We talk with Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, about the Israel- Palestine conflict and broader geopolitics within the Middle East. Riedel draws on his experience as part of President Clinton’s peace process team, and specifically talks about what he saw at the 2000 Camp David Summit, and why he did not have confidence in the summit’s proceedings, which ultimately failed. Riedel also provides his outlook on the nature of the conflict overall, in addition to his take on the recent normalization agreements between Israel and the UAE, Sudan, and whether an Israel-Saudi Arabia normalization is on the horizon. Lastly, we get some insights on what the Biden Administration portends for these conflicts and situations.
[00:04:48] WHY THE 2000 CAMP DAVID SUMMIT WAS DESTINED TO FAIL: “Among [President] Clinton’s advisors, I think I was by far the most skeptical. Skeptical, because I didn’t think the 3 leaders coming to this conference, were going to be able to pull it off. First of all, I knew Arafat by this point very, very well. Arafat was definitely capable of making decisions and agreeing to compromises that dealt with important issues, but he wasn’t capable of making a final and comprehensive agreement. There are several reasons for this. First of all, Palestinians would need 100% of the West Bank and Gaza returned to them. [Former Foreign Minister Moshe] Dayan had gotten 100% of the Sinai. King Hussein got 100% of Jordan’s part. Assad had failed to get 100% at Shepherdstown and rejected a deal. Arafat needed to stand up to the same level. There’s no way the Israelis were going to give him 100%. They might have been able to get to 100%, if they were willing to give Israeli territory. Israelis had shown no interest in anything like that. Israelis came to Camp David thinking that a deal could be done with maybe 80%, at most, of the West Bank return to the Palestinians. I knew that wouldn’t work. Secondly, Arafat’s core constituents were never West Bank and Gaza Palestinians. His core constituents were the Palestinian diaspora. Palestinians who lived in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and the Gulf states. These Palestinians wanted to go home, not to Ramallah or Gaza, or Hebron, but to Ramla, Haifa, the Galilee… Compensating them in some way for giving up their right to go home is going to be extremely unpopular with his core constituency and Arafat would never agree to that.”
[00:12:47] ON PRESIDENT CLINTON’S GOALS AND INVOLVEMENT: “I’ve worked with four presidents up close, and I can tell you that in the last months of their administration, the question of legacy becomes enormous. ‘What is my legacy going to be? What have I accomplished these years?’ And this is one that Bill Clinton had devoted an enormous amount of effort to. Personally, at the Wye River conference, at Shepherdstown, in Camp David, Bill Clinton was there at the negotiating table dealing directly with the Israelis and the Arabs. Really there’s nothing like it. In the history of American diplomacy, American presidents don’t usually come to the negotiating table, to make the sausage themselves. That’s what the Secretary of State is for, but Bill Clinton was willing to do it. “
[00:15:24] ARAFAT’S AND BARAK’S MOTIVES AT CAMP DAVID: “Well Arafat came very reluctantly — he didn’t want to come. He made that clear… once the summit starts, he repeatedly asked assurances that if it failed, he would not be blamed… Barak came to the meeting with I think 2 ideas. His preferred idea was a deal, Barak understood and does to this day… but if he couldn’t get a deal, Barak wanted to expose unmask Arafat as not really a champion of peace, but as a charlatan. This idea of unmasking Arafat was very, very dangerous. It could either have one or 2 outcomes: complete success, or failure… the better outcome of Camp David would have been to agree to some kind of interim next step, withdrawal of Israeli troops on a percentage of territory in the West. In other words, keep the process going. By complete failure, 7 years of Oslo had created first great expectations among the Palestinians. When is the occupation going to end? When will the Palestinian state be created? And after 7 years that disappointment was producing a very volatile situation in the West Bank and Gaza. The failure of Camp David only made it clear that there was no light on the horizon.”
[00:17:51] ON THE REAL PROBLEM BELYING ISRAEL-ARAB PEACE: “Anytime a country is engaged in conversation with each other that’s a good thing. It is much better to have people talking to each other than to have them isolated. I think it’s also important to bear in mind that Israel has old peace agreements with 2 of its neighbors, Egypt and Jordan. So, it’s a very, very important feature… There’s very little human interaction between Egyptians and Israelis… Israelis are not really welcome by these communities, and they know that they are not welcomed. So there is a limit to what normalization has produced in the last couple decades… I think we should bear the limitations of course, because the conflict isn’t really resolved. The conflict is not really between Egypt and Israel. It’s between Israelis and Palestinians. Until that conflict is resolved most Arabs are not going to view Israel as a friendly neighbor. Polling in the Arab world shows the overwhelming majority of Arabs, more than 80% don’t see normalization.”
[00:20:24] ON THE ISRAEL-UAE PEACE AGREEMENT “The UAE is different in many ways. Somewhere between 80 and 90% of the population in the UAE are not Arab. They are immigrant workers, many of them from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, but also people from the United States, the UK, Germany, France. But these are people who don’t really have much interest in the Israeli Palestinian conflict or the Arab-Israeli problem or anything the Government of the UAE does. This gives the government of the UAE with leading force of a wave of normalization, with enormous latitude. It doesn’t have to worry about a domestic backlash, because there really isn’t a significant community of Emiratis that are deeply committed. It also means it’s much easier to have Israelis come and do business in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, because most of the people Israelis will encounter when they go to the shopping mall are not Arabs. They are Pakistanis, Indians, and Filipinos. The UAE is the leading force here. I think there’s a number of reasons. One of them is a very good one. The UAE attached its mission of its agreement to helping relations with Israel, that annexation of West Bank, particularly of the Jordan River Valley. Part of Kushner’s deal of the century would be put on hold for the indefinite future. That was a good idea for many reasons, not the least of which is if Israel had gone forward with annexing the Jordan River Valley, that would have forced the King Abdullah of Jordan to take some kind of action in response, and King Abdullah have made it increasingly clear that he would be prepared to abrogate the Israel-Jordan Peace agreement. One of the most important peace agreements in the region would have gone under the bus for annexation.”