Camp David Negotiations Between Israel and Egypt

Camp David Negotiations Between Israel and Egypt

“After four wars during 30 years, despite intensive human efforts, the Middle East, which is the cradle of civilization and the birthplace of three great religions, does not enjoy the blessings of peace. The people of the Middle East yearn for peace so that the vast human and natural resources of the region can be turned to the pursuits of peace and so that this area can become a model for coexistence and cooperation among nations.” (, 1978)

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What led to the meeting at Camp David between President Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin?

In 1977, United State President Jimmy Carter, early in his first year in the White House had a powerful desire to bring some form of peace to the Middle East. Carter began holding meetings with various leaders in the Middle East to test out some of his ideas, and bounce proposals off these leaders to see where negotiations might lead. Those leaders Carter met with included King Hussein of Jordan; Crown Prince Fahd of Saudi Arabia; Syrian president Hafez al-Assad; Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat.

As background, according to Carter’s book, We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land, the president’s White House staff and his cabinet members knew “even before inauguration day” that bringing peace to the Middle East “would be at the top of my foreign affairs agenda for prompt action” (Carter, 2009, p. 17). He writes that upon reflection, the “most important single mission my political life has been to assist in bringing peace to Israel and its neighbors and to promote human rights” (p. 17). Carter admits he did not have a firm grasp on the internationally tense political situation in the Middle East, that involved many actors, but he “lost no time” getting down to the business of negotiating with the principal parties in the drama.

In approaching the historical Palestinian issues and the legitimate concerns of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) — juxtaposed with the Israeli attitudes about their neighbors — Carter was “constrained by previous American commitments not to recognize the PLO by diplomatic contract” or by a gesture that would in any way “acknowledge” the PLO’s authenticity (p. 20). And so, having his hands tied by previous U.S. policy, Carter interacted with the PLO through surrogates (Syria, Jordan, and Egypt).

The advice Carter typically received from his political advisors was to “stay out of the Middle East controversy” until his second term (p. 20). Of course, in hindsight that would have meant Carter would have done nothing, because there was no second term; Ronald Reagan defeated him in 1980. But moreover, Carter was “determined,” he asserted on page 20, to at least “make an effort” to find a solution to the regional problem “on a more immediate and comprehensive basis” than had ever been attempted in the past. It was clear this was not an ego-driven initiative by Carter, but a powerfully personal desire to make concrete progress in the Middle East since he believed previous presidents had not pushed hard enough in that direction.

In the process of trying to formulate a workable plan, a president who is thorough and smart discusses policy with a wide swath of leaders from many perspectives. Carter was thorough and smart, and he discussed the Middle East question with Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko. These discussions were “somewhat strained” because it was publicly known that Carter had reached out to “noted Jewish human rights heroes” Andrei Sakharov and Natan Sharansky, the author explains on page 21.

And widely published worldwide was a photo of Sakharov “holding my handwritten letter,” which caused additional stress between Carter and Soviet president Lenoid Brezhnev. Still, reaching out to the Jewish human rights icons paid dividends because “Within two years, annual Jewish immigration from Russia to the United States increased from a few hundred to more than fifty thousand,” Carter explains on page 21. Moreover, Sharansky was released from a Soviet labor camp and Sharansky “gave our policies credit for having saved his life” (p. 21).

Carter, meantime, made many overtures and invitations to the leaders in the Middle East in order to arrive at a time and place that would allow serious dialogue to occur. One issue at hand for Carter was addressing the thorny problem of the “illegal” Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The Israelis were in no mood to give up the settlements, and Sadat was unhappy with the Israeli attitude. It looked hopeless for any conciliation on either leaders’ part. And notwithstanding the strong criticisms from Carter’s own staff and his advisors as to his insistence on moving ahead with negotiations, the president invited Begin and Sadat to Camp David and they accepted in on August 8, 1978.

What were the circumstances surrounding the meeting at Camp David?

