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Palestinians Still Reject ‘Clinton Parameters’ 

By Bernard Bohbot

The purpose of this piece is not to vilify the Palestinians but rather to stress that more needs to be done to address their legitimate grievances.  Money alone won’t solve the refugee problem.  Israel ought to envisage creative ideas that would reconcile the right of return with Israel’s existence, such as a confederal arrangement.  Oslo sought to settle the 1967 file, but no genuine peace can be achieved without addressing 1948 as well.  I agree with Prof. Hussein Agha that the refugee issue must be dealt with more resolutely than Oslo had.

Nevertheless, the international community mostly subscribes to an inaccurate “revisionist” recounting of the failed peace negotiations from 2000 to 2014 between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).  I too subscribed to this interpretation until June 8, 2017, when the Haaretz correspondent in Washington, Amir Tibon, revealed that in March 2014, PA President Abbas walked away from a framework proposed by the Obama administration for renewed negotiations.

Proponents of this flawed interpretation (especially Robert Malley and Jeremy Pressman) overlook President Clinton’s claim that in December 2000, Israel accepted his guidelines, known as the Clinton Parameters, while the Palestinian Authority opposed them.  Instead, they argue that both sides accepted them with reservations.

In 2000/2001, Israel expressed only one significant reservation: it wanted joint control over the Holy Basin of Jerusalem (the Old City and the adjacent holy sites) through a “special regime,” so Jewish holy sites would not fall under exclusive Palestinian sovereignty (the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary, the Mount of Olives, the City of David, etc.).  Clinton’s framework called for a partition of the area between Israelis and Palestinians.  But that was merely a request, not an ultimatum.

Otherwise, in its official response, Israelis expressed mere disagreement with other provisions of Clinton’s framework, but there was no explicit demand to remove them.  For instance, Israel expressed “unhappiness” with the “numerical territorial values” in Clinton’s peace plan without demanding explicitly to change them; Israelis hoped to keep up to 8 percent of the West Bank in the framework of a land swap instead of only 4-6 percent.  They also feared that granting Palestinian refugees a symbolic right of return to “historic Palestine” or “their homeland” might open the door to further claims in the future. That said, Israel reiterated its willingness to negotiate within the framework of the Clinton Parameters.

At the Taba Summit, Israel gave up on all reservations.  Israel even went beyond the Clinton Parameters, as Prime Minister Ehud Barak allowed his negotiators, Yair Hirschfeld and Nimrod Novik, to offer the equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank provided that the Palestinians stop insisting on a right of return.  Clinton proposed the creation of a Palestinian state on 97 percent of the West Bank: 94 +3 percent, with Palestinian docking in Israeli seaports and a safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza Strip to be counted as the remaining 3 percent.

By contrast, the Palestinians first rejected the Clinton Parameters before saying that they accepted them with objections that completely undermined Clinton’s principles: 

  •  Borders: Clinton’s framework called for a land swap encompassing 4-6% of the West Bank, forcing Israel to remove 20% of Jewish settlers. The PA insisted on only a 2% swap, compelling Israel to uproot most settlers outside of Jerusalem.

  • Jerusalem: Clinton’s Parameters called for a division of the city along ethnic lines, with Jewish neighborhoods going to Israel and the Arab ones to the Palestinians. The Palestinians did not accept Israeli sovereignty over the neighborhood/settlement of Har Homa and part of the Armenian Quarter.

  • Holy sites: Clinton’s Parameters called for a “vertical sovereignty” of the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary, while the Palestinians demanded exclusive sovereignty over this area.

  • Palestinian refugees: Clinton offered the Palestinians a symbolic right of return to “historic Palestine” but with most refugees resettling in the new Palestinian state rather than in pre-1967 Israel.  Yet the Palestinians insisted on exercising a right of return for Palestinian refugees to Israel as well.  They merely offered to implement their right of return “creatively” and “flexibly” to “accommodate Israeli concerns.”  They also wanted Israel to accept full responsibility for the creation of the refugee problem, ignoring the role of Palestinian militias and other Arab forces in rejecting the UN partition plan of 1947, and launching the hostilities which created the Nakba when they lost the war.  

These open-ended terms insinuated that the PA wanted the refugee issue to remain on the table, even after the occupation ends.  This blatantly contradicted the Clinton Parameters, which intended an agreement that would “put an end to all claims.” 

It is unclear how many refugees the Palestinians expected Israel to absorb.  In 2011, Al Jazeera and The Guardian revealed the so-called “Palestine Papers” and argued that the Palestinians wanted Israel to welcome only 150,000 refugees over a 10-year period, without mentioning that this number was “renewable thereafter at the agreement of both parties. 

In closely examining the Palestine Papers, Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf revealed that the PA believed Israel must absorb between 500,000 and 2 million refugees before 2058. Al Jazeera and The Guardian mishandled their coverage of these documents either for ideological reasons or (more likely) because of journalistic time constraints.

