How did a peace process that started with such high hopes end with an intifada? What really happened at Camp David? Former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami kept a diary there; in a conversation with Ari Shavit, he reveals, for the first time, why the stormy negotiations ended in failure.
With the help of a hefty pile of documents that he brings in from the next room, he tries to explain what actually happened here. What went wrong. The summer shirt he's wearing is from Camp David, a kind of American summer-camp shirt from a summer camp that wasn't much of a success.
But Ben-Ami, who was Ehud Barak's representative to the peace talks, claims again and again that Camp David is not the crucial thing; that anyone who chooses to focus on Camp David hasn't got a clue. Those two weeks in Maryland, which riveted the world's attention, are only one piece of the puzzle.
Ben-Ami's charm hasn't faded. At some remove from the high tension of power, he is relaxed and smiling, with a captivating sense of humor. His analyses are deep and complex. His contexts are multilingual and multicultural. When he places his reading glasses on the tip of his nose and starts to read from the diary he kept in those fateful days, he seems to be trying to understand.
Q: Shlomo Ben-Ami, what were the assumptions that guided you and the prime minister, Ehud Barak, when you set out, in the spring of 2000, to terminate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
"We had a number of working assumptions, but I think the most important of them was the basic assumption that has been shared by the Americans, the Europeans and the Israeli center-left for years: that Oslo created a rational order in the Middle East based on give-and-take, which in the future would lead to an acceptable compromise; that in 1993 a quasi-state of the Palestinians was established, in terms of orderly international relations. In retrospect, this turned out to be a mistaken assumption, It turned out that for [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat it was a huge camouflage net behind which he fomented, and continues to foment, political pressure and terrorism in different dosages in order to undermine the very idea of two states for two nations."
Q: Let's go back to the beginning - to your first talks with Barak when he placed you in charge of the negotiations. What kind of territorial compromise did you have in mind then?
"In one of our first meetings, Barak showed me a map that included the Jordan Rift Valley and was a kind of very beefed-up Allon Plan [formulated by Yigal Allon in the 1970s and based on a territorial compromise]. He was proud of the fact that his map would leave Israel with about a third of the territory. If I remember right, he gave the Palestinians only 66 percent of the land. Ehud was convinced that the map was extremely logical. He had a kind of patronizing, wishful-thinking, naive approach, telling me enthusiastically, `Look, this is a state; to all intents and purposes it looks like a state.' "At that point, I didn't argue with him. I didn't tell him to throw the map into the garbage or to turn it into a kite. But later, in the wake of advance talks with the Palestinians and internal clarifications, he understood that it was impossible to present a map like that publicly."
Q: What did you go into the negotiations with, then? What was the official Israeli position that you and Gilad Sher presented to the Palestinians in Stockholm in May 2000?
"At Stockholm we placed a map [with a ratio] of 12-88 on the table. We demanded three settlement blocs [Etzion, Ariel, the Jerusalem area] and a security hold in the Jordan Rift Valley for about 20 years. According to the map we presented, the Jordan River line itself would remain under Israeli sovereignty in order to prevent the entry of weapons and to forestall any violation of the demilitarization arrangements. At Stockholm we also objected to the idea of an exchange of territory. Our concept was that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were the sand table within which all the problems had to be resolved."
Q: How did the Palestinians react to this?
"They didn't like looking at our maps. Abu Ala would tell me, `Shlomo, take the map away.' In [private] talks, he would press me: What percentage do you really mean? But in the guest house of the prime minister of Sweden, with that marvelous view, and on the edge of a lake too beautiful to describe, we had the best talks we ever had. The surroundings were tranquil, the atmosphere was right, the approach was pragmatic. So much so that we constructed a written framework for an agreement, and we even entered into consultations with experts in international law on the correct legal construction of the agreement. Our assessment was that we were truly on the way to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement."
Q: What agreements did you reach there?
"The term agreements is too binding. Nothing was concluded. But there was understanding about the need for settlement blocs and there was understanding that in connection with security, the Palestinians would be flexible. On the subject of the refugees we constructed an entire concept that was based on a solution in Arab host-states, in the Palestinian state, in countries like Canada and Australia, and on family reunification in Israel. In Stockholm we talked about 10 or 15 thousand refugees who would be absorbed in Israel over a period of years.
"Abu Ala and Hasan Asfour didn't accept those figures, but they showed readiness to enter into substantive talks and to discuss numbers. On the territorial issue, too, the feeling was that they would meet us halfway. In a conversation we had after Stockholm, at the Holiday Inn in Jerusalem, Abu Ala agreed explicitly to 4 percent [remaining in Israel's hands]. So the feeling was that [an agreement] was really within reach."
Q: And Jerusalem?
"Jerusalem was not discussed at all. Barak wasn't willing. I think that was a mistake. If we had discussed Jerusalem, we would have come to Camp David better prepared. But he was afraid of leaks and also that the very discussion of Jerusalem would destabilize the government and put the coalition at risk. So in the drafts we prepared, the Jerusalem clause remained a blank page. Even that upset him. You can see a comment in his handwriting on the documents we drew up in May: Barak preferred that even the heading of the Jerusalem clause not appear in print."
Q: What direction did the process take in the wake of the Stockholm talks and ahead of Camp David? If I had asked you in June or July 2000 what might be agreed upon, what would you have said?
