In August 1978, President Jimmy Carter invited Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Camp David in order to negotiate a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. The summit that began on September 5 and ended 13 days later produced two accords: "A Framework for Peace in the Middle East," which dealt with the West Bank and Gaza, and "A Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel." While the first accord was never fully implemented, the second, signed on March 26, 1979, laid the basis for the very first peace treaty between Israel and one of its Arab neighbors. In writing this volume, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lawrence Wright sought to explain how and why this partial and incomplete peace was accomplished by the three leaders, "prejudiced by their backgrounds, hampered by domestic politics, and blinded by their beliefs."
The first chapter provides a brief summary of political developments that led up to the historic summit as well as abbreviated biographies of the three statesmen. Each of the following 13 chapters includes a day-by-day account of the tortuous path that the negotiations had traveled. The reader will not drown in a sea of minutiae; Wright skillfully distills the most critical developments each day. Interwoven within the chapters are expanded biographies of the major participants at Camp David as well as snippets of the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict that appear in a non-chronological sequence. These provide a very useful context for the understanding of each of the major issues discussed at the summit.
Shortly after taking office, Carter made the attainment of a Middle East peace a top priority. He strongly believed that God had urged him to work for the elusive peace, and he was persuaded that he would be able to succeed where his predecessors had failed.
Wright's account makes it clear that Carter's confidence and optimism — he had originally budgeted only three days for the summit — were unwarranted. From his prior meetings, Carter had concluded that Sadat was "a visionary — bold, reckless, and willing to be flexible as long as he believed his overall goals were being achieved." Begin, on the other hand, was "secretive, legalistic, and leery of change." These opposite traits were amply manifested at Camp David and were also reflected in the divergent paths to peace that Sadat and Begin had espoused prior to the summit.
In his historic speech to the Israeli Knesset in November 1977, Sadat offered peace in return for Israel's withdrawal from the Sinai, Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, back to the lines of June 4, 1967. He further advocated establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and insisted that Palestinian refugees displaced by the wars of 1948 and 1967 had a right to return. Begin rejected all of these demands and instead offered the Palestinians very limited personal autonomy devoid of any trappings or substance of real sovereignty. Insisting that Jews had a right to live anywhere they pleased in what he called Judea and Samaria, Begin was adamantly opposed to any restrictions on construction of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories, let alone the removal of those already erected. For Begin, withdrawing from East Jerusalem and acknowledging the right of return for Palestinian refugees were simply out of the question.
In light of this wide chasm, Carter was warned by his top advisers, including Vice President Walter Mondale, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, that his proposed summit was politically too risky because it had no chance of success. Carter rejected their advice and accepted instead the urging of his wife Rosalynn to give the quest for peace one more chance.
Because Carter's positions on most of the contentious issues were much closer to his own than to Begin's, Sadat went to Camp David hoping the American president would pressure Begin to accept Egypt's peace terms. In his calculus, he could not lose. Either Begin would succumb to U.S. pressure, or Egypt would have cemented a closer relationship with Washington and Israel would be held responsible for the breakdown in negotiations.
Wright is less clear as to why Begin accepted Carter's invitation to attend the summit in the first place. Begin's presence at Camp David is especially puzzling for a number of reasons. First, he must have been fully aware of the proximity of Carter's stance to Sadat's, and therefore should have suspected that the two would conspire and exert pressure on him. Furthermore, in each of his previous meetings with Carter, there was an evident lack of personal chemistry and mutual trust between them. In addition, Begin headed a delegation that was contentious and internally divided. Wright surmises that the Israeli team arrived "believing that the summit would last no more than a couple of days, and that no agreement would come of it."
Carter had initially hoped that Sadat and Begin would negotiate a detailed and comprehensive peace agreement between themselves, and that he would serve as a facilitator, pleader and persuader. This expectation of a fairly brief summit evaporated quickly by the end of the third day, following a second acrimonious triangular session, as both Sadat and Begin threatened to leave Camp David.
