Bill Clinton was a president singularly taken by the idea that making peace between Palestinians and Israelis was possible. He devoted a disproportionate amount of time and political capital to the search for a solution to the conflict. Even before the man he describes as his hero, Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli general turned prime minister, was assassinated in 1995, Clinton believed that he had been called to this cause. Uniting the children of Isaac and Ishmael, the warring sons of Abraham, was, for a Southern Baptist, too tempting a challenge to ignore. In 2000, he managed to bring the two sides close—infuriatingly close, in retrospect—to a final status agreement. But the two-week summit at Camp David that July, and subsequent rounds of negotiations between the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, failed to close the remaining gaps. In his very last weeks in office, Clinton was still trying for an agreement, presenting a set of ideas that came to be known as the Clinton Parameters, which set the framework for a final push. The Israelis accepted them, with reservations.
As Clinton later wrote in his memoir:
It was historic: an Israeli government had said that to get peace, there would be a Palestinian state in roughly 97 percent of the West Bank, counting the [land] swap, and all of Gaza, where Israel also had settlements. The ball was in Arafat’s court.
But Arafat would not, or could not, bring an end to the conflict. “I still didn’t believe Arafat would make such a colossal mistake,” Clinton wrote. “The deal was so good I couldn’t believe anyone would be foolish enough to let it go.” But the moment slipped away. “Arafat never said no; he just couldn’t bring himself to say yes.” In one of their last phone conversations, shortly before Clinton’s term ended, Arafat told the soon-to-be ex-president, in his comically ingratiating manner, that he considered him a “great man.” Clinton responded coldly: “I am not a great man. I am a failure, and you have made me one.”