The history of the Camp David Accords reveals that even a sympathetic president could not stand up for the Palestinians

Israel/Palestine
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chessIsraeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, left, and US national security adviser Zbig Brzezinski play chess at Camp David, 1978.

In the midst of the Egyptian revolution, a concerned Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet that the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace was “the cornerstone of peace and stability, not only between the two countries, but in the entire Middle East as well” –a pronouncement that soon made its way to the front page of the New York Times. While the peoples of Lebanon, Iraq, Gaza and the West Bank might well wonder how much peace and stability they got from the deal, Camp David did indeed usher in a golden age for Israel, which was freed to pursue aggressive policies without having to worry about the Arab world’s largest military.

How did this happen? A strategically-dominant Israel was not a goal of Jimmy Carter and the other Americans who negotiated the Camp David accords. Washington had been frightened by the 1973 war and hurt by the subsequent Arab oil embargo; strategists worried that continued turmoil in the region would allow the Soviet Union to make trouble with the West’s energy supplies. For the previous decade, the Beltway consensus held that Israel should give up the territory it had seized in the 1967 war in return for a comprehensive peace with its neighbors and security guarantees. The Palestinian leadership had been moving steadily towards acceptance of the two-state solution. Washington had sought a resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem, amplified by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, since Eisenhower’s time.

The Camp David Accords are thus a puzzle, because the results – which shaped the Middle East for a generation– were so different from what its American sponsors intended. Unraveling the puzzle reveals the constraints on an American president in dealing with Israel. Indeed a principal lesson to be drawn from Power and Principle, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s memoir of his tenure as Carter’s national security adviser, and from his top Middle East aide William Quandt (in Peace Process) is that the Arabs should disabuse themselves of the idea that the United States will use its leverage over Israel to achieve a just peace.

The Camp David template governed the Mideast for thirty years. The Palestinians were stateless in 1979, and remain so. The Israel lobby displayed the muscle to define the limits of what an American president might plausibly achieve. This happened in an administration whose foreign policy principals believed that resolution of the Palestinian issue was an important strategic and moral interest, under a president who felt a warm personal connection to Anwar Sadat, which he did not feel towards Israel’s leaders.

One can see why intelligent people believed that the situation was more fluid. In Brzezinski’s account, central administration figures repeatedly broached the idea of breaking openly with Israel, and explaining to the American people their frustration with Israeli intransigence. And yet one senses this was never really a serious option. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin seemed to know this, as Netanyahu and his team do today. In the end, Begin played the administration perfectly — exploiting its yearning for a diplomatic “success,” maneuvering towards a separate peace that severed Egypt from the issue of Palestine, giving Israel a free hand to colonize the West Bank, annex the Golan Heights, and launch several wars against Lebanon. 

No one can blame the consequences of Camp David on a lack of commitment on the part of Jimmy Carter and his foreign policy team. Secretary of State Cy Vance and Brzezinski differed over how to deal with the Soviet Union, but both believed a comprehensive Middle East settlement, which included a Palestinian homeland, was an American vital interest. Their staffs shared the conviction. The president was wholly on board. A devout Christian, Carter felt some emotional tie to Israel as “the land of the Bible” and was put off by the disdain some world leaders, such as French president Giscard D’Estaing, felt towards the Jewish state. But he felt strongly that Palestinians were victims of injustice.

Early in his presidency, in a 1977 March town meeting, Carter said, “there has to be a homeland provided for the Palestinian refugees who have suffered for many, many years.” Brzezinski recognized instantly that the comment would set off a political storm and records that “Vance and I huddled on how best to handle this new development, but we received instructions. . . directly from Air Force One that no elaborations or clarifications were to be issued on the matter.” (Almost thirty years to the day after Carter’s evocation of Palestinian suffering, Barack Obama, in an Iowa campaign appearance, used the same verb to depict the Palestinian plight. Like Carter, he came under strident attack from Israel’s backers. While one could say that some things never change, there was one significant difference. Unlike Carter, Obama did subsequently “clarify” his remarks, claiming he meant that the Palestinians were suffering because of the failings of their leadership.) 

