The Palestinian account of Camp David and the reasons why Israel's proposals were rejected by Arafat, have recently undergone a transformation aimed at improving both the Palestinian image and the Palestinian public relations strategy. While Palestinian demands made at the summit have remained unchanged, the PA leadership and the PLO are beginning now to address the charge that the summit's failure rests on their shoulders.
The first shot of the revised Palestinian version of events was fired by Robert Malley, President Clinton's special assistant for Arab-Israeli affairs from 1998 to 2001 in a July article in the New York Times. In a recent interview with the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, Yasser Arafat was asked about the charge that he had missed an opportunity at Camp David. He replied: "Rob Malley is good enough for me; [he] documented the Camp David talks in Clinton's presence, and published in the international press that I was not the reason for the [talks'] failure."
The central motifs of the new Palestinian position also appeared in an interview with Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), published in the Palestinian Authority daily Al-Ayyam, and in other statements by senior Palestinian leaders.
The new position has now been consolidated into a Palestinian Information Ministry document entitled "The Camp David Peace Proposal, July 2000 – Frequently Asked Questions." This document was published in Arabic and English on the ministry's Web site, with the Hebrew version of the document published on the Web site of the PLO's Negotiation Affairs Department. The quotes presented below are taken from the English version.
Many of the claims presented in the document are identical to those made by the Palestinians immediately after the conclusion of the Camp David summit. However, a comparison between the new narrative and statements made by senior Palestinian leaders a year ago shows different emphases on issues and some discrepancies between versions.
The Refugee Issue
The Palestinian Information Ministry document establishes that "the Palestinians… seek… to secure the right of Palestinian refugees to return to the homes they were forced to leave in 1948. Although Palestinian negotiators have been willing to accommodate legitimate Israeli needs [in the Hebrew version, the word "legitimate" does not appear]… it is up to Israel to define these needs and to propose the narrowest possible means of addressing them."
Further down, the document raises a question of principle on the refugees issue: "Isn't it unreasonable for the Palestinians to demand the unlimited right of return to Israel of all Palestinian refugees?"
The answer the PA offered is as follows: "The refugees were never seriously discussed at Camp David, because Prime Minister Barak declared that Israel bore no responsibility for the refugee problem or its solution. Obviously, there can be no comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without resolving one of its key components: the plight of the Palestinian refugees. There is a clearly recognized right under international law that non-combatants who flee during a conflict have the right to return after the conflict is over. But an Israeli recognition of the right of return does not mean that all the refugees will exercise that right. What is needed in addition to recognition is the concept of choice [in Hebrew, 'the consolidation of options'; in Arabic, 'the freedom of choice']. Many refugees may opt for: 1) resettlement in third countries; 2) resettlement in a newly independent Palestinian state; 3) normalization of their legal status in their hosting countries. In addition, the right of return may be implemented in phases, so as to address Israel's demographic concerns."
Return to Israel or a Choice of Options
In the revised document, the Palestinians claim that at Camp David their position was that the refugees be given the right to choose between four options, one of which was to be resettled in the new Palestinian state.
However, in November 2000, Abu Mazen said that the Palestinians had opposed this at the Camp David summit and had demanded a return to Israel proper only. "It should be noted in this matter," he wrote in an article in the London daily Al-Hayyat, "and this is also what we clarified to the Israelis, that the right of return means a return to Israel, not to a Palestinian state, because the territory of the Palestinian Authority, which will in the future be the State of Palestine, was not a [body] that expelled refugees, but [a body] that absorbed them. Not a single refugee is from Gaza, Hebron, or Nablus. All the residents of these cities remained, and absorbed refugees from the neighbor[ing area]. Up to 70% of Gaza residents are refugees, as are 40% of West Bank residents. Therefore, when we talk of the right of return, we are referring to the return of refugees to Israel, because it is [Israel] that expelled them and because their property is there…"
The Right of Return: Principle Versus Implementation
The Palestinian Information Ministry account of Camp David states that while the principle of return must be absolute, there can be flexibility on the part of the Palestinians regarding the implementation of that right, both on the timeline – "the right of return may be implemented in phases, so as to address Israel's demographic concerns" – and geographically, since many refugees may prefer other options to a return to Israel. This emphasis, on the "right" and the "principle" of return, as distinct from its practical implementation as per various models, has been a long-standing and recurrent theme in the statements of senior Palestinians, and even more so since the summit.
However, during the Camp David negotiations and afterwards at Taba, the principle went hand in hand with the implementation. Abu Mazen clarified that "the Palestinian delegation [to Camp David] refused to set a limit on the number of refugees that would be allowed to return – even if they [the Israelis] were to offer us [to allow a return of] three million refugees… This is because we wanted them to recognize the principle, and then we will come to an agreement on a timetable for the refugees' return, or for compensation for those who do not wish to return."
Saeb Ereqat said in interviews with the Palestinian dailies Al-Hayat Al-Jadida and Al-Ayyam that the proposal on the refugees was rejected because it "left the door open to implementation without time limit, an implementation that could take just about forever."
Yet Nabil Sha'ath, who was also present at Camp David and later on conducted the negotiations on the refugee issue at Taba, said, "At Taba we did not change a single line of the position paper we presented at Camp David… We said that recognition of Resolution  was not enough for us and that even recognition of the absolute right of return is not enough for us without the inclusion of a mechanism of implementation and international guarantees for implementation, as set forth in the UN resolutions. That is, I can't be happy just because they say beautiful words to me… my worries must be addressed with a mechanism of implementation. For example, how would a refugee apply for return? How can I guarantee his return? If the refugee returns, how can we guarantee that he gets his house back? And if he returns, how can we guarantee that he will be able to bring his family? Will the entire clan return, and if so how? We are discussing these details in order to ensure their implementation."