"Officially, we didn't budge at that stage from the 12-88 map of Stockholm and from the principle that there would be no exchange of territories. But in one-on-one conversations, I talked about 8 to 10 percent [remaining under Israeli control]. As I told you, Abu Ala mentioned 4 percent to me. To the best of my knowledge, ahead of Camp David [U.S. president Bill] Clinton received from the Palestinians a pledge of 2 percent. So it could be assumed that we would go beyond 90 percent and the Palestinians would go beyond 4 percent and we would meet at some point in the middle. On the territorial issue, Clinton could have said that the sides were not agreed on quantity, but agreed on the principle.
"What became clear during the talks immediately after Stockholm was that the Palestinians would show a certain flexibility concerning the settlement blocs, but they were adamant on the eastern border and the Jordan Rift Valley. They demanded a solution for the Jordan River border, and at that stage we weren't willing to give them a guarantee of that."
Q: And what about Jerusalem and the refugees?
"There were no detailed talks at all about Jerusalem. The only thing was a promise that Arafat gave us, in a talk in Nablus, that the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter were ours. He talked at length about how he remembered himself playing with Jewish children by the Western Wall in the 1930s, so he knows that the Wall is ours. Some of the other Palestinians mentioned Gilo several times, in a way that implied that they accepted the Jewish neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city.
"But on the question of the refugees, there was something of a regression in the period between Stockholm and Camp David. Abu Mazen persuaded Abu Ala not to get into any discussion of numbers, but to stick with the principle of the right of return. After our meetings, Abu Ala brought the joint document of Abu Ala and Yossi Beilin and showed me how many reservations Abu Mazen himself had about that document, especially in regard to the refugees.
"By the way, not only Abu Mazen but Arafat too had reservations about the document. When I asked Arafat about it in a talk we held in Gaza a few months later, he replied contemptuously: `Words, words.'"
Q: What were Israel's opening positions at the Camp David meeting in mid-July? What was the official Israeli position at the peace summit?
"The map I placed on the table at Camp David for the Palestinian team to peruse, in the presence of President Clinton, was the 12-88 map. Between Stockholm [May 2000] and Taba [January 2001] we did not officially present any other map to the Palestinians. We didn't agree to pare down our official stand unless there was movement on their part, and because there was no movement on their part, we didn't present new maps.
"But unofficially, it was clear that we were ready for 8 to 10 percent. We still objected to a territorial exchange. We still demanded that Jerusalem remain united under our sovereignty. "The Palestinians, in contrast, insisted that the discussion open with a recognition by Israel of the 1967 lines. They were very rigid on that point. I will never forget a discussion in the presence of President Clinton and [secretary of state] Madeleine Albright and [national security adviser] Sandy Berger in which I suggested that we enter into a discussion on the basis of the hypothesis of the 1967 borders, but without committing ourselves to them. Abu Ala vehemently refused to enter into that dynamic. He insisted that we first of all recognize the borders of June 4, 1967.
"After a time, Clinton became boiling mad and started shouting terribly. He told Abu Ala that this wasn't a speech at the United Nations, and that the Palestinians had to come up with positive proposals of their own. Clinton shouted that no one would be able to get everything he wanted and that he too would like to serve a third term as president, but he knew that was impossible. He turned completely red and finally got up and stalked out. Abu Ala was deeply offended. From that moment, almost the only thing he did at Camp David was drive around the lawns in a golf cart."
Q: Didn't the Palestinians make a counterproposal?
"No. And that is the heart of the matter. Never, in the negotiations between us and the Palestinians, was there a Palestinian counterproposal. There never was and there never will be. So the Israeli negotiator always finds himself in a dilemma: Either I get up and walk out because these guys aren't ready to put forward proposals of their own, or I make another concession. In the end, even the most moderate negotiator reaches a point where he understands that there is no end to it."
Was there ever a moment when things seemed to be otherwise? When it seemed that some sort of breakthrough might be achieved at Camp David? "When the feeling was that we were treading water, the president organized a simulation game that went on for a whole night, until noon the next day. The key to the game was that it did not obligate the leaders. The participants were Gilad Sher, Yisrael Hasson and myself, against Saeb Erekat, Mohammed Dahlan and a Palestinian lawyer from Oxford.
"In this game, for the first time, we put forward a proposal about Jerusalem. The proposal was that the outer envelope of Arab neighborhoods in the city would be under Palestinian sovereignty, the inner envelope would be under functional autonomy, the Old City under a special regime, and the Temple Mount under a perpetual Palestinian trusteeship. Clinton was very pleased with our proposal. Ehud also thought we had taken a courageous step - that was before he made his own courageous decisions - and it was a form of a breakthrough that extricated the process from its impasse."
Q: What was the Palestinian reaction?
"Disappointing. The lawyer from Oxford said that they would demand compensation for all the years of the occupation. Saeb Erekat also spoke along the same lines in the presence of Clinton. I couldn't restrain myself and I burst out. I told them that the negotiators on behalf of the Zionist movement on the eve of the establishment of the Jewish state didn't behave as nonchalantly [as the Palestinians at Camp David]. I asked them which of the sides here wanted to establish a state - us or them. I felt terribly frustrated that we were making such a creative, flexible move and reaching one of the finest moments of the negotiations, and they couldn't free themselves from their gibes, from the need for vindication, from their victimization. "Still, things continued positively. Clinton went to Arafat and held a very tough talk with him. And then, when Arafat found himself in hardship and felt that he was on the edge of a precipice, he finally made a kind of counterproposal. He told Clinton that he was ready to forgo between 8 and 10 percent of the territory."
