Camp David Accords led to Egyptian-Israeli peace
Next March 26 will mark 40 years since Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat signed a peace treaty on the White House lawn. U.S President Jimmy Carter hosted the ceremony and signed as a witness.
But the ceremony likely wouldn’t have been possible had Carter not convened an intense 13-day summit six months earlier that culminated with the signing of the Camp David Accords 40 years ago on Sept. 18, 1978.
“Credit Sadat, Begin and Carter,” says Dr. Kenneth Stein, professor of Middle East history and political science at Emory University in Atlanta, and president of the Center for Israel Education. “Credit also has to fall on Kissinger, Nixon and Ford.”
Stein says Carter’s predecessors’ dealings with Sadat set the stage for his turn from the Soviet Union to the United States. “Sadat needed peace. He understood reality,” Stein says. And he understood that accommodation with Israel would score big points with the U.S. and solve several of his problems.
“Credit for [making that decision] goes to Anwar Sadat,” Stein says. “He made a responsible decision and Begin gave a responsible reaction.”
Begin, he says, understood that peace with Egypt was “important for the long-term viability of the State of Israel.” Egypt was the leader of the Arab world, and its most populous nation, and the Egyptians had fought several bloody wars with Israel.
Both men wanted peace, but also needed American guarantees and financial, diplomatic and military support to make it happen.
Soon after Carter took office in November 1976, he focused on convening a Middle East peace conference in Geneva. Neither Sadat nor Begin liked the idea much, and they began secret contacts to find another way to move forward. Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan was deeply involved in the talks.
Sadat went public on Nov. 8, 1977, telling the Egyptian People’s Assembly that for the sake of peace he was “prepared to go to the ends of the Earth — and Israel will be surprised to hear me tell you: I am ready to go to their home, to their Knesset itself.”
Six days later, Walter Cronkite, the respected anchor of CBS Evening News, broadcast interviews with the two leaders worldwide. Sadat confirmed he was ready to visit Israel and was “just waiting for the proper invitation.” Begin told him he was prepared to host Sadat “any time he is prepared to come.”
On Nov. 19, Begin was waiting on the tarmac at Lod Airport (now Ben-Gurion) with other Israeli leaders as Sadat disembarked, was warmly greeting and was whisked through cheering crowds to the Knesset to speak. He told the Knesset’s 120 members, “Today, I tell you and declare it to the whole world that we accept to live with you in permanent peace based on justice.”
Issues and animosities between the two parties rose over the ensuing months, prompting Carter to dispatch his Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in early August 1978 to get agreement from both leaders to attend a summit at Camp David, the rustic presidential retreat in Maryland.
It was out of the ordinary to convene such a high-level summit without a pretty clear idea of the outcome, but Carter immersed himself in the details, sent the press away and the talks convened on Sept. 5.
As the days passed, the media was rife with speculation about a breakdown. Indeed, after just three days, Begin and Sadat would no longer meet directly with one another and Carter began shuttling between the two. The talks almost broke off numerous times, but slow, painstaking progress was made on what became the “Framework for Peace in the Middle East.”
Section A of the agreement addressed the West Bank and Gaza. Sadat and Carter insisted the Palestinian issue be part of any agreement, and Begin eventually agreed to negotiations for Palestinian self-government and “full autonomy.” The agreement also envisioned peace treaties with Jordan, Lebanon and other Arab states but accommodation with Israel was adamantly and violently opposed by the Arab parties, which refused to negotiate with Israel and suspended Egypt’s membership in the Arab League, which lasted a decade.
Section B concerned itself with Egyptian-Israeli relations. In return for Egyptian acceptance, economic cooperation and demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula, Israel agreed to return the Sinai and put the issue of uprooting 2,000 Israelis living there up for a vote of the Knesset.
On Sept. 17, Begin and Sadat signed the Camp David Accords at the White House, with Carter signing as a witness. A week later, the Knesset voted 85-19 to commit to a phased, but full Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula meeting a key Sadat demand and paving the way for negotiations on a peace treaty. The peace treaty was signed on the White House lawn six months later.
“National interest,” Stein says, is the basis on which leaders “make decisions on sovereignty, borders, the economy and viability.
“The treaty has worked for both nations over the decades,” Stein says.
“It’s intact and a cornerstone of both Egyptian and Israeli foreign policy,” he says. “Israel has predicated much of its security policy based on a relatively quiet border with Egypt. Egypt predicated its African Policy on that they didn’t have to worry about conflict with Israel.”
Egypt built a new relationship with the United States and Israel’s relationship with the U.S. deepened. Since the 1979 peace treaty, the countries have been the two largest recipients of American foreign aid.
Though referred to for decade as a very “cold” peace, Section B of the Accords was a great success for all three nations. Section A dealing with the Palestinians and other Arab nations was a deadend.
Can the success of Camp David and the ensuing negotiations leading to peace illuminate a path for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations? Stein doesn’t think so.
“Both sides at Camp David wanted an agreement. Today conditions are not ripe,” he says. “Both sides are fragmented, and the Palestinians are not just fragmented, but dysfunctional. America can’t want an agreement more than the respective sides.”
Don Cohen CONTRIBUTING WRITER