Though President Clinton publicly blamed the Palestinians for the failure of the Camp David peace summit last July, in private he became exasperated with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's negotiating tactics, according to a key White House adviser.
In an upcoming article in the New York Review of Books, Robert Malley, Clinton's special assistant for Arab-Israeli affairs, disputes the widespread view that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was the sole culprit behind the collapse of the Camp David talks, which was soon followed by a surge in Middle East violence.
Malley and co-author Hussein Agha, who often advises the Palestinian leadership, say Barak's mistakes contributed to the breakdown but that the American peace team ultimately put them aside because they believed Barak wanted to reach a historic final deal.
The authors say Barak helped set the stage for failure by refusing to carry out some earlier agreements with the Palestinians, including a commitment to turn over West Bank land, expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and then pushing Arafat to reach an all-or-nothing peace deal. That fed Arafat's suspicions of Israeli motives, reinforcing his reluctance to clinch a permanent agreement, so he spent the summit trying to avoid a trap rather than seeking peace, according to the article in the Aug. 9 issue.
Clinton shared some of Arafat's aggravation over what they both saw as Israel's failure to keep its commitments, the authors say. When Barak reneged on a vow to transfer three villages in the Jerusalem area to Palestinian control, a commitment Clinton personally conveyed to Arafat, the president was "furious." The article quotes Clinton as saying that never before had he been made out to be "a false prophet" to a foreign leader.
Malley also recounts an "extraordinary moment" at Camp David when Clinton vented his accumulated frustrations after Barak retracted some negotiating positions. The article quotes Clinton as telling Barak: "I can't go see Arafat with a retrenchment! . . . This is not real. This is not serious." Clinton then chided the Israeli leader for failing to be forthcoming in earlier negotiations with the Syrians. Clinton said that for a meeting with Syrian President Hafez Assad, "I went to Geneva and felt like a wooden Indian doing your bidding. I will not let it happen here."
Clinton also counseled Barak to show some flexibility and take into account Palestinian sensitivities: "You are smarter and more experienced than I am in war. But I am older in politics, and I have learned from my mistakes."
At the same time, Malley reports that Clinton was troubled by Palestinian unwillingness to respond to some of the far-reaching ideas he and Barak put on the table. Clinton and his peace team were looking for Arafat to offer counterproposals so the Israeli desire for a deal could be tested. But Arafat and his advisers were paralyzed by their fear of being tricked, as well as by divisions and intrigue within their team, according to the article.
The article describes Clinton lashing out at Abu Alaa, a chief Palestinian negotiator, for refusing to bargain over a map proposed as a part of a solution: "Don't simply say to the Israelis that their map is no good. Give me something better!" When Abu Alaa demurred, Clinton stormed out. "I won't have the United States covering for negotiations in bad faith. Let's quit!"
Near the end of the summit, Clinton rebuked Arafat: "If the Israelis can make compromises and you can't, I should go home. You have been here 14 days and said no to everything. These things will have consequences. Failure will end the peace process. . . . Let's let hell break loose and live with the consequences."
At the close of Camp David, a frustrated Clinton blamed Arafat for missing a chance for a historic deal, breaking a pledge to the Palestinian leader that he would not be faulted if the summit failed.
Though Arafat in the weeks before the summit had been looking for the Israelis to carry out their interim agreements before taking up a permanent settlement, he had agreed to go to Camp David on several conditions. One was that he would not be blamed for the possible failure of what he believed was a premature summit. Malley and Agha say Clinton volunteered that the United States would remain neutral in the case of a failure.
Yet when the talks collapsed, Clinton put top priority on helping Barak, whose considerable concessions had undercut his political standing at home.