American foreign policy American Jews Israel Israeli occupation Mearsheimer and Walt Middle East peace process Palestinians Zionism

Mearsheimer, Walt and what didn’t really happen at Camp David

There is a sentence towards the end of Walt and Mearsheimer’s new book that undercuts some of what they have tried to accomplish with their critique of the “Israel Lobby.” Having rejected the binational, single-state solution as well as Israel’s permanent occupation, they assert: “The United States will have to put significant pressure on Israel to accept the creation of a viable Palestinian State, which in practice means accepting a solution within the Clinton parameters.”

The “Clinton parameters!?”

Earlier in the book, the two professors disparage Clinton’s Middle East peace team and snipe at the U.S. approach to the Barak-Arafat talks at Camp David. They invoke Aaron David Miller’s familiar conclusion that, too often, the U.S. had acted as “Israel’s lawyer.” They claim that “the American delegation at Camp David took most of its cues from Israeli Prime Minister Barak, coordinated negotiating positions with Israel in advance, and did not offer its own independent proposals for settling the conflict.”

To them, the whole exercise was just one more example of America’s inability to act as a neutral mediator and make suggestions that Israel does not like. Camp David, to them, is “the Lobby” at its worst, since they include the Jewish members of the Clinton team as part of that Lobby. They question whether the “well-known sympathies” of Ross and Indyk for Israel made the administration “less inclined to bring U.S. leverage to bear on Israel.”

Yet, when it comes time to step out of the ivory tower and endorse something that might work “in practice,” they opt for the Clinton plan. That plan was crafted with the guidance of the very same officials who were supposedly Zionist fifth columnists. And it wasn’t created after Ross and Indyk went to some kind of post-Camp David, 12-step, Zio-detox facility and purged themselves of “sympathies for Israel.” [Ross: “Hello, my name is Dennis and I’m not a credible mediator.” Other Jewish officials: “Hi Dennis.”]. The plan, which calls for historic painful compromises by both the Israelis and Palestinians, was the end result of the arduous negotiations that had come before it, at Camp David, at Taba and in less public interactions.

At Camp David, Ross, Indyk, Miller, Malley and the others were trying to engender an agreement that the Israeli and Palestinian publics could conceivably accept. It seems incredible that is necessary to point out the following, but it is not clear if Walt and Mearsheimer understand it: no agreement that was fashioned at Camp David would have had any value in the real world unless, somehow, the Israeli people got behind it and the Prime Minister who was proposing it.

That was, apparently, one of the main reasons why Clinton’s diplomats spent so much time and effort testing the diplomatic waters with the Barak government before bringing proposals to the table. Perhaps they spent too much time. Perhaps they leaned too far in Israel’s direction. I don’t know exactly what happened at Camp David. No one does, including the people who were there. All of the accounts by participants or interviews with participants provide different versions of what transpired. But I do know that, for all of his considerable flaws, Ehud Barak ended up pushing for an agreement that was well beyond anything the Israeli people had ever been asked to consider by an Israeli government, including the formal division of Jerusalem and land swaps with the Palestinians. It is easy for academics to declare that Israel should do this or Israel should do that and not worry about Israeli politics or public opinion. Israeli Prime Ministers don’t have that luxury and neither do American diplomats.

It is clear that many mistakes were made by all the parties at Camp David. It is certain that Barak’s take-or-leave-it negotiating style did not work. Perhaps the Clinton team didn’t have sufficient sensitivity to Arafat’s vulnerabilities and his sense that, especially when negotiating over Jerusalem, he was representing the entire Muslim world. Perhaps the whole summit should never have been held, as Arafat reportedly was not ready for it.

But Clinton and his team deserve a lot more credit than Mearsheimer and Walt deign to give. While they quote from the Rob Malley/Hussein Agha critique of the U.S. approach in the NY Review of Books a few times, they conspicuously leave out a paragraph that undermines the notion that the U.S. was marching in diplomatic lockstep with Israel. Malley and Agha wrote :

…One of the more debilitating effects of the visible alignment between Israel and the United States was that it obscured the real differences between them. Time and again, and usually without the Palestinians being aware of it, the President sought to convince the Prime Minister to accept what until then he had refused—among them the principle of land swaps, Palestinian sovereignty over at least part of Arab East Jerusalem and, after Camp David, over the Haram al-Sharif, as well as a significantly reduced area of Israeli annexation. This led Barak to comment to the President that, on matters of substance, the US was much closer to the Palestinians’ position than to Israel’s. This was only one reflection of a far wider pattern of divergence between Israeli and American positions—yet one that has systematically been ignored by Palestinians and other Arabs alike.

It has also deliberately ignored by Mearsheimer and Walt, and that is one of the many, troubling aspects of this book. I still believe it has some merit and that they don’t deserve the complete hatchet jobs that are now starting to occur. But they were manifestly unfair to Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk.

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