Q: Are you saying that on July 16, 2000, in a conversation with Clinton, Yasser Arafat agreed to give Israel about a tenth of the West Bank?
"I am quoting to you from what I recorded in my diary on July 17: `Yesterday Arafat made a counterproposal to Clinton in relation to the scenario of the previous night. He is ready to give territory of between 8 and 10 percent. He told Clinton: I leave the matter of the [territorial] swap in your hands, you decide. He is ready for security arrangements as will be decided. He places the emphasis on an international force. We will find a solution on the refugee issue, too. Everything now stands or falls over Jerusalem. Arafat wants a solution there that he can live with."
Q: Is this the origin of the Camp David formula for a territorial exchange: 9 percent of the territories in return for 1 percent of sovereign Israeli territory?
"That formulation was never crystallized in a binding document. But from the beginning of the second week at Camp David, it was in the air. It was our working assumption. And it was based on what Arafat had said. Not on some canton scheme of Israel's, but on explicit remarks by Arafat. I remember that on the 17th, I went to Ehud's cabin and I ran into Clinton, who was just coming out of the cabin, and he told me the same: that Arafat's message is readiness for 8 percent with a token territorial swap in the Gaza Strip.
"In other talks that day, Clinton said that `the Israelis did something precedent-setting, and there was genuine and essential movement here to get to 80 percent of the settlers and a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty.' His impression was that the whole package was beginning to fall into place. But some time later Arafat retracted. He conveyed a note to Clinton in which he retracted."
Q: Isn't it possible that what Arafat did was to brilliantly maneuver the Israeli side into breaking the great taboo of Jerusalem, by creating the false impression that if you would only make a concession on Jerusalem, everything else would be easily resolved and an agreement could be signed?
"I don't know. I wouldn't be surprised if what he wanted at that moment was simply to extricate himself from the plight he was in because of the flexibility we showed and the American pressure on him. So he said a few words to Clinton, which was no big deal from his point of view. You know, when he went with us to Sharm al-Sheikh and promised to stop the shooting, he also said a few words. But did he actually stop the shooting?"
Q: Still, in the wake of this dynamic, the Camp David conference became the Jerusalem conference. Isn't it the case that you didn't reach a binding territorial agreement, you didn't formulate a solution for the refugee question, all you did was divide Jerusalem?
"That is not completely accurate. It's true that there was a regression at Camp David on the question of the refugees, but the feeling was that there was flexibility on the territorial issue - that the peace would not stand or fall on this issue. And in the security group, there were very positive discussions that advanced the process. The concept of a multinational force was crystallized. I also do not accept the argument that we divided the city at Camp David. The decision on the division of Jerusalem came only with the acceptance of Clinton's parameters five months later.
"You have to understand one thing: we at Camp David were moving toward a division in practice but with the aspiration of reaching an agreement that didn't look like a division. The big problem there was that the Palestinians weren't willing to help us with that. They weren't ready for any face-saving formulation for the Israelis. Not on the issue of the Temple Mount, not on sovereignty, not on anything. Arafat did not agree to anything that was not a complete division at Camp David. Therefore, even Bob Malley, whom everyone now likes to quote, told me at some stage that the Palestinians simply want to humiliate us. `They want to humiliate you' were his words." [The reference is to an article by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley - a member of the U.S. peace team and a special assistant to President Clinton - "Camp David: The Tragedy of Errors," The New York Review of Books, August 9, 2001.]
Q: I understand that there was a stage at which Barak astonished everyone by agreeing to divide the Old City of Jerusalem into two quarters under Israeli sovereignty and two quarters under Palestinian sovereignty. Did he do that on his own or was it a joint decision made by the entire Israeli team?
"As I told you, I suggested that a special regime be introduced in the Old City. In the wake of that discussion, some time later, the president put forward a two-two proposal, meaning a clear division of sovereignty. In a conversation with the president, Ehud agreed that that would be a basis for discussion. I remember walking in the fields with Martin Indyk [of the State Department] that night and both of us saying that Ehud was nuts. We didn't understand how he could even have thought of agreeing. Afterward I wrote in my diary that everyone thinks that Amnon [Lipkin-]Shahak and I are pushing Barak to the left, but the truth is that he was the one who pushed us leftward. At that stage - this was the start of the second week of the meeting - he was far more courageous than we were. Truly courageous. Clinton told me a few times: I have never met such a courageous person."
Q: So where did all this lead?
"The Palestinians did not accept the president's proposal on Jerusalem, and therefore Ehud also retracted his agreement. At this point, he sent an angry letter to Clinton in which he claimed that the president was not putting enough pressure on Arafat. Sometime later, Clinton tried again. I have a note in his handwriting in which he asks me if I am ready to put forward Barak's acceptance of that principle again. I replied in the negative. That proposal is off the agenda, I said.
"The result was a deep crisis that almost led to the collapse of the conference before Clinton's trip to Japan. Barak started to feel that he didn't have a partner. That he was going farther than any other Israeli prime minister and risking himself politically and losing his government, but despite that, Arafat would not budge. Arafat refused to get into the game.
