The world is in veritable tizzy over annexation. Come July, there's the very real possibility Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will introduce proposals to apply Israeli law and sovereignty to large parts of the West Bank and even the Jordan Valley—thereby consigning a two-state solution to the dustbin of history.
But the understandable cosmic "oy vey" emanating from diplomats, analysts and peaceniks over the short- and long-term consequences of annexation both masks and reflects a more profound and worrisome reality. Even if Netanyahu chose not to annex, which remains a real possibility, the so-called "peace process" is likely to remain a hapless and dysfunctional wreck rendered all but comatose by a host of contradictions and challenges. We should fight the battle to prevent annexation, if possible—but we must bear in mind, too, the distinct possibility that the war may already be lost.
As the 20th anniversary of the ill-fated July 2000 Camp David summit—the last serious negotiation between an empowered Israeli prime minister and Palestinian president mediated by an American president—approaches, it's important to understand why that's so. And it's important to understand why all subsequent efforts to reach a conflict-ending agreement over the past two decades have failed, too.
Only once before has an American president risked bringing Israeli and Arab leaders to a summit at Camp David to close a peace deal: Jimmy Carter's 13-day September 1978 summit with Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Having been part of the second Camp David negotiating team, we made sure President Bill Clinton was briefed on the reasons Carter succeeded.
But I'm not sure he nor we internalized the reasons for Carter's success. Indeed, that achievement and the historic Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty that followed in March 1979 were driven by three elements missing at Camp David 2000. These missing elements run through the long, sorry saga of the search for an Israeli-Palestinian peace like the strong weave of a finely woven Persian carpet.
Begin and Sadat were powerful leaders—masters, not prisoners, of their politics and constituencies and willing and able to reach an agreement. And they also were in something of a hurry. Sadat had risked everything by attacking Israel in 1973 and by venturing to Jerusalem four years later. He needed vindication through a deal that established Egyptian sovereignty over all of Sinai, dismantled Israeli settlements there and created a new relationship with the U.S. Begin saw an enormous opportunity to take the Arab world's most powerful nation off the confrontation line, consolidate control over the West Bank and reap security and economic aid from Washington.
Having failed earlier in the year with his negotiations with Syria, Ehud Barak was in a hurry to make a deal with the Palestinians in the six months remaining in Clinton's term—or, alternatively, to expose the fact that Yasser Arafat could not make one. But he was weak politically; indeed, his government was coming apart even while the summit was being held.
But Arafat was in no rush, had warned us of the consequences of a premature summit, came largely to please Clinton and was far more interested in surviving a summit than cutting a deal on terms Barak and Clinton proposed. No Palestinian leader could—especially on Jerusalem, which required the backing of key Arab states who were neither invited nor briefed in detail on the offer.
Meeting Egyptian and Israeli needs on a peace treaty and the return of territory was very hard, but Begin, and Sadat and Carter believed it was possible. It took a full 13 days and the near collapse of the summit to reach a framework agreement. The issues on the table in 2000 were daunting, with gaps on issues like borders and refugees that were Grand Canyon-like in their size and complexity. Nor did Begin and Sadat have to wrestle with the most contentious issue of all: the emotional, religious, spiritual and psychological conundrum of determining the final status of Jerusalem. Neither side had prepared their publics for the concessions that would have to be made—nor were they prepared to make them.
At the first Camp David, Carter controlled the summit. The Americans managed the negotiating text, which went through more than 20 drafts. Carter acted, by and large, as an effective and honest broker by hammering out an agreement that met Egyptian and Israeli core needs.
In July 2000, the summit ran us. Our "no surprise" policy, by which we shared everything with Barak first, prevented us from acting as an effective broker or finding a way to even come close to bridging gaps. Once the summit failed, we entered the violence and terror of the Second Intifada. President Clinton then offered a set of much fairer and realistic negotiating parameters that December. Barak accepted them with reservations; Arafat, waiting for the next administration, refused to respond.
The prospects of Israeli annexation today should thus surprise no one. It results from the vacuum created by drift and dysfunction in the so-called "peace process" that is more broken now than at any time since Arab-Israeli negotiations began. There is a veritable perfect storm: a Trump administration that opened the door to annexation, an indefatigable Israeli prime minister who is considering walking through it and a divided and dysfunctional Palestinian national movement that has no good options or strategy. Nor should we expect much support from an international community preoccupied with a pandemic, or from key Arab states reluctant to offend the Trump administration.
So is the two-state solution still alive? To even consider the possibility of serious negotiations to test that proposition, you'd need to fix the Camp David problem: leaders willing and able to make big decisions on the core issues, an urgency that the all-too comfortable status quo is no longer sustainable and a credible broker willing to not merely lawyer for one side or the other.
Nobody can see around corners, and it would be wrong—if not morally unconscionable—to abandon all hope. But we need to untether ourselves from our illusions. Not annexing large parts of the West Bank may keep the door open to an agreement. But we can no longer delude ourselves—if we still are—to the galactic challenges that await would-be negotiators on the other side.