Coming into office, the Carter adminstration’s plan was to prepare the ground for an international conference at Geneva, co-chaired by Washington and the Soviet Union. The administration knew that Israel would resist, but felt such objections could be overcome. Brzezinski records that he told Carter frequently that Israel would require “persuasion” adding “given the centrality of the U.S. pipeline to Israel’s survival, most Israelis instinctively would shrink back from overt defiance of the United States, provided they were convinced the United States means business.” (Italics in original).

But the window during such persuasion could be attempted was narrow. In a succinct summary of the Israel lobby’s strengths, Brzezinski observes, “The nature of American domestic politics was such that the President had the greatest leverage in his first year of office, less so in his second, and so forth. The more time he had for persuasion and for the subsequent progress toward peace to be manifest, the more opportunity he had to act. Friction with Israel made little sense in the third or fourth Presidential years, for such conflict would be adversely reflected in the mass media and in financial support for the Democratic Party.” 

The administration’s chances of using the first year effectively grew slimmer when Israel’s Labor Party lost election to Menachem Begin’s Likud-led coalition in May 1977. Washington sensed a looming showdown with the hawkish Begin. Brzezinski pressed for more administration voices speak out on the Middle East, and an initially reluctant vice president Mondale gave a speech calling for Israeli withdrawal to the lines and preparation of a Palestinian “entity”. House leader Tip O’Neill told Brzezinski that “if the choice came down between the President and the pro-Israel lobby, the country would clearly choose the President—but only if the choice was clearly posed.” Senator Abraham Ribicoff, a Jewish liberal wary of Begin, passed word through Walter Mondale that Carter needed to stand firm. Cy Vance passed on gossip from veteran Washington insider Sol Linowitz that the Jewish community had reached the conclusion that “if they pressed hard enough, the President will yield.” This apparently was the outcome of a meeting Carter had with Jewish leaders, in which he professed his commitment to Israel, while outlining his plans to push Tel Aviv towards a peace settlement. 

By August, Carter, according to Brzezinski’s diary notes, “indicated his increasing frustration with the Israeli position and his unwillingness to maintain a policy in which in effect we are financing their conquests and they simply deny us in an intransigent fashion and generally make a mockery of our advice and preferences. He was extremely tough-minded on this subject and he was echoed by Vance, who suggested that if the Israelis open up a single more settlement, . . .we should initiate talks with the PLO.” 

It is one thing to display tough-mindedness in a meeting with people who essentially agree with you. Carter might have survived a showdown with prominent American Jews over Israeli intransigence — we will never know. Certainly many American Jews considered Begin’s stance reckless. But it is hard to imagine any American president, especially a Democrat, with the stomach for such a showdown.

In November 1977 Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, in a dramatic gesture, sought to break the logjam by going to Jerusalem. In his speech to the Knesset, Sadat made it clear that in return for peace, Israel would need to make a full withdrawal, and allow the Palestinians to build a state on the West Bank and Gaza. Perhaps Sadat, whose primary concern was recovery of Egypt’s own territory, had already decided he would settle for a separate peace. to settle for less. In the wake of Sadat’s Jerusalem speech, Begin came to Washington and Carter pressed him on the Palestinian issue. Begin floated a concept of Palestinian “autonomy” — a vague formula which Brzezinski, sensing that it might be pregnant with possibilities, sought to tease out. Autonomy, Brezezinski said, could mean anything from a “Basutoland under Israeli control” to a way station on the path to real statehood.

