Camp David II’s Other Lessons

Is the White House’s not-yet-ready-for-prime-time peace plan in jeopardy? With complications arising from the historic U.S. shift on the status of Jerusalem, odds are increasing that any creative solutions being developed by the American peace team (e.g., the so-called “outside-in” or regional approach) could struggle to see the light of day. Regardless of how events surrounding Jerusalem unfold over the coming weeks and months, one issue requiring no additional clarity but demanding attention – in or outside of the context of peace talks – is the internal state of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Whether it is selling a peace deal domestically or just maintaining internal stability, serious questions continue to linger regarding the capacity of the PA, in its present form, to deliver over the long term. With an electoral mandate that expired in 2009, current PA president Mahmoud Abbas’ popular support, according to recent polling, barely tops 30 percent. That of his political party, Fatah, which has not faced a national election since January 2006, is no better. While an emotional response to perceived assaults on the Old City may see an uptick in these numbers in the near term, the underlying dynamics are not likely to change.

The reasons for the PA’s diminished domestic standing are several, issues of its current leader’s electoral legitimacy notwithstanding. These include factors unrelated to the conflict with Israel such as the erosion of civil liberties – most notably freedom of expression – and an overwhelming perception of official corruption, while the majority faces daily economic hardships. What impact these issues will have on the PA’s efforts to mitigate a popular outcry over Jerusalem, or Abbas’ participation in future peace talks is yet unclear, recent PA declarations aside; but echoes of conditions at the time of the Camp David summit in 2000 and what followed are worthy of note.

In the lead up to the summer 2000 talks, then PA chief Yasser Arafat was facing his own battle with public opinion; polls showing his support similarly dipping below 40 percent. The causes – as with Abbas and Fatah today – were not exclusively related to the national cause. The economy, which observers predicted would improve after the Oslo Accords, was seen by the majority to have constricted and not solely on account of Oslo arrangements or restrictions. Meanwhile, the Palestinian street was growing more frustrated by the day with perceived corruption in the PA and the leadership’s increasing authoritarian tendencies.

While polling prior to Camp David showed a majority fearful of confronting the PA, domestic criticism of Arafat was, in fact, on the rise. The most notable example was an open letter in late 1999 calling on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza “to sound the alarm against the PA’s misrule in every town and village, every camp and corner of the land.” Among the signatories of the “Manifesto” were Fatah party representatives, including elected members of the Legislative Council. Of particular concern to the letter’s authors was the personal enrichment and abuse of power by Arafat cronies – an issue that continues to undermine both Fatah party unity and public support for the PA in 2018.

Arafat may have hoped by accepting a waning Clinton administration invitation to Camp David that he could escape domestic pressures and distract the public. But distance did little to temper the mood back home or the resentment of Fatah cadres forced to defend the PA against rising public anger and worst-case scenario conspiracies stemming from the leadership’s opaque decision-making habits. Rather than providing a respite, Arafat’s absence at the U.S. presidential retreat in 2000 served only to exacerbate public discontent born not of distrust of the other as much as from frustration with his rule.

When the two weeks of negotiations at Camp David ultimately collapsed, the reaction was one of relief on the Palestinian street. Overnight, a public that had been willing to countenance the worst from its leadership was praising Arafat for personifying the heralded national trait of “sumud” (steadfastness). In the first post Camp David survey by noted local pollster Khalil Shikaki, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza awarded Arafat with a bump in his approval rating to over 50 percent. But any applause was short lived as internal frustrations proved not so easily satisfied and soon found other opportunities to vent.

The irony is that Palestinians in 2000 were not actually opposed to negotiations, as Shikaki’s polling evidenced. Even if not supportive of rumored concessions at Camp David, there was a degree of acceptance that further compromise might be inevitable. Eventually, 75 percent of respondents in Shikaki’s late July 2000 poll believed that there would be an agreement between the two sides with 77 percent supporting reconciliation between the two peoples when that happened. Only 23 percent believed that Camp David was the end of the road.

As discontent with the broader state of affairs began to boil over again in August 2000, Arafat deluded himself and those around him into believing that any unrest could be harnessed for tactical gains when talks resumed. The rest of this sad story is well known. By the time calm was eventually restored, Arafat was gone, Abbas president, the local economy in tatters, Palestinians exhausted and attempts at peacemaking subordinated to security.

A decade on, while relative calm may still prevail – at least in the West Bank – few, if any, of the domestic challenges and contradictions that dogged the PA during Arafat’s tenure have been resolved, with new complications (read: Gaza and Hamas) having been added to the mix. For peacemakers aiming for the “ultimate deal,” this is both the historic and contemporary backdrop to their efforts. It is a reality that may be inconvenient but one that cannot be overlooked.

About the Author
Owen Kirby has served in a number of positions focusing on politics and society in the broader Middle East, including the George W. Bush administration's Department of State, and is a frequent visitor to the region.
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