June 25, 2023

In Blog

A Mystery Solved in the Israel-Palestine Conflict


The Israeli state archives recently declassified a key document in the history of the “peace process.” I myself for decades sought to obtain a copy of it without success, while I speculated on its contents. I inferred without hard evidence that all the key players privy to the document had misrepresented its contents. I therefore reacted to the announcement of its release with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. Before reporting what I discovered upon perusing it, here’s some background. (For the gory details, see my book, Knowing Too Much: Why the American Jewish Romance with Israel is Coming to an End.)


The “peace process” dates back to November 1967 when the U.N. General Assembly, in the wake of the June 1967 (“Six Day”) war, set out the terms for settling the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors in resolution 242. Based on the U.N. Charter, its essential terms constituted a quid pro quo: an end to occupation in exchange for an end to belligerency. Israel had to return the territories it occupied during the 1967 war (Sinai, Golan Heights, West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip), while the neighboring Arab states—Egypt, Syria, Jordan had to respect Israel’s right to live in peace within its internationally recognized borders. Building on these bedrock principles, the international community in later years laid out an explicit legal framework for resolving the Palestinian dimension of the conflict. On core contentious issues, the parameters of the consensus—reiterated in yearly U.N. General Assembly resolutions, in an advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice, and in the statements of respected human rights organizations—stipulated that the Palestinian people should exercise their right to self-determination within a state comprising the whole of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip; the settlements Israel had built in the “occupied Palestinian territories” were illegal; the “basis” of a resolution of the Palestinian refugee question should be the right of these refugees, if they so choose, to return to Israel. The representative Palestinian body (Palestine Liberation Organization) de facto accepted these terms as far back as the mid-1970s and formally acceded to them in 1988, whereas successive Israeli governments consistently rejected them. In 1993, its fortunes plummeting, the PLO signed on to the Oslo Accord that recognized Israel—i.e., an end to belligerency—without any reciprocal commitment by Israel to end the occupation.


In 2000, President Clinton convened a summit at Camp David with PLO chairman Yasir Arafat and Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak to reach an agreement. Arafat was initially reluctant to attend as he was skeptical that enough spade work had been done so as to achieve a positive outcome and concerned that he would be blamed if the summit resulted in an impasse. (Clinton himself hoped that a triumph at Camp David would redeem his name after the Monica Lewinsky blight.) After Clinton promised him that, come what may, he wouldn’t be held culpable, Arafat agreed to attend. The contending parties haggled at Camp David before finally dispersing without a meeting of the minds. In December of that year, Clinton weighed in with his own parameters in which he promulgated what, in his judgment, constituted fair terms for a settlement. It cannot be doubted that Clinton had done his homework and that his proposal went further than previous U.S. administrations in acknowledging Palestinian rights. However, on the core issues, the Clinton Parameters amended the international consensus such that all the concessions would have to come from the Palestinian side and none from Israel: contrary to international law, a portion of the Palestinian West Bank, including much of East Jerusalem, would be forfeited to Israel; a portion of the Israeli settlements inside the Palestinian West Bank would be annexed to Israel; and only a token portion of Palestinian refugees would be permitted to exercise their right of return to Israel. The Palestinian negotiating team did not reject the Clinton Parameters but, rather, expressed in a detailed, professional memo its reservations with them; the Israeli side likewise expressed its reservations. In January 2001, Clinton formally announced that both sides had accepted his parameters “with some reservations.”


But when this round of negotiations collapsed at the end of January as Prime Minister Barak recalled his negotiating team, Clinton reneged on his promise. In a volte-face, he designated Arafat the spoiler. It cannot be exaggerated how much damage Clinton’s accusation caused. Even in Israel’s so-called Peace Camp, the received wisdom became that Camp David revealed that, whereas Israel wanted peace, the Palestinians opposed it. But how could this be—didn’t both sides accept Clinton’s Parameters with reservations? Here’s how Clinton explained the enigma in his memoir:


Barak’s cabinet endorsed the parameters with reservations, but all their reservations were within the parameters…. Arafat’s rejection of my proposal after Barak accepted it was an error of historic proportions…. Arafat had said he accepted the parameters with reservations. The problem was that his reservations, unlike Israel’s, were outside the parameters…, but I treated the acceptance as if it were real, based on his pledge to make peace before I left office.


Clinton’s “within”/”outside” the parameters became a mantra in all the official accounts of the “peace process.” Chief U.S. negotiator Dennis Ross, in his standard reference work (The Missing Peace) wrote:


Barak convened his security cabinet in Jerusalem and they voted to accept the Clinton ideas with reservations. But the reservations were within the parameters, not outside them…. Alas, Arafat was not up to peacemaking…. His reservations were deal-killers.


