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Camp David Redux: A Look Back At Lessons Learned

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Camp David Redux: A Look Back At Lessons Learned

Middle East

Camp David Redux: A Look Back At Lessons Learned

Camp David Redux: A Look Back At Lessons Learned

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/129609437/129609408" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have agreed to hold a second round of talks in two weeks. Ten summers ago, the Israelis, Palestinians and Americans met for two weeks of talks at Camp David. President Clinton hoped to settle the conflict, but those talks failed. NPR's Robert Siegel talks to negotiators who were present at Camp David about the experience and the lessons of those talks: Ghaith Omari of the American Task Force on Palestine, who was a legal adviser to the Palestinian delegation; Gideon Grinstein of the Reut Institute, who was the youngest Israeli staffer at Camp David; and Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center, who was a longtime State Department adviser.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And Im Robert Siegel.

The resumption of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians in Washington this week reminded us of the last time the parties aimed at settling their differences with an American president as mediator.

Ten summers ago, there were two weeks of talks at Camp David. President Bill Clinton hoped to settle the conflict once and for all.

President BILL CLINTON: Both Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat have the vision, the knowledge, the experience and the ability - and the sheer guts - to do what it takes, I think, to reach an agreement, and then to take it back to their people and see if they can sell it.

SIEGEL: The Camp David talks failed. But at Camp David and in the diplomatic activity that followed, the outlines of a two-state settlement came into focus - even as Middle East diplomacy gave way to renewed conflict.

In this part of the program, we're going to hear about the experience and the lessons of Camp David from three people who were there at the negotiating table.

On the Palestinian side, Ghaith Omari is now advocacy director at the American Task Force on Palestine. He was a legal adviser to the Palestinian delegation. Welcome to the program.

Mr. GHAITH OMARI (Advocacy Director, American Task Force on Palestine): Thank you. Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Joining us from Tel Aviv is Gideon Grinstein. Thats where he now runs The Re'ut Institute, which he founded. He was the youngest Israeli staffer at Camp David. Gideon Grinstein, welcome to the program.

Mr. GIDEON GRINSTEIN (Founder and President, The Re'ut Institute): Thank you very much for having me.

SIEGEL: And joining us from Baltimore, Maryland, is Aaron David Miller, who's now a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He was a longtime State Department adviser who was deeply involved in U.S.-Mideast diplomacy. Aaron, good to talk with you once again.

Mr. AARON DAVID MILLER (Public Policy Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center): Pleasure to be here, Robert.

SIEGEL: And first, I'd like to hear from each of you some recollections. Starting with Ghaith Omar, was there a moment for you at Camp David that you recall as a turning point, or something that summed up where things were going or weren't going?

Mr. OMARI: They worked us so hard that it's all a big haze for me right now. But one moment that really stands out: We were trying to negotiate language and we came to the issue of what we called the end of conflict. It's the term end of conflict. And I was, as a lawyer at that point, arguing against including it at that stage of the negotiations.

On the Israeli side, we had Shlomo Ben-Ami. And I remember him losing his temper at me...

SIEGEL: He was the foreign minister.

Mr. OMARI: He was, I think, not yet foreign minister. I think he was the interior minister, but he became the foreign minister later. And I didnt understand why he felt so strongly about it. Now in retrospect, I realized that words have different meanings and come with different baggage. And we often talk across one another. And if one thing that I try to implement for the rest of my career, is to understand, really, what concepts mean to the other side.

And I think its one of the biggest mistakes in Camp David: We were talking across one another at many, many levels.

SIEGEL: Gideon Grinstein, for you, a vivid recollection of that experience?

Mr. GRINSTEIN: Actually, my recollection has to do with Ghaith, on the other side. And with another concept that the Israeli side introduced, which I feel that we failed to communicate clearly to the Palestinian side what it meant for us. This was the concept of finality of claims.