It is noteworthy to say that Arafat also refused to endorse the 2003 Geneva Initiative that merely called for a 2.2% land swap and full Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary. He praised this effort, and many thought wrongfully that he had endorsed it, but he argued that it did not go far enough regarding the refugee issue.

In 2008, Abbas walked away from a second peace plan based on the Clinton Parameters presented by Israel’s former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Yair Hirschfeld revealed that Olmert sent his negotiator, Ron Pundak, to Ramallah and offered to increase his offer, to no avail.  Olmert later said that he was ready to connect Israel to the remote settlement city of Ariel with a tunnel or an overpass rather than annexing that entire expanse of the West Bank into Israel. 

Many justify Abbas’ behavior by invoking Olmert’s indictment that rendered him a lame duck. But Olmert wanted at least an agreed-upon framework for his successor to make the 2009 election into a referendum on peace. At that time, a clear majority of Israelis accepted the Clinton Parameters.  Those who insist that Olmert had no legitimacy without a parliamentary majority fail to understand that no peace agreement can be passed without consulting the population, either in a referendum or a new election.

Maybe Israel’s peace camp should reassess the feasibility of reaching an agreement based on the Clinton Parameters.  Perhaps it’s time to envision a unilateral pullout from the bulk of the West Bank, with the IDF stationed only as necessary to prevent attacks on Israel.  Another (more attractive) solution is a confederal framework with open borders. 

Regardless, it is time we face the truth. The Palestinians have rejected three offers based on Clinton’s Parameters.  They endorsed the 2002 Arab League peace initiative, a positive step, but one that was vague regarding the refugee issue.  That said, Clinton’s guidelines do not align with their demands.  Many want to sanction Israel to end the West Bank occupation.  B’tselem now agrees with the BDS movement that the occupation makes Israel a full-fledged apartheid state.  However, such sanctions will remain futile if Palestinians keep rejecting Clinton’s framework.  It takes two to tango, but the dance floor is empty. 

5 Responses to “Palestinians Still Reject ‘Clinton Parameters’ ”

  1. Philip Mendes
    March 21, 2021 at 4:24 pm #

    Bernard: its a solid historical analysis. But I’ve got to say (as a supporter of a two state solution since 1982) that we are now further away from a serious possibility of successful peace negotiations than at any time in that four decades. I can’t see any signs of compromise from the leaders of either side, there is no common ground.

  2. Bernard Bohbot
    March 24, 2021 at 3:07 am #

    Dear Mr. Mendes,
    Thanks. There are lots of interviews behind this piece!
    I totally agree wth everything you said. However I still believe that a lot can be achieved even without a full-fledged peace agreement. Gilead Sher, Yair Hirschfeld, Yossi Alpher, Hussein Agha, and others have advocated an interim agreement on “real estate” that would not deal with the thorniest issues such as the refugees, the holy sites, and so on. It is still possible to create a two-state reality by implementing the second phase of the Roadmap, for example (a Palestinian state with provisional borders). The Northern Irish peace process was a success largely because it did not seek to achieve a final-status agreement. I also believe that down the road (and the road is long!) a confederal solution is the most logical way to achieve peace. I’m no longer a Marxist but I still remember Gramsci’s motto: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”!
    https://fathomjournal.org/what-should-biden-do-next-on-israeli-palestinian-peace-and-iran-a-review-essay-by-yair-hirschfeld/
    https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2021-02-16/palestinian-reckoning

    PS
    I do not blame the Palestinians for the failure of the peace process. I just happen to believe that the “revisionist” interpretation of the failure of the peace process fails whereby Israel just has to offer a little more than what was put on the table in 2001, 2008, or 2014, and peace would ensue is wishful thinking. Money alone (or even excuses) won’t solve the 1948 file. It is a very difficult issue that has no easy answer.

    • ken Brociner
      May 6, 2021 at 11:37 pm #

      Bernard:

      I have long felt that the vast literature on why the peace negotiations have failed over the past 20 years almost always overlooks the excellent points you have laid out here. However, it seems to me that the “purpose” of your essay as you have stated it: “The purpose of this piece is not to vilify the Palestinians but rather to stress that more needs to be done to address their legitimate grievances.” ….. contradicts the substance of your presentation. According to the historical analysis that you have put forward (and that I happen to agree with), there have been several occasions in which the Israeli gov’t has addressed “the legitimate grievances” of the PA. Full stop. It seems as if you are bending over so far backwards to be fair that you are almost running away from your own conclusions. Perhaps I am missing something – but I would suggest that you more resolutely stand up for the convincing argument you have made.

  3. J. Martin Bailey
    May 25, 2021 at 6:25 am #

    As I study the statements of Israelis and those who support the Palestinians, I observe that well-meaning persons seem too ready to rehearse what the Palestinian Authority APPEARS TO HAVE SAID.