The major bone of contention up to that point involved the status of 13 settlements housing some 2,000 residents that Israel had erected in the Sinai after the 1967 war. Begin insisted that the continued presence of a relatively small number of settlers in Sinai did not infringe on Egyptian sovereignty. He and Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan argued that Israel needed to maintain these settlements as a first line of defense against a potential Egyptian attack on Israel proper. Defense Minister Ezer Weizman implored Begin to agree to evacuate the Sinai settlements, and General Ariel Sharon phoned Begin from Israel to assure him that he had no objections to the removal of the settlements if that move would facilitate attainment of a peace agreement.
Begin eventually softened his stance after Carter made it clear that the United States supported Sadat in his insistence that Israel needed to withdraw fully from the Sinai in order to secure a peace with Egypt. On the eleventh day of the summit, Begin agreed to present the issue of evacuation to the Israeli Knesset within two weeks and assured Carter that members of his own party would be permitted to vote their consciences.
By the fourth day of the summit, Carter was convinced that Begin would never agree to anything proposed by Sadat and suspected the Egyptian president was prepared to leave. In order to prevent the breakup of the summit, Carter revealed to Begin that, because Sadat had secretly agreed to demilitarize the Sinai, Israel no longer needed its settlements there as a buffer. Now aware that Sadat had offered secret concessions to Carter without extracting any corresponding concessions from Israel, Begin had two incentives: to stay at the summit and to stick to his hard line without offering any compromises. Carter successfully persuaded Sadat to stay by promising that Egypt and the United States could reach an agreement between them even if Israel was not a party to it.
Wright notes that these maneuvers transformed Carter's role from neutral mediator to direct participant in the negotiations. Carter also realized that the wide gap separating Sadat and Begin could be narrowed only if the United States were prepared to offer its own bridging proposals. On the fifth day of the summit, the American team composed the first of 23 draft proposals. It reflected Carter's critical decision to delete provisions that linked implementation of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty to the establishment of a Palestinian self-governing authority in the West Bank and Gaza. As it turned out, such decoupling eventually enabled Sadat to regain the Sinai while ensuring continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
To make it palatable for the Israelis, the American draft deliberately left several thorny issues — sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza, status of Israeli settlements, terms of withdrawal from the Sinai — for future negotiations. However, when the Israeli and U.S. teams met during the sixth day, Begin objected to any references to UN Security Council Resolution 242 because it mentioned the "inadmissibility of acquisition of territory by war." As far as Begin was concerned, that phrase referred solely to a war of aggression and not to a defensive war in which Israel was presumably engaged in 1967. Begin also objected to including any reference to the Palestinians, especially their "legitimate rights." The meeting ended at 3 a.m. in a shouting match, as Carter's "blue eyes blazed with fury." Before going to bed, Carter uttered to Rosalynn that Begin was a "psycho."
After Carter presented Sadat with yet another draft that had incorporated several Israeli suggestions, Sadat announced on the evening of the seventh day that he was ending the talks and planning to leave Camp David the next morning. He was persuaded to stay, however, after yet another revised American draft committed Israel and Egypt to conclude a peace treaty within three months, with the contentious issues of sovereignty, disposition of three Israeli airfields, and the stationing of military forces to be negotiated later.
On the following day, Begin announced that the summit was over. Yet despite these frequent threats to leave, neither Begin nor Sadat were willing to endanger their relationship with the United States or assume the blame for the collapse of the summit. In the absence of any progress, however, Carter and his team were convinced by the tenth day that the summit was indeed over.
On the morning of the eleventh day, Sadat informed Carter that he was packed and ready to leave. In response, Carter angrily accused him of betraying and lying to him, but he managed to mollify Sadat by promising that the United States would support the Egyptian insistence on a total Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai. That promise was insufficient for Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel, who informed Sadat of his intention to resign.
