue to be valuable in a facilitating role. The U.S. as facilitator has provided a comfortable venue for negotiating, diplomatic cover for engaging in negotiations, and financial assistance to help solve certain problems. There is a major qualitative difference, however, between such facilitation and the presentation of “bridging proposals.” Such a strategy can effectively shift the negotiations into separate bilateral negotiations between Israel and the U.S. and between the Arab side and the U.S.

Assumption 3: The basis of peace is a Palestinian state, therefore the primary obstacle to peace will be Israeli resistance.

The formulation that Israeli settlements are an “obstacle to peace” has arisen from time to time in American policy, together with placing the burden for Israeli-Palestinian peace disproportionately on Israeli shoulders. For years Israel was unalterably opposed to Palestinian statehood, which the United States quietly regarded as the only basis for peace.11 Accordingly, not just the settlements but Israel’s stance as a whole was the primary “obstacle to peace” in the U.S. mind.

The American Israel-centric view with respect to the peace process can be seen in President George Bush’s 1991 speech to Congress after the Gulf War, as the world’s sole superpower spelled out the new world order. With regard to “new opportunities for peace and stability in the Middle East,” Bush stated: “We have learned in the modern age geography cannot guarantee security and security does not come from military power alone.” In effect, he was saying to Israel, “Look how Iraqi missiles hit your cities and you were powerless to do anything about it. Holding on to the West Bank does not protect you in an age of missiles — today, trading land for peace is Israel’s best hope of strengthening itself.”

In 1991, Bush was speaking to the government of Yitzhak Shamir, which could barely admit that there was such a thing as a Palestinian people, let alone consider a Palestinian state. Nine years later, Israel has undergone a conceptual revolution that is difficult to comprehend, even for Israelis themselves. Prime Minister Ehud Barak has said publicly that a Palestinian state is not only thinkable and acceptable, but is in Israel’s interest. Even Likud leader Ariel Sharon has stated that such a state is inevitable, if it does not exist already. In other words, pressing Israel on Palestinian statehood is now like pushing on an open door.


The Collapse of the Oslo Conception

For years the U.S. worked toward Israeli recognition of the wisdom of “land for peace” in the Palestinian context. Yet little consideration was paid to the possibility that Israel would deliver the land and the Palestinians would not deliver peace. The assumption that the peace side of the “land for peace” equation could be taken for granted was widespread not just on the American side but in the Oslo conception that had become part of the Israeli consensus. Accordingly, Arafat’s refusal to even begin to compromise at Camp David II despite Israeli willingness to withdraw from roughly 90 percent of the West Bank and to divide Jerusalem came as a shock to both Americans and Israelis. When Arafat’s refusal was compounded by his launching of a shooting war against Israel, this shock deepened further.

Thus, Israeli political commentator Ari Shavit described the impact of Arafat’s October attack:

[W]hat occurred in October 2000 is not only that a particular political-diplomatic strategy, the Oslo strategy, collapsed. What happened in October 2000 is that an entire Israeli culture (of which Oslo was the product, its political and symbolic expression) collapsed. An autocentric world picture, immutably spherical, which had dominated most thinking in Israel for a generation, became extinct.12

The “autocentric” (or Israel-centric) world picture to which Shavit refers is one in which the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict is Israel’s for the plucking, totally dependent on Israel’s embrace of “land for peace.” Shavit continues:

Two basic, mutually complementary assumptions underlay that autocentric world picture: the assumption that the Israel conquest and occupation of 1967 was at the center of the conflict; and the assumption that because the occupation was at the center of the conflict, the resolution of the conflict was attainable because it depended above all on Israel and its readiness to terminate the occupation.13

The persistence of the Israel-centric model has a tautological quality to it, since beyond even the most extreme Israeli concession there are always many more concessions that could have been tried. At any given point, it cannot be proven that peace is not around the corner in exchange for one last Israeli concession.

The reason for the refusal of autocentric Israelis and evenhanded Americans to admit that something happened at Camp David II and its aftermath is not, however, simply a matter of intellectual inertia or stubbornness. It results from a perhaps unconscious fear that abandoning Israel-centricity means abandoning the hope for any comprehensive agreement to end the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In this view, there are only two possibilities: either the Arab-Israeli conflict is resolvable by agreement or it is not. If the former is the case, then, according to Israel-centrism, the formula remains pressing Israel for concessions until the point of peace is reached.

