Camp David Peace Accords: Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat, and Menachem Begin
When Jimmy Carter invited Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to settle their differences on the neutral ground of Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, he assumed they would be secluded there for “one week at the most.” Meanwhile, Sadat believed the talks would break down “after a few days,” and Begin shared that he was free to walk away at any time. The meetings lasted for thirteen days, and the three leaders left Camp David together. They announced an agreement on September 17, 1978, and the two Middle Eastern leaders signed the Camp David Peace Accords on March 26th of the following year. Out of this period of intense negotiations came a peace treaty that would shape the Middle East for decades. This is the story of how three world leaders helped bring peace and shaped the future for the region.
In response to the Egyptian forces positioned along the Israeli border in the Sinai Peninsula, Israel launched a series of preemptive air strikes on Egyptian airfields. The Egyptians were caught off-guard, and nearly the entire Egyptian Air Force was destroyed with few Israeli losses. This conflict in 1967 became known as the “Six-Day War.” As a result, Israeli gained additional land in the Sinai Peninsula.
Tensions flared once again between Israeli and Egypt in 1973. A coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria fought against Israel. Most of the conflict took place in the Sinai and the Golan Heights, territories that had been occupied by Israel since the Six-Day War. In addition, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat wanted to reopen the Suez Canal. Neither specifically planned to destroy Israel, although the Israeli leaders could not be sure of that fact. In 1973, Egypt countered with an attack that became known as the “Yom Kippur War,” which resulted in Egypt gaining back some of the land the nation had lost in the Six-Day War. U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger brokered a peace accord to end the Yom Kippur War, which laid the foundation for President Carter’s Camp David Accords.
By 1977, tensions between the two nations had begun to normalize. In November, Sadat met with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and spoke before the Knesset in Jerusalem about his views on how to achieve a comprehensive resolution to the Arab–Israeli conflict; he became the first Arab leader to visit Israel officially. He said during his visit that he hoped to “keep the momentum in Geneva, and may God guide the steps of Premier Begin and Knesset, because there is a great need for hard and drastic decision.”
Anwar el-Sadat was born on December 25, 1918, in a village near Cairo. He graduated from a military academy in 1938 and was stationed in Upper Egypt. Jailed twice for making contact with Germans during World War II, he was later tried and acquitted on charges of conspiring to assassinate a pro-British politician in 1946. Sadat took part in the takeover of the Egyptian government in 1952 after Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew Egypt’s King Faruk. From 1964 to 1966, and again from 1969 to 1970, Sadat served as Vice President, and was elected President in 1970 after Nasser died.
Menachem Begin was born on August 16, 1913, in a town called Brest-Litovsk, then part of the Russian Empire, and later Belarus. He was the youngest of three children. On his mother’s side, he was the descendent of distinguished rabbis. His father, a timber merchant, was a community leader, a passionate Zionist. The midwife who attended his birth was the grandmother of Ariel Sharon. Begin studied law at the University of Warsaw. He was active in Zionism, an international movement that began late in the nineteenth century with the intent of creating a Jewish community in Palestine. When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, he fled to Lithuania, where he was arrested by Soviet authorities the following year, for Zionist activity, and sentenced to eight years of hard labor. He was held in Siberia in 1940 and 1941.
In 1942, Begin arrived in Palestine. Polish army units joined the Allied forces in the Middle East and North Africa, and he soon became commander of a terrorist guerrilla group trying to drive the British occupiers from the Holy Land. After Israel became independent, Begin founded the Herut, or “Freedom” Party, and represented it in Israel’s parliament from 1949. He served as the party’s leader for more than thirty years, and became Israel’s Prime Minister in 1977.
When I was elected President, nobody asked me to negotiate between Israel and Egypt. It was not even a question raised in my campaign. But I felt that one of the reasons that I was elected President was to try to bring peace to the Holy Land. And I was blessed with two other deeply religious persons, in fact Menachem Begin was the first religious Prime Minister of Israel.— Jimmy Carter in 2012 Interview
Meeting at Camp David
Begin was the first Israeli Prime Minister to meet officially and publicly with an Arab head of state. He welcomed Egyptian President Sadat to Jerusalem in November 1977, and Sadat’s surprise visit to Israel was the first for an Arab leader. President Carter brought the two together at Camp David, Maryland, in September 1978. They signed two agreements: One called for an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty within three months, and the other began a five-year transition toward self-government for Palestinians, the Arabs who had been displaced when the nation of Israel was established. The main features of the treaty between Egypt and Israeli were as follows: mutual recognition; cessation of the state of war that had existed since the 1948 Arab–Israeli War; normalization of relations; and the complete withdrawal by Israeli armed forces and civilians from the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel had captured during the Six-Day War in 1967. Egypt agreed to leave the area demilitarized. The agreement also allowed for the free passage of Israeli ships through the Suez Canal, and recognition of the Strait of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba as international waterways. Begin and Sadat shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978, and they signed the final treaty in March 1979. The Palestinian part of the agreement, however, was still in negotiation more than twenty years later.
The Camp David Accords were rejected by other Arab nations, as was Sadat’s program to modernize Egypt. As a result, President Sadat lost support in his own country, and Egypt became temporarily isolated from the rest of the Arab world. The leader’s economic policies created a new class of entrepreneurs who made quick fortunes, and his “open-door” policy encouraged foreign business — especially from Egypt’s oil-rich neighboring Arab countries. However, there was little investment in productive industries, and riots broke out in January 1977 when the government cut food subsidies for the average Egyptian.
Political Unrest Continues
During Sadat’s final years, many Islamic groups began speaking out against the Westernization and corruption in Egypt, and especially the treaty with Israel. Violence between Christians and Muslims broke out, and in September 1981, Sadat struck back by arresting hundreds of politicians, banning journalists, and expelling the Soviet ambassador. On October 6, Muslim religious radicals shot him to death as he reviewed a military parade. The West was shocked by Sadat’s assassination, and paid tribute to the leader; in fact, former U.S. presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter, as well as Israeli Prime Minister Begin, traveled to Cairo for his funeral. Only three states in the Arab League — Oman, Somalia, and Sudan — sent representatives to the memorial. Israel’s Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, considered Sadat a friend and insisted on attending the funeral. Sadat was buried in the Unknown Soldier Memorial in Cairo, across the street from the stand where he was assassinated.
After the Camp David Accords, Begin won a new term in office, and in 1982 he authorized the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon. However, the following September, Begin suddenly resigned as Prime Minister, apparently believing that he could no longer perform his duties. He seemed to have been severely affected by the death of his wife the previous year, and by the continuing casualties suffered by Israelis in Lebanon. Begin spent most of his remaining years in seclusion before he died in 1992.
The peace treaty with Egypt was a watershed moment in Middle Eastern history, as it was the first time an Arab state recognized Israel’s legitimacy. In turn, Israel effectively accepted the land for peace principle as a blueprint to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Given Egypt’s prominent position in the Arab World, especially as Israel’s biggest and most powerful enemy, the treaty had far-reaching strategic and geopolitical implications.