Shlomo Ben-Ami is uniquely qualified to write an account of the failed Israeli-Palestinian summit known as Camp David II. A trained historian, and later a diplomat and cabinet officer, Ben-Ami, foreign minister in Ehud Barak’s government, was a chief participant in the events he describes and analyzes. He brings his skill as historian to his role as participant and vice versa. Ben-Ami has written extensively about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his 2006 book Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy, which analyzed the long and unsuccessful search for some solution to what has been one of the world’s longest running crises. In his new book, he brings further detail about what happened at Camp David in the waning days of Ehud Barak’s government and an analysis of what the failure to secure an agreement at that time has meant in the twenty years since.
Camp David II was designed to be the last phase of the peace process that began with the Oslo Accords between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat. Preceded by public negotiations and secret talks between the parties, the summit was convened by US president Bill Clinton at the site of the first Camp David Summit between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. Clinton’s term of office was nearing its end and, according to Ben-Ami, he was sincerely determined to secure a solution to the intractable conflict. Barak’s government was in a shaky state, and his tenure in office was shadowed by the likelihood of a new election and certain loss to Ariel Sharon. In Ben-Ami’s view, the summit came as close to any previous to providing a resolution but failed to do so as a result of flaws on all sides: Clinton was not an effective mediator; Barak was a reluctant and clumsy negotiator; and Arafat was his usual elusive self, avoiding making the hard final decision, always seeking further and further concessions than the Israelis were willing to make. Ben-Ami provides cogent analysis of Arafat’s character and motives, based not only on the extensive public record of Arafat’s actions and non-actions but also on Ben-Ami’s personal contact with the PLO leader.
The account of the summit takes up only the first section of the book; the rest comprises an account of the continuing efforts to find a way to break the stalemate in the months immediately following (in the shadow of the Second Intifada); and an extensive analysis of efforts since, up to, and including the recent “Deal of the Century” developed by the Trump administration. The book provides a cogent analysis of why the failure of Camp David II has been so tragic and why the answer to this tortured relationship may prove to be ever elusive.
Positions have hardened under the movement to the right of recent Israeli governments and the growing influence of radical Islamic factions in Palestine. The Arab world seems less concerned with the Palestinian plight, and other world crises have taken center stage. Whatever the outcome, Ben-Ami thinks it won’t be the two-state solution long the object of the negotiations. Overall, Ben-Ami provides a clear-eyed and balanced view of all the options and provides a necessary clearing out of all the worn-out cliches, myths, and shibboleths that have enveloped this long conflict.