YASSER ARAFAT was the first to arrive. He came by presidential helicopter, his black and white kaffiyeh flapping in the cool evening breeze. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Clinton arrived the next day. And then there were three, a trio of would-be peacemakers who dared to defy the odds and history.
It was seven years ago that the last best chance to set the stage for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict played out at Camp David, nestled in the Catoctin Mountains, 60 miles east of Washington. I was there as one of a handful of U.S. negotiators. We'd spent the previous six years haggling, arm-twisting and cajoling about the interim issues of the Oslo peace process. Now, in the final months of his second term, Clinton was going for broke in a desperate effort to reach a comprehensive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all.
But it did not happen. By the end of the second week, the summit, organized by a deeply committed U.S. president with the best of intentions, had collapsed — producing galactic consequences that would have been impossible to predict at the time.
Unlike the seven fat years of diplomacy that preceded the summit, the seven that followed would be lean ones indeed. Terror, violence, confrontation and unilateralism — abetted by the Bush administration's unwise decision to abandon serious Arab-Israeli diplomacy almost entirely — have created a situation that impels cynics, skeptics and even believers to ask a distressing and fundamental question: Is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolvable?
Seven years on, the "no, it's not" answer is chillingly more credible than ever. I've learned from experience never to say never in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, but still, three grim realities inform the pessimism.
First, the viability of an authoritative, pragmatic Palestinian center is at serious risk. Some, of course, argue that it never existed. But my view is that between 1993 and 2000, Palestinians had a leader who, together with four Israeli prime ministers, collaborated on a process of peacemaking that got them further than ever before.
It is true that, at the end of the Camp David summit, Arafat still refused to negotiate for anything less than a Palestinian state created on the June 4, 1967, borders with Jerusalem as its capital. But the fact remains that he was the undisputed and authoritative leader of a people increasingly willing to live in a state alongside (rather than instead of) Israel — and he was there at Camp David, engaged in talks that broke taboos and created a basis for serious progress. The Arafat conundrum — that it was hard to do a deal with him but impossible without him — is a better situation than what we confront now.
Today, a divided, dysfunctional Palestinian house sits on part of Palestine without even the pretense of control of its politics, borders, resources or guns. I've known Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for more than a decade; he's a good man with a moderate nature who has the will and the incentive to make peace with Israel. But he lacks the power. He barely controls his own Fatah party, let alone the West Bank he's been relegated to. Eager to empower him, Israel and the United States are releasing funds, prisoners, political support and maybe even guns. It's worth a try, but the odds were far better in 2005, when a newly elected Abbas was much stronger and Hamas was much weaker.
In Gaza, meanwhile, the militant Hamas organization — which a few years ago was known for little other than its brutal bombings of civilians on the buses and in the bars and pizza parlors of Israel — tries to maintain order, raise funds and demonstrate that it can do what Fatah cannot: provide security and prosperity for Palestinians. But even as Hamas tries to preserve order in Gaza, it will promote disorder and its own influence in the West Bank to frustrate Abbas' plans there. The situation is a chaotic mess, but one thing is increasingly clear: Hamas can't be starved or beaten into submission.
Second, Israel has its own leadership crisis. A stronger consensus than ever exists among Israelis in favor of resolving the Palestinian issue — but they're desperately waiting for a leader to tell them how to do it. Since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin (the only Israeli leader who combined the toughness and pragmatism to have a chance of succeeding), Israel has had five prime ministers. Not one of them has had the vision, character and smarts — or the Palestinian partner — to make peace possible.
The current prime minister, Ehud Olmert, is clearly a transitional figure, and his Kadima party may be a passing phenomenon as well. His two most likely rivals, former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu, see him as a speed bump in their plans to contest elections, perhaps as early as next year.
Although there may be no second acts in American politics, there are in Israel. David Ben-Gurion made a comeback; Rabin was twice prime minister; Ariel Sharon emerged phoenix-like from the disaster of the 1982 Lebanon war; and Shimon Peres seems a permanent feature on Israel's political landscape. Now Barak (of the Labor party) and Netanyahu (from the Likud party), both of whom stumbled badly in their first tenure, want another crack.
Whether they have learned from their earlier mistakes (as Sharon did) is anyone's guess. But even if they have, it is hard to imagine that either of them has the stature to deal with the existential gaps that divide Palestinians and Israelis. Menachem Begin remains the only Israeli prime minister ever to sign a comprehensive peace treaty involving territory for peace. It cost him 100% of Sinai and required the dismantling of all Israeli settlements there. Only such a master of his domestic house as Begin could have done it. And, of course, he had Anwar Sadat, a veritable Arab hero, to help him. How can Netanyahu or Barak hope to match that?
The third grim reality is that although a two-state solution is still the least-worst option to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is becoming less likely. The growing divide between Gaza and the West Bank only highlights what many have known for a long time: A truncated Palestinian state separated by Israel and now by a growing divide within Palestinian ranks is hard to envision. There is more talk among Palestinians of a one-state solution — which of course is not a solution at all, and which would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
Yet even this talk is not as threatening as the growing divisions between the Palestinian and Israeli camps. At this point, no Israeli government will sign an agreement with a Palestinian leader who is not authoritative, peace-seeking, presiding over a unified populace — and in control of all the guns.
And no Palestinian government will sign an accord with Israel that doesn't resolve the core issues of Jerusalem, borders and refugees in a way that meets the needs of their national narrative. That means something very close to the June 4, 1967, borders, a real capital in East Jerusalem with sovereignty over Muslim holy places and a solution to refugees that deals meaningfully with right of return while precluding the necessity of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians returning to Israel proper.
We couldn't get there seven years ago when conditions were far more auspicious. What makes us think we can get there today?
There may always be another chance to end the Arab-Israeli conflict, but we shouldn't push our luck. Events in the last several years have moved us dangerously close to a point beyond which the two-state solution — and perhaps any solution — will no longer be available to end the conflict. To even have a chance of a breakthrough, the United States, together with the Arab world and the international community, would have to step up and launch a comprehensive effort to end the violence, promote economic recovery for Palestinians and create a negotiating process to tackle the core issues. Like it or not, Hamas would have to be a part of that solution.
All that seems fantastical now, but the situation will not correct itself. Without a determined effort, led by the United States, with Israelis and Arabs making tough decisions, Middle East peacemaking, like the Camp David summit, could become an artifact of history, shrouded and buried in the hopes and desires of what might have been.