"It was very difficult for Ehud. Very difficult. After we decided to stay on despite everything, and after Clinton left, Barak went into two days of isolation in his cabin. None of us saw him for two days. He was in deep depression."
Q: After Clinton returned and the conference resumed, what was the focus in the last few days?
"In the final analysis, what was on the table toward the end of the conference was the president's proposal on the outer envelope under Palestinian sovereignty and the Temple Mount under Israeli sovereignty but under a Palestinian trusteeship. Apart from that, there were two variants: functional autonomy in the inner neighborhoods and two quarters in the Old City under Palestinian sovereignty, or Palestinian sovereignty in the inner neighborhoods and functional autonomy in the Old City. There was also a third possibility, of postponing the discussion on Jerusalem for three years.
"It was the last night. It was late. I remember that before I left for Clinton's cabin, Ehud took me aside and said this was a historic moment. Over and over, he said it was a historic moment. Clinton was in jeans and a light sweater and he sat with Erekat and me for a while around the wooden table, until he asked me, finally, whether we were ready to accept his proposal. I told him that for a change, I was not going to comment until the Palestinians replied. After Barak had given a positive reply to the two-two idea and the Palestinians had evaded the issue, we weren't going to place ourselves in the same situation again.
"The president thought that was fair and he didn't press me, but sent Erekat to Arafat. He told him explicitly that if the chairman did not accept the proposal, he must present a counterproposal. He promised that if there was a counterproposal, he himself would stay and the conference would continue.
"I was the only Israeli in the room. There wasn't a good feeling. Clinton was pretty pessimistic by this time. An hour later, Erekat came back and said no. I think he also brought something in writing. I took my leave of the president and went back to Ehud. That's it, I told him, it's over."
"No. Camp David collapsed over the fact that they refused to get into the game. They refused to make a counterproposal. No one demanded that they give a positive response to that particular proposal of Clinton's. Contrary to all the nonsense spouted by the knights of the left, there was no ultimatum. What was being asked of the Palestinians was far more elementary: that they put forward, at least once, their own counterproposal. That they not just say all the time `That's not good enough' and wait for us to make more concessions. That's why the president sent [CIA director George] Tenet to Arafat that night - in order to tell him that it would be worth his while to think it over one more time and not give an answer until the morning. But Arafat couldn't take it anymore. He missed the applause of the masses in Gaza.
"At 9 A.M. the next day, Arafat and Barak and Clinton met one more time. We stood outside and prayed that something would somehow come of it: that when Arafat would grasp that this was truly the 11th hour, he would, despite everything, reconsider. But they came out five minutes after they started. It was over."
Q: The prevailing view is that Camp David failed because of wrongheaded negotiating tactics and because of the behavior of Ehud Barak, because Barak humiliated Arafat and showed him disrespect.
"I think mistakes were made. The method of negotiation was wrong - instead of discussions by teams that then bring the results for the approval of the leaders, there should have been a summit of leaders who would then tell the teams what understandings they wanted them to formulate. There were also missed opportunities. When the breakthrough on Jerusalem occurred, and when Arafat made his concession, the right thing to do would have been to convene the leaders for a kind of shock summit.
"But when all is said and done, Camp David failed because Arafat refused to put forward proposals of his own and didn't succeed in conveying to us the feeling that at some point his demands would have an end. One of the important things we did at Camp David was to define our vital interests in the most concise way. We didn't expect to meet the Palestinians halfway, and not even two-thirds of the way. But we did expect to meet them at some point. The whole time we waited to see them make some sort of movement in the face of our far-reaching movement. But they didn't. The feeling was that they were constantly trying to drag us into some sort of black hole of more and more concessions without it being at all clear where all the concessions were leading, what the finish line was."
Q: Why didn't you propose some kind of partial agreement? When it became clear that it was impossible to crack the basic problems, why didn't you try to reach at least an interim settlement?
"At a number of points in time we did propose to the Palestinians that we go to a partial settlement - without Jerusalem and without refugees. That possibility came up on the last night, too. The Palestinians refused. On the one hand, they weren't ready to compromise on the core issues, certainly not on Jerusalem, but on the other, they didn't agree to go for a partial settlement either. The allegations against Barak on this point are total nonsense. I remember that at a certain point, I proposed to Arafat that we delay the discussion on Jerusalem for two years. `Not even for two hours,' Arafat said, waving two of his fingers."
Q: But what about Barak the person, what about his behavior? Wasn't he too tough in his attitude toward Arafat?
"Look, Ehud is not a very pleasant person. It's hard to like him. He is closed and introverted and there is no emotional contact with him. We all experienced that. But does anyone really think that if Ehud Barak had been nicer to Arafat, that Arafat would have given up the right of return? Or Haram al-Sharif [a.k.a. the Temple Mount]? The fact is that during the dinner that Nava [Barak's wife] and Ehud gave for Arafat in their home in Kochav Yair about two months after Camp David, Barak was extraordinarily warm toward the chairman, in a way that isn't commensurate with his personality. I remember saying to Ruthie, my wife, at the time that Barak wants an agreement so badly that he is ready to change his personality. Three days later the intifada erupted."
Q: Nevertheless, tell me about the relations between the two at Camp David.
