The high point of Jimmy Carter's presidency occurred on Monday, September 18, 1978. While Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin looked on from the balcony, Carter briefed a joint session of Congress on the success of their thirteen-day summit at Camp David, Maryland. Stopping twenty-five times for applause, he described the first peace treaty between Israel and one of its Arab neighbors, as well as a framework for further progress toward peace in the Middle East. "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be the children of God," an emotional Carter intoned, capping two weeks of high-risk diplomacy that ended in historic achievement.
It's difficult to imagine any other American president doing what Carter did at Camp David. Most would not even have tried, and Carter's capacity for hard work, mastery of detail, moral integrity and just plain stubbornness all came into play. Though he would receive little domestic political benefit, it established Carter as a top global statesman and has served as the inspiration for much of his work since leaving office.
The Unstable Middle East
When Jimmy Carter entered the White House in 1977, the situation in the Middle East was highly unstable, the product of four wars since the establishment of Israel on May 14, 1948. A formal state of war still existed between Israel and its neighbors, including Egypt, bent on reclaiming the Sinai territory seized by the Israelis in 1967. Millions of Palestinian Arabs chafed under Israeli control in the West Bank and Gaza territories, also annexed during the Six Day War in 1967. Many observers -- President Carter included -- considered the Middle East the most likely flashpoint for a superpower war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Initiating Peace Talks
President Sadat had opened the door to Camp David in November 1977, when he became the first Arab leader to set foot on Israeli soil. Though Begin reciprocated with a visit to Egypt, by the summer of 1978 progress toward a settlement had stalled, and both sides had resorted to heated rhetoric. On August 5, Carter ignored his advisors' advice and sent Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to the Middle East to invite the leaders to Camp David. When they suggested he pursue only the general outlines of an agreement during the summit, Carter chastised his team. "You are not aiming high enough," he said, setting as a minimum goal for the talks a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. The president added that "by getting them to Camp David, away from the press and out of the glare of publicity and away from their own political constituencies, I think I can bring them to understand each other's positions better." The mountain-top retreat was so isolated, in fact, that as the talks wore on Begin would joke that he felt like he was in a concentration camp.
By the third day of the summit, Carter's strategy had unraveled. Sadat started the negotiations with a hard-line proposal, Begin hardly seemed interested in making a deal at all, and before long Carter found himself refereeing a series of shouting matches. "It was mean," he told his wife. "They were brutal with each other, personal." Rather than give up, Carter came up with a bold change of strategy: if they couldn't talk to each other, the two leaders would have to work through him. From then on, the U.S. would not merely play mediator, but would be an active participant in a pair of bilateral negotiations.
The president himself acted as lead negotiator, shuttling back and forth between the two parties, and showing great flexibility in his approach to each. Sadat, who would develop a strong friendship with Carter, had staked his career (and ultimately his life) on achieving an agreement. He favored a bold approach, and gave Carter wide latitude in crafting a deal the Israelis would accept. Begin, on the other hand, argued tenaciously over every word, and, with less to gain than from an agreement, used his position to avoid compromising. So Carter deftly went around Begin to more flexible members of the Israeli team, while with the Egyptians he did the opposite, going straight to Sadat and avoiding his hard-line advisors.
Another key tactic was Carter's decision to separate the Sinai issue from the more difficult Palestinian issue, and instead produce two documents. The first would be a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, in which the Israelis would return the Sinai territory in exchange for diplomatic recognition, access to the Suez Canal, and restrictions on the Egyptian military presence on its border. The second document would lay out the principles for future negotiations in the area, based on the idea that Israel would grant autonomy to the Palestinians in exchange for peace with its Arab neighbors. Carter was so involved in the discussions that he drafted in his own hand what became the treaty on the Sinai. "All these things that in many ways were flaws in Carter became strengths during that negotiation," comments speechwriter Hendrik Hertzberg. "At the end of the day, he threw everybody out of his cabin, got down on the floor with the maps, with his yellow pad, and outlined what they could do," says media advisor Gerald Rafshoon.
The talks nearly broke down twice, and each time it was Carter's determination that kept things going. On the morning of September 15, after eleven days of negotiations, President Sadat told Secretary of State Vance he was leaving. Carter went to Sadat's cabin and told him, "Our friendship is over. You promised me that you would stay at Camp David as long as I was willing to negotiate... I consider this a serious blow... to the relationship between Egypt and the United States." Sadat agreed to stay. Then, after everything seemed settled, Begin threatened to withdraw from the agreement over the wording of a side letter on the status of Jerusalem. Carter, acting on the suggestion of his secretary, had autographed pictures for Begin's grandchildren; this gesture and Carter's sincere commitment to peace so moved the Prime Minister that he agreed to accept a new draft.
A Fragile Agreement
The next six months proved just how fragile the agreement was. Outstanding details proved more difficult to iron out than anyone had anticipated, and Carter was disappointed to find out that Begin seemed to be backing away from elements of the agreement, and had even announced the construction of new settlements on the West Bank. In March, Carter once again risked humiliation by flying to the Middle East in a last-ditch effort to save the accords. After chastising both sides for their inability to make a final commitment to peace, the president made a final stopover in Egypt on his way home. American journalists were already writing their stories about the failure of the Camp David process. But Sadat informed Carter he would accept the final Israeli proposal, and the two men called Begin to inform him. On March 26, the White House hosted a triumphant signing ceremony before 1600 assembled guests.
The Camp David Legacy
"It was really remarkable stuff," remembers Vice President Walter Mondale. "And we thought, 'Boy, this will lift things now. It shows we can get things done. It brings peace in a crucial area.' And there was no movement at all." "It wasn't relevant to most people's lives," explains Carter's pollster Patrick Caddell. "The Camp David accords were important. People were proud of it. They were happy with it, and it got us nothing in the polls because it wasn't part of the agenda of the American politics at that time."
Although the political benefits were slight, the Camp David agreement was Carter's most important presidential accomplishment, and a shining moment in the Middle East peace process. "There will never be a history of the Middle East written without Jimmy Carter's name in the index," says historian Douglas Brinkley. "Camp David is the beginning of a process that still goes on. And a hundred years from now, two hundred years from now, people will be talking about the Camp David process, that began in those Maryland mountains."
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