Carter explains (p. 37) that Sadat was outwardly willing to “accept almost anything” that the president suggested, as long as Israel would agree to “withdraw from the Sinai” and that the rights of the Palestinians would be respected. Begin was “more reluctant to make concessions” than the other members of the Israeli delegation. It did not look promising, and when Carter tried meeting with both leaders the talk transitioned into “shouting matches” (p. 37). So the president kept them separated and he met with each leader independently for ten days.

In his book Heroic Diplomacy, author Kenneth W. Stein provides page after page of the points of discussion between Sadat and Begin leading up to the Camp David talks, and there were myriad positions presented, too many to outline in this paper. But the value of Stein’s narrative is that he presents preliminaries very thoroughly, and the dynamics leading up to Camp David are important to note, for a full understanding of how these two leaders eventually reached an agreement.

Stein points out that Sadat had boldly, courageously visited Israel in November, 1977, well prior to his meeting with Carter, and that was the first time an Egyptian president had set foot in modern Israel. Sadat was showing flexibility in light of previous hatred between Egypt and Israel; he met at the King David Hotel with Begin and later visited the “Dome of the Rock,” the “Church of the Holy Sepulcher,” and the “Al-aqsa Mosque” (Stein, 1999, p. 226). What made this visit to Israel potentially politically potent was the speech Sadat gave to the Israeli Parliament; in that address Sadat “pulled no punched,” Stein explains.

Sadat said he didn’t come to made a deal with Israel, and acknowledged the “feeling of utter suspicion and lack of confidence between the Arab states and the Palestinian people on the one hand, and Israel on the other” (Stein, p. 226). Sadat emphasized that his country wanted to live in peace with Israel, but he also asserted that the Palestinians had a right “to establish their own state” (Stein, p. 227).

The point of bringing Sadat’s surprising visit to Israel is that through his courageous act “he enraged his Arab contemporaries” and as a result, the Arab world decided to “punish Egypt with isolation” (Stein, p. 229). With this as a backdrop, Sadat and Begin began working together, and in the ten months between Sadat’s visit to Israel and the Camp David meetings, “a very significant amount of progress was made” towards narrowing the differences between Egypt and Israel (Stein, p. 233). Their cooperation was not enough, however, for any breakthrough to occur without the “active support of the White House and the president of the United States,” Stein explains on page 233.

What were the positions/wants/needs/strategies of each state?

On page 251 Stein reports that “Both Begin and Sadat were prepared to reach a compromise arrangement on the Palestinian/West Bank-Gaza dimension of the conflict.” Begin’s objectives, Stein continues, was to allow a situation be created where “Israel’s presence and Zionist continuation in Judea and Samaria would continue”; in return Begin would not have to “dismantle” the Jewish settlements in the Sinai buy rather would return sovereignty to Egypt. That said, Begin’s position was to oppose “staunchly” any talk of an independent Palestine, or any agreement at Camp David that would “restrict any Israeli prerogative” to go on populating the West Bank and Gaza (Stein, p. 252). Stein (p. 251) notes that by August, 1978, both Begin and Sadat “were antsy to have an agreement. Sadat by now considered Carter a dear friend in whom he had absolute faith.” As to the Camp David possibilities, without the real possibility that an Egyptian-Israeli agreement on Sinai being hammered together “…and a peace treaty recognizing Israeli existence, neither Egypt or Israel would have been motivated to come to Camp David” (Stein, p. 251).

In William B. Quandt’s book, Camp David: Peacemaking and Politics, the author reviews the positions of each side prior to the negotiations. Begin, for his part, had a “trump card” when he came to the Camp David negotiations, Quandt writes on pae 208. Begin could afford to simply “walk out of the talks and return home in a strong political position” (Quandt, 1986, p. 208). Begin could tell the Israeli community that the Egyptian made extreme demands and the Americans didn’t handle the negotiations very well. Begin’s more “militant supporters” in Israel would back him up no matter the outcome, Quandt explains (p. 208).

