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The question of whether there was a Palestinian partner for peace or the Oslo process was no more than a conspiracy refuses to leave the national and international agenda. Innumerable books, articles and interviews have hashed and rehashed the contributions of Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister at the time of the Camp David summit in the summer of 2000, and of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to the free-fall crash of the peace process. The documentation is largely the handiwork of political personalities whose ego was mortally wounded by the failure and by senior officials whose careers were mired because of it.

In that critical period, Clayton Swisher, an M.A. student and a security guard for VIPs, accompanied then U.S. secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, and the American peace team on its junkets to the Middle East. He walked alongside them in Jerusalem and Ramallah as well as at Camp David, and was there to greet the Israelis and the Palestinians whenever they came to Washington to solicit diplomatic support. Swisher remembered them on September 11, 2001, when Al-Qaida terrorists massacred Americans, while the Israelis and Palestinians were busy killing one another.

"I wondered how, if maybe things had gone differently - either at that summit known as Camp David I went to or in later shuttle trips abroad - the world might have been safer and our fight against Bin Ladenism more winnable," he says in a conversation from Washington.

The young student and security guard (today 27) decided to focus his master's thesis, on the collapse of the Middle East peace process, not only on the role of the Palestinians and the Israelis. The work, which he wrote within the framework of his studies at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, Washington, is the first to examine thoroughly the role of the American mediator and to expose its role in the failure. Swisher took advantage of his acquaintance with former senior officials in the previous administration. From an academic thesis his study was transformed into a fascinating book, an invasive, incisive and merciless probe of the guts of the Clinton administration ("The Truth About Camp David: The Untold Story about the Collapse of the Middle East Peace Process," Nation Books, New York, 2004).

Sloppy preparation

One after another, senior officials in the White House and the State Department are seen to have conducted amateurish mediation, tinged with domestic American politics and personal power struggles. One of the most revealing testimonies is that of Maria Echaveste, the deputy chief of staff of the White House. She relates that some of the senior members of the American team were against holding the July 2000 summit, fearing that the sides were not yet ready to make tough decisions: "[Albright] went back and forth. On the one hand I think she was the strong voice saying we should meet, but then as things started blowing up, she said on several occasions to me that `We shouldn't have done this! We should have waited! The Palestinians weren't ready!'"

Dennis Ross, who exercised more influence than anyone else on American policy vis-a-vis the peace process in the 1990s, reveals what lay behind his recommendation to the president to convene the Camp David summit, despite the opposition of Arafat and the reservations of senior administration officials. "The reason I recommended going was because the president made it clear that this was the last period at which he would do a summit ...After that, in August...You had the Republican convention first, then you had the Democratic one." Ross adds: "Given the choice of having no summit versus having a summit - in my mind - it was worth the risk."

Swisher reveals that at the last minute, before the invitations went out to Barak and Arafat, Aaron Miller, Ross' deputy, went to Madeleine Albright in attempt to get her support for an approach espousing a "series of summits" rather than gambling everything on a one-time event. When he raised the idea with the secretary of state, Miller recalls, "she almost threw me out of the office!"

For her part, Echaveste accuses the State Department team of sloppy management during the summit, in a way that harmed the president's honor and prestige. "There were times they were not prepared. By `they' I mean the State Department and Dennis and Madeleine. Initially they [were] making the plan as we went along. We would get together in the morning. It always started because the protocol office wanted to know, `Okay, are we having lunch together today? Are we going to sit separately?' ... [The protocol offices] couldn't get any traction from Dennis and Madeleine, because they didn't have a plan ... There were times, especially at the beginning, when it was like [Clinton] was sitting there as one of the staff people figuring out how this should run. That's not what the president should be doing!"

Miller: "The Israelis and Palestinians came very prepared to Camp David - the problem was, we didn't."

Toni Verstandig, a deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs and a member of Ross' peace team, said: "I don't think we were prepared going into the meetings as well as we should have been. I don't think we did the kind of paper preparation, `ganging-up,' `this happens and then you do this; this is the fallback.' It was very loosy-goosy, because that's Dennis and that's the way Dennis liked to run things ... Dennis was the only one who had [notes for review], and they were his personal, chicken-scratch notes. Had we done more complete brainstorming and research, we would have been able to push the process along."

In the absence of a formal record, Swisher notes, the Americans who reported on the course of the talks relied mainly on their memory, which was a contributing factor to the Rashomon of Camp David.

Hurling accusations

Echaveste reported on high tension between Sandy Berger, the national security adviser, and Albright over which of them would set the pace of the discussion and the subjects that were raised. Albright admitted to the author that during the first three days of the summit there were "disagreements" within the American team concerning the papers that were passed from hand to hand. One of the members of the Israeli delegation related that the arguments between the Americans were "so loud [they] carried through to the other cabins."

According to Martin Indyk, the U.S. ambassador to Israel at the time, some of the American participants lacked any experience in the Israeli Palestinian conflict and were in the talks purely for political reasons, thus affecting the performance of the American team. Ross suggested that in his view, the presence of President Clinton himself was not beneficial, to put it mildly: "The fact is, the president, as good and as knowledgeable as he was, is not a negotiator."

Verstandig is critical of the very decision to enter the conference without any idea of how to get out of it: "We went in to the highest stakes of negotiations not only not knowing an endgame; we didn't know what Israel's positions were - their final bottom-line positions on Jerusalem. We saw them unfolding in front of us."

Albright blames Barak for refusing to tell the Americans in advance how far he was willing to go with concessions, or even to discuss the subject, as this deprived the Americans of the possibility of mustering the support of Arab leaders before the summit. Thus, "when we started making phone calls about it, they [the Arab leaders] weren't willing to help us because they didn't know the full context of what it was about," she said.

In a critical retrospective look, she says that it was Barak who asked Clinton to convene the summit, but when the Israeli leader arrived he rejected the American paper, and so "it immediately got off track by this foot-dragging on Barak's part, and irritation on Arafat's part for being there in the first place." Ross, Miller and Indyk claimed Barak got cold feet at the last minute.

Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who was then a member of the security cabinet, and Uri Saguy, who headed the negotiating team with the Syrians, confirmed that an agreement was within reach, but that Barak feared the Israeli public would object to a withdrawal to the lines of June 4, 1967. Lipkin-Shahak proposes to Swisher a subject for a new study: why the United States didn't draw the lesson from its bitter experience with Barak in the Syrian channel, and instead made the same mistakes again seven months later at Camp David.

Albright offers the author an explanation for the forgiving approach toward Barak: "One of the things you have to understand is we were so pleased to see Barak, who was eager to do things [presumably, after the Benjamin Netanyahu years]. I think that one of the mistakes we made was to think that Barak - while he clearly was a military genius - had enough of a political strategic view on some of this."

The Americans' conduct in 1999-2000 has more than academic-historical significance. Aaron Miller relates that Secretary of State Colin Powell, "one of the most fair-minded members of the new administration," drew his initial positions on the peace process from a four-hour meeting with Dennis Ross. Miller, who accompanied his boss, claims that Powell got what is described as a "tainted version" of the recent past, including the Camp David summit.

"Like any brief," said Miller, "you don't want to give centrality to how you fucked up. Dennis could have never brought himself to do it, and neither could I."