"Actually, they never met at all. Not really. There was one dinner that Madeleine Albright gave in order to break the ice, at which Barak sat like a pillar of salt and didn't say a word for hours. That was very embarrassing. That was at one of the low points, when Clinton was in Japan and Barak was absolutely furious with Arafat. He couldn't bear the situation in which he was risking everything and was dependent on that person but didn't find him to be a partner. I remember that we stood there next to some wall clock and Barak said that if an agreement is reached with that character he would make the wall clock walk.
"But there is something deeper here. Barak, as you known, is a Cartesian type. So what happened there between the cabins and the lawns of Maryland was really an encounter between a person who was looking for a rational settlement and another person who talks myths and embodies myths. And that encounter didn't work. In retrospect, I understand that it could never have worked. I believe today that no rational Israeli leader could have succeeded in reaching a settlement with Arafat at that encounter. The man is simply not built that way."
"Arafat is not an earthly leader. He sees himself as a mythological figure. He has always represented himself as a kind of modern Salah a-Din. Therefore, even the concrete real-estate issues don't interest him so much. At Camp David, it was clear that he wasn't looking for practical solutions, but was focused on mythological subjects: the right of return, Jerusalem, the Temple Mount. He floats on the heights of the Islamic ethos and the refugee ethos and the Palestinian ethos. "Arafat's discourse is never practical, either. His sentences don't connect and aren't completed. There are words, there are sentences, there are metaphors - there is no clear position. The only things there are, are codes and nothing else. At the end of the process, you suddenly understand that you are not moving ahead in the negotiations because you are in fact negotiating with a myth."
Q: But there have been negotiations with him that succeeded, have there not?
"Those were negotiations on interim agreements. A leader of that type can let his aides conclude redeployments of 10 percent or 20 percent because he assumes that what he doesn't get today, he will get tomorrow. There, he will be able to compromise. But when the end of the game arrives, he finds himself in a terrible plight because for him to conclude the process is to say, `I have stopped being a myth; now I am just the head of a small state.' He is a kind of eternal globetrotter who is simply afraid to face up to reality. That's why he is always fleeing from decision-making. I don't know any precedent in history for such severe behavior of fleeing decisions as that of Arafat."
Q: But even after Camp David you didn't throw in the towel: the contacts continued in August and September 2000, did they not?
"Of course. Dozens of meetings were held in those two months, a good many of them at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. There was a two-track effort: our talks with the Palestinians, and talks by the Palestinians and us with the Americans. Throughout this period, we were really waiting for the Americans to work out a package that would be presented to both sides. In this period I personally pressured the Americans to work the collective memory that was created at Camp David into a document: to collate all the presidential summations that were recorded there, and out of them build a comprehensive proposal. "However, the Palestinians were very much afraid of any such proposal. They knew that they wouldn't say yes to it, and they knew that saying no would cause them tremendous international damage. As it was, their situation was already very bad. Europe supported us, the Arab world didn't support them - they were quite isolated. On the eve of the intifada their situation was almost desperate."
Q: Are you suggesting that the intifada was a calculated move by the Palestinians to extricate them from their political and diplomatic hardships?
"No. I am not attributing that kind of Machiavellian scheme to them. But I remember that when we were at Camp David, Saeb Erekat said that we had until September 13. And I remember that when I visited Mohammed Dahlan and from his office spoke with Marwan Barghouti, he also said that if we didn't reach an agreement by the middle of September, it would not be good. There was a tone of threat in his words that I didn't like. So, when you look at the course of events and see that the violence erupted exactly two weeks after September 13 [the seventh anniversary of the Oslo accords], it makes you think. One thing is certain: the intifada absolutely saved Arafat."
Q: Did any changes occur in the Israeli position during the talks that were held in August and September?
"Yes. By this stage, we were talking about the division of vertical sovereignty on the Temple Mount. Now the Temple Mount wasn't under Israeli sovereignty and Palestinian trusteeship, it was completely under Palestinian sovereignty. All we asked for was sovereignty in the depths of the mount. We demanded recognition that the site is sacred to us, that we have an attachment to it. But all along, the Palestinians were scornful of our demand. They denied that we had any sort of right on the Temple Mount."
Q: Was there also a change on the territorial issue?
"By September we were talking about 7 percent [of the West Bank to be retained by Israel] in return for 2 [percent of sovereign Israeli territory to be transferred to the Palestinians]. I think we also dropped the demand for sovereignty in the Jordan Rift Valley." When did that happen? When was the decision made to give up sovereignty in the Rift Valley?
"I can't tell you exactly when. But in the wake of the summations at Camp David on security and on a multinational force, the feeling was that we had arrived at solutions that would preserve our most essential security interests even without sovereignty. It was clear to us that our demand for sovereignty in the Jordan Rift Valley was something the Palestinians could not live with."
Q: Did you draw up new maps?
"As I told you, no new map was presented to the Palestinians through Taba. But we worked on new internal maps that would reflect the new percentages. And when the ridiculous contention was voiced that what we were proposing to the Palestinians was cantons and that they would not have territorial contiguity, I went to [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak and showed him a map. As I recall, it was still the 8-percent map, a map of 8-92. Mubarak perused it with interest and asked aloud why the Palestinians were claiming they didn't have contiguity."
Q: Throughout this whole period, didn't the Palestinians present maps of their own? Was there no Palestinian geographical proposal?
