Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (July 27, 2020) - 20 years to Camp David, 15 years to Gaza withdrawal


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Both the July 2000 Camp David summit and the July 2005 Gaza withdrawal sought to deal conclusively with the Palestinian issue. Are the outcomes of those two ventures still relevant today?

A. More than ever, albeit primarily in a sense of negative lessons learned. Or negative lessons that should have been learned. The July 2000 Camp David summit that brought together President Clinton, Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat was an unprecedented attempt to resolve Oslo process final status issues at the highest level. Ariel Sharon’s July 2005 unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip was also an unprecedented step.

Q. Neither initiative has been repeated. Why? What went wrong? Start with Camp David 2000.

A. In retrospect, and in fact to many who were directly involved in real time, everything was wrong. Yasser Arafat came to Camp David reluctantly; he stated outright that negotiations had not progressed enough to undertake a summit dedicated to the final status issues. He was right. Ehud Barak pressed for the summit unwisely: his coalition was in disarray and his entourage of aides and advisers was uncoordinated and at odds with one another. At Camp David it emerged that he lacked basic negotiating skills.

As for Clinton, made aware of the pitfalls ahead, he told adviser Aaron Miller that it was “better to try and fail than not to try at all”. This aphorism turned out to be ill suited to the Israeli-Palestinian case. Camp David failed in July 2000; by September that failure had precipitated the second Intifada. Something similar happened after John Kerry’s spring 2014 failure at mediating when that summer a mini-war broke out between Israel and Gaza.

This was the first attempt by Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate all final status issues face to face, and with American help. It quickly emerged that each side arrived at Camp David without fully comprehending the other’s core issues.

Israel thought it could negotiate away the Palestinians’ ‘right of return’ demand with a symbolic repatriation of a few 1948 refugees. Barak believed the Palestinians would agree to a synagogue on the perimeter of the third holiest site in Islam.

The PLO really believed ‘there never was a temple on the Temple Mount’. Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki told me a month later that until Camp David the PLO leadership had never understood the importance of the Mount to Israelis.

The American team realized mid-summit that it did not know Jerusalem and needed an emergency primer on the geography and theology of the Holy Basin. Washington did not consult Arab state leaders like Hosni Mubarak until too late in the process. No serious attempt had been made by all three participants to research and pre-negotiate the core narrative issues in order to improve chances for success at the summit.

Sometimes, it emerges, it is better not to try when Israelis and Palestinians are so obviously not ripe for agreement. The Trump-Kushner team will be lucky if it just fails, without starting a war or an intifada. Here it may be appropriate to note that all breakthroughs to Arab-Israel peace have transpired without US knowledge or involvement: Israel-Egypt in 1977, Oslo in 1993, Israel-Jordan in 1994.

Q. Clinton did go on to deliver the Clinton Parameters of late 2000, which were negotiated abortively at Taba in January 2001 and which are cited to this day as a reasonable formula for a final status deal.

A. The Clinton Parameters may be the only solid contribution that emerged from Camp David. But by this time Arafat was demonstrably not interested and Barak’s government had collapsed, with elections looming that would elevate Ariel Sharon to the premiership.

Something a bit similar transpired in September 2008 when PM Olmert made a far-reaching final status offer to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). Olmert, under indictment, already had one foot out the door. Worse, neither side had drawn appropriate lessons from Camp David 2000 regarding Jerusalem and the right of return. Abu Mazen walked away, claiming “the gaps were wide”. Olmert’s government fell and Netanyahu was elected to an office he has held ever since.

Q. In 2000, Israel required support for its Camp David positions from the American Jewish community. Was it forthcoming? You played a role. . .

A. I was Barak’s “special adviser” in July 2000, delegated to explain his final status offer to American Jewish leaders and the American media. Barak’s government was falling apart. Both Minister of Internal Affairs Natan Sharansky and Foreign Minister David Levy were campaigning against their own prime minister--Sharansky among the American Jewish community. Barak’s personal advisers were squabbling. I couldn’t get properly briefed for my mission. I couldn’t get a photo-op with Barak to send a message about my appointment; he needed me to be ‘deniable’. I proceeded nevertheless out of a sense of commitment to the peace process. Barak had discovered at the last minute that he needed American Jewish support for his peace plan and for the billions of dollars that Congress would be asked to appropriate to make a peace agreement work. I made up my presentation to Jewish leaders as I went along. I found that, no matter what I said, they were ready and willing to rally behind the prime minister of Israel. I recall one Orthodox leader addressing his fellows in Los Angeles after hearing me and saying, apropos Barak’s plan for a Palestinian state and a divided Jerusalem, “We knew this day would come. Sadly, we have no alternative but to support the prime minister”. Communities that had followed Sharansky’s lead and condemned Barak in full-page ads a month earlier now turned around and praised his stance in full-page ads. One major American daily simply asked me to dictate their editorial in support of Israel’s Camp David position. For all the good it did . . .