A for Sadat, he believed that he and Carter already had a preliminary agreement that would “force the Israelis to make significant concessions”; hence, Sadat would put “all his cards face up on the table before the president,” helping Carter to “manage the inevitable confrontation with Begin” (Quandt, p. 208). Sadat told the American delegation “repeatedly” that an agreement between the U.S. And Egypt “was more important to him than an Egyptian-Israeli agreement.”

The only worry that Begin had, Quandt asserts on page 208, is that if the talks failed, Carter “might blame him for the failure, go public with that judgment, and try to mobilize American public opinion against him.” But the president had said publicly several times that he would “never…threaten to cut economic or military aid to Israel as a form of pressure” and moreover Carter had pledged not to “impose an American peace plan” on Israel, Quandt explained. The president was in a strong position in any event, because both the Egyptians and the Israelis were anxious to have him side with them.

Entering the negotiations, Sadat had said Israel could “have everything except land,” and for his part Begin was “just as firm in saying he would never be the prime minister of Israel” who would made a deal that gave away the West Bank, nor would he agree to give away East Jerusalem, Quandt writes on page 209. Sadat was hoping that by using the bait of “major” Egyptian security and political concessions he could get Begin to agree to withdraw from the occupied territories. If somehow he could get a deal with Israel, he could claim credit not only for Egypt but for the Arab world, that he had established the principles on which “a fair peace could be negotiated” (Quandt, p. 211).

The devout Muslim population in Egypt would accuse him of selling out his country if he did not insist on Israel giving up right to the West Bank, Gaza, and especially East Jerusalem. Author Quandt, who was a member of Carter’s National Security Council and participated in the discussions before, during, and after Camp David, said he along with Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, and others roughed out a plan for the talks. The paper they prepared was called “The Pivotal Issue: The Sinai/West Bank Relationship”; it was based in large part on the ideas that the Egyptians and Israelis had put forward.

The key and salient point in Quandt’s preliminary document was the design of a plan that would establish an “interim regime” for the West Bank and Gaza (assuming that Israel would leave) (p. 213). This interim-governing regime would give the Palestinians a “serious measure of self-government” and would pave the way for a “second phase of negotiations,” Quandt writes. That second phase of negotiations would approach the issue of Palestinian rights, the borders that would come into play, the sovereignty issues and more. The document also alluded to a U.N. Resolutions (242) that advocated “territory for peace” and it inferred Carter’s long-held position that the Palestinians should absolutely have the right to be part of any dialogue that points to their future as a culture and a political entity (Quandt, p. 213).

Prior to the actual meeting between the three leaders, naturally there were the customary diplomatic letters back and forth. Bernard Reich’s book, Arab-Israeli Conflict and Conciliation: A Documentary History has reprinted some of the correspondence that took place between the principal parties. Begin wrote to Carter (September 17, 1978) that when he arrives back home from the negotiations he will put the following question to members of the Knesset (Israeli parliament) “…Are you in favor of the removal of the Israeli settlers from the… Sinai areas or are you in favor of keeping the aforementioned settlers in those areas?” (Reich, 1995, p. 152).

Carter sent a copy of the letter to Sadat, adding that he understood Sadat’s position that all settlers must be removed from Sinai as “a prerequisite to any negotiations on a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel” (Reich, p. 152). Sadat wrote back to Carter that without an agreement on the point that “All Israeli settlers” be pulled back from Sinai “according to a timetable” — and an agreement that this “basic principle” is a “prerequisite to starting peace negotiations for concluding a peace treaty” (Reich, p. 152).

Were there other international players involved, affected, and if so, how?

After the Camp David negotiations were concluded, a majority of Arab leaders (the Arab League) met in Baghdad on November 5, 1978; the communique issued following that meeting stated that the Camp David accords were “rejected…on the grounds that they harmed the Palestinian cause and contravened resolutions [made in previous conferences] forbidding unilateral Arab action in settling the Middle East conflict or solving the Palestinian problem” (Reich, p. 154). Further, the Arab leaders that met in Baghdad insisted in the communique that any solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people should be based on “joint Arab action decided at an Arab summit” (Reich, p. 154). To show their disapproval of Egypt even participating in these negotiations, the Arab League’s leaders moved their headquarters out of Egypt and into Tunis. After the Arab League concluded its meeting, the communique called upon Egypt to “abrogate these agreements” and not sign “any reconciliation treaty with the enemy” (Reich, p. 155).