    Those of us who seek justice and peace from the sidelines can never replace the voices of the Palestinians themselves. Let us listen carefully to what they are saying. Let us encourage the Israelis to listen carefully and honestly.

    Honest Peace requires honest listening from all parties to the discussion.

    J. Martin Bailey
    (a Christian American who has lived in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.)

  4. Bernard Bohbot
    June 1, 2021 at 11:47 am #

    1) Mr. Brociner :

    JPost published a harsher version, but I do not wish the Palestinians to feel beleaguered – neither Israelis nor Palestinians should be ostracized.
    https://www.jpost.com/opinion/the-pa-rejects-clinton-parameters-20-years-later-opinion-658864

    In my humble opinion, it is important to find some common ground with the Palestinians. If they are uncomfortable with Clinton’s framework, it doesn’t mean that they are evil. It merely means that the goal of reaching a final-status agreement was flawed, to begin with. Yair Hirshfeld believes that the “Northern Irish paradigm” is more promising. The Good Friday Agreement did not seek to reach a final status settlement but merely created a framework and mechanism to solve the dispute between unionists and republicans peacefully.
    https://fathomjournal.org/what-should-biden-do-next-on-israeli-palestinian-peace-and-iran-a-review-essay-by-yair-hirschfeld/

    Triggering phase 2 of the Roadmap would create a Palestinian state within provisional borders (roughly 85-90% of the West Bank) before addressing the thorniest issues (refugees, holy sites, land swaps…). Israel can then incrementally evacuate the rest of the West (that would require security arrangements acceptable for both sides as well as an agreement regarding land swaps). However, the refugee issue will remain a sticking point in the foreseeable future. But if a confederation can be created in a few decades from now, this issue might be rendered moot.

    However, I felt the need to write this article, as the revisionist recounting of the failure of the peace process is 1) unfair to Israel 2) likely to lead US peacemakers to repeat the same mistakes of 2000-01, 2008, and 2014.

    I also deeply resent the fact that Israel alone is blamed for the absence of peace. Most opinion makers (especially journalists) keep saying that if only the US and the international community can force Israel to relinquish the West Bank, peace would ensue. This claim is baseless. They ignore the fact that most Israeli left-wing negotiators, but also Palestinian former negotiators (Hussein Agha, Ahmad Khalidi, Ghaith Al-Omari) believe that a final-status agreement is unachievable and that an incremental approach would be much more effective.

    2) Mr. Bailey:

    Unlike revisionists who speculate as to the intentions of the Palestinians by arguing that the refugee issue is merely a bargaining chip or a symbolic issue, I happen to take Palestinian demands seriously. This is precisely why I favor a partial agreement that would allow the Palestinians to recover virtually all the West Bank before addressing the inextricable issues (refugees, holy sites…). However, I also believe that down the road, a confederal framework (with open borders) can solve (in part) the refugee issue, by allowing Palestinians (and Israelis) to live on both sides of the border.

    3) For anyone who does not agree with my understanding of Israel’s response to Clinton’s framework, the official Israeli response was recently made public:
    https://naip-documents.blogspot.com/2020/06/document-99.html

    https://www.inss.org.il/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/8-12.2000-Response-of-the-Government-of-Israel-to-the-ideas-raised-by-President-Clinton-regarding-the-outline-of-a-Framework-Agreement-on-Permanent-Status.pdf

    As you can see, Israel wrote a five-page document clarifying what the implementation of Clinton’s parameters entails for both sides. It also added a series of reservations. I can name four of them:
    1. Israel asked to renegotiate the status of the holy sites (that was a request, not an ultimatum).

    2. Israel expressed disagreement with the scope of the land swap envisioned by Clinton. However, there was no explicit demand to change this provision.

    3. Israel did not like the fact that Clinton’s framework provided the Palestinians with a symbolic right of return to “historic Palestine” or “their homeland” with only a symbolic number of refugees being allowed to resettle in Israel. But once again, there was no explicit rejection of this provision and no formal demand to rescind it.

    4. Israel demanded that security arrangements include Israeli control of the Palestinian airspace (Israel made this demand at Camp David a few months earlier) as well as the electromagnetic sphere.

    However, the “Security” section of this document begins with the following statement: “Israel understands that unless explicitly otherwise expressed by the President, the Camp David summit understandings as summarized by the President in Camp David remain a valid basis for the permanent agreement.”

    In other words, if Clinton says explicitly that the Camp David proposal is obsolete, there is no Israeli control over the Palestinian airspace; only special authorizations for the IDF to fly over the Palestinian airspace. Clinton made clear that his peace plan was not negotiable.

    Anyhow, Israel reiterated its commitment to the Clinton parameters and gave up on all of these reservations during the Taba Summit (Israel actually went beyond Clinton’s demands to achieve peace). Those who create a false symmetry between Israeli and Palestinian responses to the Clinton parameters are mistaken.

    All the best,
    Bernard Bohbot

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