The spring of 1978 was taken up by a conflict over American arms sales to Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which Israel opposed. Brzezinski wrote, “during this period all of us were under severe attack from the Jewish lobby, and much time was consumed in meetings and explanations. These were rarely pleasant, even though the top Jewish leaders were more understanding of our need to develop ties with the more moderate Arab states.” Brzezinski complained sharply over dinner to Moshe Dayan about Israel’s efforts to block the arms sales, offering that the President would win a confrontation, and threatening to go public on Israel’s nuclear arsenal. In the end, the arms package, modified with more jets for Israel, did go through.

By the summer, whatever momentum had been generated by Sadat’s gesture had evaporated. The Carter team hoped to unveil a proposal bridging previous Egyptian and Israel positions, one that confirmed UN Resolution 242 (which called for Israel to withdraw form the conquered territory and the Arabs to make peace with Israel– land for peace) got Israel out of the Sinai and advanced the Palestinians along a road to self-determination. “How are we prepared to deal with an Israeli rejection of our proposal?” Brzezinski asked Carter in a July memo. “Do we have the political strength to manage a prolonged strain in U.S.-Israeli relations? What kind of forces can we marshal and in what manner in order to prevail? These are the central questions, and they touch on both international and domestic sensitivities. Above all, you must decide whether at this stage you are prepared to see this matter through to the very end. . . if we go public and then do not prevail, our Middle East policy will be in shambles. . If we go ‘public’ we must prevail.”

Brzezinski’s questions were simply too much for the Carter administration—to answer them would require a kind of war gaming about how to neutralize an important part of the American establishment and vital part of the Democratic coalition. In any case, there no record that the administration ever explored them. Carter’s response was to suggest a summit meeting with Begin and Sadat, an historic gathering where Carter himself could overcome the deadlock. Going in, Brzezinski urged the administration to be prepared for failure, to make clear that “refusal to accept our proposals would jeopardize the U.S.-Israeli relationship.” 

Invitations to Camp David were sent out in August 1978. The thirteen days in September were unusual by any standard of diplomacy: three leaders and their national security entourages isolated in a compound in the Maryland hills, with no press around. Carter worked like a man possessed, drafting original language for the document and engaging in nearly continuous meetings with Egyptian and Israeli officials in search of mutually acceptable formulations. For diversion, the Americans played a lot of tennis; Brzezinski played two games of chess with Menachem Begin.* 

Israel approached the summit with a single goal. Even before Sadat’s peace gesture, Tel Aviv’s foreign ministry had been working on removing Egypt from the conflict by working out a separate peace. Such a deal was overwhelmingly in Israel’s interests—something Begin and government recognized even as they quibbled over every hilltop and settlement and timetable for implementing the withdrawal. But the haggling served a larger purpose, as Brzezinski aide William Quandt points out in his analysis of Camp David:

“Begin, more than any of the other negotiators, seemed to have a feel for the strategic use of time, taking the negotiations to the brink of collapse over secondary issues to avoid being pressed on key problems. Sadat, by contrast, simply refused to negotiate over those matters of deepest concern to him—Egyptian land and sovereignty—while leaving to his aides the unhappy task of trying to stand up to Begin on the Palestinian issue.. . Begin’s position was also strengthened by his willingness to accept failure in the talks. Both Sadat and Carter were more committed to a positive outcome, and Begin could credibly use the threat of walking out, as he did, to extract concessions.” 

At one point late in the negotiations, Sadat, frustrated by Begin’s refusal to give any ground on the West Bank, packed his bags and prepared to leave. Carter rushed to the Sadat cabin to explain that his departure would mean the end of the American-Egyptian relationship—that the failure of negotiations would be put on Sadat. It was a revealing moment: despite the fact that Sadat’s positions were far closer to the White House’s own than Israel’s were, when push to came to shove, an American president could threaten Egypt, and did not hesitate to do so. The same was not true for Israel.