"They did not present maps at all. Not before Taba. But at Camp David I did chance to see some sort of Palestinian map. It was a map that reflected a concession of less than 2 percent on their part in return for a territorial swap in a 1:1 ratio. But the territories they wanted from us were not in the Halutza dunes, they wanted them next to the West Bank. I remember that according to their map, Kochav Yair, for example, was supposed to be included in the territory of the Palestinian state; they demanded sovereignty over Kochav Yair."
[Gershom: recall that Kochav Yair --- just within the pre-1967 borders --- is the town where Barak lived and still lives. The message was obvious for all to see.]
Q: When the talks resumed in November-December, as the violence raged, but with elections for prime minister in the offing, in what area did they make progress?
"Mainly on the Jerusalem question. By this stage, we had agreed to the division of the city and to full Palestinian sovereignty on Haram al-Sharif, but we insisted that some sort of attachment of ours to the Temple Mount be recognized. I remember that when we held talks with Yasser Abed Rabbo at Bolling Air Force Base, I raised the following idea without consulting anyone: the Palestinians would have sovereignty on the Temple Mount, but they would undertake not to conduct excavations there because the place was sacred to the Jews. The Palestinians agreed not to excavate, but under no circumstances would they agree to give us the minimal statement, `because the site is sacred to the Jews.'
"What particularly outraged me on that occasion wasn't only the fact that they refused, but the way in which they refused: out of a kind of total contempt, an attitude of dismissiveness and arrogance. At that moment I grasped they are really not Sadat [Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979]. That they were not willing to move toward our position even at the emotional and symbolic level. At the deepest level, they are not ready to recognize that we have any kind of title here."
Q: Three days later, on December 23, 2000, at the end of the Bolling talks, Clinton convened you again and presented his narrow parameters. What were they?
"Ninety-seven percent: 96 percent of the West Bank [to the Palestinians] plus 1 percent of sovereign Israeli territory, or 94 percent of the West Bank plus three percent of sovereign Israeli territory. However, because Clinton also introduced into this formulation the concept of the safe passage route - over which Israeli sovereignty would be ethereal - it could be argued that the Palestinians got almost 100 percent. Clinton constructed his proposal in such a way that if the Palestinians' answer was positive, they would be able to present the solution to their public as a solution of 100 percent."
Q: And Jerusalem?
"As the reports said: what is Jewish is Israeli, what is Arab is Palestinian. The Temple Mount would be under full Palestinian sovereignty, with Israel getting the Western Wall and the Holy of Holies. But Clinton, in his proposal, did not make reference to the `sacred basin' - the whole area outside the Old City wall that includes the City of David and the Tombs of the Prophets on the road to the Mount of Olives. We demanded that area, in which there are hardly any Arabs, but the Palestinians refused. During the night, there was a very firm phone call between Barak and Clinton on this subject, because we were afraid he would decide against us. As a result of that call, the subject remained open. Clinton did not refer to it."
Q: What about the refugees?
"Here Clinton tried to square the circle. He went toward the Palestinians to the very end of the farthest limit of what we could accept. His formulation was that `the two sides recognize the right of the refugees to return to historic Palestine' or `to return to their homeland,' but on the other hand, he made it clear that `there is no specific right of return to Israel.' We were pleased that he talked about a two-state solution and that the Palestinian state was the homeland of the Palestinian people and Israel the home of the Jewish people.
"The mechanism he referred to was more or less that of Stockholm. He obligated a certain absorption of refugees in Israel, but subject to Israel's sovereign laws and its absorption policy."
Q: What about the security arrangements and demilitarization?
"We insisted that the Palestinian state be demilitarized. The president suggested a softer term: a `non-militarized state.' He also asserted that we would have a significant military presence in the Rift Valley for three years and a symbolic presence at defined sites for three more years. We were given three early-warning stations for a 10-year period with the presence of Palestinian liaison officers."
Q: Was there an explicit ban on Palestinian use of tanks, war planes and missiles?
"No. To the best of my knowledge, we didn't reach those details. They were certainly not mentioned by Clinton. But that was the intention."
Q: And what about air and water rights?
"The Palestinians refused to enter into a discussion about the water issue, so Clinton did not make any reference to the subject. On the other hand, with regard to air space, the term was `agreed use.' Clinton declared that sovereignty over air space would be Palestinian, but recognized Israel's right to make use of it for training purposes and for operational needs, providing such use would be agreed. One idea was that the ways for it to be used would be on a mutual basis: by giving the Palestinians the right to make nonmilitary use of Israeli air space."
Q: What was the Israeli reaction to Clinton's parameters? Did Barak accept them wholeheartedly?
"The president dictated the points to us and to the Palestinians in a conference room adjacent to the Oval Office in the White House. It was a Saturday. I remember walking from the hotel to the White House and back. Clinton explained that the parameters were not an American proposal but constituted his understanding of the midway point between the positions the sides had reached. Now everything depends on the decision of the leaders, he said, and asked for that decision to be made within four days.
"The proposal was difficult for us to accept. No one came out dancing and singing, and Ehud especially was perturbed. At the same time, three days later, the cabinet decided on a positive response to Clinton. All the ministers supported it, with the exception of Matan Vilnai and Ra'anan Cohen. I informed the Americans that Israel's answer was yes."
Q: And the Palestinians?
