Peace is for those who want it

Ten years on from Camp David, Bill Clinton’s candour shows that the only peace offers worth making are to those prepared to accept them


Three days before he left office, President Bill Clinton received a message of congratulations from Yasir Arafat. "You are a great man," Arafat told him. But Clinton was having none of it. "I am not a great man," he replied. "I am a failure. And you made me one".

President Clinton has always been very clear where he believes the blame lies for the failure of the Camp David peace talks that took place 10 years ago this month. Arafat, and the Palestinian leadership, Clinton believes, missed a golden chance when they rejected, out of hand, the deal they were offered by Ehud Barak.

In fact, reading My Life - Bill Clinton's frank memoirs - is shocking. Here is what he writes about the moment he realises from Arafat's body language that he is going to reject Barak's offer: "The deal was so good I couldn't believe anyone would be foolish enough to let it go." And here is his explanation for Arafat's behaviour: "He had grown used to flying from place to place, giving mother-of-pearl gifts made by Palestinian craftsmen to world leaders and appearing on television with them. It would be different if the end of violence took Palestine out of the headlines and instead he had to worry about providing jobs, schools and basic services."

Why is this shocking? Because it demonstrates that the implied Western liberal promise to Israel is a dud.

Arafat was simply not interested in accepting any concessions for peace

Many (most?) liberals believe that if only Israel were to make a decent offer to the Palestinians, there would be peace. And - here's the promise - if such decent offer were to be rejected, well, then Israel's tough security measures and negotiating stance would enjoy everyone's support. Just be reasonable, Western liberals urge.

And what Bill Clinton's book, and the whole Camp David thing shows is that this isn't true. Because Israel made a wonderful offer. And the Palestinians rejected it. But Western liberals have not supported Israel's tough security measures in the years that passed.

Instead, they have reinvented history - claiming that Israel's offer wasn't really that good - or forgotten history - I wonder how many people who protested against the Gaza action even know about Camp David.

Which is why it is shocking, but also crucial, to find it all written down in Clinton's memoirs. It is a history that cannot be ignored, or forgotten, or reinvented.

Realising, truly accepting, that the implied Western liberal promise to Israel is a dud is vital. What happened in Camp David, and the liberal reaction to it, then changes a lot.

First, it means that while Israel might fear Western liberals' ire if it is not prepared to respond to their demands, it cannot expect much in the way of gratitude even when it does make concessions. And that means that expecting such gratitude should never be part of the calculation when considering deals.

The only reason, therefore, for making an offer is if you believe it might be accepted. There is no dividend in making genuine offers that are rejected.

And this, in turn, leads to the toughest, least palatable, but I am afraid, unavoidable lesson of Camp David. Territorial concessions are the final step in the process, not the first step.

The only concessions worth making are those that will be accepted, and they will only be accepted when those being offered them have decided that they want peace. No concession made to Arafat would have been accepted, because he did not want to accept any concessions. Natan Sharansky makes this point often, and even goes so far as to argue that the real moment when peace will come is when you can leave the settlers in their houses and not fear that they would be killed.

In other words, the lesson of Camp David is that land for peace is wrong. Peace comes before land.

Daniel Finkelstein is executive editor of The Times

Last updated: 9:20am, October 6 2010

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