Camp David Accords, 1978-1979

Camp David Accords, 1978-1979
Shattering the Arab Front

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Menahem Begin, Jimmy Carter and Anwar Sadat at Camp David

7 September 1978

On 17 September 1978, Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin signed the Camp David Accords , two framework agreements that set the stage for the 1979 Egypt -Israel Peace Treaty. The accords marked the first instance of an Arab state’s willingness to reach an individual peace agreement with Israel outside the framework of a comprehensive agreement. This, combined with Egypt’s significance within the Arab world, was a serious blow not only to the negotiating positions of the other Arabs states but also to the Palestinians, who were excluded from the negotiations. The agreement subverted the notion that Israel could achieve peace with its Arab neighbors only through addressing the Palestinian issue.

The road to Camp David was paved with the political developments of the previous decade. The 1967 war had convinced many Arab political elites and intellectuals that Israel was a permanent reality in the region, while the 1973 war was perceived as having removed the stigma of earlier defeats, thus allowing the possibility of reaching a compromise with Israel. In 1976, Jimmy Carter was elected president of the United States , and his administration set about reconvening the Geneva Conference , a joint U.S.-Soviet initiative to negotiate an Arab-Israeli settlement in the wake of the 1973 war. Despite some progress, the prospects of reaching a comprehensive agreement were cast into question by internal Arab conflicts and by Israel’s position, especially with the victory of Menachem Begin and the Likud Party in the Israeli election of May 1977. Likud claimed Jewish sovereignty over all of “Greater Israel” (including Jordan ) and Begin rapidly expanded settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza . Sadat, seeing these obstacles and seeking to develop closer relations with the West, decided to enter into separate bilateral meetings with Israel.

In early November 1977, Sadat announced that he was willing to go to Jerusalem to address the Knesset . Begin, seeing an opportunity to break the united Arab front, invited Sadat, who arrived in Jerusalem on 19 November. Sadat’s reconciliatory tone—he described his presence before the Knesset as evidence that the Arabs “accept living with you in permanent peace based on justice”—was largely rebuffed by Begin, who blamed the Arab states for the failure to achieve peace and reiterated Israel’s established terms for an agreement. Having already alienated a number of Arab actors and remaining desirous of American support, though, Sadat pushed ahead with Egyptian-Israeli talks.

On 11 March 1978, a team of Fatah commandos (including Dalal al-Mughrabi ) staged an attack on Israel, hijacking a bus and taking its passengers hostage. The operation’s organizers had sought to use the hostages to negotiate the release of Palestinian prisoners inside Israel, as well as to challenge the Israeli-Egyptian negotiations. Israeli troops stormed the bus and 36 Israelis and 8 of the commandos were killed. In the wake of the incident, Israel invaded Southern Lebanon , occupying it up to the Litani River , then partially withdrawing under US pressure in mid-June. Having committed significant diplomatic capital to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, Carter invited Begin and Sadat to Camp David in an attempt to salvage the situation.

Sadat and Begin arrived on 5 September 1978. Sadat had given up the power of a united Arab front and the recognition card, having already visited Jerusalem, and was under significant pressure to emerge from Camp David with some kind of agreement. Begin, on the other hand, was not under internal pressure and was holding a strong bargaining position: the Sinai was a key bargaining chip that allowed him to exchange territory for peace without giving up any of “Greater Israel.” After thirteen days of tense negotiations, the three parties reached an agreement, “A Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel,” which outlined a basis for a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in which Israel would withdraw from the Sinai in exchange for normal diplomatic relations with Egypt, free passage through the Suez Canal and the Straits of Tiran , limited Egyptian armament in the Sinai, and a demilitarized area along the Israeli border. On 26 March 1979, Sadat and Begin signed a peace treaty based on these principles in Washington, DC .

The second agreement, “The Framework for Peace in the Middle East ,” proposed the principles of a comprehensive peace based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 “in all their parts.” The first part of the framework called for a process through which a “self-governing authority in the West Bank and Gaza” would be elected by the inhabitants of these territories, in a process agreed upon through negotiations between Egypt, Israel, and Jordan. Once this self-governing authority was established, a five-year “transitional period” would begin, during which negotiations would take place to determine the final status of the West Bank and Gaza, culminating with “a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan.” A second part dealt with Egyptian-Israeli relations, which would be governed by a peace agreement between the two parties, and a third part proposed the provisions that should apply to peace treaties between Israel and the neighboring Arab states, including full recognition, economic development and an end to boycott, and a privileged role for the United States in negotiations.

Many Arabs saw this framework for a comprehensive peace as a nonstarter. It had been negotiated without the involvement of most key actors, most prominently the PLO , and was vague at best on key issues. (Jerusalem, upon which Begin and Sadat could not agree, was not mentioned.) Further, facing pressure within his own party, Begin began almost immediately to equivocate: Israel, he claimed, would never give up its claim to sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza, and the “elected self-governing authority” mentioned in the agreement meant little more than a limited administrative autonomy. (Begin was already on the record as interpreting Resolution 242 as not requiring Israel to give up the West Bank or Gaza.)

The PLO rejected the agreement, arguing that—among myriad other flaws—accepting the five-year “transitional period” without having the future of the occupied territories specified after the five-year period bestowed legitimacy upon the occupation and gave Israel time to establish further settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. The UN General Assembly also rejected the “Framework for Middle East Peace,” as it was concluded without UN or PLO participation. The Arab Summit, Baghdad, 1978 condemned Egypt and the Camp David Accords, warned Egypt that it would be subject to an economic and political boycott if it concluded a separate peace with Israel, and transferred the Arab League headquarters from Cairo to Tunis .

The signing of a bilateral agreement between Israel and the largest and most powerful Arab state, Egypt, had the effect of not only breaking the united Arab front but also making it harder to concretize the formula of a settlement based on land for peace on the other fronts and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Selected Bibliography: 

“CIA Library, Declassified Documents on the September 1978 Camp David Summit, Washington, DC, Released 13 November 2013.” Journal of Palestine Studies 43, no.2 (Winter 2014): 165–168.

Documents and Source Material: Arab Documents on Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict.Journal of Palestine Studies 8, no.2 (Winter 1979): 176–204 (includes statements by Arab actors in reaction to Camp David Accords).

Khalidi, Rashid. Soviet Middle East Policy in the Wake of Camp David. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1979.

Lesch, Ann Mosely, and Mark Tessler. Israel, Egypt, and the Palestinians: From Camp David to Intifada. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Mahmood, Zahid. “Sadat and Camp David Reappraised.Journal of Palestine Studies 15, no.1 (Autumn 1985): 62–87.

Quandt, William B. Camp David: Peacemaking and Politics. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1986.

Sayegh, Fayez A. “The Camp David Agreement and the Palestine Problem.Journal of Palestine Studies 8, no.2 (Winter 1979): 3–40.