In 2006, I debated Israel’s foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, on the peace process and the Clinton Parameters naturally came up:


NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: What actually happened [with the Clinton Parameters]? What actually happened was exactly as what was announced by the White House spokesman on January 3rd, 2001, the official statement was both the Israelis and the Palestinians have accepted the Clinton parameters with some reservations. Both sides entered reservations on the Clinton parameters. Dr. Ben-Ami leaves out in the book both sides. He only mentions the reservations by the Palestinians. Number two, I was surprised to notice one of the books Dr. Ben-Ami recommends is the book by Clayton Swisher called The Truth at Camp David. I looked in the book. On page 402 of Clayton Swisher’s book, when he’s discussing the issue of entering reservations to Clinton’s parameters, he quotes none other than Shlomo Ben-Ami. You acknowledged—you call them relatively minor, but you acknowledged that Barak entered—you called it several pages of reservations…. It was exactly symmetrical. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians agreed to the Clinton parameters with some reservations….


SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Okay, well. You see, as somebody who was a part of those who prepared the Israeli document that was submitted to President Clinton, I can say that the bulk of the document was an expression of our—the comparison that we made between our initial positions and what was reflected in the Clinton parameters. It was not a series of reservations. It was basically a mention of the difference, the way that we have gone. This was an attempt to impress the President, more than an attempt to say that these are reservations, sine qua nons. There were no real reservations in our document, whereas in the Palestinian document, there were plenty of them, with the refugees, with the Haram al-Sharif, with what have you. I mean, it was full of reservations from beginning to end. Ours was not a document about reservations, it was a statement, basically, that said these were our positions, this is where we stand today, we have gone a very long way, we cannot go beyond that. This was essentially what we sent.


In a recent scholarly study (Prophets without Honor), Ben-Ami had this to say:


Always cunningly alert, Arafat made a brilliant diplomatic move by making it look as if he and Barak were in the same position: they both accepted [the Clinton Parameters] with “with reservations” … even though Arafat’s reservations [were] all largely outside the parameters [and Israel’s] inside the parameters.


On strictly linguistic grounds, this was a most perplexing distinction: a reservation “inside the parameters” is not a reservation. It is no longer necessary, however, to ponder the curious locution: the Israeli document (“Response of the Government of Israel to the ideas raised by President Clinton regarding the outline of a Framework Agreement on Permanent Status”) is now available for inspection. It irrefutably establishes—the language is explicit—that, no less than Palestinian reservations, Israeli reservations fell outside the Clinton Parameters. After stating that the parameters could serve as a “basis for discussion,” the cover letter to this document went on to caveat:


However, on behalf of the Prime Minister, I wish to note that many of the elements outlined by the President differ from the Israeli positions as presented in the final stages of the negotiations, and on other issues, the President’s ideas run contrary to ours.


Specifically, it states that “the permanent territorial arrangements would have to include annexation that exceeds the numerical territorial scope indicated by the President”; “The President’s ideas regarding the Old City and Har Habayit [in East Jerusalem] are different from Israel’s position”; “In the field of security, the Presidential ideas differ from the Israeli ones with regard to the Palestinian police and security force, the mandate of the international force and the monitoring of the non-militarization of Palestine [etc.].” It also calls on Clinton to remove any ambiguities in his parameters per the “Right of Return of the refugees”—that is, “any entry of refugees to Israel shall be a matter of sole sovereign Israeli discretion.”


It is thus indisputable that Clinton lied in his fateful allocation of blame for the failure of the Camp David summit. This falsification illustrates a larger point. Palestine was placed under a League of Nations mandate after WW I. In normal circumstances, Palestine’s indigenous population, as in all other League mandates, should have attained independence. But—exceptionally—the mandate also validated a Jewish claim to Palestine. After WW II, the U.N. General Assembly endorsed the division of Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state. In the ensuing 1948 war, the Israeli army conquered 78 percent of Palestine and effectively expelled the overwhelming majority of the indigenous Palestinian population from the territory under its rule. The West Bank and Gaza fell outside Israeli jurisdiction. A Jewish state came into being, the Arab state did not. During the 1967 war, Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza remnants of Palestine. Beginning in the mid-1970s, Palestinians acquiesced in a major historic compromise as the P.L.O. conceded Israeli sovereignty over the four-fifths of Palestine it conquered in 1948. The quid pro quo was that—in accordance with international law—Palestinians would exercise sovereignty in the whole of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza. When the Palestinians came to the negotiating table at Camp David, Clinton called upon them to make yet further concessions beyond those stipulated in international law. And then Israel demanded concessions beyond those in the Clinton parameters. How has this sequence of events—these salami tactics, this relentless attrition—been reported in official history? That Palestinians were the spoilers in the peace process.