Only Clinton had an appetite for a deal
Published in the Tokyo-based magazine Eat in September 2000
Just what were those crafty Americans up to? The only soupcon of information tossed out to a ravenous pack of journalists after the first day of July’s failed Camp David peace summit was this: The previous evening, President Clinton, Chairman Arafat and Prime Minister Barak and their delegations had dined on tenderloin of beef with sun-dried tomatoes, fillet of salmon with Thai curry sauce, roast baby Yukon potatoes, steamed green beans with almonds, a mixed garden salad, fresh fruit, and assorted desserts.
The question was what subtle signals were implied by this rather bland, eccletic offering. Were Washington’s chefs simply trying to play it as outlandishly neutral as possible, or was there some complex split-the-difference logic at work. After all, White House chefs of late have tended to doff their hats at the national cuisine of their guests: Morocco’s King Abdallah, for example, had been feted just the previous month with lemon-zest flavored lamb and warm goat’s cheese salad with fig dressing, followed by an exclusive concert by Earth, Wind and Fire — the latter, unlike the menu, being the young monarch’s own choice. In March, South African president Thabo Mbeki dined on apricot-glazed lamb and spring vegetables, followed by a stupendously kitschy monstrosity called “The Pride of South Africa”: a pineapple filled with pineapple ice cream and sour cherry sherbet, and wrapped with a white chocolate ribbon decorated with the shapes of exotic animals.
But then tenderloin beef, salmon and Thai curry have no relationship at all to the culinary traditions of either Israelis or Palestinians (which, of course, are remarkably similar, and serving falafel could certainly have sparked a showdown between the two sides on the touchy issue of just who invented it).
Perhaps the mystery of the menu can be divined in the runup to the talks, when both sides staked out their positions with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. In Jerusalem, Barak laid on the finest Japanese appetizers the Jewish State could offer: molded avocado, grilled egg plant and sushi, followed by a grilled salmon, and finished off with chocolate mousse served on molded chocolate.
The following day Arafat, at his office in Ramallah, had countered Barak’s offering by staying Mediterranean, with a mezze platter followed assorted plates of fish, lamb and kebabs with spiced rice, finished off with heaping bowls of fresh fruit.
So perhaps Camp David’s menus were an attempt to navigate the difference. While Arafat’s men might have seen the salmon and Thai curry as a concession to the Israeli leader’s preferences, the following night appeared to be a symmetrical concession to Arafat with a “Mediterranean barbecue.” After that, Washington clamped down on menu information. It’s sensitivity may have been hinted at in the dying days when State Department official Richard Boucher was asked when next Arafat and Barak would next meet over dinner. “I am not sure that it will happen at this evening’s meal,” Boucher answered. “They were still thinking about it, about what kind of meal to have.”