What it meant for the Israeli side was that we expected the Palestinians to bring all of their claims from the state of Israel, emanating from the past conflict, to the table. These claims will be discussed and agreed upon. And following the Permanent Status Agreement, there would only be one claim between the parties. And that is the claim to implement the agreement that will have been signed.

In other words, the Palestinians would not be able to bring further claims emanating from the historical conflict after we sign an agreement with them.

The moment of truth in this context was when Ghaith raised a new issue on the behalf of the Palestinian side, that had not been raised in the year before. And that caused such an uproar - an explosion, actually, on the Israeli side.

Now, and actually knowing Ghaith, I know that he could not have acted on bad faith. But at the time, we saw it as another proof for the Palestinian non-willingness to engage with us in serious negotiations that would lead to finality of claims and end of conflict.

SIEGEL: Aaron David Miller, for you, what's the takeaway memory?

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, if you dont count my indelible image of Israelis and Palestinians careening down paths in golf carts we provided them, chattering in Arabic and Hebrew, at speeds that were absolutely hazardous, I would say, as an American, the most depressing moment for me at Camp David - and since I played no small role in concocting this strategy, it's truly depressing - was Day Four, when we presented to Israelis and Palestinians a bridging proposal.

It was actually, they were language - suggested formulations on some of the key issues. And I remember, vividly, learning that Prime Minister Barak hated it and sent it back. We then revised it and sent it on to the Palestinians, who hated it and sent it back.

At that moment, in my view, Day Four of a 14-day summit, I knew the summit was over because the small tribes had said no to the great power, without cost and consequence. And the great power, frankly, had no strategy even to begin to bridge the all-too-large gaps between the Israelis and Palestinians. Day Four of the summit concluded, in my view.

SIEGEL: Well, then let me ask you, Aaron, about the lessons for today. If you were in the room now and, as you say, the small tribes were to not heed the great power, what would you do differently?

Mr. MILLER: Well, I think the convening of Camp David was the essential point here. And if I had any unsolicited advice for the president, who fashions himself both a transformational figure who wants to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem and a transactional man - a guy who I believe believes he's a great negotiator - I would simply have two lessons.

Dont go to a high-risk, high-level summit when the Israelis and Palestinians aren't ready. And definitely dont go to a summit if you're not ready. And that, in the essence - the absence of readiness to reach a conflict-ending agreement in two weeks between two parties who were not ready to make and take the historic steps necessary, with no American guiding hand - that, in essence, is a prescription, an Rx for disaster. And thats essentially what happened.

SIEGEL: Gideon Grinstein, for you, if you were in there this time with the Israeli delegation, and you're a wiser man for having been there at Camp David, what would be different?

Mr. GRINSTEIN: To me, the most critical lesson is to be very, very sensitive to the internal political constraints of all parties, and to try to craft a zone of possible agreement - what we call in the negotiation language ZOPA - which means a set of understandings that fit and is tailored to the internal political constraints of the parties.

The practical application in the present context is the following. On the Palestinian side, there is an unprecedented constitutional and political crisis, due to the split between Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas and Fatah. This severely compromises the ability of the present Palestinian leadership to take historical decisions and to ratify them.

This is not, what I've just described, is not a Palestinian problem. This is an Israeli/Palestinian/American problem. And the sense of partnership here, that blends adversity and mutual respect for each others constraints, is what will make the difference.

And in the summer of 2000, we have lost that sensitivity to each other's constraint, and we went into a process that was an all-or-nothing process, and we ended up with nothing.

SIEGEL: Ghaith Omari, for you?

Mr. OMARI: Just a comment on, if I may, on Gideon's point. I actually think the split between Fatah and Hamas creates an opportunity. Because now theres a political incentive for Abbas...

SIEGEL: Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority.

Mr. OMARI: ...for whom Hamas represents, I think, a totally opposite platform. Hamas is calling for a religious state that does not believe in a two-state solution and believes in violence. It creates an incentive for him, to reach -at least to validate his own program that talks about a two-state solution and peace. So I think we have an opportunity.

