The 1978 Camp David Accords and the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty are landmarks in Israeli, Egyptian and Middle Eastern history. How we recollect these events and how they are taught or reported by subsequent generations depend on who writes their histories and what sources are used.
What happens when we realize that our earlier assumptions about how history has been told or understood (e.g., through archival materials, personal memoirs and interviews with key participants) are at odds with later information?
Historians and scholars agree that neither the Camp David Accords nor the resultant peace treaty would have occurred if Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had not continuously aligned himself with the United States and cunningly pushed for the Sinai’s return to Egyptian sovereignty.
Fortunately, Sadat found Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin willing to embrace him. For Israel, both understood the strategic importance of removing Egypt’s military participation in the hostile Arab encirclement of Israel.
Sadat was clearly the engine that drove American mediation. In January 1974, after recruiting Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to negotiate a military disengagement agreement with Israel, Sadat told his chief of staff, “We are planning for peace with the Americans, not the Israelis.”
In a 1991 interview, former President Jimmy Carter recalled that in 1977, Sadat said, “If necessary, I shall make peace with them.”
Carter had that fact in his back pocket when he invited Sadat and Begin to join him at Camp David in September 1978. During those negotiations, Sadat gave Carter, already eagerly predisposed to take up Egypt’s political positions, the mantle to negotiate for Egypt vis-à-vis Israel. This encounter added to the testiness of the Begin-Carter relationship.
That testiness I saw firsthand when Begin treated Carter very coolly in our 1983 visit to Israel and refused to see Carter during our 1987 visit there.
From the time it took office, the Carter administration aimed at achieving a comprehensive Middle East peace between Israel and all her neighbors (including the Palestinians). Stymied after several attempts, Carter’s advisers could not persuade the PLO to publicly accept Israel’s legitimacy. Nor could the administration entice Jordanian, Lebanese or Syrian officials to participate at a Middle East peace conference.
Sadat’s impatience with his Arab peers, combined with Carter’s genuine but fumbling efforts to convene a conference, prompted Sadat to visit Israel in November 1977 to break the negotiating impasse.
Earlier that year, upon learning that Begin had been elected prime minister, Sadat was not all that disappointed. He calculated that Begin’s ideology was such that he would be more interested in negotiating the return of Egyptian Sinai for an agreement with Israel than in negotiating something as equally transformative as Palestinian self-determination, the return of Jerusalem or a Palestinian state.
Begin’s foreign minister, Moshe Dayan, had made those three Israeli redlines irrevocably clear to Carter at their meeting in October 1977 (israeled.org/memorandum-of-conversation-between-president-carter-and-foreign-minister-dayan).
On Sept. 6, 1978, the second day of the Camp David negotiations, Sadat told Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, “I have the full right to make a separate agreement with you, especially after the malicious remarks that were made against me by various Arab leaders.”
With all its diligence and hard work, the Carter administration failed to obtain more than a promise of full autonomy for the Palestinians over a five-year transitional period and a withdrawal of Israel’s military and civilian administrations after a Palestinian self-rule authority was elected.
No self-governing authority was elected until after the 1993 Oslo Accords were signed.
In March 1979, the Egyptian-Israeli treaty was signed on the White House lawn.
When I published “Heroic Diplomacy: Sadat, Kissinger, Carter, Begin and the Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace” in 1999, I had worked for 10 years in researching and writing the book. Over the course of my research, I interviewed roughly 70 bureaucrats and diplomats, accessed reports with the Freedom of Information Act, mined the memoirs of each of the participants, and participated in several study groups focusing on Israeli-Arab negotiating techniques.
I thought I had the story right. I believed that Begin and Sadat sought the help of the United States to fashion agreements between them, concluding that the distance in the U.S.-Israeli relationship evolved primarily over the issue of settlements.
With access to new documents found at the Carter Presidential Library and the Israel State Archives and newly released publications of the Foreign Relations of the United States, I have so far concluded that Carter’s publications and those of Zbigniew Brzezinski, his national security adviser, have painted Begin overall in much bleaker terms than perhaps was either truthful or warranted.
Begin was a crafty and cunning negotiator whose positions about Judaea, Samaria and Jerusalem were steadfast. But Begin was by no means the implacable and intransigent roadblock that Carter and Brzezinski made him out to be.
Distances, even large distances, between the Carter administration and Israel did not begin in earnest after Begin’s May 1977 election or over the settlements.
From these newly available materials, it increasingly appears that from its early days, the Carter administration prioritized curbing Israeli influence in Washington, being more evenhanded with other Arab states and achieving a Palestinian homeland that would devolve eventually into a Palestinian state.
What these new documents tells us is that Begin, Dayan and Weizman relented in negotiations only enough so that Sadat would consider and then accept a separate peace with Israel.
These revelations have profound implications for me, both personally and professionally. My “Heroic Diplomacy” will need more than a face-lift. Another deep look at the diplomacy of the period is warranted.
When I shared my Emory professor’s position with an administrative one at the Carter Center in 1981, I did not know the origins of the Carter administration’s deeply held negative outlooks and beliefs toward Israel. I would learn more over the next quarter-century, culminating with my departure from the center in 2006 and my open break with Carter.
Ken Stein is the president of the Center for Israel Education (israeled.org).