"Arafat wasn't in any hurry. He went to Mubarak and then to all kinds of inter-Arab meetings and dragged his feet. He didn't even return Clinton's calls. The whole world, and I mean the whole world, put tremendous pressure on him, but he refused to say yes. During those 10 days there was hardly any international leader who didn't call him - from the Duke of Liechtenstein to the president of China. But Arafat wouldn't be budged. He stuck to his evasive methods. He's like one of those stealth planes. Finally, very late, his staff conveyed to the White House a reply that contained big noes and small yeses. Bruce Reidell, from the National Security Council, told me that we shouldn't get it wrong, that there should be no misunderstandings on our part: Arafat in fact said no."
Q: But didn't Israel also have reservations?
"Yes. We sent the Americans a document of several pages containing our reservations. But as far as I recall, they were pretty minor and dealt mainly with security arrangements and deployment areas and control over the passages. There was also clarification concerning our sovereignty over the Temple Mount. There was no doubt that our reply was positive. In order to remove any doubts, I called Arafat on December 29, at Ehud's instructions, and told him that Israel accepted the parameters and that any further discussion should be only within the framework of the parameters and on how to implement them."
Q: In the light of all this, was there any point in holding the Taba meeting? After all, you went all the way to the red line and the Palestinians said it wasn't enough. What was there left to talk about?
"The truth is that Ehud thought exactly that. He didn't want to go to Taba. He didn't see any point or purpose in it. But at this stage there was a pistol on the table. The elections were a month away, and there was a minister who told Ehud that if he didn't go to Taba they would denounce him in public for evading his duty to make peace. He had no choice but to go to a meeting for something he himself no longer believed in."
Q: So what did you talk about in Taba? What new progress was made there?
"We insisted that Clinton's parameters for negotiations would not be thrown open for renewed discussion in any sphere, that we would address only the question of how to implement them. The Palestinians, however, tried to whittle away at the parameters. They tried to squeeze a bit more out of us: on the Jerusalem question they didn't accept the idea of the Holy of Holies, which appears explicitly in the Clinton proposals. And on the refugee issue they suggested a formulation that meant that they had their own reading of [United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194, December 11, 1948], while the Israelis had a different reading. They said `we have to establish the right of return and then discuss the mechanisms.' That demand of principle infuriated me no less than when they occasionally mentioned numbers [of refugees]."
Q: What sort of numbers did they mention?
"Look, I didn't sit opposite them in the negotiations on the refugee issue at Taba. But the various information papers that were passed around at Taba contained some extraordinary numbers. What do you think of 150,000 refugees a year during a 10-year period?"
Q: And what did we propose?
"Yossi Beilin said he proposed 40,000. I don't know whether that is really the figure, but with that figure it was obvious that no deal could be struck unless the ends were left loose for additional claims in the future."
Q: What was the new map you showed the Palestinians at Taba?
"Here it is, you can see for yourself. The brownish-mustard color is Palestinian, the white is Israeli. It represents a ratio of 94.5 percent [of the land for the Palestinians] against 5.5 percent. And that's before the [territorial] swap, of course."
Q: Did you reach agreement on a territorial exchange?
"No. It turned out that the Palestinians don't like the idea of the Halutza dunes. I'm not crazy about it either. I see that area as a last reserve for Zionist settlement inside the  Green Line. So we examined the possibility of transferring land in the southern Mount Hebron region, in the area north of Arad. But that was extremely difficult - half a percent here, a quarter there. I'm not sure that the whole idea of a land swap is feasible. It could be that the only way to do it is by moving the border with Egypt to the east and then giving the Palestinians Egyptian territory adjacent to the Gaza Strip. But neither we nor the Palestinians wanted to raised that idea with the Egyptians."
Q: Is it the case that Israel would have to uproot about a hundred settlements according to the new map?
"I don't know the exact number. But we are talking about uprooting many dozens of settlements. In my view, that map also fails to meet the goal we set ourselves and to which Clinton agreed - 80 percent of the settlers in sovereign Israeli territory."
Q: Did the Palestinians accept this map?
"No. They presented a counter-map that totally eroded the three already shrunken [settlement] blocs and effectively they voided the whole bloc concept of content. According to their map, only a few isolated settlements would remain, which would be dependent on thin strings of narrow access roads. A calculation we made showed that all they agreed to give us was 2.34 percent."
Q: You say that during this whole period between June and January, in the period when you conceded the Rift Valley and accepted the idea of a territorial swap and divided Jerusalem and handed over the Temple Mount - that the whole movement of the Palestinians toward Israel was in fractions of percentage points. So, all they added to the pledge of 2 percent that they gave Clinton from the outset was 0.34 percent?
"It's hard for me to argue with you. But that is exactly why the criticism we have taken from the left leaves me gaping. I simply don't understand it. It's true that both Barak and I were sort of `outside children' of the left. Neither of us is a professional peace industrialist. But look where we got to. Tell me what more we were supposed to do."
Q: Shlomo Ben-Ami, you and Ehud Barak set out on a journey to the bowels of the earth, as it were, to the very heart of the conflict. What did you find?
"I think that we found a few difficult things. First of all, regarding Arafat, we discovered that he does not have the ability to convey to his Israeli interlocutors that the process of making concessions has an end. His strategy is one of conflict."
Q: Are you saying that he is not a partner?
"Arafat is the leader of the Palestinians. I cannot change this fact; it is their disaster. He is so loyal to his truth that he cannot compromise it. But his truth is the truth of the Islamic ethos, the ethos of refugees and victimization. This truth does not allow him to end his negotiations with Israel unless Israel breaks its neck. So in this particular aspect, Arafat is not a partner. Worse, Arafat is a strategic threat; he endangers peace in the Middle East and in the world."