But if I were to remember, I take two lessons from Camp David. The first would be, theres a time and a place for everything. As Aaron said, putting that paper at that time was wrong. You dont surprise the parties; you have to wait for the right moment. You dont bring in leaders to be negotiators; you have to know when to use leaders, and when to deploy negotiators. Thats one.

But more importantly, as a negotiator, I was disconnected from what is happening on the ground. At the end of the day, negotiations have to be put in a political context. And thats on two levels. One level is what happens physically on the ground. And today, we see the Palestinians trying to build institutions of statehood, to build the security sector; this has to be empowered, and this has to be strengthened to feed into the negotiations.

But secondly: the issue of messaging. I think the biggest failure of Camp David was not in substance; we made many breakthroughs. It was in messaging. What you tell your people? How do you prepare them for an agreement? How do you take an incomplete summit and turn it from a failure through messaging - from a half-empty glass to a half-full glass?

Thats what the U.S. should be focusing on, in my view, in the initial months.

SIEGEL: Aaron David Miller, what do you think about that? Is it best to tell these leaders, look, we'll give you cover so you dont have to say anything for a while, and just try to make a little bit of progress? Or here, it's very important that you speak to your people about whats happening?

Mr. MILLER: I mean, it's a point - I dont like the word messaging because it implies a certain amount of public diplomacy, which implies a certain amount superficiality, an effort to sell something that people really dont believe in. But I take Ghaith's point. And I think the absence of constituencies to support historic choices, even by powerful leaders, is a serious flaw in any negotiating strategy.

Sadat used to say that his people - he didn't lead his people. His people were actually in front of him, and he was responding to their needs. And most great leaders actually lead, but they also follow.

That, in essence, does have a lot to do with conditioning a public for the kinds of choices and expectations that will result.

I remember people telling me after Camp David: I can't believe you didn't reach an agreement there. I was absolutely convinced that no American president would summon an Israeli and Palestinian leader without the sufficient horsepower to deliver.

And the reality is, we couldn't deliver because not only weren't Arafat and Barak ready to do this, despite Barak's bold decisions at Camp David, but the Israelis and Palestinians weren't ready, either.

The notion that they don't know one another well enough is interesting. But I wonder also, at times, whether the problem is that they know each other only too well. And if that is the case, then what is on the table is going to have to really reflect a balance of interests between the needs and requirements of both Israelis and Palestinians.

SIEGEL: And finally, Aaron Miller, after President Clinton's failure at mediating a Mideast agreement, his successor, President Bush, concluded it's not worth investing all one's political capital in this sort of thing, which results in nothing. How important is it to President Obama, do you think?

Mr. MILLER: You know, it's hard to say, but the president has come out louder, harder and faster than probably any of his predecessors, and he's raised expectations - some would argue to a very high level - which might not be wise.

But I sense that for a wartime president with a Nobel Peace Prize and it's only happened twice in our history; the last time, it was Woodrow Wilson, a wartime president with a Nobel Peace Prize - that without a consequential foreign policy success, and he doesn't have one yet, this actually is a very important issue. Not just for his own personal prestige but because he has clearly adopted the notion that of all the issues Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan the Arab-Israeli issue resonates with a fury and an intensity and a passion in the Arab and Muslim world and threatens our friends - our Israeli and Arab friends -and provides multiple opportunities for our adversaries to make all kinds of trouble.

So I think he's serious. And I think he will go to great lengths, assuming - and this is the key because this isn't a sentimental issue - assuming he senses that there's a chance for a deal and only, only through working with Abbas and Netanyahu in getting them to invest in these negotiations, will that become possible.

SIEGEL: Well, Aaron Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center, Ghaith Omari of the American Task Force on Palestine, and Gideon Grinstein of the Reut Institute in Tel Aviv, thanks to all of you for talking with us about Camp David - and today.

Mr. MILLER: Pleasure.

Mr. REUT: Thank you very much.

Mr. OMARI: Thank you very much for having us.

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