Negotiations on the West Bank and Gaza did not come to a head until near the end of the fortnight. Before then, the Israelis persisted in arguing that the war of 1967 gave Israel the right to change frontiers. Begin refused to accept the applicability of UN Resolution 242 to the West Bank. As the Israeli set out his vision of the West Bank, outlining all the controls, veto rights and privileges he would retain for Israel, Carter exploded “What you want to do is to make the West Bank part of Israel. “ Vance seconded the President. Brzezinski added “This is profoundly sad—you really want to retain political control, vetoes, military governor, broad definition of public order. We thought you were willing to grant genuine self-government.” Moshe Dayan, ever the diplomat, responded “Professor Brzezinski, we are not after political control. If it looks that way to you, we will look at it again.” A breakdown was averted. Carter went back to redrafting, focusing on the idea that the Israeli proposal for home rule would be worked into a five year transitional period. On the seventh day of the negotiations, the Israelis were still objecting to any drafting which highlighted the words “inadmissibility of acquisition of territory by war.” Dayan told Vance that the summit would end in failure, and Carter’s intransigence would be blamed. 

But on September 16th, the eleventh day at Camp David hills, the key compromise, actually an American concession, emerged. According to Bill Quandt’s account, it was then that the American draft pertaining to Gaza and the West Bank was fundamentally changed. “The elements of 242, including withdrawal, which had previously been spelled out were deleted. The language was changed to make it clear that the negotiations, but not necessarily the results of the negotiations, would be based on the principles of 242. And the negotiations about the West Bank and Gaza were artfully obfuscated by creating two tracks, one involving peace-treaty negotiations between Israel and Jordan and the other involving talks between Israel and representatives of the Palestinians.” Quandt concluded, “It may take a lawyer to explain how, but Begin successfully protected his position that 242 did not apply to negotiations over the West Bank’s future, the Americans accepted the ambiguity, and Sadat may well have wondered what all the verbal gymnastics were about.” 

To say the least, the ambiguity does not leap out from a simple reading of the Camp David Accords. The document does indeed make it seem that the West Bank negotiations are premised on 242, and set up a path towards Palestinian self-determination in some form. But unlike the more specific provisions over Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai, there is no explicit promise that the negotiations would actually lead anywhere. At least, Carter thought, he could help secure his preferred outcome by halting the West Bank settlement program which Begin had recently initiated. Carter, so he believed, elicited from Begin a promise to freeze the building of new settlements for the five-year duration of the Palestinian autonomy negotiations.

Carter promptly conveyed to Sadat the oral promise as he shuffled between the cabins of the two men. The Israelis promised him a letter the next day, affirming their promise. But the letter Israel delivered did no such thing. Instead it linked the settlement freeze to the duration of the Sinai negotiations, which were to be wrapped up in three months. Carter refused to accept the letter, and asked for another one. Quandt writes “alarm bells should have gone off, but so many other issues were on the agenda that day, especially a diversionary argument over Jerusalem which erupted in the afternoon, that both Carter and Vance continued to act if there had merely been a misunderstanding that would be cleared up as soon as Begin sent back a new draft.” 

The Americans never did receive a letter confirming what Carter believed Begin had promised. But for the wider world, (except, significantly, the Arab world) Carter appeared to achieve what he wanted. As the summit ended, Brzezinski briefed the press. “There was an audible gasp when I announced the conditions of the Egyptian-Israeli agreement, particularly the point that the peace treaty would be signed in three months. The newspapermen could hardly believe it. The sense of excitement mounted steadily as the briefing went on I had trouble extricating myself. . . At ten thirty the President entered with Sadat and Begin, having landed a few minutes earlier by helicopter. There was thunderous applause as he announced the success. . . ” 

