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The History of Events Surrounding the Camp David Accords

Posted by Judson L Moore

Turmoil and unrest have been embedded as a day-to-day presence in the Middle East for much of history. This can be explicitly seen in the region being fought over between Jews and Arabs, now known as Israel. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict erupted in 1967 and has been the source of multiple wars, economic and cultural chaos, and the loss of countless lives. Throughout this conflict, there have been many actors and many battlefields, but not much progress. The most significant progress was made at the United States intervention under the Jimmy Carter administration in 1978, which produced the Camp David Accords. These documents would spearhead negotiations for the following decades. Still, they would continue to prove that no foundation is truly sound enough to support or solve the Israelis and Palestinians’ conflicting views.

On November 9, 1977, President Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt shocked the world in a speech to the People’s Assembly in Cairo when he declared that he was ready to talk with Israel. Eleven days later, on November 20, 1977, Sadat made a historic trip to Jerusalem where he addressed the Israeli Knesset on behalf of not just Egypt. Still, instead, he claimed to be speaking on behalf of the Arab world. Sadat wished that there would be peace between all those living in the Middle East, including Arabs and Jews. However, Sadat was unwilling to claim an Arab defeat; instead, he addressed whether Israel was willing to work toward peace, with Israelis and Arabs living together in harmony. “He also repeated a 20-year-old suggestion there is an alliance between Jewish and Palestinian fundamentalists, neither of whom wish to see a peace treaty. ‘We must reinforce the moderates within each camp,’ he said.” 1 These revolutionary actions of President Sadat made peace talks possible and would lead to the landmark agreements of the Camp David Accords of 1978.

In response to this visit by al-Sadat, Prime Minister Begin of Israel visited Egypt in Ismailia to discuss terms for possible peace between the two nations. These talks were passed on to the Israeli Knesset through the Political Affairs and Military Affairs committees. The Knesset approved the plan by 64 to 8 votes, with 40 abstentions, which boosted the opportunity and support for continued talks.

However, as all this was going on, the Palestinian people’s government, the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization), was being left out. The PLO was established by the Arab League in 1964 as the Palestinian people’s voice but was not recognized by all those outside of the Arab World. The PLO would be the most influential spokes-organization of the Palestinian people but was not endorsed as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” by the Arab Summit until 1974.

The PLO soon had a legitimate cause to voice their opinions about. The Six-Day War of 1967 was an Israeli invasion of Arab land, and the PLO was quick to take the stage. “Soon after its establishment, the PLO declared its intention to represent the Palestinian people, defend their rights, and liberate Palestine. But in 1967, as the result of another Arab-Israeli war, neighboring Arab states lost the Palestinian territories of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Syrian Golan Heights.” 2  It is these territories which have been so heavily fought over. In the War of 1967, Israel invaded the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula, “(—areas not historically part of Eretz-Yisrael) [to establish settlements] primarily for defense and security reasons.” 3

As a result of these territories’ Israeli occupation and the Six-Day War, the United Nations passed UNSCR 242, a document that contained the framework under which peace in the Middle East should be established and described under what premises the territories would be returned to Arab control. The PLO outright rejected resolution 242 and would not negotiate under its rules until the 1980s.

Resolution 242 was a short resolution that called for peace in the Middle East and Israeli troops’ withdrawal from territories. The exact wording of this resolution, especially about the aforementioned withdrawal from territories, has led to much debate and different interpretations. “Nothing in the resolution says or implies that withdrawal is a precondition for negotiations, nor that Israel is obliged to withdraw from all the territories. The resolution says Israel has to withdraw ‘from territories’ -not even from ‘the’ territories — this to be decided in direct negotiations between the parties.” 4 This document became the cornerstone of negotiations for the following decades. Despite its vague language, which was intentionally used to allow Israel to remain in parts of the post-1967 borders, UNSCR 242 has been used as the primary source of outlining acceptable means of negotiations and the requirements that must be met to secure peace in the Middle East.

However, there are many conflicting interpretations of the resolution that have contributed to the Israeli peace talks’ slow progress. The British and the United States interpret the document the same, but the French have a slightly different understanding of the wording. However, the United Nations accepts the interpretation of documents in the language in which they are submitted. This resolution was submitted in English, and thus the United States and British interpretations win out.

