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February 1999

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“CAMP WYE” Accords

Harvey Sicherman

Harvey Sicherman, Ph.D., is president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a former aide to three US secretaries of state. He is author of Palestinian Autonomy, Self-Government, and Peace
. ~ Ed.
ON OCTOBER 23, 1998, AFTER NINE DAYS OF STRENUOUS SUMMITRY at the Wye plantation in Maryland, President Clinton extracted a memorandum of agreement from Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasir Arafat. He did so through the method made famous two decades earlier, when Jimmy Carter’s tireless shuttle between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin produced the Camp David Accords. But what may be dubbed the “Camp Wye Accords” is still at best an interim step. The most important outcome of the memorandum may therefore be the transformation of the American role, as both sides prepare for negotiations on final status.

To understand this, three questions must be answered.
  • First, why did it take so much time (22 months) and so much effort (Clinton himself) to get from the last agreement to this one?
  • Second, what’s new about Wye?
  • And, third, what is different about the American role?


Those who read the “Wye River Memorandum” will find familiar ground, for it revisits subjects negotiated at Oslo in August 1993, Oslo II in September 1995, and the Hebron Accord of January 1997. Throughout this process there seemed an inverse ratio between confidence and diplomacy; the less confidence, the more diplomacy required to achieve yet another affirmation by the parties of a partnership that existed only on paper. It was clear even before Rabin’s murder in 1995 that most Israelis had come to doubt Arafat’s commitment to combat terrorism, while the Palestinians saw little improvement in their lives, except an Authority bursting with police and bureaucrats. Thus, as friction and fear increased, the parties appeared to lose their way in what Israeli diplomat Uri Savir called “the abyss between cooperation and conflict.”

The leaders did not help. Both Netanyahu, Oslo’s opponent elected to “fix the peace,” and Arafat, forever alternating between peace and jihad, found political benefit in tension. Yet neither was prepared to jettison Oslo when the alternative was war.

A bout of dangerous violence in Jerusalem in September 1996 brought heavy American intervention into a process that until then had been largely conducted directly by the Israelis and the Palestinians. This led to Hebron in January 1997, with its side letter from Secretary of State Christopher outlining mutual expectations of reciprocity.

Instead, there followed Israel’s Har Homa building project and Arafat’s rejection of Israel’s first redeployment as “peanuts” (three redeployments were specified in Oslo II, but not their size). Arafat abandoned security cooperation and encouraged violence. Netanyahu replied with economic sanctions and a threat to act directly against targets in the Authority areas. An alarmed U.S. Secretary of State Albright then demanded that the parties resume serious cooperation or stew in their own juices. Finally, on October 8, 1997, Arafat and Netanyahu met to lower tension, but not much more.

Washington agreed with Israel’s contention that Arafat had failed the security test but also accepted the Palestinian argument that further Israeli redeployments were essential (the PA ruled 98 percent of the Palestinian population, but fully controlled only three percent of the territory). The US therefore rejected Netanyahu’s argument that Oslo should be abandoned for an immediate negotiation on final status. In January 1998, peace process coordinator Dennis Ross presented US ideas for reviving Oslo through mutual “confidence-building measures”: meaningful Israeli withdrawals from at least 13 percent of the land and Palestinian security action, linked so that both sides would move together. This was the proposal eventually negotiated at Wye, but not before the “partners” spent ten months in a bout of evasion.

Arafat won the initial round by going limp into the arms of the Americans after resuming limited security cooperation under the auspices of the CIA. The U.S., already anxious about a stalemate that was impeding its attempt to tighten the screws on Iraq, then focused on Israel. Netanyahu’s rough political experience with his coalition on Hebron and his equivocation toward Oslo—a “bad agreement” that he would “honor” nonetheless—made him most reluctant to yield territory, especially if the new map would isolate some of the smaller Israeli settlements. There then ensued “the showdown that was ... and wasn’t” (Peacefacts, May 1998) as Washington issued the Israeli leader ultimatum after ultimatum, emissary after emissary, rethinking after rethinking, all of which collapsed in mid-May when it became clear that Clinton would not confront Netanyahu on behalf of Arafat. Mrs. Albright thereupon advised the Palestinian leader to contact Netanyahu directly.

This is not what the Rais expected. He had accepted the U.S. plan “in principle,” expected the minimum 13 percent, and observed the developing American-Israeli battle with an adroit silence. But the PA was broke, its legislature in rebellion over corruption, and Hamas once more growing in popularity.

Twice before Arafat had chosen violence to get Netanyahu’s attention, but his relations with Washington now precluded that tactic. Instead, Arafat chose the threat of violence to come: a unilateral declaration of statehood on May 4, 1999, when the five-year Oslo autonomy agreement expired, if no agreement was reached on final status.

Arafat had often spoken of such statehood, and in theory “Filastin” already existed by Arafat’s own proclamation in November 1988. A decade later, however, this seemed less illusory. On May 6, at the height of U.S.-Israeli tensions, Hillary Clinton said publicly that “it will be in the long-term interest of the Middle East for Palestine to be a state,” and no one believed White House protestations that this was a private, irrelevant opinion. Despite U.S. opposition, the UN General Assembly voted on July 7 to upgrade the PLO’s observer status to “Palestine,” a non-voting category that nonetheless recognized the PA’s control of territory, a precursor to statehood.

