Camp David Accords and the Arab-Israeli Peace Process
The Camp David Accords, signed by President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in September 1978, established a framework for a historic peace treaty concluded between Israel and Egypt in March 1979. President Carter and the U.S. Government played leading roles in creating the opportunity for this agreement to occur. From the start of his administration, Carter and his Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, pursued intensive negotiations with Arab and Israeli leaders, hoping to reconvene the Geneva Conference, which had been established in December 1973 to seek an end to the Arab-Israeli dispute.
President Jimmy Carter with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Camp David, Maryland in September 1978. (Jimmy Carter Library)
As Carter and Vance met with individual leaders from Arab countries and Israel during the spring of 1977, negotiations for a return to Geneva appeared to gain some momentum. On May 17, 1977, an Israeli election upset stunned the Carter administration as the moderate Israeli Labor Party lost for the first time in Israel’s history. Menachem Begin, the leader of the conservative Likud Party and the new Israeli Prime Minister, appeared intractable on the issue of exchanging land for peace. His party’s commitment to “greater Israel” left Carter with an even more challenging situation during the summer of 1977.
In addition to the new reality of a Likud government in Israel, long-standing rivalries among Arab leaders also played a role in blocking substantive progress in negotiations for a Geneva conference. By early November, Egyptian President Sadat found himself frustrated by the lack of movement and made a dramatic move, announcing on November 9 that he would be willing to go to Jerusalem. This move stunned the world. Sadat would attempt to break the deadlock and to engage the Israelis directly for a Middle East settlement, eschewing any talk of returning to the Geneva Conference. Sadat’s visit led to direct talks between Egypt and Israel that December, but these talks did not generate substantive progress. By January 1978, the United States returned to a more prominent negotiation role.
During the spring and early summer of 1978, the United States attempted to find common ground with regard to Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai, West Bank, and Gaza. Egypt insisted on an Israeli withdrawal to June 4, 1967 borders in exchange for security arrangements and minor border modifications. Israel rejected Egypt’s insistence on withdrawal, especially from the West Bank and Gaza. It argued instead for some form of Palestinian autonomy during a five-year interim period followed by the possibility of sovereignty after the interim period expired. The impasse over the West Bank and Gaza led Carter to intercede directly in an attempt to resolve the deadlock.
By July 30, as Sadat expressed disappointment over the progress of negotiations and a desire to cut direct contacts off with the Israelis, Carter decided to call for a summit meeting. This meeting would bring Sadat, Begin, and Carter together at the presidential retreat in Maryland at Camp David. On August 8, the White House spokesman formally announced the meeting, which both Begin and Sadat agreed to attend in September.
The Camp David Summit, held from September 5–17, 1978, was a pivotal moment both in the history of the Arab-Israeli dispute and U.S. diplomacy. Rarely had a U.S. President devoted as much sustained attention to a single foreign policy issue as Carter did over the summit’s two-week duration. Carter’s ambitious goals for the talks included breaking the negotiating deadlock and hammering out a detailed Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement. To this end, U.S. Middle East experts produced a draft treaty text, which served as the basis for the negotiations and would be revised numerous times during the Summit. The talks proved extremely challenging, especially when the trilateral format became impossible to sustain. Instead, Carter and Vance met with the Egyptian and Israeli delegations individually over the course of the next twelve days.
The talks ranged over a number of issues, including the future of Israeli settlements and airbases in the Sinai Peninsula, but it was Gaza and the West Bank that continued to pose the most difficulty. Specifically, the delegations were divided over the applicability of United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 to a long-term agreement in the territories, as well as the status of Israel’s settlements during projected negotiations on Palestinian autonomy that would follow a peace treaty. In the end, while the Summit did not produce a formal peace agreement, it successfully produced the basis for an Egyptian-Israeli peace, in the form of two “Framework” documents, which laid out the principles of a bilateral peace agreement as well as a formula for Palestinian self-government in Gaza and the West Bank.
While the conclusion of the Camp David Accords represented significant progress, the process of translating the Framework documents into a formal peace treaty proved daunting. As with the Summit, Carter’s hopes for rapid progress were high, and the President hoped that a treaty text would be concluded in a matter of days. However, the controversy that developed between the Carter administration and the Begin government over the duration of an agreed freeze in the construction of Israeli settlements was quickly followed by the administration’s failure to win support from Jordan or Saudi Arabia for the Accords. Beginning in October, a series of talks in Washington broke down as a result of Israeli concerns over the timing of their withdrawal and Egyptian reservations regarding the impact of a peace treaty on its obligations to other Arab states. Other regional developments, especially the Iranian Revolution, distracted U.S. policymakers and raised Israeli concerns about its oil supply, resulting in an impasse during the winter of 1978–1979. After Begin’s visit to the White House in early March failed to break the stalemate, Carter traveled to Israel on March 10. Having previously secured Sadat’s consent to negotiate on behalf of Egypt, the President engaged in three days of intensive talks with the Israelis. As a result of a series of compromises, notably a U.S. guarantee of Israel’s oil supply, omitting references to a “special role” for Egypt in Gaza, and Israeli agreement to make a number of unilateral gestures to the Palestinians, the U.S. and Israeli delegations agreed to a treaty text on March 13. Sadat quickly assented to the agreement and the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty was formally signed on March 26.
Although a landmark event, the successful conclusion of the Egyptian-Israeli Treaty represented the high-water mark for the Peace Process during the Carter Presidency. After March 1979, the issue would not receive the same level of U.S. attention due to the competing demands of crises, especially those in Iran and Afghanistan, as well as Carter’s desire to reduce his personal involvement in the next round of negotiations devoted to Palestinian autonomy. For those talks, Carter appointed a “special negotiator” to represent the United States; former Special Trade Representative Robert Strauss served in this role briefly before being replaced in the fall of 1979 by Sol Linowitz, who had previously helped negotiate the Panama Canal treaty. The talks failed to produce much as Palestinian representatives refused to participate, and the gap between Egyptian and Israeli positions on Palestinian self-government, not to mention their respective stances on Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank and the legal status of East Jerusalem, proved unbridgeable.