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Broken dreams in the promised land

By Bren Carlill - posted Thursday, 29 July 2010

Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, smiling broadly, jostled before the world's cameras to see who could enter the door last. It was Camp David, the US presidential retreat in Maryland, and the world waited as the Israeli and Palestinian leaders attempted to conclude a permanent peace agreement.

Last weekend marked 10 years since those talks ended in failure, and when measured against the thousands of lives since needlessly lost, it's hard to remember that people were actually hopeful about their success.

What happened at Camp David is well known. Israel offered the Palestinians a state in 92 per cent of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip. Yasser Arafat rejected the offer and refused to make any counter-offers, quickly dead-ending the talks. What remains unclear to many is why.


Arafat had fallen into a trap of his own making by creating expectations among Palestinians that Israel could not meet.

Throughout the peace process, Arafat promised Palestinians a full Israeli return to the “Green Line” (the West Bank and Gaza Strip borders) and a full “right of return” for Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Any Palestinian suggesting anything less was branded a traitor.

But Israel cannot fully withdraw to the 1949 borders. Most of the large settlement blocs straddle or lie just over the border and Judaism's holiest site is in the Old City of Jerusalem, occupied by Jordan until 1967. Minor border adjustments and land swaps are the offered alternative.

The arguments against a full “right of return” are more black and white. Just as the Palestinian constitution describes Palestine as Arab, Israel describes itself as Jewish. Flooding Israel with more than five million Arabs (descendants of Palestinian refugees) would end its Jewish majority.

In other words, border adjustments (92 per cent? 98 per cent?) can be negotiated, but the right of return demand is a deal breaker, and indicates for Israel the seriousness or otherwise of Palestinian peace overtures.

At Camp David, Arafat faced a yes-no decision; to have a state (but one less than he'd promised his people), or not to have a state. He said no because he felt that agreeing to any Israeli offer would mean his political, and possibly physical, end.


After signing the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement (“Oslo I”), and contrary to what was in it, Arafat established more than a dozen relatively autonomous, well-armed “security” services. Though these were loyal to Arafat, had he brought home an agreement failing to meet the expectations he'd created, it's doubtful all would have remained so. A civil war was on offer.

Arafat was also worried about assassination. Consider Michael Collins. In 1922, he signed a peace treaty with Britain, securing Irish independence but at the cost of losing six counties to the newly created Northern Ireland. Collins famously declared, “I have signed my death warrant”. He was assassinated, giving his life to create his country. Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Yitzhak Rabin were likewise two leaders that put peace ahead of their own safety.

Events in the decade since Camp David have further complicated chances of peace.

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First published in The Weekend Australian on July 24-25, 2010.

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About the Author

Bren Carlill worked at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council between 2006 and 2011.

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