In July 1999 a new Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Ehud Barak of the Labor Party, came to power. Barak had opposed the 1993 Oslo Declaration of Principles between Israel and the PLO and had voted against its sequel, the 1995 Oslo II accords, in the Cabinet. Nonetheless, his election raised hopes that after three years of stalemate induced by the administration of Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, there would be renewed momentum toward a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement and resolution of the “final status” issues left open by the Oslo accords–settlements, the status of East Jerusalem, refugees, borders and the nature of the Palestinian entity.
Those hopes were dashed by the failure of the July 2000 summit at Camp David convened by President Clinton at Barak’s request and against the wishes of Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat, who thought the parties were not close enough to conclude an agreement. Israel’s proposals at Camp David, while more generous than any previous public position, fell far short of what any Palestinian leader could accept. Barak proposed a barely contiguous Palestinian state on 90 percent of the West Bank (with an additional 10 percent, the Jordan Valley, leased back to Israel for decades) entirely surrounded by Israeli-controlled territory. The Palestinians would have sovereignty over a few suburbs of East Jerusalem, but only a quasi-autonomous civil administration for Arab neighborhoods of the city proper. Barak’s refusal to withdraw to the 1967 borders reflected not only his commitment to a limited form of Palestinian sovereignty but his constricted negotiating room. Having lost his parliamentary majority just before the summit, he was terrified of appearing too dovish.
Following Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit, flanked by 1,000 Israeli soldiers and police officers, to the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem on September 28, 2000, the second (or al-Aqsa) intifada erupted. Israeli forces immediately deployed extreme violence, firing more than 1 million live bullets in the first three weeks of the uprising, largely against stone-throwing youth and before any act of Palestinian terrorism occurred. Nonetheless, negotiations continued throughout the fall in the hope that a deal could be struck before Clinton and Barak left office.
On December 23, 2000, Clinton proposed “parameters” bridging the differences between the parties at Camp David and the subsequent talks. They were presented as a “take it or leave it” American plan for two states: Israel alongside a Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and 94-96 percent of the West Bank. All the exclusively Jewish neighborhoods established in East Jerusalem since 1967 would remain in Israeli hands, as would settlement blocs in the West Bank containing 80 percent of the settlers. Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem would become part of the Palestinian state. Refugees would be able to return to the Palestinian state, but not to Israel.
Both Barak and Arafat accepted the Clinton parameters, although both had reservations. The Israeli public relations machine successfully marketed Israel’s position as an unqualified “yes” and portrayed the Palestinian position as an unequivocal “no.” Barak needed to do this regardless of his personal opinion of the parameters because adopting a position opposed to that of the United States is the kiss of death in domestic Israeli politics. In contrast, Arafat feared appearing to concede too much to Israel’s patron; and the diplomatic effort of the Palestinians to explain their position was clumsy. Negotiations on the Clinton parameters continued until the Oslo process was definitively buried when Barak called off last-ditch Palestinian-Israeli talks at Taba, Egypt, in mid-January 2001. Anticipating Sharon’s victory in the prime ministerial election several weeks hence, Barak said he did not want to conclude an agreement that would bind Israel’s next government. A few weeks later, Sharon defeated Barak in the most overwhelming electoral debacle in Israeli history. There have been no substantive Palestinian-Israeli negotiations since then.