Mideast peace process: Decades of hope and failure

Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin, right, talks with with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and U.S. President Jimmy Carter during their peace talks on Sept. 6, 1978 at Camp David. Moshe Milner / GPO via Getty Images

News Analysis

It was 2005 – a time of optimism. And on a clear spring day one could see across all of Jericho’s dusty, ochre-shaded expanse, peppered with the green of date palms, from the office windows of Palestinian lawyer and chief negotiator Saeb Erekat.

The month before, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, along with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan, had met in resort city Sharm el Sheikh to announce the end of the bloodletting known as the “Second Intifada,” or Palestinian Uprising. That paroxysm of violence had begun after more failed peace talks, leading to the deaths of hundreds of Israelis and thousands of Palestinians. 

'People are right to be skeptical' about Middle East peace talks 1:46

But now in 2005 there was a new Palestinian leader in Abbas, more moderate and less mercurial than his former boss, the late Yasser Arafat. 

Sharon had formed a coalition government, with plans to pull Israeli troops and settlers out of Gaza. President George W. Bush had even called for an independent Palestinian state, a first from a U.S. president.

And there was talk, once again, of resuscitating a moribund “road map” to peace.

“After so many attempts,” a reporter asked Erekat, “are you going to have to start again from scratch?”

Erekat – who had taken his share of lumps – smiled, opened a drawer on his desk, and pulled out a file, about a ¼ inch thick, dropping it for effect. “There it is!” he said.

“What’s that?” asked the reporter.

Kerry calls Mideast peace talks 'constructive, positive' 1:46

“It’s the peace deal. It’s all there. Borders. Security. Right of return. Jerusalem. The I’s have been dotted and the T’s crossed.”

“You’re kidding?”

“No. This is it. But who’s going to sign it?”

It’s been 35 troubled years since the historic Camp David accords were signed in 1978 by former enemies, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat.

Now the Israelis and Palestinians are talking again. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with chief negotiators for both sides –Justice Minister Tzipi Livni for the Israelis and Erekat, once again representing the Palestinians – in Washington on Tuesday to set the stage for future negotiations. 

But the peace process, since the Camp David success, has been marked by reams of unsigned documents. Even those agreed to – often with great ceremony – have rarely been enforced. 

A messy path

The bedrock of that process, the so-called Oslo Accords – arranged in secret meetings between 14 negotiators in the Norwegian capital – led to a “Declaration of Principles” in 1993 and an iconic handshake on the White House lawn between Israeli Prime Minister and miliary hero, Yitzak Rabin, and his sworn enemy, Arafat. 

But signing the actual protocols to carry out the deal was much messier. That took place in Cairo, a year later. And the world was watching as Rabin and Arafat were about to sign an agreement that would see Israel pull out of Gaza and Jericho after 27 years of occupation and hand over the governing of both to the Palestinians – a landmark event.

But Arafat was worried and unhappy. He didn’t like the size of Jericho agreed to in the annex. He decided it should be bigger. So he refused to sign. With international news cameras on the scene, last minute “consultations” became more and more heated. The negotiators moved off-stage and behind a large curtain; 40 minutes passed.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat shake hands as U.S.President Bill Clinton presides over the ceremony marking the signing of the 1993 peace accord on the White House lawn. Ron Edmonds / AP file

At one point reporters swore they heard Mubarak yell out, “Sign, you dog!” in Arabic. Eventually Arafat did sign, but not before he attached a note saying that Jericho’s size was still undecided.

Rabin remained calm throughout the sideshow, and, after signing the deal, said this: “The world [just] witnessed the tip of the iceberg of problems that we shall have to overcome in the implementation of even the first phase of the Declaration of Principles.”

Over the years, the “spirit of Oslo” was overtaken by events on the ground: Islamist suicide bombings, Rabin’s assassination by an Israeli extremist, an Israeli war in Lebanon and major offensives in Gaza, to name a few.

Still, from the Madrid Conference of 1991, to the “talks about talks” today, the elusive “deal” has actually changed little, because the seemingly intractable issues have hardly budged.

Every negotiator knows that – at the end of the day – Palestine will comprise most of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip; Jerusalem will be shared by Israel and Palestine; some Israeli settlements will be saved, others will be destroyed; Palestinian refugees will be accorded the right of return, but for most that will mean compensation or a ticket to the new Palestinian state; and security will be guaranteed by international mandate. In fact, any future deal will look very much like the one Erekat pulled from his drawer, almost a decade ago.

But will there be the political will to sign it – and implement it – this time?

Will the political hourglass run out?

In 2000, President Bill Clinton thought so. He convened Arafat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak – a Labor Party moderate – to Camp David to strike a historic deal. After days of intense negotiations, Barak offered Arafat up to 90 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza, custodianship of the Temple Mount, some symbolic sovereignty of East Jerusalem, and a return to Israel by 100,000 Palestinian refugees, with others either compensated or allowed return to Palestine. 

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, right, jokingly pushes Palestinian President Yasser Arafat into the Laurel cabin on the grounds of Camp David as President Clinton looks on during peace talks in 2000. Win McNamee / Reuters file

Arafat turned it down, saying it was Jerusalem or nothing. 

Arafat later told Clinton, “You are a great man.” Clinton replied, “I’m not a great man. I am a failure and you made me one.”

Later that year, in Taba, Egypt, Arafat and Barak tried one last time to find common ground.

According to U.S. negotiators, Palestinians appeared more serious, carrying counter-offers and showing a willingness to compromise. Clinton proposed breakthrough terms on borders and Jerusalem that went much further than the failed Camp David talks.

But – tragically – the political hourglass had run out of sand. Clinton was already a lame duck. And Barak was about to lose a national election to the hawk, Ariel Sharon.

The Second Intifada would ignite just days later.

Jim Maceda is an NBC News Correspondent based in London who has covered the Middle East since the 1970’s

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