A Brief History of Peace Talks, Israel, and the Palestinians
It's accepted fact in Western policy circles that Palestinian leaders have repeatedly rejected "peace" deals with Israel. Does this talking point actually hold up under scrutiny?
This piece originally appeared at Palestine Nexus in its Palestine, in Your Inbox newsletter. Its author, Zachary Foster, writes regularly on Palestine history, politics and culture, and in addition to the newsletter his site offers a collection of primary source material on Palestinian history as well as “Palestine-Israel 101,” an online course devoted to “the history of the Palestine-Israel question.” Click the button to check out the site and sign up for Zach’s excellent newsletter:
by Zachary Foster at Palestine, in Your Inbox
One of the most commonly held views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that the Palestinians could have had peace many times, but they’ve always rejected it.
Let’s take a closer look.
This is a brief history of the Camp David Accords in July 2000, the Taba Summit in January 2001 and the Annapolis talks of 2007-8, three moments Israeli leaders came close to making peace offers to the Palestinians.
July 2000: Camp David
The 2000 Camp David Summit was the culmination of a seven year process known as the Oslo Accords, a series of agreements signed between the PLO and Israel. Standing on one foot, the agreements provided the PLO—and its child, the Palestinian Authority—authority over housing, policing, transportation, garbage collection, labor unions, etc., in urban areas of the West Bank and Gaza. The Oslo Accords also enshrined Israeli security needs as supreme and provided Israel authority over 60-80% of the West Bank (the rural West Bank) in which it could expand its occupation infrastructure of roads, closed military zones, national parks and settlements.
So, what happened at the July 2000 Camp David Summit? First, recall that no written records were produced during the negotiations. Everything was oral, which has led many analysts to conclude no offer was ever even presented to the Palestinians.
In any case, what was on the table? On the issue of borders & security—the Palestinians would eventually control 86% of the West Bank in 20 years time. Israel would retain control over much of the Jordan Valley and the Jordan river shoreline, multiple militant settler compounds and settlements in Hebron and Qiryat Arba, as well as the West Bank’s airspace & groundwater. Israel would retain major settlement blocs that effectively divide the West Bank into three sections. Israel would also reserve the right to deploy the Israeli army in the West Bank in case of an emergency. The word “emergency” was not defined.
There were many red flags to the Palestinians. Previous Israeli leaders insisted they alone had the right to define and interpret the meaning of the words of the agreements. Israel’s proposed twenty-year timeline to resolve all of the final status issues was peculiar. After all, Oslo’s five-year time horizon gave bad actors on both sides ample opportunity to spoil the agreement. A twenty-year time horizon would exacerbate that risk, almost comically so. The Palestinian entity would lack territorial contiguity within the West Bank and between Gaza and the West Bank. Barak’s proposal would enable Israel to easily divide the West Bank into three sections. What the Oslo years taught the Palestinians was that if Israel could encircle, confine and sever Palestinians from one another, destroying the fabric of life in Palestine, it would. In fact, that was standard operating occupation procedure for years during the 1990s: Israel imposed lockdowns on Palestinians in the occupied territories for 17 days in 1993, 64 days in 1994, 84 days in 1995, 90 days in 1996 and 57 days in 1997.
What about the other issues of significance like Jerusalem and the refugees? On Jerusalem—Barak proposed creating a Palestinian capital in Abu Dis, a Palestinian village located to the East of Jerusalem, and Palestinian sovereignty over the exterior suburbs, like Beit Hanina, but not most of the central neighborhoods of East Jerusalem or the Old City. On the refugees, Barak adamantly opposed accepting any responsibility for having led Palestinians into forced exile. And while Arafat demanded the Palestinian right of return to Israel within its 1967 boundaries, Israel was never prepared to accept more than a ceremonial number of refugees into Israel proper.
Alas, there was simply too much distance between the parties.
And we have not even begun to talk about the atmosphere of mistrust created by Barak in the year leading up to the Camp David Summit. Barak told Arafat in July 1999 that he was going to bundle the Oct. 1998 Wye memorandum agreement with the final status talks. In other words, Barak declared unilaterally that he would delay transferring land to Palestinian Authority control that Israel has already agreed on transferring. This was unacceptable to the Palestinians and it highlighted the fundamental problem with the entire Oslo Process, namely, Israel was both party to the Accords and it was the enforcer of the Accords. And so if Israel didn’t live up to their end of the agreement, what could the Palestinians do? In a word, nothing.
Meanwhile, conditions were not ripe for final status talks. Barak's parliamentary coalition collapsed just days before the July 2000 summit as many of his coalition partners opposed making concessions to the Palestinians. Nothing was achieved in the earlier Elat talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, and no progress was made in the Stockholm channel either. These failures were warning signs to Arafat, but not to Clinton, who insisted on holding the summit nevertheless. Clinton wanted a crown on his political career, ignoring Arafat’s advise that a breakthrough was unlikely given the distance between the parties. Alas, no agreement was reached.