Other nations became involved in the process, according to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). In a document called “Camp David Accords,” the Israel ministry explained that the Camp David Accords — vis-a-vis the Palestinian solution — would result in negotiations between Egypt, Israel, Jordan and representatives of the West Bank and Gaza (MFA). The inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza would vote on whether or not to accept the accords. Involving Jordan (a country that borders Israel) was geographically necessary, but politically expedient at the same time.

What was the mediation strategy of Carter?

By the third day of the summit at Camp David, president Carter’s strategy (referenced earlier as having turned into a shouting match) has “unraveled,” according to an article in the Public Broadcasting Service. In fact, “It was mean,” Carter told his wife. “They were brutal with each other, personal” (PBS). So Carter took charge and began shuttling back and forth between the two, and kept the two leaders apart.

“Another key tactic was Carter’s decision to separate the Sinai issue from the more difficult Palestinian issue,” the PBS article explained. The first would be a peace treaty in which Israel would return the Sinai territory to Egypt and in turn Egypt would recognize Israel diplomatically (which it had never done), Israel would get access to the Suez Canal (which Israel did not have previously) and there would be a limited number or Egyptian military troops on the border between the two countries (PBS).

The second document would deal with the Palestinian problem. And Carter’s role in the negotiations became more powerful as at one point towards the end of the 12 days at Camp David, he “threw everybody out of his cabin, got down on the floor with the maps, with his yellow pad, and outlined what they could do,” according to media advisor Gerald Rafshoon (PBS).

What were the results of the Camp David peace talks?

In the spring of 1990 journalist Mitchell Bard writes that the final peace treaty — signed by Egypt and Israel in March, 1979 — has brought “stability to Egyptian-Israeli relations” (Bard, 1990, p. 2). The author notes that the southern border of Israel has been “secured” and moreover, the most “powerful Arab state” (Egypt) has apparently been “eliminated from the coalition of forces against it.” Even after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, the treaty between Israel and Egypt held fast (albeit, to appease the Arab world, Egypt withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv in order to condemn the actions of Israel).

Tragically Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by members of an extremist group in Egypt that objected to the peace treaty with Israel. However, when Hosni Mubarak, Sadat’s successor, took over the presidency of Egypt, he insisted that he was not prepared to cancel the treaty. “We are neighbors; we enjoy peace and cooperation” (Bard, p. 3).

Conclusion: While there remain serious political and cultural differences between Israel and the Palestinians, the peace treaty signed by Sadat and Begin back in 1979 has held up fairly well all these years. Jimmy Carter is to be given a lot of credit for his hard work in bringing the two leaders together, and bringing about a settlement that has lasted thirty-three years.

Works Cited

Bard, Mitchell G. (1990). How Fares the Camp David Trio? Orbis, 34(2), 227-241.

Carter, Jimmy. (2009). We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land: A Plan That Will Work. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (1978). Camp David Accords. Retrieved February 27, 2011,


Jerusalem Media & Communication Centre. (2010). The Camp David Accords: The Framework

For Peace in the Middle East. Retrieved February 27, 2011, from

Public Broadcasting Service. (2002). General Article: Peace Talks at Camp David, September,

1978. Retrieved February 27, 2011, from

Quandt, William B. (1986). Camp David: Peacemaking and Politics. Washington, D.C.:

The Brookings Institution.

Reich, Bernard. (1995). Arab-Israeli Conflict and Conciliation: A Documentary History.

Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Stein, Kenneth W. (1999). Heroic Diplomacy: Sadat, Kissinger, Carter, Begin, and the Quest

For Arab-Israeli Peace. New York: Routledge.

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