The Selling of the Summit

How Ehud Barak took advantage of the isolation and blackout imposed by the Americans at Camp David to win the Israeli-Palestinian propaganda battle.

Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn
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Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn

The Camp David summit in July 2000 did not put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the participants in the meeting failed in an attempt to hammer out a permanent settlement. But the summit meeting had important results all the same, which since then have in fact dictated the political and diplomatic agenda in the Middle East. In the consciousness of the Israeli leadership and the Israeli media, as well as in the United States and in most countries of the West, the then prime minister, Ehud Barak, is perceived to have been in the right, for offering far-reaching concessions in the face of the rejectionist approach displayed by the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.

Barak succeeded in persuading the shapers of public opinion in Israel and Washington that Arafat destroyed the peace process when he rejected the generous offer put forward by Israel. It is only in the past few weeks that a contrary version of events has emerged, according to which Israel did not make any serious concessions and only tried to force on Arafat - with the help of Bill Clinton - a humiliating treaty of capitulation.

That image is a very valuable political asset, one that is today serving Barak's successors, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Even after 10 months of hostilities with the Palestinians, Israel is not being subjected to pressure to make substantial concessions. No international body has told Israel, "Leave the Temple Mount and take back the refugees, and then you will have quiet." The political criticism and pressure on the Sharon government are focusing on the military measures Israel is taking, or on marginal issues such as the stationing of observers in the territories. The partitioning of Jerusalem, which was at the center of the talks at Camp David, is, once again, not on the immediate agenda of the attempt to resolve the conflict. The Palestinians' declaration of an independent state, a move that appeared inevitable, has been postponed to the indefinite future, together with the implementation of the interim agreements and the next redeployment of forces in the West Bank - moves to which Barak objected even during the period of the Yitzhak Rabin government.

The image campaign did not wait for the verdict of the historians and the memoir writers; it was won during the summit meeting itself. Barak took advantage of the isolation and blackout imposed by the American hosts on the delegations at Camp David in order to dictate from there the media agenda in Israel and the United States. The Americans, acting like their usual square selves, were committed to the rules of the game and so maintained silence.

The decisive step taken by the Israeli delegation at Camp David was to leak the American peace proposal, which was presented to Barak and Arafat, along with the disclosure that the prime minister had agreed to accept it as a basis for discussion, while the Palestinian leader said no. The disclosure of the details of the proposal in Israel, and subsequently in the American media, while the summit was still in progress, placed Clinton and Barak on the same side, against the rejectionist Arafat. It also would have enabled Barak to depict his concessions as surrender to American pressure, if an agreement had been reached. People close to Barak say in retrospect that the publication of the American plan had the effect of locking Clinton into the plan and led him to cast the blame on the Palestinian side and to give the prime minister high marks.

The Israeli publicity effort at Camp David was conducted by Eldad Yaniv, then the head of the Information Department in the Foreign Ministry and today the head of a law firm in Tel Aviv. The Israeli journalists who covered the summit remember vividly the briefings they received from Yaniv, who was the main source of information about what was going on. He was also the author of the "talking points" sheets that were distributed to cabinet ministers and the other Barak publicists.

Yaniv had worked with Barak since his election campaign as a member of his strategic team, together with Moshe Gaon and Tal Zilberstein. After the elections those two remained in their private firm and Yaniv came to work in the Prime Minister's Office, with the task of preparing the referenda that were planned to endorse agreements with the Syrians and the Palestinians. At Camp David, Yaniv ensconced himself in the war room of the Israeli delegation at the U.S. government firefighters' school in the town of Emmitsburg at the foothills of the Catoctin Mountains, where the presidential retreat is located.

Yaniv didn't enter the closed facility even once. His working tools were the constant telephone conversations he held with the prime minister from Dogwood cabin on "the hill," as Camp David was referred to by the delegation members, and a secure line to Tel Aviv, at the other end of which were the advertising man Moshe Gaon and the spokesman David Zisso, who remained in Israel. Yaniv acted as the "relay station." Every morning he arrived with Yoni Koren (Barak's former bureau chief in the army) at the media center in the town of Thurmont and disclosed what was really going on inside Camp David - before the official briefing of the White House spokesman, which dealt with trivial matters such as the breakfast menu in the president's cabin. Yaniv was always available by mobile phone for correspondents' questions, for providing information he wanted to convey and for denials.

The mission assigned to Yaniv was to prepare public opinion in Israel for the day after the summit for one of two alternatives - an agreement or a crisis. Barak knew that the Jerusalem issue would be raised at Camp David and that it would be necessary to break the taboo of "Israel's eternal, united capital" that prevailed within the Israeli public. As head of a left-wing government, whose coalition had split apart on the way to the summit, Barak knew he would not be able to wait until the last minute to reveal the concessions, as Menachem Begin had done at the previous Camp David summit, with Egypt, in 1978. From the moment the subject of Jerusalem was raised in the discussions, a wave of reports flooded Israel about Barak's readiness to divide the city. The public opinion surveys that were conducted during the summit showed that the message had been absorbed and that there was a majority in favor of the deal Barak was proposing.

