"U.S. Failure to Pressure Israel Scuttled Camp David Peace Talks,"
by Stephen Zunes
August 10, 2000


10 August 2000 -- Largely due to a lack of U.S. pressure on Israel to compromise, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at Camp David did not end with the positive results of the summit between the United States, Israel, and Egypt 22 years earlier. In 1978, then-President Jimmy Carter was willing to pressure Israel to withdraw from all Egyptian territory seized in the 1967 war in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR) 242 and 338. By contrast, the administration of President Bill Clinton reversed decades of U.S. foreign policy, and the most basic principles of international law, by not challenging Israeli settlement construction in and around East Jerusalem or Israel's claim that Jerusalem should remain their undivided capital. Instead of supporting total Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian lands illegally seized in 1967, Clinton pressured the Palestinians to allow continued Israeli control over large amounts of Palestinian land, including Arab East Jerusalem. Ultimately, it was Jerusalem that collapsed the talks.

The Israeli government's reluctance to share the city with the Palestinians, combined with the Clinton administration's refusal to push Israel to compromise, made a successful conclusion to the negotiations virtually impossible. White House officials mistakenly hoped that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) would yield to combined U.S. and Israeli pressure and settle for sovereignty limited to a few Palestinian villages on the eastern outskirts of the city.

Jerusalem's Legal Standing:

Jerusalem was to be an international city, or corpus separatum, according to UN General Assembly Resolution 181. Yet in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Jerusalem was divided between Israel and Jordan. As a result, the international community refused to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, believing that to do so would establish the dangerous precedent of legitimizing territorial expansion by military conquest in direct contravention of UN resolutions. Nonetheless, a series of resolutions by the U.S. Congress have affirmed Israel's unilateral declaration of Jerusalem as its capital.

This recognition is even more problematic now, considering that Israel has also annexed the Arab-populated eastern half of the city seized from Jordan in 1967, along with a large expanse of adjacent suburban and rural areas. The UN Security Council, with U.S. support, declared this latter annexation "null and void," the same language used in reference to Iraq's takeover of Kuwait. U.S. administrations from Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson to George Bush declared that East Jerusalem was part of the Israeli occupation subjected to UNSCR 242 and 338. These resolutions call for Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands conquered in the 1967 war - including East Jerusalem - in return for security guarantees from neighboring Arab states.

The Shifting U.S. Position:

Clinton, however, has reversed this stance, insisting that Jerusalem should be a united city under Israeli control. In 1994, the United States abstained from a section of UNSCR 904 because it referred to the Arab part of Jerusalem as occupied territory. On May 17, 1995, the U.S. vetoed a UN Security Council resolution criticizing Israeli confiscation of Arab land in East Jerusalem.

Clinton raised no objections to Israeli occupation forces banning most Palestinians from access to schools, hospitals, businesses, and holy sites in Jerusalem. He is also the first U.S. president to not condemn Israeli settlement expansion in and around Arab East Jerusalem.

Such positions appear to most of the world's governments as a calculated effort by the Clinton administration to undermine the UN Security Council, the peace process, and international law. A clear majority of Americans support a Jerusalem shared by both Israelis and Palestinians, recognizing that both peoples live in and care deeply about the city. However, the Clinton administration and the congressional leadership of both the Democrats and Republicans have embraced the position of right-wing Jews and Christian fundamentalists in insisting that the city belongs solely to Israel. Such a hard-line position on Jerusalem doomed the Camp David summit and could very well create the climate for further bloodshed in the Middle East.

Jerusalem and International Law:

Whatever one may think of Arafat's leadership of the Palestinian Authority or his previous links to terrorism, his position on Jerusalem during the talks was far more consistent with international law, UN Security Council resolutions, and the policies of every U.S. administration from Johnson to Bush than was the position of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

To have accepted Israeli sovereignty over greater East Jerusalem would have been counter to UNSCR 242, which restates the long-held position of international law that it is illegitimate to expand a country's territory by military force. It would have been the first time in more than fifty years that a conquered people were forced to accept the loss of their land to an invading army. Yet ironically, many pundits, editorials, and comments from the Clinton administration have claimed that it was the Palestinians who were not compromising enough. Indeed, after years of prohibiting the PLO from taking part in the peace process on the grounds that they had not accepted UNSCR 242 as the basis of negotiations, the U.S. is now effectively criticizing them for insisting on its full implementation.

No reputable authority of international law accepts the Clinton administration's contention that Oslo supersedes the Security Council's authority to enforce its mandate, particularly since one of the accord's two signatories, the rest of the Security Council, and the UN Secretary General all insist that the UN should retain such power. Clinton's insistence that the status of Jerusalem should be resolved simply by direct negotiations between the parties is disingenuous, given the gross asymmetry in power between the Palestinians and their Israeli occupiers. Israel must be pressured to come into compliance with international law.

Options for Jerusalem:

Virtually no one would like to see Jerusalem return to its 1948-67 status, when it was divided by sentry posts, barbed wire and snipers, with neither Israelis nor Palestinians able to cross to the other side. However, there are a number of other options, including making Jerusalem an international city as originally called for by the United Nations in 1947, creating a joint Israeli-Palestinian administration, or re-partitioning the city along its original dividing line, but with full access by residents and visitors to both sides. Many Israelis and Palestinians - including the Palestinian Authority - have expressed support for such proposals, yet the Israeli government and the Clinton administration have rejected them out of hand.

The Need for U.S. Pressure:

Considering that there is less support within Israel for a total withdrawal from occupied Palestinian territories today than there was for total withdrawal from Egyptian territories in the late 1970s, the failure of the United States to apply any real pressure on Israel to compromise is even more problematic.

A peace bloc exists in Israel which, for moral or pragmatic reasons, supports sharing Jerusalem and making other necessary compromises for peace. Israel also contains a right wing which advocates holding on to Palestinian lands for religious or strategic reasons. The majority of Israelis are in between, leaning toward the right if they think Israel can get away with holding on to more territory, but leaning in a more moderate direction if they believe relations will be harmed between Israel and the United States. Yet Clinton has made it clear that the U.S. will never put pressure on Israel to compromise, thereby giving Barak little room to counter the powerful right-wing opposition should he ever be willing to support a total withdrawal and a willingness to share Jerusalem.

For the sake of peace, the U.S. must uphold the kind of leadership required to force Israel to live up to its international obligations. The failure of the peace talks shows that Clinton is simply not willing to assert such leadership.

Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. The above text may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the author and to the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine. This Information Brief does not necessarily reflect the views of CPAP or The Jerusalem Fund.

This information first appeared in Information Brief No. 42, 10 August 2000.