Arafat Breaks Camp

  • Share
  • Read Later
Unfortunately, Yasser Arafat is no Anwar Sadat, the late Egyptian President whose presence was felt and missed when the Camp David peace talks collapsed last week. And not just unfortunately for Israel and the United States. Arafat's Arab supporters wanted the Palestinian leader to make no concessions on Jerusalem and no significant territorial compromise, and he did not. Unlike Sadat, he thought small; instead of bridging the Arab-Israeli chasm, he sent negotiations back to the drawing board.

That's a pity for all. The talks will go on, but the Palestinian people are unlikely to see a better deal proffered by Ehud Barak's successors anytime soon. This was the moment for an agreement as it was 22 years ago at the first Middle East summit held at Camp David, which I covered as Time's State Department correspondent. On Sept. 17, 1978, after 13 days cloistered at the mountain retreat, President Jimmy Carter, Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin emerged with the framework of an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, a schedule for Israel's withdrawal from the Sinai, and an outline for Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians to work out the final status for the West Bank and Gaza. In one swoop, the entire political and military scope of the Middle East conflict changed.

Those talks were every bit as complex and strained as these. Nor were they helped by the malign sideline presence of the Soviet Union, which had been angry with Egypt since 1972 when Sadat expelled hundreds of its military advisers. Camp David I was also the model for this negotiation: three leaders isolated from the outside world, hoping that an intense personal effort could break a stalemate that all sides feared could lead to more violence, if not another war.

The impetus for the 1978 talks was Sadat's announcement in November 1977 that he was ready to go to Jerusalem to talk peace with Begin. The trip later that month was historic, but no other Arab nations would follow Sadat's initiative. Nor could he and Begin make much progress. The two were near opposites: Begin, a meticulous, often cantankerous detail man determined to maintain the borders of "greater Israel"; Sadat, a temperamental, big-picture visionary bent on regaining Egypt's lost territory by refusing to allow the process to grind to a halt. They had met twice before Camp David and, while capable of congenial poses, they did not care for one another, much like Barak and Arafat.

The catalyst and host in each case was the American President: Carter in his second year in office; Bill Clinton in his eighth. Carter had no idea whether his summit would succeed, only that the stakes were high four wars in three decades, with the likelihood of further violence and that he was prepared to stay at least three days and possibly as much as a week. "We never dreamed we'd be there through 13 intense and discouraging days," he wrote later, "with success in prospect only during the final hours."

Outside Camp David, no one had any clear idea what was going on. Carter's press secretary Jody Powell was the sole briefer, and said nothing of substance for the duration. The leak-prone Israelis followed suit, to the consternation of reporters behind the barriers of the presidential retreat. On several occasions, the summit nearly broke up, much like the recent talks. One crisis involved Begin's refusal to accept the principle of Arab sovereignty over the West Bank; another was over Israel's determination to keep settlements and airfields in the Sinai. Sadat was so infuriated that he ordered his team to pack and told Carter he was leaving. The President implored him to stay. Sadat did, and two days later won most of what he had sought, including aid to Egypt and an equivalent amount to Israel that has totaled some $50 billion.

This latest summit foundered on the status of Jerusalem. The 1978 one almost did as well, but the three sides eventually came up with language which kicked the issue all the way down the road to Camp David II. But there was no postponing such decisions this time: Arafat has reiterated his intention to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state by Sept. 13.

Clinton and Barak worked heroically, as had Carter and Begin. They were tireless, inventive and flexible, amazingly so in the case of Barak, whose political position in Israel is far less secure than Begin's was in 1978. The key difference lay in what Sadat and Arafat were willing to do. Sadat arrived at and left Camp David dangerously isolated from his Arab brethren. He had not consulted with them before going to Jerusalem or before signing the Camp David I pact, which Arabs considered a sellout. A hero to the West, he was shunned at home and three years later was assassinated by Arab nationalists. Arafat was cheered last week when he returned with nothing. Nothing, that is, except a likely guarantee he'll avoid dying in a hail of bullets.