To demonstrate the full weight of the prime minister's decision and to place him at the political center, a report was leaked that two top members of the delegation, cabinet ministers Shlomo Ben-Ami and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, were pressing Barak to make additional concessions in Jerusalem. It was afterward learned that the two had indeed put forward a more flexible approach, but during the summit, the effect was to create the impression of a breaking of ranks within the Israeli delegation. The same individual who was behind the leak was also quick to deny it, and all without blinking. The obligatory denial only enhanced the credibility of the story.

Within a few days it became clear that the prospects for an agreement were slim. Arafat closeted himself in his cabin, refusing to discuss any of the proposals, and forbade his staff to conduct negotiations. So now it became necessary to prepare public opinion for a failure, and portray Arafat as the guilty party. Yaniv and the official spokesmen of the delegation, Gadi Baltiansky and Merav Parsi-Zadok, began to drive the message home to the correspondents. The goal was to apprise the public at home of what was going on, but without going into too many details. The reports in Israel were immediately picked up and quoted by the American media, which had no independent sources of their own during the summit.

Clinton's bridging proposal was conveyed to the sides orally. Gidi Greenstein, the secretary of the Israeli delegation, put it in writing. The decision to leak it was made when it became clear that the conference was close to collapse - although Barak was careful enough not to give Yaniv an explicit instruction, which might be picked up by the Americans' wiretapping machinery. The delegation's messenger came down from "the hill" bearing a copy of the plan for Yaniv, and details from it began to crop up in the media in a growing stream of leaks. The leaks were not altogether accurate with regard to such details as the percentage of the territories Israel would withdraw from, in order to keep things under a fog to some degree and not to embarrass the hosts. To heighten credibility, the correspondents were told which cabinet ministers had spoken with the prime minister; the reporters immediately called their sources in Israel and received the same information.

Barak controlled the flow of information from Camp David in two main channels: phone calls to the ministers who acted as his publicity team back home - such as Haim Ramon, Yossi Beilin, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Dalia Itzik, who hurried to report what they had heard to news programs on the radio; and Yaniv's briefings to the correspondents on the scene. The method was based on spinning the news, but without actually lying. When Barak wanted to hint that progress was being made, the correspondents were told, "Reisner is on the hill, and you know what that means." Colonel Daniel Reisner, from the office of the Judge Advocate General, was the formulator of the agreements for the Israeli delegation. His being called to Camp David meant, supposedly, that serious negotiations were under way. The truth is that Reisner was engaged only in preparing internal papers for the Israeli side and never even spoke with the Palestinians.

Still, even Barak's efficient operation had its share of hitches. The biggest one of all was the headline above the byline of Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer in the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth at the end of the first week of the summit: "Barak returning without an agreement." That report antedated by two days the "crisis of packing to leave" fomented by the Israeli delegation, which at the time was vehemently denied. Other snafus involved the late-night phone calls made by Army Radio correspondents Razi Barkai and Raviv Drucker in an attempt to infiltrate their way into the camp. At one point, they got a confirmation from Shahak that the Yedioth headline was incorrect, while at another, Ben-Ami confirmed that Jerusalem was on the negotiating table. But the damage was minimal.

The final movement of the "spin orchestra" was played on the flight home. The summit ended with a dramatic press conference called by Barak at the hotel of the Israeli journalists, in the town of Frederick, in which the prime minister explained the breakdown of the talks. On the way to the Israel Air Force plane, at Andrews Air Force Base, Barak decided that all the members of the delegation should give their account of the summit. The result was that the trip home turned into a flying press conference that went on for hours, in the air and at the stopover in Rome. Everyone gave interviews at great length and rehashed the official version, which held that Barak was a distinguished, visionary leader, while Arafat was a recalcitrant rejectionist who was leading his nation to a historical calamity.

This time, the details that were provided about the withdrawal proposals in the West Bank and Jerusalem were more accurate. During the landing at Ben- Gurion Airport, Barak delivered another speech, read out the messages that had been formulated on the plane, and for the first time said that Arafat was not a partner, and that "the heart is aggrieved."

A year after the summit, Barak's propaganda victory at Camp David is even more pronounced in the light of Israel's ongoing failure to get across its position during the violent standoff with the Palestinians. Western public opinion, which took Barak into its fold as a peace-seeking leader who is ready for compromise, rejected the contentions of both Barak and Sharon that Israel was the victim of a Palestinian terrorist offensive, and found no moral difference between the terrorist attacks of Hamas and the actions of the Israel Defense Forces.

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