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23 years ago, Israelis and Palestinians were talking about a two-state solution

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

After the past few weeks, it's hard to believe that the Israelis and Palestinians were once ever negotiating a peace deal. But just a little more than two decades ago, they were, and they were close to an agreement that would have involved a lot of concessions on both sides, but it would have created two states. In the final months of his presidency, Bill Clinton threw himself into finding a solution to the anger and violence that plagues the region. And it all came to a head during a historic summit with Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at Camp David in July 2000. Clinton had announced the summit a week before from the White House briefing room.

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BILL CLINTON: If the parties do not seize this moment, if they cannot make progress now, there will be more hostility and more bitterness, perhaps even more violence. And to what end?

DETROW: For two weeks, Clinton cajoled, talked, yelled, and arm-twisted to try to get the two leaders to agree to a deal that would allow their people to live in peace.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How long is it going to take, Mr. President?

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CLINTON: We pledged to each other we would answer no questions and offer no comments.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Have you got...

CLINTON: So I have to set a good example.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Laughter).

DETROW: But despite his best efforts and his formidable political skills, Clinton's efforts failed.

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CLINTON: They couldn't get there. That's the truth. They couldn't get there. But this was the first time in an organized, disciplined way they had to work through, both for themselves and then with each other, how they were going to come to grips with issues that go to the core of their identity. And I think on balance, it was very much the right thing to do.

DETROW: The chief negotiator for the U.S. at those meetings was Ambassador Dennis Ross. He was the point man on the Middle East peace process for both President George H.W. Bush and then President Clinton. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, Ambassador Ross.

DENNIS ROSS: Always good to be with you. Thank you.

DETROW: So set the scene for us - July 2000. It's Camp David. You have Clinton, Barak and Arafat there together for two weeks. What was the mood like?

ROSS: Well, the mood coming into it was a little uncertain, and I'll explain why. Yasser Arafat had been saying that we weren't ready to go to a summit, but he wasn't allowing any of his negotiators to actually negotiate. For six weeks prior to this time, Ehud Barak had been pushing us to go to a summit, making the argument that only in the context of a summit would you create, in his words, a pressure cooker that would require him and Arafat to make decisions that they wouldn't make unless they were in that environment. And we tried to remove some of our own uncertainties as to whether or not we could close the gaps on the core issues by negotiating with the two sides in advance, by testing them in advance. We moved the Israelis a lot. But Arafat - even though I would talk to him and he would say his negotiators were authorized to negotiate, they didn't actually do so.

DETROW: So Arafat and the Palestinian side of the negotiation, you're saying, was not taking it seriously, was not willing to have real conversations? Or did that change as it went on?

ROSS: Well, the interesting thing is there was a distinction between Arafat and his negotiators. And his negotiators...

DETROW: OK.

ROSS: ...Were competing among themselves, but there were one set of negotiators who were really pushing to try to reach an agreement, who created a back channel with the Israelis. They were meeting in a back channel, and I would join them from time to time in the back channel. And they were very serious about trying to reach an agreement. There were others on the Palestinian delegation who made some efforts, and then there were some who were sitting in Yasser Arafat's cabin every day and playing out, rolling out conspiracy theories with him about what was going on.

DETROW: So there's all these challenges, but still...

ROSS: Yes.

DETROW: ...Did it feel in the moment like there was progress and that you could see some sort of final deal coming together?

ROSS: I would say it was a real roller coaster that we were riding all the time. There were moments where I felt we were making progress, and I would say in the end, when we didn't succeed - and this is what President Clinton was referring to in the clip that you ran - we, for the first time, had the two sides directly engage on the most fundamental core existential issues of the conflict. I don't mean borders and security. Those are more technical. I mean Jerusalem and refugees because those are the kind of issues that went to the heart of self-identification and their own narrative, the sense of who they were.

DETROW: Yeah.

ROSS: And for the first time, we had that engagement. And the truth is, even though we didn't have agreement, you could see where it could end up. Ultimately, you know, we presented the Clinton Parameters in December of 2000, five months later, and it was a product of what we had learned from then and then subsequent discussions we ended up having.

DETROW: So you have serious meetings, lasting meetings. You have this sense of momentum. We are finally talking about this issue. You have, at the very end of the administration, this plan comes forward - one final attempt. Here are the parameters. How close did you come to peace? How close did this come to being real?

ROSS: Well, to be honest, we were even - I came, later on, to appreciate we were even closer than I thought. When President Clinton presented the Clinton Parameters to the two sides at the White House on December 22, 2000, and after five days, the Barak government came back - said they approved the parameters. They had some reservations, but the reservations were within the parameters. So on January 2, we had Arafat come to the White House, and he didn't say yes. He basically was willing to discuss all the areas where the Israelis were making concessions. He wasn't willing to discuss any of the areas where the Palestinians were supposed to make concessions. So it seemed like he had just said no.

But what I subsequently learned - about 18 months ago, I had a dinner with a former Palestinian negotiator who'd been part of the delegation. He said the whole Palestinian delegation had decided among themselves they should accept it. They went back to Arafat, and Arafat said no. I subsequently heard from another Palestinian on that delegation who said Arafat thought he could still do a better deal under Bush because he thought maybe Bush will be even more forthcoming.

And the struggle is what defined Arafat. He was prepared to do limited deals because they didn't require him to do something definitive. Arafat was someone who never closed doors, never closed options. The idea of ending the conflict was a step that was too far for him. In retrospect, I think we should have gone for a less ambitious approach and created the circumstances so his successor could have done something that he wasn't up to doing.

DETROW: You were in all of these rooms. You had a hand in all of these plans. You saw how close it came. And as you're saying, in the years since, you've realized it came even closer than you thought it did at the time. How much has all of that been weighing on you over the past few weeks as we have seen this conflict explode in ways it's never exploded before?

ROSS: Yeah, you might imagine this has been emotionally difficult for me. I have to say, I had a lot of experiences along the way in the 1990s. Almost every time we were making a lot of progress, Hamas would do a suicide bombing, and the purpose was to undermine what was going on. I feel like we've seen Hamas act again in the same way because they saw a Saudi-Israeli normalization looming. To see what the costs are now, to have Israel experience its darkest day ever, to see what's happening to Palestinians right now - for me, personally, it's heartbreaking. I'm not the kind who feels that you give in to despair. But, you know, I'm looking at what's going on now, and I'm focused on, how can we come out of this so there's a day after? Because there needs to be a day after. We have to understand - Israelis aren't going anyplace, and Palestinians aren't going anyplace. Somehow, given that, we have to find a way towards coexistence, and obviously, we're not there now.

DETROW: Ambassador Dennis Ross, thank you so much for talking to us.

ROSS: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAM SAPPHIRE'S "HONEYSUCKLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Patrick Jarenwattananon
Scott Detrow
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.