Camp David II had a topsy-turvy quality to it, as two facts suggest. First, Israel, the major power of the Middle East, the victor in war, the economically prosperous and politically stable country, did all the giving while the Palestinians - losers, weak, poor, and unstable - were to get the practical benefits.
Lest this seem like an exaggeration, consider the issues under discussion at Camp David: Jerusalem, borders, Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees. In every one of these, Israel gives and the Palestinians take. Issues that would benefit Israel - normalizing relations, changing school textbooks, the Arab League declaring a formal end to the conflict - were not even on the table. The old "land-for-words" formula of UN Resolution 242 is apparently defunct, replaced by Oslo's "land-for-nothing" logic.
Second, and stranger yet, is the fact that the Israeli side made almost every concession at Camp David. It made a heart-wrenching compromise on Jerusalem, a strategic one on the Jordan River front, and a Zionist one on the return of Palestinian refugees. Despite the remarkable nature of these steps, much at variance with traditional policy, polls showed Israeli public opinion, with reservations, endorsing the prime minister's efforts.
In contrast, the Palestinian side mounted a wall of opposition to Yasser Arafat's presence at the negotiations, seeing in this alone something terrible. Hamas, the leading Islamist group, declared the Camp David meeting to be nothing less than "a new Zionist and American conspiracy" against "the rights of our people."
Islamic Jihad, a yet more radical group, concurred: "The summit is in the Israeli interest and Israel and the United States will try to pressure the Palestinians and impose Israel's position on them."
The prospect of Arafat making any concessions was anathema to his constituency. On the issue of refugees returning to Israel, for example, one member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Hussam Khadir, warned Arafat that "A pistol bullet has been passing from generation to generation and its last destination will be the heart of those who cede the refugees' right to return." With this kind of threat hanging over the Palestinian delegation, it is not surprising that they stood tough on nearly every point.
Whatever the summit might have achieved would have been unwelcome to Palestinians. "I consider any agreement that might be reached at Camp David to be a failure because it is not what the Palestinians are looking for," Sheikh Ahmed Yassin of Hamas proclaimed. Like Hafez Assad four months earlier, the Palestinians would not take yes for an answer.
All this is really very odd. Not only is the stronger power unilaterally handing over its trump cards, but the recipient is loath to take them. What explains this upside-down circumstance?
Palestinians have, over the seven years of the Oslo process, grown accustomed to taking from Israel and offering very little by way of compensation. In fact, they have come to take this for granted. They expect more of the same - land, autonomy, tax income - culminating in the declaration of a Palestinian state.
As the Palestinians have become the beneficiaries of Israeli largesse, their earlier fear of Israel has been replaced with a disdain that borders on contempt. The result is plain to see. The Barak government signals a willingness to turn over about 90 percent of the West Bank, a much larger percentage than ever previously discussed, and the Palestinians react with indifference. Why bother with this, they ask each other. Why settle for anything less than full control of the land?
At the very least, they can hold out for a better offer. Or they can turn to the alternative, the one that Hizbullah trail-blazed in Lebanon.
Instead of the indignity of negotiations, Palestinians can resort to the (for them) more noble and redeeming use of violence to extrude the Zionists from every last meter of what they consider to be their land.
A perverse dynamic, in other words, is at work here. The more that Israelis are reasonable and flexible, the less likely Palestinians are to accept a compromise with them. The grander Barak's gesture, the more trivial and even unwelcome it appears to his opponents.
This self-defeating logic is likely to continue until Israel again shows the kind of fortitude that it once made famous.