Q. Lessons for today? Relevance for today?

A. I have never been in such a tense Israel Prime Minister’s Office as Barak’s. Politics aside, Shamir, Rabin, and Sharon all knew how to run a tight ship. Barak didn’t. That is important. In Barak’s case, it spelled doom from the start. One lesson is that a coalition in turmoil and a prime minister incapable of managing his own bureau have no business trying to make peace.

Secondly, as seen from Israel and with regard to any remotely likely peace process, it appears to me that the American Jewish community would not unite today behind an Israeli leader bent on a compromise agreement with the Palestinians. In the interim, Israeli, American and American Jewish politics have intervened. That is bad for the chances of any agreement that requires American support.

Q. In retrospect, why did Sharon withdraw from Gaza?

A. He really metamorphosed once he became prime minister. He realized the folly of the settlements: he understood the demographic bind they were creating. But he remained totally cynical about the Arabs as peace partners. So when he felt pressured by President Bush 43 to offer concessions (the famous ‘Roadmap’), he opted for a unilateral move that did not require a negotiating partner. He simply preempted Bush, who Sharon knew could hardly object to a unilateral withdrawal.

Sharon was blunt and could be brutal. He brought a lot of problematic baggage to the Israeli premiership. He had already learned a lesson of extreme caution from his involvement in the September 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon and Israel’s disastrous occupation of Lebanon until 2000. But when it came to Gaza withdrawal and the dismantling of its settlements, he could still be the “bulldozer” of renown.

Two of his more memorable statements as prime minister summarize what was behind the Gaza withdrawal. First, he quoted a popular song of the day, “Things you see from there you don’t see from here”. In other words, as prime minister he had learned to see the Palestinian issue differently than when he was building settlements and otherwise undermining his predecessors’ peace efforts. He had even learned that Jordan is NOT Palestine. Then he told American diplomat Dennis Ross, “My generation is the last one that is not afraid to make big decisions. I fear that the next generation will be led by politicians and they won’t decide.”

He was right on both counts. The withdrawal, an isolated exercise in demographic and geographic separation from the Palestinians, was as permanent as any aspect of the fluid Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As for making big decisions, Prime Minister Netanyahu has become a genius at ‘not deciding’. Sadly, he sees the same thing from “there” as from “here”.

But Sharon remained a flawed strategic thinker. He badly misjudged the ramifications of the Gaza withdrawal (along with a parallel symbolic withdrawal from the northern West Bank). Here are three thoroughly negative consequences.

First, the withdrawal helped empower Hamas to take over the Strip two years later. The security consequences for 100,000 Israelis in the Gaza periphery have been devastating.

Second, removal of 8,000 settlers from the Strip empowered the settler movement to redouble its messianic-colonial efforts in the West Bank. And it energized and empowered the National-Religious settlers to ensure sufficient influence over Israeli politics to prevent any further withdrawals at all, anywhere.

Third, the Gaza withdrawal failed to convince the world that, at least in the Strip, Israel is no longer an occupier. All of Sharon’s efforts to open the Strip’s border with Egypt and to channel international development funds to Gaza were for naught.

Q. If the Gaza withdrawal has not been repeated in any serious way in the West Bank and if the Strip’s Hamas rulers are periodically in conflict with Israel, why is there no demand by the Israeli public to go back and reoccupy Gaza?

A. The guardedly positive lesson of ending military and settlement occupation of over two million Gazan Palestinians appears to be that occupying a large neighboring Arab population in land not coveted by Jews is pure folly. The Gaza Strip was never considered part of the Land of Israel. Sadly, among Israel’s increasingly messianic ultra-nationalist mainstream, that lesson does not apply anywhere in the West Bank.

In parallel, the negative lesson of Hamas violence launched from Gaza appears to be that the Strip is a hopeless case. Shimon Peres’s 1995 dream of Gaza as Singapore never got off the ground. The funds the World Bank plowed into Gaza development immediately after the 2005 withdrawal went up in smoke. All attempts by the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas to restore rational, non-Islamist rule in the Strip have failed. The Gaza Strip is the only Arab polity ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is the Palestinian branch. The most anyone can hope for between Gaza and Israel--or for that matter between Gaza and Egypt and between Gaza and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority--is an uneasy status quo.

Q. Bottom line?

A. The lessons of Camp David 2000 and Gaza 2005 are not “alive and well”. They are definitely alive. They are not well.

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