To put this dilemma another way, the alternative to Israel-centrism could be called Arab-centrism, namely, that there can be no peace until the Arab world abandons its desire not to define Israel’s borders but to replace Israel with Palestine. This is certainly a view as internally coherent as Israel-centrism and, given recent events, considerably more plausible.

We would argue that there is a third way, one that tempers Israel-centrism with realism and Arab-centrism with hope, between blind “evenhandedness” and giving up on the prospects for peace.


“Evenhandedness” in the Final Status Context

The four assumptions of “evenhandedness” — that it is necessary to preserve America’s mediator role, to resolve conflicts, to produce agreements, and most importantly, to enforce the Israeli side of the “land for peace” formula — were due for a reexamination even before Camp David II and its aftermath. These assumptions, however, become much more problematic as the peace process approaches what is seen as its endgame.

As long as the peace process was in its interim phases, “evenhandedness” meant pressing Israel to keep to the Oslo timetable and keeping the Palestinians from trying to accelerate or influence Israeli withdrawals through violence. The need for the Palestinian side to implement its commitments under Oslo, such as confiscating illegal weapons, ending incitement, and the like, was not taken seriously by the American or even some Israeli governments. When Binyamin Netanyahu made Palestinian implementation — “reciprocity” — the cornerstone of his policy, this was perceived by Washington to be an “escape clause” to avoid implementing further territorial withdrawals, rather than a legitimate attempt to enforce existing agreements.

The blind eye toward Palestinian violations of Oslo’s interim agreements set the stage for the Palestinian choice of violence over negotiations following Camp David II. Once numerous, critical, security-related provisions of Oslo were being ignored, there was little reason for the Palestinians to conclude that violation of their commitment to resolve conflicts peacefully would bear any consequences.

This blind eye toward Palestinian violations was perhaps the most significant manifestation of “evenhandedness,” since it resulted from a refusal to take sides between Israeli complaints and Palestinian denials. At Camp David II, however, “evenhandedness” entered a new context, that of a potential final status accord.

In the final status context, U.S. policy had to shift from steering the parties toward an agreement, to shaping the long-awaited agreement itself. From the reports that have emerged to date regarding what happened at Camp David II, it is clear that the U.S. did put forward numerous “bridging proposals,” and seemed generally to be pursuing any agreement that could be reached between the parties. Yet the combination of deep American involvement and disinterested averaging between the parties (“evenhandedness”) led to a constant moving of the goal posts that rendered the achievement of peace an impossibility.


99 Percent Is Not Enough

The Oslo process was supposed to have taken two parties, Israel and the PLO, which were arch enemies, and prepared them over time for a final status deal. Prime Minister Barak arrived at the summit after the Israeli position had been radically transformed by the Oslo agreement to one of acceptance of Palestinian statehood. The Palestinian side, for its part, made no discernable movement toward Israel, either in its negotiating demands or in the form of preparing itself for peace with Israel.

The American and Israeli assumptions regarding both the Syrian and Palestinian tracks was that if Israel went 99 percent of the way toward meeting the demands of the other side, the Arab side would move the 1 percent necessary to reach agreement. In both cases, this assumption was tested and proved incorrect. The Syrian track collapsed when the U.S. and Israel came to the conclusion, at the Clinton-Assad meeting in Geneva, that Syria would not accept even a total Israeli retreat to the 1923 border between the British and French mandates. Instead, Syria insisted on retrieving the strips of territory it had captured within Mandatory Palestine between 1948 and 1967, which had given it partial control of and rights to the waters of the Kinneret.

Meeting the Syrian demand of a withdrawal to the de facto lines of June 4, 1967, would mean the one-way application of Security Council Resolution 242’s concept of the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force.” This concept is already highly problematic in that it refuses to distinguish between aggression and self-defense, and therefore sets a precedent that aggressors need not fear paying a territorial price for their actions. The Syrian interpretation, however, goes even further: Israel must relinquish both the territory it took by force in 1967 and the territory that Syria took by force before 1967.14

If Israel were to acquiesce to this Syrian demand, it would not only be relinquishing its own right to make border adjustments inherent in 242, but would legitimize Syria’s capture by aggression of Israeli territory. This would be too much even for former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who strongly and publicly opposed such a step when an agreement with Syria seemed imminent following the Israeli-Syrian talks in Shepherdstown in early 2000.

