Israel and Egypt did not make good neighbors. In the three decades following modern Israel’s founding in 1948, the two countries waged four major wars against one another, plus a so-called War of Attrition in which they traded artillery fire along the Suez Canal.
Glimmers of hope began to appear, however, around the time Jimmy Carter took office in 1977. From day one of his presidency, Carter showed great interest in the conflict, spending much time and political capital cajoling Egypt’s and Israel’s leaders toward what he believed would be a mutually beneficial deal.
By the summer of 1978, with peace tantalizingly close, negotiations stalled. To break the impasse, Carter invited Egypt’s President Anwar el-Sadat and Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin to a summit at Camp David, sequestering them for nearly two weeks as the terms of a peace agreement were painstakingly hammered out.
Since then, Israel and Egypt have not once come to blows, even as tensions between them remain high.
Israel and Egypt Head to the Negotiating Table
As president, the Georgia-born Carter initially tried to incorporate all the warring Middle Eastern parties in negotiations, including Jordan, Syria and the Palestinians. He likewise wanted to bring in the Soviet Union.
“For Carter a comprehensive peace agreement was not just the right thing to do, but he believed it would improve U.S.-Soviet relations and strengthen the U.S. position in the Arab world,” says Craig Daigle, an associate professor of history at the City College of New York, who is currently writing a book entitled Camp David and the Remaking of the Middle East.
It soon became clear, however, that Egypt and Israel preferred dealing solely with each other, and Carter adjusted his expectations accordingly. “One of Carter’s achievements is that he was smart enough…and agile enough to support what Sadat and Begin were doing in essentially a bilateral process,” Daniel C. Kurtzer, a professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton University and a former U.S. ambassador to both Egypt and Israel, tells HISTORY.
In what’s been called a “psychological breakthrough,” Sadat became the first Arab leader to visit Israel in November 1977, touring Jerusalem and addressing Israel’s parliament. “You want to live with us in this part of the world,” Sadat declared. “In all sincerity, I tell you, we welcome you among us, with full security and safety.”
Begin reciprocated by flying to Ismailia, Egypt, where peace talks got underway. Their historic enmity notwithstanding, the two countries actually faced similar national security challenges. “[They] had a shared interest in fighting the rise of Islamic radicalism,” Daigle points out, plus “they both wanted to prevent Soviet intervention in the region, and they both sought U.S. weapons and financial assistance.”
Both Sadat and Begin also felt themselves surrounded by enemies. In Begin’s case, not one of the surrounding Arab countries even recognized Israel’s existence. Sadat, on the other hand, was coping with attempts by Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi to topple him from power. Moreover, Daigle explains, Sadat “feared that the Ethiopian Revolution would spill into neighboring Sudan, which could bring a hostile government to power there and threaten the supply of Nile River water, the lifeblood of the Egyptian economy.”
The Idea for a Summit Forms
Despite high hopes triggered by Sadat’s visit, a negotiating breakthrough proved elusive. “The Israeli approach was very legalistic and focused on details,” Kurtzer says, “while the Egyptian approach was focused on the big picture.”
Complicating matters was a devastating terrorist attack along Israel’s Coastal Highway, followed by a bloody Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon, a stronghold for Palestinian militants.
As frustrations mounted, Carter, who stayed involved in negotiations every step of the way, looked to stop the talks from collapsing. Taking the advice of his wife, Rosalynn, he eventually settled on inviting Sadat and Begin to Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, believing the bucolic setting might soften the acrimony on all sides.
This strategy was hardly risk free. Carter’s popularity was suffering from rising inflation, unemployment and energy prices, and his advisers worried that a failure at Camp David would make him look weak. Even his vice president, Walter Mondale, warned against it, telling him, “If you fail we’re done. We will sap our stature as national leaders.”
The Camp David Accords
Undeterred, Carter pushed ahead, scheduling the Camp David summit for September 5, 1978. From the very beginning, Sadat and Begin clashed, wasting no opportunity to dredge up past grievances and showcasing their very different personalities. “After just a couple of days,” Kurtzer says, “Sadat and Begin basically didn’t want to talk to each other anymore.”
Begin, whose conservative Likud Party historically opposed trading land for peace, was reportedly reluctant to even use the word “Palestinian,” and he insisted on calling the West Bank by its biblical names: Judea and Samaria. With tempers flaring, the summit nearly collapsed on several occasions.
Carter realized that the two leaders would never come to terms on their own and that he needed to take on a more active role. In addition to drawing up a U.S. peace proposal, which would undergo many draft revisions, he threatened to withdraw U.S. aid and friendship, which both countries desperately needed.
At one point, Carter took Sadat and Begin to the site of the Battle of Gettysburg, an implicit warning about what could happen should negotiations fail. Mostly, though, he began meeting with the Israeli and Egyptian teams separately. Taking his own copious notes, he would rush back and forth between the two camps, often negotiating far into the night.
Carter also employed a strategy of leaving the two leaders out of it as much as possible, preferring instead to deal with certain advisers and only coming to Begin and Sadat for final approval.
For 13 days, far longer than he had expected the summit to last, Carter put aside his other presidential duties to work on Middle Eastern peace. His efforts came to fruition on September 17, when he, Sadat and Begin signed two framework agreements at the White House.
One called for Israel to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula, which it had conquered from Egypt in the 1967 Six-Day War, in exchange for the establishment of full diplomatic relations, whereas the other, more vaguely worded document, called for a “self-governing” Palestinian authority in the West Bank and Gaza, along with recognition of “the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.”
A Full Peace Proves Elusive
Though met with great fanfare—Sadat and Begin shared the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize, and Carter would get his own Nobel Prize years later—the Camp David Accords did not bring an immediate end to hostilities. Perhaps not surprisingly, subsequent negotiations between Israel and Egypt proved difficult, prompting Carter to visit both countries in March 1979 to tackle remaining differences. (It would, for example, take years of international arbitration to resolve a boundary dispute.)
Finally, on March 26, 1979, Egypt and Israel signed an official peace treaty. “Let history record that deep and ancient antagonism can be settled without bloodshed and without staggering waste of precious lives,” Carter said at the time.
The treaty has held ever since and includes provisions that the United States provide both countries with billions of dollars in military and economic aid. In his book, Thirteen Days in September: The Dramatic Story of the Struggle for Peace, author Lawrence Wright credits Carter’s “unswerving commitment” to resolving the conflict. “Egypt and Israel simply could not make peace without the presence of a trusted third party,” Wright states.
As Wright notes, though, unresolved issues abound, particularly regarding the Palestinians, who did not participate in the Camp David summit. “While Carter had good intentions in wanting to help the Palestinians, his policies and support for the Camp David agreements actually set them back quite a bit,” Daigle says, pointing out that, among other things, he never backed the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
In 1980, Carter was crushed in his bid for re-election. Begin, meanwhile, refused to dismantle Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza—as he had reluctantly done in the Sinai—and, in fact, promoted their construction, thereby complicating future dealings with the Palestinians. For his part, Sadat was ostracized by much of the Arab world for reaching out to Israel and was assassinated in 1981 by Islamic militants.
Although the peace these three leaders forged at Camp David was “partial and incomplete,” Wright writes, it “nonetheless stands as one of the great diplomatic triumphs of the 20th century.”