January 2001: Taba
At Taba, the Palestinian and Israeli negotiators came closer to reaching a deal than they had at Camp David, but still not close enough.
On the issue of borders and security, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators agreed in principle that the basis for the border would the June 1967 lines. Israel proposed a Palestinian entity that would comprise of Gaza and 94% of the West Bank. Israel would also compensate the Palestinians with an area of land in Israel that would amount to additional 3% of the West Bank.
But the fault line was not the exact amount of land the Palestinians would get control over, but rather whether they would actually get control over it. The Israelis insisted on keeping most of the settlement blocs and maintaining contiguity between and among them. This was not acceptable to the Palestinians because it would cause harm to Palestinian interests and rights, particularly to Palestinians residing in areas Israel sought to annex. The Palestinian negotiators maintained that Palestinian needs in the West Bank would take priority over the needs of the Israeli settlements, while the Israeli negotiators seemed to believe the opposite. Moreover, Israel insisted on retaining three military outposts inside Palestine much like it did at Camp David. The Israelis insisted on including clauses in the agreement that would allow the Israeli military to enter the Palestinian entity in case of an emergency. That made the Palestinian negotiating team wary of abuse owing to Israel’s history of abusing it’s position of power to interpret the Accords in ways the benefited Israel and harmed the Palestinians.
On the issue of the Palestinian refugees, distance between the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating positions was also palpable. The Palestinian side reiterated that the Palestinian refugees should have the right of return to their homes. The Israeli side, in a word, rejected this position. For Israel, no meaningful number of refugees would be allowed to return to Israel.
Ultimately, time ran out on the negotiations. Just weeks after the Taba meetings, Ariel Sharon defeated Ehud Barak in Israeli elections on 6 February 2001 and chose not to resume the high-level talks.
September 2008: Olmert’s Offer
The next significant round of negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders took place in September 2008. Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas came even closer to reaching a deal than had Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat. Needless to say, they did not come close enough.
The most glaring problem with the 2008 talks was that at least one of the parties could no longer claim to be the legitimate representatives of their own people. Hamas won the January 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections, having received a 44% of the vote to Fatah’s 41%. And between January 2006 and September 2008 — then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sought to prevent Hamas from carrying out its democratic mandate. U.S. and Israeli officials backed Fatah’s armed forces even though they lost the election, triggering a civil war that led to a Hamas takeover in Gaza in June 2007.
Olmert thought he could put an to violence in Palestine and Israel without engaging with the Palestinian group responsible for a lot of violence in Israel and Palestine. Of course, this was also a problem during the Oslo Process, Camp David & Taba, but by 2008, the problem was front and center. Hamas had received a mandate to rule, having won PLC elections just two years earlier, and was now in charge of the Gaza Strip. The idea that you could solve the Israel-Palestine question in 2008 without them was palpably absurd, and yet that was the route chosen by Israel and the United States. And so even if Olmert and Abbas were able to reach an agreement on the final status issues in September or October or November 2008, that would not have ended violence between Israelis and Palestinians. To do that, Olmert needed to engage the group engaged in violence, Hamas. Instead, the Israelis chose to deny Hamas’s right to exist and pretend as if they did not exist.
Having said that, what as Olmert’s offer to Abbas? It’s worth acknowledging, first, that some progress was made on Jerusalem and, to a lesser extent, refugees. Olmert accepted that Jewish neighborhoods should remain under Israeli sovereignty and Arab neighborhoods Palestinian sovereignty. Wow, what a breakthrough! Olmert also acknowledged “the suffering of”—but not “responsibility for”—Palestinian refugees, and would take in a ceremonial number of them. You are telling me the Palestinian refugees “suffered” in 1948? Wow, what a breakthrough!
On borders and security, Olmert proposed annexing at least 6.3% of Palestinian territory, in exchange for 5.8% of Israeli land in the Negev, adjacent to the Gaza Strip, as well as a territorial link, under Israeli sovereignty, for passage between Gaza and the West Bank. There was no consensus over what would happen with Ariel or Ma’alei Adumim, two of the largest settlements in the West Bank. Still, the negotiators walked away feeling optimistic about land swamps.
The fault line, much like in Taba in 2001, was not the exact amount of land the Palestinians would get control over, but rather whether they would actually get control over it. Reportedly, Israel expected to be allowed to pursue “terrorists” across the new borders. Moreover if Israel sensed trouble on eastern side of the Jordan River, it reserved the right to move its army into the West Bank. Israel would also maintain access to Palestine’s airspace, and the Israeli military would be at the top of the West Bank’s telecommunication preference stack. “No responsible leader will accept a ‘peace plan’ that repackages the occupation and makes it permanent,” Abbas later said of the offer. If Israel was allowed to pursue “terrorists” in Palestine, if it retained unrestricted access to Palestine’s airspace and the telecommunications network, then Abbas was correct, since that sounds a lot of Israel’s occupation of Area A of the West Bank today.
Zachary J. Foster is a historian of Palestine who received his Ph.D in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University in 2017.
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