Similarly, on the Palestinian track, the best estimate of the deal that began at Camp David II and is still evolving through secret negotiations is for Israel to withdraw from territory equal to 100 percent of the West Bank and Gaza. The Israeli withdrawal would be essentially to the 1967 lines, with a small land swap that would allow Israel to keep the Jewish neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem and major concentrations of Israeli settlement just over the “green line.” Under these terms, Jerusalem would be divided, as well as the Old City. Israel would presumably retain some form of theoretical sovereignty over the Temple Mount, while the Palestinians would have something more than the de facto control they have there today.

The “1 percent” that the post-Camp David deal has yet to resolve is the Palestinian demand for de jure sovereignty over the Temple Mount and for recognition and implementation of the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees to pre-1967 Israel.

The size of the territory at issue in Jerusalem is miniscule, while the principles at stake are monumental. The Temple Mount is the size of a few football fields, and the Old City as a whole is only a third of a square mile in area. For its first 19 years, Israel existed without access to the Old City, during which time the synagogues of the Jewish Quarter were destroyed, Jews had no access to the Western Wall, and the nation’s capital was divided by walls and barbed wire, like post-war Berlin.

Today, Israel cannot redivide Jerusalem without jeopardizing its own survival. “Dividing Jerusalem” means separating the Old City from modern Israeli Jerusalem and giving up the part of the city that for 2000 years of exile defined the reinstatement of Jewish sovereignty. For two millennia, Jews prayed for Jerusalem three times a day and ended the Passover celebration of the exodus from Egypt with the pledge “next year in Jerusalem.” It was one thing for Israel to continue to anticipate the fulfillment of those prayers in its first years of existence, quite another to voluntarily forswear those prayers forever.

Former minister Natan Sharansky has described an Israeli cabinet meeting in which one minister stated that the conflict over Jerusalem was “about symbols,” and that Israel, for practical reasons, should forgo some of those symbols. Sharansky responded, “the whole Jewish nation is about symbols. We have no chance to exist if we don’t believe in symbols.” This is particularly true given the asymmetry in the centrality of the symbols to the two sides: for Israel to split Jerusalem would be like the splitting of Mecca for the Islamic world. Jerusalem, though today termed the third holiest site to Islam, is not mentioned once in the Koran, compared to over 800 mentions in the Hebrew Bible.15

Even the most dovish Israelis recognize the “right of return” as an existential matter for Israel. On the practical side, both sides understand that the influx of significant numbers of Palestinian “refugees” into Israel would mean the end of Israel as a democratic Jewish state. Just as serious, however, would be to acknowledge the theoretical legitimacy of the “right of return” of Palestinians to all of Israel, even if such a right were not immediately implemented. The recognition of the “right of return” means that, morally speaking, all of Israel is Palestinian, but for practical reasons Israel is allowed to exist on Palestinian land. Even if the Palestinians legally forswear the right to implement the “right of return” in a peace treaty, Israel’s recognition of that right would preserve the Palestinian equivalent of “next year in Jerusalem.”

Furthermore, Israel would have given up its right to “return” to part of Mandatory Palestine to which it has strong legal and historical claims, while the Palestinians would possess part of Palestine and retain the right to “return” to the rest. This would be untenable, even setting aside Israel’s justified refusal to accept any more moral responsibility for Palestinian refugees than the Arab world accepts for Jewish refugees from the Arab world. For Israel to accept moral responsibility for refugees means that it is Israel’s existence that is responsible for the refugee problem, not the multiple Arab efforts to destroy Israel by force.

These, then, are the narrow but deep gaps that are currently unbridgeable. Their existence means that it is not enough for Israel to go “99 percent” of the way toward the Arab side if the Arab side is unwilling to compromise at all. Furthermore, it is far from clear that Israel would receive something resembling peace in exchange for either “99 percent” solution. Indeed, a strong case can be made that the cumulative effect of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon and “99 percent” deals on the Syrian and Palestinian fronts would, in the eyes of the Arab world, reinforce the view that Israel is a temporary “Crusader state” whose days are numbered.


New Assumptions for a Post-Camp David Peace Process

All this must lead to new assumptions that should undergird the post-Oslo, post-Camp David II, post-Al-Aqsa intifada peace process.