Less than a week after this triumphant moment Carter and Brzezinski were worrying openly about what they had wrought. Begin immediately went on a media tour in the US, claiming Israel’s right to remain in the West Bank indefinitely and to continue building settlements. Brzezinski noted in his journal that Begin “is trying to create the impression that the only accord that really counts is the Israeli-Egyptian agreement. If he can get away with it, he will obtain a separate treaty and then the whole structure of peace in the Middle East will crumble.” But get away with it he did. Of course the peace did not crumble everywhere. Israel flourished. Begin and Ariel Sharon launched a bloody expedition into Lebanon in an effort to wipe out the PLO and Palestinian nationalism once and for all. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank was reinforced by hundreds of thousands of colonizing settlers, and their accompanying road and checkpoint network. Muslim extremism, whose bitter fruit was tasted by America on 9/11, began to grow in the dank spaces of the Mubarak dictatorship, the only sort of Egyptian regime which could accept Camp David as guidepost of its regional strategy. 

Less than two months after the Camp David framework was completed, (but before the final treaty was signed) Carter and foreign policy team were discussing the cable of ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis, which told of increasingly firm Israeli demands for money and of Israeli stubbornness on the West Bank. Brzezinski records that he raised the question “of whether we should in fact be pushing so hard for an Israeli-Egyptian treaty if it is our intention to resolve also the West Bank issue. Once such a treaty is signed we will have less leverage.” Carter interjected that the Israelis don’t want to yield on the West Bank and Dayan has seized the PR initiative in terms of interpreting the negotiations to the public. Brzezinski writes “When I said that I thought the Israelis wanted essentially a separate peace, then U.S. payments, and finally a free hand in the West Bank, the President said that my remarks were brutally frank and perhaps oversimplistically stated. When I sarcastically responded ‘Thank You’ he looked at me very soberly and said ‘Yes, but I agree with you.’ ”

But of course, once committed to Camp David, Carter had little choice but to push to see it through. Honesty about the U.S.-Israel relationship was kept behind closed doors. Once the accord was finally signed the following March, Israel did withdraw from the Sinai. Predictably enough, the Palestinian autonomy talks went nowhere. Begin appointed his interior minister Yosef Burg of the National Religious Party to conduct them. Burg believed Israel’s right to the West Bank was embedded in scripture. The building of settlements accelerated. Moshe Dayan, who might have held a more forthcoming view of what autonomy for the Palestinians should mean, resigned from the government in protest. By then the Israeli cabinet was in the settlers’ hands. In the midst of the 1980 election campaign, Carter of course did nothing.

To recall this history is to recognize that so long as the Israel lobby is more powerful than the justice lobby, the United States is constitutionally incapable of being an honest broker in the Middle East. This unpalatable fact has asserted itself repeatedly, with Carter, Brzezinski and Vance, with George H.W. Bush and James Baker, and with Presidents Clinton and Obama. If a trend can be observed, it is that the United States has become even less able to stand up to Israel with each passing decade. And yet, looked at from a different perspective, the situation seems as fluid and subject to human agency as ever. If Israel’s influence over the American state (witness Obama’s repeated capitulations to Netanyahu) now seems decisive, its hold over the American societal imagination is far more tenuous than when Jimmy Carter entered the White House. Knowledge of the crime inflicted upon the people of Palestine may have grown fiftyfold in the past thirty years. At some point , there will have to be a recalibration, as American government begins to reflect these changing values. The tumult in the Arab world in the past month is a reminder, if one is needed, that no injustice need last forever.

*The Brzezinski-Begin relationship touches on the historically complex relationship between Polish Jewry and Poland’s Catholic elites. On Begin’s first visit to the United States as prime minister, before a bank of TV cameras, he approached Brzezinski and presented him some documents, found in a Jerusalem archive, bearing on his father’s activity as a Polish diplomat in Germany in the 1930’s, when he was engaged in saving Jewish lives. Brzezinski was “deeply touched by this gesture of human sensitivity, especially since it came in the wake of some of the personal attacks on me and on my role in seeking to promote a peace settlement in the Middle East.”

About Scott McConnell

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of the American Conservative. The former editorial page editor of The New York Post, he has written for Fortune, The New Criterion, National Review, Commentary and many other publications.

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