UNSCR 242 sided heavily in favor of the Israelis. The western powers all viewed Israel as the victim in this situation and thus agreed that Israel’s rules could play out this conflict. “The American view was that if the Arabs refused to sit, Israel was not obligated to move…. After all, Arab actions had brought about the 1967 War in the first place; the fact that the Arabs had lost the war was a different matter altogether.” 5

The PLO and their Palestinian followers did not receive this well. They rejected this resolution outright and held to their claim that the Israelis were invaders of their land. The Palestinians and other Pro-Arabs argue that UNSCR 242 requires Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza as the occupied territories. Here, the western interpretation disagrees with the Palestinians.

The other document which played a role, although less significant, in the Camp David Accords was UNSCR 338, passed on October 22, 1973. This resolution was written in response to the Yom Kippur war of 1973 when Egyptian troops crossed into Israeli occupied Sinai Peninsula on the Jewish holy day of atonement to recapture this territory.

Israel took the opportunity to defend itself and retaliate against the Arab aggressors, so they invaded the Sinai Peninsula. The main security reason for invading the Sinai was to cut off Egypt from the Gaza Strip. After this was accomplished, Israeli forces turned north and eliminated Jordanian fortifications, thus capturing the Sinai Peninsula and gaining access to the Suez Canal. On the second day of the war, Israel invaded Syria at the Golan Heights to the northeast of Israel, where they crippled all the Syrian forces and gained control of the area. Israel is still to this day present in the Golan Heights. The third region that Israel gained control over is known as the West Bank and covers the area from East Jerusalem to the Jordan River’s west bank.

In addition to gaining all these territories, Israel established itself as the Middle East’s military power. On just the first day of the conflict, Israel, with its superior air force, could destroy more than 400 Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian aircraft, most of which never had the opportunity to get off the ground. One critic of Israel’s actions during this war points out that, “After gaining the Sinai, Gaza, the Golan Heights, Judea, and Samaria, Israel called them ‘administered territories,’ which became internationally known as ‘occupied territories.’ It should have called them Israel.” 6 This is probably true considering that Israel was in a strong position to make demands and have things their way, having destroyed all the surrounding nations’ militaries. Whether or not any future conflicts could have been avoided by details like the wording which referred to the territories is hard to guess at, but what has happened is a long stream of diplomacy and international involvement, starting with the United Nations’ intervention.

Resolution 338 called for three things:

  1. For an immediate cease-fire between the two nations.
  2. To immediately implement UNSCR 242 and all of its parts.
  3. Israel and Egypt begin immediately negotiating terms under which a “durable peace in the Middle East” can be established.

Now that there is a clear understanding of the events and documents which led up to the 1978 Camp David Accords, there is but one question to be asked: Why Camp David? President Jimmy Carter found himself to have a vested interest in Middle Eastern peace for various reasons. Sadat’s willingness to talk to the Israelis was a historical event, and Carter understood the political gains that could come if he helped that process successfully. Carter was also a humanitarian and wanted to show his support for human rights. All this, besides the fact that peace is generally good, motivated Carter to lead Egypt and Israel into negotiations.

An additional hint to President Carter’s bias toward Israel can be seen in this statement written by President Carter in response to a joint letter he received from both the leaders in March of 1979. “I have been informed that the expression ‘West Bank’ is understood by the Government of Israel to mean ‘Judea and Samaria.’ This notation is in accordance with similar procedures established at Camp David.” 7

Again, the reciprocal interpretation can be found on the part of the Arabs because, “Sadat also insisted on total Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, according to his interpretation of UN resolutions 242 and 338, but he had a set of priorities different from President Carter’s.” 8 One thing was exact, no matter to what degree resolution 242 would be implemented, there would be a great struggle for everyone to agree with its meaning and consequences.

With an increase in public and private support for continued peace talks, the two governments had to overcome the difficulties of setting the negotiations’ format. President Jimmy Carter of the United States stepped in and invited the two-state figureheads to come to the United States to the presidential retreat, Camp David, and carry out these negotiations under his auspices.

After much persuasion from President Carter, the leaders of Egypt and Israel, President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin arrived at the Presidential resort of Camp David in Maryland, on September 5, 1978, where they would spend the next twelve days discussing under what conditions they could coexist with one another peacefully. These twelve days were very frustrating and challenging for all parties involved. On more than one occasion, the Middle Eastern leaders were ready to call it quits, and would have, had it not been for the intervention and personal pleas of Carter for the negotiations to continue.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, the National Security Advisor to Prime Minister Begin and member of the Israeli delegation, contacted Carter before their arrival. In Brzezinski’s analysis, “Begin will define success largely in terms of procedural arrangements and will be very resistant to pressures for substantive concessions. You will have to persuade Begin to make more substantive concessions while convincing Sadat to settle for less than an explicit Israeli commitment to full withdrawal and Palestinian autonomy.” 9

On the first day of the talks, Prime Minister Begin made it clear to Carter that Israel’s highest priority was security, focusing on keeping settlements and airfields in the Sinai as a buffer zone between Israel and Egypt. Begin also dismissed UNSCR 242 because of its language regarding the ban on acquisition of land through war. President Carter found this conversation frustrating because it led him to believe that Begin was unwilling to be flexible.

