Jimmy Carter’s Tangled Camp David Web

Against the Current, No. 101, November/December 2002

David Finkel

JIMMY CARTER’S NOBEL Peace Prize provokes some reflections on the meaning and consequences of the first Camp David Accord, in 1979, between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menahem Begin. This is conventionally regarded as the crowning achievement of Carter’s generally ill-starred presidency.

It was exactly the opposite: Among all the political turning points in the Middle East, Carter’s Camp David and the “separate peace” between Egypt and Israel that followed it constituted one of the worst developments that ever occurred in the entire history of the conflict.

To be clear, the disaster was not that Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty. When two states decide after thirty years that they have nothing to gain from further warfare, a bilateral peace makes perfect sense — even if it leaves many fundamental issues unresolved.

Peace between states combined with the essential step of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations might have broken the logjam. Camp David did the reverse.

No Palestinian Voice

The catastrophe — and this above all was Jimmy Carter’s doing — was that in the Camp David agreement, Sadat and Begin called for something called “autonomy” for the Palestinian Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza.

This was not Israeli withdrawal, not Palestinian self-determination, never mind an independent Palestinian state, and certainly nothing resembling Palestinian sovereignty in East Jerusalem. “Autonomy” was simply a huge lie, which the Egyptian regime could present as self-determination in creeping installments, while Begin could insist
it meant “autonomy for the people, not for the land.”

This meant, quite straightforwardly, that Palestinians could collect the garbage while Israel maintained claim to territorial sovereignty.

Even that wasn’t the worst. The Camp David formula enabled the Israeli government to maintain its traditional posture that in essence “there was no Palestine,” that all issues in the Middle East conflict were to be negotiated between Israel and existing Arab states, that there was no independent Palestinian voice.

Since the aftermath of the 1973 war, pressure had been building on Israel to open direct official negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization. An international consensus had developed for Israeli withdrawal from the 1967 Occupied Territories to create an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Shortly after Carter’s inauguration, he and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev actually announced an agreement to pursue a Middle East peace on just this basis. The agreement lasted exactly one day, until an amazing mobilization of the Zionist lobby forced the U.S. government to abandon it in disgrace.

Anwar Sadat’s sudden visit to Jerusalem (1977) came soon afterward, setting in motion the events leading to Camp David. With the proclamation of the fraudulent “autonomy,” the pressure on Israel to recognize the Palestinians as a negotiating party evaporated.

It was a trap: The Palestinian population could not conceivably accept this travesty, yet refusing it branded them as “rejectionist.”

Not until twelve years later, in secret talks in 1991, did an Israeli government actually come to the bargaining table with the PLO. And those were the years that set the Middle East spinning out of control — the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, attempting to destroy
Palestinian resistance forever; the explosive growth of Islamic fundamentalism; the huge expansion of the Israeli settler population and national-religious fanaticism.

Death Sentence

I must admit I sat transfixed in front of the TV as Jimmy Carter convened the spectacle on the White House lawn to announce the triumphant conclusion of the Camp David Summit. And I still remember as if it were yesterday.

Carter proclaimed that for the first time in 2000 years, an independent Jewish state and an Egyptian government were agreeing to live in peace. (How embarrassing; only an American Christian president could be so full of enthusiastic ignorance.)

Then Sadat and Begin spoke. Sadat was painfully cautious, heaping accolades on Carter while saying as little as possible to or about the Israeli leader. Menahem Begin was effusive and victorious, full of praise for Carter and Sadat alike. Then he said he wished to speak briefly “to my own people,” in Hebrew, and he did — saying in essence, don’t worry, we have given up nothing.

Then it was time for the signing of the documents — and then comes the unscripted moment.

Sadat and Begin are supposed to shake hands, at arm’s length, with Carter in between. Begin isn’t having that: He walks behind Carter and approaches Sadat for an embrace. Sadat, living a slow-motion nightmare, looks around for somewhere to run. It is too late; Begin catches him in a bear hug, which Sadat has no choice now but to return, with his attempt at a smile frozen on his face.

Begin’s embrace was Anwar Sadat’s death sentence. Sadat knew it; everyone in the Middle East knew it; perhaps only Jimmy Carter didn’t know. Two years later, Sadat would be gunned down at a reviewing stand by soldiers loyal to an Islamist movement — a movement Sadat had initially encouraged in order to suppress nationalists and leftists.

Setting the Trap

If Menahem Begin was a terrorist and war criminal, he was also an underrated political genius. Begin embraced Sadat to ensure that the Egyptian regime and its leader would now be trapped, alienated from its own population and the Arab world, forced into dependence on American power which would in turn enforce Egypt’s commitment to a barren and empty “peace.”

What Begin couldn’t know was that his great victory had trapped him, too. In June 1982, his defense minister Ariel Sharon enticed him to approve the plan for the Lebanon invasion on the promise that it would eliminate the Palestinian movement for good. When Sharon’s war turned into Israel’s worst quagmire, Begin sank into a depression from which he never recovered.

Nor has the Middle East recovered, as the present government of Ariel Sharon with U.S. complicity moves toward ethnic cleansing in a degenerative spiral that has reached nowhere near the bottom yet.

As for Jimmy Carter, his presidency would shortly be destroyed by his own unfathomable blunder of admitting the overthrown Shah of Iran, setting in motion the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Teheran and the hostage crisis.

The issue is not and never was Jimmy Carter’s personal sincerity. If anything, in walking barefoot into the Middle East political minefield Carter was too sincere for his own good, believing somehow that his liberal Southern Baptism could bridge the Arab-Israeli gulf and make the Shah of Iran a democrat too.

Anwar Sadat and Menahem Begin went to their graves with their Nobel Peace Prizes. At last, Jimmy Carter has his. Congratulations.

ATC 101, November-December 2002