They say you can read a person’s feelings on his face. If so, I must be a very good actor — the opposite of what anyone who has worked closely with me would tell you. Maybe it was just the exception that proved the rule. But I was described as looking defeated. Distressed. Depressed.
As I delivered my brief final statement outside the presidential retreat at Camp David, north of Washington, DC, I felt none of those things. Yes, I was disappointed. I realized that what had happened over the last 14 days, or, more crucially, what had not happened, was bound to have serious consequences, both for me personally as prime minister of Israel, and for my country.
At the time of the Camp David summit in July 2000, however, I’d been a politician for all of five years. Most of my life had been spent in uniform. As a teenager, small and slight and not even shaving yet, I was part of the founding core of a unit called Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s equivalent of America’s Delta Force or Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS). Though as a young kid I was quiet, serious, and contemplative, my years in Israel’s elite special forces unit, especially when I became its commander, etched those qualities in me more deeply. They also added new ones: a sense that you could never plan a mission too carefully or prepare too assiduously; an understanding that what you thought, and certainly what you said, mattered a lot less than what you did; and above all, that when one of our commando operations was over, you had to take a step back and evaluate things honestly, without illusions.
That intense focus and detachment guided me from the day I became prime minister. In my first discussions with U.S. President Bill Clinton a year earlier, during a long weekend beginning at the White House and moving on to Camp David, I had mapped out in detail the steps I believed we would have to take in order to address the central issue facing Israel: the search for peace.
In choosing to return to Camp David for the summit talks with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, I was aware of both the stakes and the risks. Success would mean not just one more stutter step away from our century-long conflict: it would be a critical move forward toward a real, final resolution. After all the suffering and bloodshed on both sides, we would be on the path to two states, for two peoples.
And if we failed? I knew from months of increasingly stark intelligence reports that an explosion of Palestinian violence would be only a matter of time. Indeed, there was every indication the explosion was coming anyway.
I knew something else as well. This was a moment of truth not just for me or for Bill Clinton. It was a moment of truth for Arafat. The Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995 had created a peace process, not peace. Over the past few years, that process had been lurching from crisis to crisis. Political support for negotiations was fraying. The core issues had not been resolved. In fact, they’d barely been touched on. The reason for this was no secret. For both sides, these questions lay at the heart of everything we’d been saying for years, to the world and to ourselves, about the roots of the conflict and the minimum terms we could accept. At issue were rival claims on security, borders, settlements, Palestinian refugees, and the future of the ancient city of Jerusalem; none could be resolved without painful and politically difficult decisions.
Entering the summit, I was confident that, along with my team of aides and negotiators, we would do our part to make an agreement possible. I had no doubt that President Clinton would rise to the occasion. But Arafat? There was no way to know.
Now, at least, we knew.
Our equivalent of Air Force One, perhaps in a nod to our country’s austere early years, was an almost prehistoric Boeing 707. It was waiting on the runway at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington to ferry me and the rest of our team back to Israel.
As we took off, the mood on board was sober.
We’d been ready to contemplate major compromises on every one of the key issues as long as we safeguarded Israel’s vital national and security interests. We had been open to an Israeli pullout from nearly all of the West Bank and Gaza, with a support mechanism to help compensate tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees from the serial Arab-Israeli conflicts of the past half-century. Most painfully, and controversially, we had agreed to let President Clinton present an American proposal offering the Palestinians sovereignty over all the Arab neighbourhoods of Jerusalem as well as “custodial sovereignty” over the Haram al-Sharif, the mosque complex perched above the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism. Yet precisely because we had been ready to offer so much — only for Arafat to reject it all even as a basis for further talks on a final deal — I knew how gutted my key negotiators felt. My deeper fear was that with Arafat having brushed aside an offer that went much further than any other Israeli had been willing to consider — much further than the Americans had expected — the prospects for peace would be set back not just for a few years, but a decade or two.
As our 707 droned over the Atlantic, I knew that our challenge now was to make sure we were prepared for what came next. I sat, wide awake, in one of the seats at the front. Part of the spadework for our response to Camp David was already in place. Much as I’d hoped that Arafat and I could turn a new page in Middle East history, eight months before the summit I’d directed our military and security chiefs to draw up contingency plans for the likelihood of an unprecedentedly deadly eruption of Palestinian violence. Still, I felt we also had to have a political response. Though this would not become our formal, public position for several months, I believed that unless Arafat demonstrated an unlikely change of heart, Israel needed to consider a unilateral change in policy. Though obviously needing to retain the option for our security forces to respond, or pre-empt, Palestinian attacks, I favoured withdrawing from most of the West Bank and Gaza. The territorial terms would be less far-reaching than the proposal Arafat had just rejected. Yet it would still give the Palestinians control of about 80 per cent of the area, and all its major towns and cities — sufficient to establish a viable state if they chose to do so. It would also finally give Israel a clearly delineated border with the territory that we had captured in the Six-Day War in 1967 — and allow for possible further withdrawals in the future, if the Palestinian leadership ever proved ready for peace.
