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As Obama sits down with Netanyahu and Abbas, a brief history of the trilateral summit

Allison Hoffman
September 22, 2009
Rabin, Clinton, and Arafat(All photos Getty Images.)
Rabin, Clinton, and Arafat(All photos Getty Images.)

This morning, President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet jointly for the first time with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The meeting, at the Waldorf-Astoria, was hastily announced Saturday and billed with very low expectations from all sides, with both Israeli and Palestinian officials warning that no one should mistake their willingness to humor the American president for a desire to resume talks.

Once, it was almost enough for Jimmy Carter to provide a neutral, secret place for Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to meet, at the presidential retreat at Camp David. Today, the Obama administration finds itself playing the strongman, wrestling both sides, grudgingly, into just sitting at the same table. The meeting, which is being held while all three main players are in New York for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly—where, last year, Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres declined to meet—comes at a time when, perhaps, the United States is more interested in reaching peace than are “the parties,” as the two sides are referred to in diplomatic circles. Here, a brief evolution of America’s role in the drive toward peace.

Camp David, September 1978: Menachem Begin, Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat

The summit that eventually took place in the wooded retreat at Camp David was originally set to happen in Geneva, under the auspices of a peacemaking conference established after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. That meeting, burdened with Cold War politics, never happened, and it wasn’t until after Sadat—with Israeli assurances—took the unexpected, dramatic step of going to Jerusalem later that year that Carter began his push for U.S.-backed talks.

At Carter’s invitation, Begin and Sadat traveled to Maryland for 12 days of secret negotiations—the first 10 days of which consisted of Carter shuttling among cabins, until Sadat and Begin agreed to meet face-to-face. The result was a U.S.-witnessed agreement that established a lasting peace in the Sinai, and an initial framework for negotiating peace in Gaza and the West Bank.

Oslo Accords, September 1993: Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat

The photograph is iconic: Rabin, in his suit, and Arafat, in his keffiyeh and military uniform, shaking hands at the White House, ensconced in Clinton’s wide embrace, immediately after signing their historic peace agreement. But the United States did relatively little to bring about the Oslo deal, which was largely due to the efforts of Terje Rod-Larsen, a Norwegian sociologist who had done work in the Palestinian territories and Israel’s Labor government under Yitzhak Rabin, which was elected in 1992.

Months of meetings between the Israelis and the PLO, held secretly in Norway outside the framework of U.S.- and Soviet-sanctioned negotiations launched at a 1991 conference in Madrid, culminated in an agreement between the two sides to recognize each other as negotiating partners and to reach a permanent peace deal within five years, inked in Oslo in August 1993. Clinton, ever the showman, invited both sides to Washington the following month for a formal signing ceremony that would produce, at the very least, an indelible image of possibility.

Wye River, October 1998: Benjamin Netanyahu, Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat

Netanyahu is no stranger to negotiations with the Palestinians. The last time he was prime minister, he was meeting with Arafat at the Aspen Institute’s Wye River complex, in Maryland, under the supervision of the Clinton Administration. Netanyahu, much as today, found himself then bound by promises made by others that created political pressures for him in Jerusalem, specifically with regard to withdrawals from settlements—but Clinton used the fifth anniversary of the Oslo Accords, an agreement hallowed by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin at the hands of an Israeli objector, to force both sides back to the negotiating table.

Clinton, who called on King Hussein of Jordan to help grease the negotiations after Carter-style shuttling between the camps failed to produce results, eked out an agreement after a marathon 21-hour negotiating session, commemorated with a solemn indoor signing ceremony. The agreement laid out a timeline for land transfers from the Israelis to the Palestinians, based on security assurances, and set a target date of May 1999 for a final-status agreement.

Camp David Summit, July 2000: Ehud Barak, Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat

After the Wye River timeline fell apart, the Palestinians and the Israelis—led now by Ehud Barak—set out a new timeline at Sharm el-Sheik, in 1999, which called for a final deal by February 2000. That date passed before Clinton, at Barak’s urging, convened a new summit in July of that year at Camp David—this time, with the world watching. Barak, it is widely acknowledged, broke every precedent and appeared to offer the Palestinians sovereignty over East Jerusalem and a Palestinian state on the West Bank. But Arafat said no—a decision that has been analyzed for a decade, but one that was at least in part driven by, ironically, the concern that America’s willingness to usher along an Israeli-led peace effort compromised its role as an honest broker between the two sides.

Aqaba, June 2003: Ariel Sharon, George Bush, Mahmoud Abbas

The summit at Aqaba was not an American event—the formal host was Jordan’s King Abdullah, who inherited his father’s role as a facilitator, but it was the moment when George Bush, fresh off the Iraq invasion, stood between Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas and declared himself the local sheriff in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. “I used the expression ‘ride herd,’” Bush told reporters after the meeting, on the Red Sea. “I don’t know if anybody understood it in the meeting today.”

Rather than playing couples’ therapist, and letting the Israelis and the Palestinians dictate the pace of negotiations, Bush said he would appoint an American team to monitor progress on the “Road Map” plan he originally proposed in 2002, and insisted he would hold both sides accountable for fulfilling their responsibilities under existing agreements. No firm commitments were reached on resuming formal peace talks, but Abbas promised an end to the terrorism of the Second Intifada, and Sharon promised progress toward a Palestinian state.

Rose Garden, November 2007: Ehud Olmert, George Bush, Mahmoud Abbas

Seven years after the failure of Clinton’s Camp David effort, Bush convened a Middle East conference of 44 nations at Annapolis, where Olmert and Abbas agreed to resume peace talks with the goal of reaching a lasting agreement by the end of Bush’s presidency, in January 2009. In a press conference that recalled the 1993 Oslo signing ceremony, Bush stood between the Israeli and Palestinian leader and pledged the “active engagement” of the United States in the peace process.

Yet Bush said at the time that he had no plans to go back to the Middle East himself to “unstick negotiations”—and he never called a round-the-clock, Camp David-style retreat before he left office, with no final deal signed.

Photos: Camp David, 1978 by Karl Schumacher/AFP/Getty Images; Oslo, 1993 by J. David Ake/AFP/Getty Images; Wye River, October 1998 by Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images; Camp David, July 200 by Stephen Jaffe/AFP/Getty Images; Aqaba, June 2003 by Hussein Malla/AFP/Getty Images; Rose Garden, November 2007 by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.

Allison Hoffman is the executive editor of CNN Politics.