Q: So he still does not recognize Israel's right to exist?
"Arafat's concession vis-a-vis Israel at Oslo was a formal concession. Morally and conceptually, he didn't recognize Israel's right to exist. He doesn't accept the idea of two states for two peoples. He may be able to make some sort of partial, temporary settlement with us - though I have doubts about that, too - but at the deep level, he doesn't accept us. Neither he nor the Palestinian national movement accept us."
Q: Your criticism goes beyond Arafat personally to include also the Palestinian national movement as a whole?
"Yes. Intellectually, I can understand their logic. I understand that from their point of view, they ceded 78 percent [of historic (West-)Palestine] at Oslo, so the rest is theirs. I understand that from their point of view, the process is one of decolonization, and therefore they are not going to make a compromise with us, just as the residents of Congo would not compromise with the Belgians. "But when all is said and done, after eight months of negotiations, I reach the conclusion that we are in a confrontation with a national movement in which there are serious pathological elements. It is a very sad movement, a very tragic movement, which at its core doesn't have the ability to set itself positive goals.
"At the end of the process, it is impossible not to form the impression that the Palestinians don't want a solution as much as they want to place Israel in the dock. [Gershom: Ha'aretz own translation ends here. I am continuing from the Hebrew original. I tend to translate as literally as I can, hence the change in style.] More than they want a state of their own, they want to spit out our state. In the deepest sense of the words, their ethos is a negative ethos.
This is the reason why, in contrast to Zionism, they are incapable of compromise. In the sense that they have no image of their future society that it would be worth compromising for. Therefore, from their point of view, the process is not one of reconciliation but of vindication. Of correcting an injustice. Of "appealing" our existence as a Jewish state.
Q: Did you reach these tough conclusions during the discussions?
"I think this was an accumulation. There were some moments, and then some more, which in the end caused me to reach the conclusion that the Palestinians always leave some loose ends, not because of some malicious master plan but to leave open the possibility that somebody in the future will gather these unraveled ends in order to unravel the Jewish state. "I can think of three such moments. The first was the conversation with Abu Mazen at Camp David. Yossi Ginossar and I went to [see] him on one of the nights and we sat with him on his bed and he spoke with pleasantness and compliments about the refugee problem. But in all he said I noticed that it was impossible to arrive with him at a final formulation or a final number. It was impossible to get a clear idea from him where this would end."
"Some months later, in December, was the conversation with Arafat in Gaza in which I explained to him why Israeli society is united in its opposition to the right of return [of the refugees]. I expected from him that he would say something that would put us at ease and make things easier for us. But he just pulled the newspaper clipping out of his pocket in which it said that 50% of the Russian immigrants [now arriving] are not Jewish at all. He didn't even bother to pay us any lip service [less literally: to give us a fig leaf.]
"But the hardest thing was the reaction of Arafat to Clinton's parameters. For there we really reached our red lines. We got there with a government without a parliamentary or public base, while in the background [was] the Intifada and the [IDF] Command came out against us. In a situation like this the only chance of a Palestinian leader with vision who wants to reach an agreement with us is to say a loud [lit: noisy] yes. Not to stutter, not to mumble. To say a ringing yes. If Arafat had said a ringing yes at the end of December he would have saved the Barak government and saved the peace."
Q: He saw you drowning and did not stick out a finger?
"He saw us drowning, and peace drowning, and time running out fast. Only then I understood clearly that for him the negotiations will only end when Israel is broken."
Q: That means that the critical test/attempt/experiment took place, not at Camp David, but around the Clinton parameters?
"Certainly. Until then it was possible to claim that we did not give enough. But until the Clinton parameters [as Clinton's bridging proposal is known here] we're already talking about 100% of the territory. And you have to be deaf[, dumb] and blind not to know that Barak will lose the elections, and you have to be deaf[, dumb] and blind not to understand that everything is going to the bottom of the sea. And with all this they [still] do not move. Also at Taba they don't move. On the table is a dream offer to the Palestinians and still no reason to hurry."
"I remember that we looked at them there, at Taba, and I said to myself that I do not see on their faces any sense of tragedy. I see no pain in their eyes for a missed opportunity. For me this was terrible. And this stays engraved in me. When all is said and done, this is what led me to revise my position. To re-evaluate."
Q: Did an ideological change take place in you? Following the failure of your journey to peace, did you reach right-wing conclusions?
"In no way or form. I still believe that we cannot rule over a foreign people. That did not work anywhere and it won't work here. Neither did I change my mind about the settlements. It was brazenness/insolence to invest our national energy into a chance-less settlement enterprise in the heart of an Arab population. Even today I believe that the creation of a Palestinian state is a moral and state-political necessity. But now I know that it is upon us to build a new paradigm. In a certain sense, we have to start the Left Wing over anew. Not to turn away from what has revealed itself to us, from the Palestinian and Islamist positions that question our right to existence. And no to go on with the 'culture of kvetch' that is liable to lead us to [national] suicide. But to stop at the point that we reached with Clinton and to try and implement this solution with the aid of the international community. And not to give up any further on Jewish and Israeli patriotism. To understand that not always the fault is ours. To say: up to here, no further. If the other side wants to destroy also this core thing, on this core thing I stand."