Camp David's Unspoken Bottom Line:

22 June 2005

  Phyllis Bennis

Camp David's Unspoken Bottom Line:
The Disparity of Power
Phyllis Bennis
TNI Website, 23 July 2000

It was after midnight. They had all been up for days. A bleary-eyed Bill Clinton told the world that the negotiations were "really, really hard." He was going on to the G8 summit in Okinawa, but to everyone's surprise, he announced that the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators would remain at Camp David, to keep trying for a while longer. "Nobody wanted to give up," he said.

But a comprehensive and permanent solution seems no more likely now than during the nine-day summit's moments of highest optimism. It appears some progress was made on Israeli acceptance of a Palestinian state, and perhaps at least tentative approaches on borders and settlements. But no partial agreements were announced; this would be a make-it or break-it deal. The red-line issues were known going in and remained unchanged despite Clinton's marathon of persuasion: the status of Jerusalem and the return of Palestinian refugees.

That those would be the deal-breakers was no surprise. "Intractable" and "irresolvable" are perhaps the most common adjectives applied. But the other words, that might explain WHY these issues remain so difficult, are virtually never mentioned above a whisper: rights, international law, and finally, power. Perhaps the last is the most basic: the Israelis have it all, the Palestinians have none. And the US, the most powerful of all, accepts that vast disparity of power between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators as if Camp David were a level playing field on which an honest broker could referee a fair game.

On Palestinian refugees, rights and international law have gone by the wayside. Over 3 million, who fled the fighting or were physically expelled from their homes during the 1947-48 war, are now scattered throughout the world. After the war, the United Nations passed resolution 194, mandating compensation for the refugees and assuring their right to return home. Their right to return is also affirmed by the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Palestinians' right to return is no less than that of the Albanian Kosovars, Rwandans returning from the Congo, East Timorese going home from Indonesian refugee camps.

Israel maintains that allowing the Palestinians to return would change its demographic balance, by more than doubling Israel's Palestinian population which now stands at 20%. But concern over changing the ethnic make-up of the country should not be an acceptable basis for rejecting international law and resolution 194. Israel offered a "humanitarian compromise" allowing a small number of Israeli-chosen Palestinians to return, but rejects 194 and the Palestinian right of return.

On Jerusalem, Prime Minister Ehud Barak reaffirmed Israel's longstanding "red line," that Jerusalem must remain undivided and under solely Israeli sovereignty. The Palestinian position also had its redlines. Theirs was the right to share Jerusalem, including the capital of a Palestinian state and Palestinian sovereignty over Arab East Jerusalem. With continued Israeli sovereignty over West Jerusalem, that would make for what Palestinians describe as "two capitals, one city."

But the talks foundered. Senior sources in Barak's office were quoted as saying the Palestinians "are not yet ready to accept the hard decisions that are required." On Jerusalem, that hard decision would have meant abandoning the long-held dream of the city as the capital of an independent Palestinian state.

Israel floated three possible concessions. One would expand Israel's municipal borders of Jerusalem to include three small Palestinian villages outside the city. Then the Palestinians would be offered some modicum of authority over the villages, one of which, Abu Dis, would be declared the "capital" of a Palestinian statelet. Palestinians would be "allowed" to call the dusty hillside village "Jerusalem." Only problem is, everyone knows that Abu Dis is not Jerusalem. Redrawing municipal borders doesn't make it so.

Israel also proposed a deal in which the Palestinians would be allowed to administer their own municipal services in scattered parts of East Jerusalem. The Palestinians could collect their own garbage and replace their own streetlamps-but Israel would be in charge. Barak apparently even offered the right to fly a Palestinian flag over al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem's old city. But after 33 years of Israeli military occupation, symbolic authority is not enough. Jerusalem is more than a collection of religious sites: it is a living city, with real urban populations not only in Jewish West Jerusalem but in Arab East Jerusalem as well-a city long recognized as the commercial, political, cultural and national center of Palestinian life.

Israel claims sole sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, by virtue of a 3,000 year old history and, more relevant in today's world, by virtue of power, the right of might. Israel's occupation and annexation of Arab East Jerusalem in 1967 were never recognized by the US or the rest of the world community. The UN, in resolution 242, called for an exchange of the territory Israel had just occupied in return for peace. That resolution also reaffirmed the illegality of holding territory by force. The resolution did not judge the causes of the war, only declared that after the war is over, the occupiers must withdraw. That included East Jerusalem.

But, under US sponsorship, the Camp David talks seem based on precisely the opposite. They treat Israel's 1967 military occupation of Arab East Jerusalem as a legal reality, which may be tinkered with but does not have to be reversed. The old saying holds that possession is 99 percent of the law. For Israel, in Jerusalem, it is 100 percent.

The Camp David agenda should have been based on international law and rights. According to international law, Israeli withdrawal from occupied East Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their home, are mandated by UN resolutions. But without US insistence that Israel abide by those decisions, international law has been abandoned. President Clinton may or may not rejoin the talks. A face-saving partial agreement may or may not be announced. But any successful effort to craft a just and comprehensive peace between Israel and Palestine will have to be based on international law and the rights guaranteed by the United Nations.

Future talks will continue to fail if they do not address the enormous disparity of power that puts the Palestinians at such a disadvantage. Only Washington can balance that uneven playing field. If it fails to do so the Camp David II summiteers will lose not only sleep, but the possibility of peace as well.


About the authors

Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of both TNI and the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC where she directs IPS's New Internationalism Project. Phyllis specialises in U.S. foreign policy issues, particularly involving the Middle East and United Nations. She worked as a journalist at the UN for ten years and currently serves as a special adviser to several top-level UN officials on Middle East issues, as well as playing an active role in the U.S. and global peace and Palestinian rights movements. A frequent contributor to U.S. and global media, Phyllis is also the author of numerous articles and books, particularly on Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, the UN, and U.S.