On the next day, Carter met with Sadat for the first time to discuss Sadat’s position. Sadat presented a detailed proposal entitled Framework for the Comprehensive Peace…. What Sadat proposed here was a very hard-line approach to dealing with Israel. Carter was again disappointed by the apparent lack of willingness to cooperate. Still, he was then shocked when Sadat procured a three-page typed memo listing certain concessions that Egypt was, in fact, willing to accept. This was encouraging for Carter, but he was directed not to reveal this list until a later, appropriate time.

Later that day, Carter, Begin, and Sadat all met for the first time and started the negotiations by discussing Sadat’s framework. Begin was turned off immediately by this proposal but noted that he would be willing to consider any proposal and hoped that the Egyptians would do the same.

It wasn’t until the next day, day three that Begin officially rejected every one of Sadat’s points. This rejection led Sadat to feel confirmed that Begin wanted territory more than peace. It also didn’t help Israel that Begin, while in private talks with US Secretary of State Vance, vocalized that their major two concerns were, in fact, the settlements and airfields in the Sinai.

Prime Minister Begin also insisted on control over the West Band, something President Sadat knew would be unpopular with other Arab nations. “Begin’s interest in an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty was twofold. For thirty years, an opposition leader wished to be the first Israeli leader to bring peace to the Middle East. His second and perhaps strongest desire was to secure Israel’s control of the West Bank or what he called Judea and Samaria regions. Hence, he planned to trade off the Sinai for the West Bank. Begin correctly assumed that the election of Carter would help him attain his goal. He was right about the timing but wrong about Sadat and Carter’s political attitudes and views. These misperceptions resulted in long and frustrating negotiations.” 10

At this time, the US delegation was encouraged to develop an American plan because it seemed that Egypt and Israel could go no further on their own. Carter also realized that a settlement might be more easily reached if he played the role of a go-between instead of continuing the heated debates as they were.

Carter began to engage in micro-shuttle diplomacy to keep the two parties calm enough to carry out the talks. Shuttle diplomacy had its roots in the 1970s when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger flew back and forth from different capitals in the Middle East, trying to negotiate peace after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Carter used this type of diplomacy very effectively by carrying messages and demands from one cabin to the next. It was through this act that Carter was able to make the most significant impact. Otherwise, the negotiations would have been abandoned and incomplete.

Over the next few days, Carter transmitted messages and proposals back and forth between the delegates but had to be very careful to remain neutral-appearing. He agreed with Sadat on the issue of the Israeli settlements in the Sinai, but he also felt that Sadat must be more flexible on security issues. This request did provoke the allegation from Begin that the American delegation became less of a mediator and started to take sides. This called for a break in the negotiations.

On September 9, there were no formal meetings. Still, the President did develop a list called the Necessary Elements of Agreement, which was used to help his delegation develop the American peace proposal. The next day continued to be leisurely as the entire party took a trip to the Gettysburg battlefield. 11 This trip is reported to have been fun for all involved. Sadat had studied the Battle at Gettysburg since he was a child and always found it a festinating subject. On the other hand, Begin didn’t know anything about Gettysburg or its importance during the American Civil War. But when the party visited the spot where President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, Prime Minister Begin could recite it from memory.

The day ended on a much harder note when the American Proposal was unveiled to the Israeli delegation. The Prime Minister was not happy that Carter insisted on the adherence of UNSCR 242, but Carter insisted that resolution 242 must lead the way.

Heated debate continued over the issue of West Bank self-rule. The Israelis had wanted the West Bank government’s veto power, but Carter said this looked too much like political control. Once this was pointed out, Israeli Delegate Moshe responded, “…we are not after political control. If it looks that way to you, we will look at it again.” 12

That night President Carter stated what he saw as the main priorities: sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza would not be resolved at Camp David; the question of settlements would have to be added to any agreement, and a specific agreement on Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai would be concluded at Camp David. This meeting did not end until 3:00 am, but the Israelis promised a response to the American proposal by 8:00 am.

When the Israeli-revised proposal was given to the Egyptians, Sadat found it unacceptable in several ways, but they were all minor details. Sadat told Carter that he would probably sign the accords in private, but there were these few details that had to be taken care of first.