New Assumption 1: The conflict is unbridgeable without Arab compromise.

The main obstacle to peace is the Arab refusal to compromise on demands that would invite perpetuation of the conflict with Israel rather than real peace. Now that Israel has internalized the need to establish a Palestinian state and to make deep territorial concessions, the conflict can no longer be seen as Israel-centric, if it ever was.

The switch from an Israel-centric to an Arab-centric view of the peace process would be, of course, a revolutionary one in both American and mainstream Israeli thinking. It is a view that is sometimes taken as equivalent to giving up on peace, since the Arab side is seen to be so intractable. Yet a peace process that reconciles itself to leaving the embers of Arab desire to destroy Israel still burning risks sowing the seeds for the next war. A real peace process must distinguish between demands that are about fulfilling needs on the Arab side that are consistent with peaceful coexistence with Israel, and demands that materially weaken Israel’s legitimacy in the region.

New Assumption 2: Arab compromise will only come when it is evident that Israel cannot be forced further, either by violence or through negotiations.

As long as the peace process has been overwhelmingly Israel-centric, the need to produce Arab compromise (let alone the extreme difficulty in doing so) has been ignored. When the peace process is seen through Israel-centric eyes, Arab intransigence is not seen as an obstacle but a given.

Furthermore, the Arab side does not see violence to be in conflict with the peace process, but a continuation of it. As Palestinian Authority Minister of Planning and International Cooperation Nabil Sha’ath explained in a speech in Nablus in January 1996:

We decided to liberate our homeland step-by-step….Should Israel continue — no problem. And so, we honor the peace treaties and non-violence….[I]f and when Israel says “enough”…in that case it is saying that we will return to violence. But this time it will be with 30,000 armed Palestinian soldiers and in a land with elements of freedom….If we reach a dead end we will go back to our war and struggle like we did forty years ago.16

Faced with this Palestinian strategy, and its dramatic implementation in the form of the post-Camp David Al-Aqsa intifada, U.S. policy has two choices: either push Israel to completely capitulate to Palestinian demands, or convince the Palestinians that they too must compromise to reach agreement. Yet the moment the Palestinian attack began, the Clinton Administration, instead of redoubling its pressure on Arafat, reverted to strict “evenhandedness.” Accordingly, the Palestinians concluded that the use of force not only would not cost them diplomatically, but actually reduced the pressure on them to compromise.


Some Advice for the New Bush Administration

The new administration of George W. Bush would be well advised to evaluate whether Camp David II and its aftermath necessitates an entirely new approach for U.S. policy. Yet this is by no means assured. As former President George Bush’s National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft, has indicated, “This last go around, the outcome of the Camp David meetings and so on, have left a very sour tone especially on the part of the Palestinians who President Clinton blamed for the failure of Camp David. I think a new group coming in with the statement that we are evenhanded, we’re the honest broker, will give some encouragement to the whole region.”17

President Clinton’s error was that, when faced by a Palestinian attack designed to avert pressure to compromise, he chose not to impose any diplomatic price on the aggressor, thereby ratifying the choice of violence over negotiations. Such a policy is helpless to end the “cycle of violence” because it signals that violence does not cost, it pays.

The rational alternative to the Clinton policy is one that does not tolerate violence as a negotiating tactic, and responds with measures that raise the cost of such violence by supporting Israel’s right to self-defense and ensuring that violence is not rewarded at the negotiating table. Under this alternative, strategic cooperation with Israel would be seen as leverage to induce Palestinian and Arab support for compromise, not as leverage to induce further Israeli concessions.

The Bush alternative to Clintonian “evenhandedness” should be principled mediation. Rather than “bridging” between extreme Israeli concessions and absolutist Palestinian positions, there must be a recognition that Israel can go no further and that a lasting peace depends on the Palestinians’ ability to compromise.

Principled mediation means that the notion of “territorial compromise” introduced by the senior George Bush at the Madrid Confrence,18 as well as Resolution 242’s notion of “secure and recognized boundaries,” carry at least as much weight as American support for Palestinian statehood. Under principled mediation, it is the reconciling of these principles that should dictate the American position regarding which side must be encouraged to compromise.

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Saul Singer heads the Project on U.S.-Israel Relations at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He has previously served as a foreign policy advisor to U.S. Senator Connie Mack and on the staffs of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Banking Committee.