Israeli indignation notwithstanding, further delay in reaching an agreement on another interim step had simply ceased to be in anyone’s interests. Quiet progress was made between the negotiating teams in June and July. During these summer months, Netanyahu also prepared to deal with the “second vote” problem: a deal with Arafat would easily pass the Knesset with opposition Labour support, but the second vote of no confidence might bring down the government with its bare one-vote majority. When the Knesset in August supported a first reading of a bill to schedule the next election, the Prime Minister knew that he would probably have to face the voters sooner rather than later.

Finally, the various stars were in alignment. As intensive negotiations began at Wye on October 14th, Netanyahu sprang a surprise: his appointment of the controversial General Ariel Sharon, a leading opponent of Oslo, as his foreign minister. A military hero but also the much-criticized architect of Israel’s Lebanese war in 1982, Sharon had promoted Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank. He and Netanyahu, one-time political allies, had exchanged hard and very quotable words. Still, Sharon wanted a critical role in final status talks, and his becoming foreign minister eliminated the Prime Minister’s most serious internal opponent.


The “Wye River Memorandum” ploughs and reploughs familiar ground.

  • Israeli demands for Palestinian action on security issues are embodied in a specific timetable of actions that should imprison wanted terrorists in PA jails; reduce the rolls of PA police from 40,000 to the Oslo-authorized 30,000; act against the Hamas “infrastructure”; collect unauthorized weapons; and take other measures specified in a secret U.S.-brokered security plan. The Israelis will also get at last the public spectacle of a mass Palestinian gathering to renounce the Palestinian Charter’s anti-Israel provisions, presided over by President Clinton.

  • In return, the Israelis redeploy from 13 percent of their exclusively controlled territory. Three percent is to become a “nature preserve” on which no new building is allowed, thereby preventing Palestinian obstruction of Israeli security requirements. All in all, the Palestinians will have control or mixed control over 40 percent of the West Bank. Israel will relocate several military bases and construct access routes to newly isolated settlements.

  • Finally, the Palestinians obtain long-sought rights to operate an airport and safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank. Both sides also expect fresh financial assistance, said to be at the $500 million level. Economic cooperation committees are also to be revived.

Wye breaks fresh ground primarily through the mechanism for carrying out the reciprocal obligations. A five-stage timeline attached to the Memorandum indicates that Israeli redeployments over twelve weeks are to occur only as the Palestinians fulfill their security pledges, as certified by various U.S.-chaired committees. Both sides will also commence “accelerated” final status negotiations. The “witness”—President Clinton—thus also becomes the judge of Israeli and Palestinian performance.

Wye, then, draws a series of red lines on Israeli-Palestinian reality—exactly what behavior is expected and when, a great ambition given that very few of the Oslo deadlines have ever been met. This mechanism is also the last chance to reclaim Oslo’s promise that both Israelis and Palestinians will gain from cooperative effort. And the United States has become a “superpartner,” both participant and judge of their efforts.


The summit at Wye, like other summits, pitted contending egos (not only policies) against each other. The drama was largely supplied by Netanyahu (the threatened walk-out and last-minute quarrel over the Pollard spy case); pathos (the visibly ailing King Hussein); and high theater (the signing ceremony). When it was over, Clinton had created a new reality. He had passed the Arab-Israeli political virility test through his willingness to commit his prestige and personal effort. “He never stops,” said Netanyahu.

In doing so, Clinton also visibly altered the U.S. role. So preeminent is the U.S. in the Wye memorandum, especially in the supervisory committees, that the agreement sometimes appears less an Israeli-Palestinian artifact than a U.S. deal with each of them alone. This change, reflected in the CIA’s newly public duties as both monitor and facilitator, moves Washington onto tricky ground. The U.S. has done best when it reduced the risks to two leaders who were convinced of each other’s desire to make a deal. It has done worst when it substituted its own promises for those the parties would not make to each other.

From 1993 until the Jerusalem tunnel crisis of 1996, Oslo had been conceived, birthed, and nurtured primarily by Israel and the Palestinians, with U.S. assistance. More recently, the United States has taken over the central role as the parties lost faith in each other. As happened on the way to Wye, the U.S. will have to be careful that it does not simply collapse the negotiations altogether by bullying one party, then disappointing the other. Israel, in particular, has reason to fear this pattern, but Arafat could also become a victim of excessive expectations.

In that sense, the other crucial move at Wye, especially for final status talks, may be the appointment of Ariel Sharon. A hardened survivor of Israeli right-wing politics and a respected military man, the burly general has developed his own contacts with the Palestinians. An opponent of Oslo but also a realist, Sharon may well determine whether Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy can be revived and with it, a reduced burden for the United States.

Reprinted by permission of FOREIGN POLICY RESEARCH INSTITUTE, 1528 Walnut Street, Suite 610, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19102-3684, tel. (215) 732-3774.

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