On September 12, Carter’s “Framework for a Settlement in the Sinai” was revealed. Sadat found this framework very acceptable. Begin, however, had continuing concerns over the UNSCR 252 language concerning the territories gained in war. This issue was still a significant roadblock for the Prime Minister.

On September 14, Carter ordered preparations for the failure of negotiations. Sadat said that he would sign the American draft and call it quits. A compromise was finally made that Israel would withdraw from the Sinai airfields if they would be replaced with American forces for a temporary transitional. Carter decided that he would accept that only if the Israelis accepted the entire American proposal, which they did.  With Sadat’s agreement for Gaza and the West Bank framework, Begin agreed to sign the American proposal on the Sinai.

The next day, just as things seemed to be going so well, Sadat decided to leave the negotiations without any formal action at all. Carter met with Sadat alone and reminded him of the consequences that Egypt would suffer in American relations if Sadat pulled out of negotiations like this. Eventually, Sadat was convinced to stay for two more days, but then that would be it.

After two more days of debate, mostly over language, an agreement was reached. This agreement, the Camp David Accords, encompassed several points: First, it was agreed that the two nations would accept UNSCR 242 and 338 in all of their parts and start to implement them immediately. Second, a concept called ‘Land for Peace’ emerged as an operating principle by which Israel would agree to give back certain occupied lands in exchange for peace in the region. Third, the accords called for a framework (which included the land for peace principle) to lay the groundwork for future negotiations between Israel and other Arab states.

The peace process is generally accepted by all sides as the best means to work out differences but has been able to show little progress in the 27 years since Camp David. Since then, all that has come has been a series of infrequent talks that are left with empty promises. The main problem with implementing the program is that Israel is not willing to give up what the Palestinians want, and the Palestinians refuse to accept only what the Israeli’s are willing to give, “…implementing the steps to negotiate such a policy into a workable program has failed to attract the interest or dedication that would be required to overcome the obstacles and to scrape away the deeply held mutual perceptions of animosity formed by conflict buildup.” 13

The first step toward peace, which took place after Camp David, was the signing of the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty of 1979, for which Sadat and Begin both received the Nobel Peace Prize. Egypt received the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel had occupied since the Six-Day War of 1967. In exchange, Egypt would officially recognize Israel’s right to exist as a nation, thus being the first Arab state to do so. This is the first also the first implementation of the ‘Land for Peace’ program. Additionally, provisions were made that Israel address the conflicts surrounding their occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Unfortunately, in the end, Israel, Egypt, and the United States all had varying interpretations on what was to happen, which resulted in Nothing happening in the West Bank or Gaza for the next decade until the Madrid Conference of 1991.

As part of the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai to their pre-1967 borders, Egypt gained the area’s infrastructure (roads, settlements, military bases, etc.) and the Sinai oil fields. Once this withdraw was complete, an internationally recognized border was created to have no future disputes over this land.

Egypt was the strongest country of the Arab nations, yet President Sadat was not influential enough to lead the Arab world into peace with Israel in this new era. The countries of the Arab League: Libya, Syria, Iraq, South Yemen, and the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization), meet in Tripoli, Libya, where they agreed to condemn Sadat’s actions as high treason. “The Arab League expelled Egypt on March 26, 1979, and ‘temporarily’ moved its headquarters to Tunis…. Seven years later, the league readmitted Egypt ( May 1989) after the PLO ( December 1983) and Jordan ( September 1984) had led the way in renewing relations.” 14 From this point forward, not only was Egypt suspended by the entire Arab world, but it remained on very shaky ground with much of the western world and Israel.

The loosely structured United Arab Front had never been very strong but always backed on the fact that Egypt was a UAF member. Now that the Egyptian leader had turned his back on the other Arab states, Egypt was an outcast from all future Arab relations. Camp David’s results were also not very well received throughout Egypt, and Sadat’s criticisms and hatred were built until 1981 when he was assassinated.

In 1980 Ronald Reagan became President of the United States and set forth his plan, the “Reagan Plan,” for peace between the Arabs and Israel. Reagan’s administration had a slightly more pro-Arab twist than Carter’s, but he still used the Camp David Accords as the foundation upon which to build policy. “While the Camp David accords had been ambiguous about the future of the territories occupied by Israel since 1967, the Reagan Plan envisaged their restoration to the Arabs. Nevertheless, at the same time, the USA reaffirmed its opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state and proposed ‘self-government in association with Jordan’”. 15

The problem was that the Arabs would still reject his policy because it included aspects of Camp David, elements for which they had a strong distaste. Israel would also refuse the Reagan Plan because it called for the West Bank and Gaza’s return to the Palestinians. What resulted was a stalemate between the United States and the Israeli/Arab situation. Throughout the rest of Reagan’s tenure as President, virtually no progress would be made, and tensions would only grow.