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1. Sadat addressed the Knesset on November 20, 1978. From The Arab-Israeli Conflict, Vol. IV, edited by John Norton Moore, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1991.
2. Most recently, Egypt’s recalling of its ambassador to Israel for the first time in 18 years at a time when Israel’s most diplomatically conciliatory government ever is in power, raises questions over the solidity of Israel’s most veteran peace with an Arab neighbor.
3. Statement by the President on the Middle East Peace Talks at Camp David, July 25, 2000.
4. This Israeli intelligence assessment applies not only to the initiation of violence, but to its continuation long after many commentators had concluded that Arafat had “lost control.” “Most of the violence today is terror on the roads or the like…under Arafat’s command. It is not true that he has lost control. He is not trying to stop it and he thinks it is bringing him benefits.” Brig.-Gen. Amos Gilad, chief of research division, IDF Military Intelligence Branch, at the Herzliya Conference on Israel’s National Security Balance, December 20, 2000. Quoted in the Jerusalem Post, December 21, 2000.
5. “The daily Al-Ayyam (December 6, 2000) reported the remarks of Palestinian Minister of Communications Imad Al-Falouji, made at a symposium of the Journalists Association in Gaza on December 5. Al-Falouji said that the Palestinian Authority began its preparations for the outbreak of the current intifada from the moment they returned from the Camp David negotiations. He stated that the preparations for the intifada were begun at Arafat’s request. According to Al-Falouji, Arafat anticipated the eruption of violence as a consolidation of the ‘firm Palestinian stand’ in negotiations with Israel, and not simply as a protest against Sharon’s visit to Temple Mount.” From Israel Foreign Ministry web site,
6. Palestinian Media Watch Special Report #30: “Rape, Murder, Violence and War for Allah Against the Jews, Summer 2000 on Palestinian Television,” Itamar Marcus, September, 11, 2000. Available at
7. Interview by Tim Russert, “Meet the Press,” September 29, 1996.
8. “I state as a matter of plain and universally understood fact that for the United States to abstain on a Security Council resolution concerning Israel is the equivalent of acquiescing.” (italics in original) Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Daniel Patrick Moynihan, writing as a U.S. Senator (D-NY), “Joining the Jackals,” Commentary, February 1981.
9. U.S. State Department, Office of the Spokesman, Release 2000/1221, November 22, 2000.
10. “IDF Kills Four Tanzim Militiamen in Gaza in a Planned Operation,” Ha’aretz, November 23, 2000.
11. The U.S. would not say outright that it favored a Palestinian state, but at times it used formulations that came very close. The “Letter of Assurances” presented to the Palestinians at the 1991 Madrid Conference, for example, stated that “peace must be grounded in United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of territory for peace. Such an outcome must also provide for security and recognition of all states in the region, including Israel, and for the legitimate political rights of the Palestinian people.” PASSIA Yearbook, 1996. In theory, the phrase “legitimate political rights” could be interpreted as something other than statehood, such as a form of confederation with Jordan, but in practice all alternatives to statehood were eliminated over time.
12. Ari Shavit, “Barak’s Copernican Revolution,” Ha’aretz, October 27, 2000.
13. Ibid.
14. It is important to note that the “inadmissibility of acquisition of territory by force” concept is in conflict with another part of Resolution 242, the requirement that all states have “secure and recognized” boundaries. The Israeli, American, British, and even Russian interpretation of 242 is that the pre-1967 cease fire lines are not secure or recognized and Israel is not required to return to them (see statements collected by the Foreign Ministry of Israel, To the extent that these two concepts are in conflict, the latter must take precedence, since it is in the operative part of the resolution, while the former is included in the hortatory, preambular part of the resolution.
15. “Jerusalem and Zion appear in the Tanach 823 times – Jerusalem 669 times and Zion, usually synonymous with Jerusalem though sometimes referring to Eretz Yisrael as a whole, 154 times.” From “‘Jerusalem’ in the Sources,” by Moshe Kohn.
16. Nabil Sha’ath, January 1996 speech in Nablus (documented on video), quoted in Israeli Government White Paper, available at
17. Interview by CNN, quoted in the Jerusalem Post, December 17, 2000.
18. President George Bush, Remarks at the Opening of Session of the Middle East Peace Conference, Madrid, October 30, 1991;