As I jotted down the outline of the disengagement argument in a pocket notebook, my mind went back to the first time my path had crossed with Arafat’s, in the spring of 1968. It was nearly a year after the Six Day War; now, our forces were advancing on a Jordanian town called Karameh, across the Jordan River from the West Bank. It was the operational base of a fledgling Palestinian group called Fatah, under Arafat’s command. They’d begun staging armed raids into Israel and, in one of their most recent attacks, had planted land mines not far from the Dead Sea. One of the mines destroyed an Israeli school bus, killing a teacher and a school physician and injuring nearly a dozen children.
I had just turned 26 and, as a reserve officer, was finishing my studies in physics and mathematics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I had joined my Sayeret Matkal comrades the night before the assault. Though it was a huge operation, our role was relatively minor. We were to seal the southern entrance to the town. But it proved a tough slog just to get there. Our vehicles got bogged down in mud. By the time we arrived, the Fatah fighters, many in civilian clothes, were racing past us in the other direction. One of them, we later discovered, was Arafat. He escaped on a motorcycle.
It would be nearly three decades later when the two of us first met, shortly after the assassination of my longtime commander and mentor Yitzhak Rabin, when I was foreign minister under Shimon Peres. But in those intervening years, Arafat was rarely off my radar. By the early 1970s, he and his fighters had been expelled from Jordan and were based in Lebanon. Arafat was becoming a significant figure on the Arab and world political stages, and an increasingly uncomfortable thorn in Israel’s side. I was head of the sayeret by then. We developed a plan to assassinate him. But when I took the idea to my main contact in military headquarters, he said no. He insisted that Arafat was no longer the fighter we had encountered in Karameh. “He’s fat. He’s a politician. He is not a target.”
In the early 1980s, the idea would suddenly resurface. In my first meeting, as a newly promoted major general, with then–defence minister Ariel Sharon, Sharon turned to me and the army’s chief of staff, Rafael “Raful” Eitan, and said, “Tell me. Why the hell is Arafat still alive?” He looked first at Raful, then at me, and said, “When I was 20 years younger than you are, I never waited for someone like Ben-Gurion or Dayan to ask me to plan an operation. I would plan it! Then I’d take it to them and say, you’re the politicians, you decide, but if you say yes, we’ll do it.” I smiled, telling him I’d done exactly that a decade earlier, only to have one of his mates in the top brass say no. Sharon now said yes. But the plan was overtaken: by Sharon’s ill-fated determination to launch a full-scale invasion of Lebanon, targeting not just Arafat, but with the aim of crushing the Palestine Liberation Organization militarily once and for all.
I finally met Arafat face-to-face at the end of 1995. We were in Barcelona for a Euro-Mediterranean diplomatic conference aimed at reinvigorating the peace negotiations. The ceremonial centerpiece was a dinner at one of the royal palaces. I arrived early and found myself in a breathtakingly opulent, but otherwise empty, reception room. Empty, that is, except for a dark-brown Steinway piano. I pulled back the velvet piano bench and sat down at the keyboard. With my back to the doorway, I was unaware Arafat had arrived, and that he was soon standing only a few feet behind me, watching as I played. My old commando antennae must have been blunted.
When I finally realized Arafat was there, I turned, embarrassed, stood up, and grasped his hand. “It’s a real pleasure to meet you,” I said. “I must say I have spent many years watching you — by other means.” We stood talking for about 10 minutes. “We carry a great responsibility,” I said. “Both of our peoples have paid a heavy price, and the time has come to find a way to solve this.”
At the time, and in our other meetings in the years ahead, he did show a kind of surface reciprocity. He would say the right things: about how he, too, wanted peace, or that he saw me as a “partner.” But he never really got beyond viewing me as a career military man more suited to, and interested in, war than in peace. He could never comprehend that for me, as for Rabin, the central imperative was to ensure Israel’s security. Nor that both of us, over time, came to recognize that military action was just one tool — and not always the best one — to achieve that goal.
Excerpted from My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace by Ehud Barak. Copyright © 2018 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.