It was not until George H.W. Bush became President in 1988 that there was no more progress. Under this administration, James Baker was the Secretary of State. Secretary Baker engaged in intensive shuttle diplomacy and was eventually able to persuade all nations directly involved with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to participate in a conference held in Madrid, Spain, in 1991. This two-day conference included dignitaries from the USSR, the United States, Spain, Israel, the Palestinian people, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt. The leading Arab argument continued to be the same as at Camp David and other negotiations, but now Israel came under fire for their apparent unwillingness to cooperate. About remarks made by Syria’s foreign minister Farouk al-Shara in Madrid, “The fact that the settlement activity persisted even after the inception of the peace process was tangible proof that Israel did not seek a genuine peace.” 16  The talks that took place here were very intense but only resulted in killing the land for peace because Israel continued to refuse to give up any land, thus fortifying that peace was not yet possible.

The history of the 20th Century in the Middle East is full of conflict and not much resolution, but the Camp David Accords of 1978 are undoubtedly the most influential in taking steps in the right direction. These accords set an unprecedented course of events and dialogue between Arab and Jewish people. They are criticized for having not taken full advantage of the situation. Still, without completing these accords, the Middle East would surely be a less stable place today.

SOURCES

1. Betsy Pisik, “Boutros-Ghali Suggests ‘Shock’ for Mideast Talks: Cites Sadat’s ‘77 Speech to Knesset,” The Washington Times, May 21, 1997, 9 [database on-line]; available from Questia, https://www.questia.com/; Internet; accessed April 8, 2005. 2. Mohamed Rabie, U.S.-PLO Dialogue: Secret Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution _(Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1995), 4. 3. Bernard Reich, “10 Israel’s Foreign Policy and the 1977 Parliamentary Elections,” in _Israel at the Polls: The Knesset Elections of 1977, ed. Howard R. Penniman (Washington: American Enterprise Institute, 1979), 273. 4. Adam Garfinkle, Politics and Society in Modern Israel: Myths and Realities, 2nd ed. (Armonk, NY: M.E.Sharpe, 2000), 222. 5. Adam Garfinkle, Politics and Society in Modern Israel: Myths and Realities, 2nd ed. (Armonk, NY: M.E.Sharpe, 2000), 222. 6. Bruce Herschensohn, “Ten Mistakes in the Middle East,” World and I, September 2001, 62 [database on-line]; available from Questia, https://www.questia.com/; Internet; accessed April 27, 2005. 7. Paul A. Jureidini, and R. D. McLaurin, Beyond Camp David: Emerging Alignments and Leaders in the Middle East, 1st ed. (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1981), 152. 8. Samuel Segev, “Did President Carter Miss an Opportunity for Peace Between Israel and Jordan—Or is the “Jordanian Option” Still a Viable Solution?,” in Jimmy Carter: Foreign Policy and Post-Presidential Years, eds. Herbert D. Rosenbaum and Alexej Ugrinsky (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994), 137. 9. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser, 1977-1981, (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1983), 255. 10. Nitza Nachmias, Transfer of Arms, Leverage, and Peace in the Middle East _(New York: Greenwood Press, 1988), 94. 11. *Jimmy Carter Presidential Daily Diary*, September 10, 1978 [database on-line]; available from the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, https://jimmycarterlibrary.org/documents/diary/1978/d091078t.pdf; Internet; accessed May 4, 2005. 12. *Negotiations – First Few Days*; https://www.ibiblio.org/sullivan/Negotiations-1.html 1.html; Internet; accessed 4 May 2005. 13. Karen A. Feste, _Plans for Peace: Negotiation and the Arab-Israeli Conflict _(New York: Praeger, 1991), 34. 14. Joseph E. Goldberg et al., eds., _An Historical Encyclopedia of the Arab-Israeli Conflict _(Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1996), 323. 15. Paul Cossali, “Arab-Israeli Relations 1967-2001,” in _A Survey of Arab-Israeli Relations 1947-2001, ed. David Lea (London: Europa, 2002) 70. 16. Eytan Bentsur, _Making Peace: A First-Hand Account of the Arab-Israeli Peace Process _(Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001), 123.

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Judson L Moore
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Travel addict. Ambitious about making the world a better place. Writing what I learn along the way.

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