What happened at Camp David? Why did it fail?

The Camp David summit reflected an almost desperate effort by President Clinton to salvage the failing Oslo peace process before the end of his second term. Although the origins of Oslo were not in U.S. diplomatic effort, Washington had taken on sponsorship of the peace process, and the September 1993 photo opportunity remained the high point of Clinton's presidency. There is little question but that the president was eager for a new photo-op to burnish his scandal-tarnished place in history. Ehud Barak as well, the Israeli prime minister whose lackluster term was coming to an end persuaded Clinton to convene the ill-prepared summit.

Camp David reflected the failure of Oslo's seven year-long "peace process." Palestinian lives had deteriorated, unemployment was up, incomes were down, and the euphoria that had greeted the White House handshake seven years earlier had turned into bitter resentment and rising anger. Until Camp David, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators had never even opened talks on the difficult final status issues. Clinton's view was that by leapfrogging over the "interim" issues and going straight to the fundamentals-state and borders, settlements, Jerusalem and refugees-it might be possible to rescue the process and, in the process, his legacy.

But that would have been possible only if the U.S. was prepared to demand serious concessions from Israel, its longstanding ally and the holder of all the cards. But instead the Clinton administration acted as if the talks were between two equal partners, who bore equal power and responsibility to make compromises and concessions instead of an occupying power and an occupied population. In fact, the problem at Camp David was precisely the problem that the disparity of power that had long characterized Israeli-Palestinian negotiations remained unchallenged; President Clinton did nothing to try to balance the thoroughly lop-sided playing field. The talks persisted for two weeks, through sleepless nights and intensive days, through Bill Clinton's hasty departure for the G-8 summit in Okinawa and his hurried return. The official post-summit statement issued jointly by the Palestinian, Israeli and American sides called the talks "unprecedented in both scope and detail." But in the end they failed anyway.