Apparent progress was achieved on the twelfth day, when both sides seemingly agreed to accept Carter's solutions for two of the thorniest issues that had prolonged the acrimony. When he realized that the emotion-laden dispute over the status of Jerusalem could not be resolved at Camp David, Carter suggested an exchange of letters in which all sides, including the United States, stated their position. Carter also believed that Begin had accepted his insistence that there would be a freeze on construction of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza as long as the negotiations with the Palestinians continued up to five years. He expected Begin to confirm his assent in a letter that would accompany the final agreement.
However, just hours before the three delegations were preparing to leave Camp David for the signing ceremony at the White House, Begin informed the American team that he would refuse to submit or accept any letter regarding Jerusalem and ordered the Israeli delegation to leave the summit. Begin was infuriated by the American letter, because it quoted at length objectionable statements about Jerusalem that had been made by previous U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations. Carter averted the impending collapse of the summit by redrafting the side letter that now stated the official American position on Jerusalem without the language that was deemed offensive by Begin.
A very short while before the start of the signing ceremony on Sunday, September 17, 1978, Begin's top legal adviser, Aharon Barak, handed a letter to Carter at the White House. It stated that Israel accepted a freeze on settlements in the West Bank and Gaza only during the three months that were set aside for negotiating the peace treaty with Egypt. Carter told Barak to submit another letter that would explicitly iterate the American understanding of a potentially prolonged settlement freeze. Not wishing to delay the signing of the accords, Carter agreed to receive the revised letter on the following day. That letter was never delivered. Thus, what Wright calls "one of the great diplomatic triumphs of the twentieth century" was sealed, made possible by a crucial ambiguity on a critical issue that was never resolved.
Shortly after the signing of the accords, Begin authorized expansion of existing settlements and construction of new ones throughout the occupied areas. Numerous additional ambiguities enabled Sadat and Begin to agree to an Egyptian-Israeli peace while enabling Israel to continue its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The framework regarding peace with the Palestinians failed to define their "legitimate rights," did not require Israel to withdraw back to the June 4, 1967, lines, and did not commit Israel to respect the rights of the Palestinians to political self-determination. Instead, it left several critically important issues — settlements, Jerusalem, the right of return, political future of the areas, borders, security arrangements — subject to future negotiations among Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Self-Governing Authority, with Israel enjoying a decisive veto power over any and all decisions.
In a concluding chapter, Wright identifies several features that both enhanced and impeded progress in the negotiations at Camp David. While the physical isolation of the delegates from the outside world helped to facilitate private communications and secret deliberations, the intimacy of the confined presidential retreat also helped to intensify the personal hostility and distrust between Begin and Sadat, the two individuals who had the authority and power to make or break any deal. During the last week of the summit, they never met or spoke to each other and consequently had to rely on their advisers as go-betweens.
Wright notes that both the Israeli and Egyptian delegations were internally divided. In the case of Egypt, however, the absence of unity did not appear to have much of an impact on Sadat. Most of his team was more hawkish and less willing to compromise than he was, causing Sadat to keep them in the dark and ignore their advice. Begin, on the other hand, headed a team that was for the most part more dovish than its leader. Unlike his counterpart, Begin met frequently with his delegation and softened his stance on several issues, especially regarding withdrawal from Sinai.
The summit would have come to naught had it not been for Carter's intense commitment and indefatigable effort to help the parties reach agreement. He took substantial political risks when he decided to convene the summit, and devoted an extraordinary amount of time to what turned out to be a truly Herculean quest for peace. Carter was sufficiently astute to change his initial role from mere facilitator to formulator and advocate of solutions. In retrospect, his major mistake was to urge the decoupling of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty from the accord on the West Bank and Gaza. Due to the absence of such linkage, the Camp David accords managed to produce a cold peace between Jerusalem and Cairo, while ensuring that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would persist to this day, with no end in sight.