What Really Happened Between Barak and Arafat at Camp David?

In the spring of 2007, on the eve of the Labor Party elections that restored him to political life, Ehud Barak and I were sitting in a Tel Aviv cafe. I asked him what really happened at the 2000 Camp David talks.

Barak's emphatic observation following the summit - that "we have no Palestinian partner" - was intended to justify its failure, but became a double-edged sword. His claim that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had planned in advance to exploit the summit's failure to then launch the second intifada destroyed the Israeli public's faith in the peace process. Shimon Peres later said that Barak succeeded in turning the failure of Camp David into an ideology. And anyway, what's a person supposed to think of his neighbors when a prime minister "who offered them everything" states that the Palestinians "are products of a culture in which to tell a lie ... creates no dissonance ... [And] truth is seen as an irrelevant category" - as Benny Morris wrote in his interview with Barak in The New York Review of Books (June 13, 2002)?

In a response that appeared in the same issue, Robert Malley, a member of president Bill Clinton's advisory team at Camp David, and Hussein Agha (a scholar who has been involved in Palestinian-Israeli affairs for decades) wrote that Barak's words and actions served to delegitimize the Palestinians and the peace process, enabling Ariel Sharon to treat them as he saw fit and absolve himself from having to confront Israel's diplomatic, security and economic plight.

"I went to Camp David presuming we would not be reaching an agreement," Barak said, surprising me. "I knew Arafat was planning an uprising in September." Then, he explained, "I wanted the international community to stand by us when we hit the Palestinians. To that end it was important to prove we had done everything to reach an agreement."

In other words, you sacrificed your political life for our sake?

Barak (nodding energetically): "Yes, absolutely."

Then why, six months after you "exposed Arafat's real face," did you send four ministers to Taba - including Yossi Beilin and Yossi Sarid - to continue negotiations with the Palestinians?

"I just wanted the leftists to see with their own eyes that there was no one to talk to."

This implies that less than half a year after he held the negotiations with the Syrians, under Clinton's auspices, talks that ended in bitter disappointment, Barak knowingly dragged the U.S. president into a failure foretold.

Barak's associates from those days say they never heard this version of events from him. Shlomo Ben-Ami, who was foreign minister at the time and headed the negotiating team, even wrote in his book "A Front Without a Rearguard: A Voyage to the Boundaries of the Peace Process," that he had no doubt that Barak had arrived at Camp David with a definite decision to make peace. Gilead Sher, Barak's personal representative at the talks, recounted in his book "Just Beyond Reach: The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Negotiations 1999-2001" that on the eve of his departure for the summit, Barak cited Bismarck's exhortation to grab on to history's glory when you hear the rustle of its wings, and added something to the effect that, "We do not have much time. Hafez Assad's death, the departure from Lebanon, and the presence at the summit of Clinton and perhaps even [Egyptian] President Hosni Mubarak - all this works against the enemies of peace. In a couple of months we will not be able to convene a summit like this."

If Barak succeeded in fooling everybody, then he is a professional actor. But if he went to Camp David with a determined heart and mind, and placed before the Palestinians, as he put it, "the most generous offer they ever received," then we are left with the mystery of what really occurred there.

Barak and Dan Meridor, who was part of the Camp David discussion group on refugees, claim the summit exposed Arafat's plot to destroy the Zionist entity by means of the Palestinian right of return. However, Ben-Ami and Sher insist the crisis focused on the dispute over Jerusalem, and was by no means related to the fate of the refugees.

The person who headed the Palestinian desk in the research division of Military Intelligence, Ephraim Lavie, along with his counterpart in the Mossad, Yossi Ben-Ari, and Matti Steinberg, then an adviser to the Shin Bet security forces chief, told me there was no intelligence-related basis for Barak's claim that Arafat planned to blow up the talks over the refugee issue. Furthermore, the MI chief at the time, Amos Malka, testified that he had no evidence that Arafat was planning to torpedo the peace process.

The meeting with Barak at the cafe left me with this mystery: What happened to the man who was considered one of the most brilliant minds in Israeli politics when he was called upon to make a fateful decision? What really happened at Camp David?