Israeli Academics Differ On Outcome of Mideast Summit

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - When Israeli, Palestinian and American negotiators get together for the start of a trilateral summit next Tuesday at Camp David in Maryland, they will have a tough act to follow, Israeli academics agree.

Twenty-two years after the signing of the historic Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, the substance of the current issues is unclear, the leaders are much weaker, and the chances for a full agreement are slim.

"The basic concept is the same," said Dr Yair Hirschfeld of the Haifa University's Middle Eastern History Department. "Three negotiating teams on the top level start with quite a gap and try to move to an agreement under high pressure."

However, Hirschfeld said whereas in 1978 there was "one clear option," this time there could be more than one "positive outcome."

In the days when former President Jimmy Carter was mediating, the late Israeli and Egyptian leaders, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, knew it was all or nothing, Hirschfeld said.

Now, however, after more than 20 years of negotiations - the most intense and public talks taking place over the last 10 years - and at least seven signed interim agreements between Israel and the PA, there is a possibility of a variety of understandings that could make the task "easier or more difficult," he said.

Hirschfeld, who is one of the architects of the Oslo Accords, said the basic agreement leading to the current negotiating process was that the two sides would "have to reach a conceptual understanding about Jerusalem, refugees and territory."

There were different ways of doing that, he said.

A further necessary understanding was a statement endorsing that the final agreement would constitute the "end of conflict and finality of claims."

Issues aside, the leaders themselves are not in the same position as their predecessors were, according to Professor Ephraim Inbar, Director of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies.

"There is a difference between the capability of the leaders [then and now] to make bold decisions," Inbar said. "Neither [Yasser] Arafat nor [Ehud] Barak, and for that matter [President] Clinton, are able to make big decisions."

Carter had the advantage of two years left in his term. With just six months left in office, Clinton is a "lame duck" president, said Inbar, and any financial pledges he might make to grease the wheels would have to be confirmed by a different Congress.

Begin was a strong leader, while support for Barak is dwindling, Inbar added.

Begin, a political hawk of the right of center Likud party, was attacked by the left, who warned him not to return home without an agreement - which he did. Barak, on the other hand, belongs to the left of center Labor party and is threatened by the right that he had better not return with an agreement, Hirschfeld said.

Inbar argued that the stakes were not nearly as high this time. The agreement with Egypt - the first between Israel and an Arab nation - was much more important, he claimed.

"The status quo is in our favor. In 1978, it would have been a terrible setback to the peace process [had the summit failed]." Now, Israel already has treaties with Egypt and Jordan and may also reach agreements with Syria and Lebanon, so an agreement with the PA is not as crucial, he added.

'Monumental Failure'

Taking a different view, however, is Raphael Israeli, professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University. He said the 1978 Camp David Accords could be viewed as a "monumental failure."

As a result of the principles established in the 1978 agreement, Israel was today looking at the possibility of ending up with just 3-to-10 percent of the disputed West Bank.

At Camp David, Israel agreed to return the entire Sinai Peninsula in exchange for the establishment of diplomatic relations with Egypt.

But the agreement also called for negotiations on the "resolution of the Palestinian problem in all its aspects" including the future of the disputed areas. That part of the agreement was later interpreted differently by Egypt, Israel and the US.

Returning the vast, nearly empty Sinai to Egypt did not have the same security ramifications for Israel as handing over Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), where large Arab population centers are often only a few hundred yards from Jewish homes.

Although current negotiations are not directly based on the 1978 Accords, the basic principle of "land for peace" still applies, and the question of how much and which land are still among the matters of disagreement.

Israeli said he doubted Israel and the PA would be able to resolve those differences at the forthcoming summit. What Barak will be able to offer is "way, way below what the Palestinians are demanding."