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President Carter Reflects on the Camp David Accords

November 15, 2013

The CIA just posted 250 declassified documents online that the agency produced to support President Carter during his negotiations with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin during the Camp David Accords in September 1978. According to the CIA’s website, the documents total over 1,400 pages and include two National Intelligence Estimates on Egypt and the Middle East Military Balance, selections from CIA’s briefing book on Camp David created for President Carter, and much more, including a very cool Flickr stream of photographs that accompany the documents.

Summit attendees, Egyptian President Sadat, Israeli Prime Minister Begin. Photo: CIA flickr stream

Summit attendees, Egyptian President Sadat, Israeli Prime Minister Begin. Photo: CIA flickr stream

Begin and Brzezinski play chess at Camp David, September 9, 1978. Photo: CIA flickr stream

Begin and National Security Advisor Brzezinski play chess at Camp David, September 9, 1978. Photo: CIA flickr stream

The Accords, signed by Sadat and Begin that September, produced two frameworks that were signed at the White House and witnessed by President Carter. The second framework (A Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel) directly led to the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty and the awarding of the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize to Sadat and Begin. The peace treaty, while it did not end Israeli occupation of the West Bank, is notable not only for brining a modicum of stability of the region, but also for ushering in the long era of US military aid and political backing for the Egyptian government.

In 1988, a decade after the Camp David Accords, the entire landscape of the Middle East had changed; the Islamic Revolution had overthrown the Shah of Iran, the devastating Iran-Iraq War had just ended, sewing the seeds for Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait that would follow a few years later — and Anwar Sadat had been assassinated. Yet the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty remained intact.

In 1988 President Jimmy Carter took part in the Peabody Award-winning documentary the Cold War series, produced by Pat Mitchell and Jeremy Isaacs Productions and initially broadcast on CNN. The Archive helped Sir Jeremy Isaacs’ crew formulate questions to ask the interviewees, and the resulting interviews document eyewitnesses accounts of all aspects of the Cold War, including a revealing interview with the former president and his take on the Middle East peace process. In his interview, the interviewer asks President Carter “[h]ow difficult were those 13 days [at Camp David]?

Carter answered:

“The first three days of the talks were very unpleasant; primarily, I and Begin and Sadat in a very small room. Sometimes the Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, was there. I would try to get the two men to agree on something, and they couldn’t agree on anything; they were very antagonistic. No matter what my efforts were, they always wanted to revert back to what had happened in the last 25 years, with four wars and boys killed and bombs dropped. So, for the last 10 days in Camp David, they never saw each other. I kept them totally apart, and I went back and forth between the Egyptians and the Israelis to try to conclude an agreement. I used then, and still use, a technique that I call “the single document technique”, in that I have exactly the same text that I present to the Israelis and the Egyptians, and every time one of them insists on a change, I make that change and present it to the other, so there’s no reason for them to believe that I’m misleading them. And so it was that long, tedious, back-and-forth negotiation that finally brought the two men to an agreement.”

When asked if the talks nearly fell through the President said that yes, on two occasions. The first being salvaged thanks to Carter’s personal friendship with Sadat:

“Sadat told the Egyptian delegation, “We are leaving Camp David,” and he went to my national security adviser, Zbigniew Brezinski and said, “Bring my helicopter – I’m going back to Egypt.” I learned about this, and I went over to Sadat’s cabin and I confronted him in a very frank and ultimately successful way. I said that “Our friendship is over. You promised me that you would stay at Camp David as long as I was willing to negotiate, and here you have made your plans to leave without even consulting me, and I consider this a serious blow to our personal friendship and to the relationship between Egypt and the United States.” And he agreed to stay, to the consternation of the other Egyptians.”

On his assessment of the Egyptian leader, Carter said:

“I think, at Camp David that if the accords were signed, that Egypt would suffer from an economic boycott of sorts from the other Arab countries. I don’t think that he anticipated as severe a boycott effort or an embargo on trade as did materialize; but he was willing to accept this. And of course, I think he also underestimated the animosity toward him personally within his own country, and this was demonstrated tragically when he was assassinated by his own people as his own military troops went in front of the reviewing stand. The loss of Sadat was a tragic blow to peace in the Middle East, and I think to global stability.”

One of the documents recently declassified by the CIA is the June 1976 Interagency Intelligence Memorandum, ‘Egypt: Sadat’s Domestic Position.’ The 1976 memo concludes that even though Sadat was “in control,” there was cause for concern about his domestic position. Yet, the memo’s major judgments conclude that, “short of an assassin’s bullet, or another heart attack, we see no immediate threat to Sadat.”

Egypt: Sadat's Domestic Position

Egypt: Sadat’s Domestic Position

Egyptian President Sadat with President Carter, April 1977. Photo: CIA flickr stream. Carter summed up his feelings on Sadat during his Cold War interview saying, “[o]ne of the saddest days of my life, almost equivalent to the death of my own father or my own brothers and sisters, was the death of Anwar Sadat.”

Egyptian President Sadat with President Carter, April 1977. Photo: CIA flickr stream. Carter summed up his feelings on Sadat during his Cold War interview saying, “[o]ne of the saddest days of my life, almost equivalent to the death of my own father or my own brothers and sisters, was the death of Anwar Sadat.”

While Sadat held control of Egypt’s only political party at the time of the Accords and had no visible rival, Prime Minister Begin faced considerable pressure to reassure his Likud party and coalition government partners in the Israeli Knesset that the peace negotiations that followed Camp David wouldn’t rush to any conclusions, particularly regarding settlements in the Sinai.

Prime Minister Begin faced an uphill battle with the Israeli Knesset immediately after returning from Camp David.

Prime Minister Begin faced an uphill battle with the Israeli Knesset immediately after returning from Camp David.

Walking a political tightrope, a February 21, 1979, National Intelligence Daily reports Begin felt he had little choice but to placate his opponents, hardliners who could sense “a loss of momentum in the peace talks.” However, the Prime Minister was ultimately successful in negotiating the return of the Sinai to Egypt, receiving Egypt’s recognition of Israel’s legitimacy in the process.

Despite the resilience of the Egypt-Israeli Peace Treaty, thanks largely to Carter’s efforts during the Camp David Accords, the president remained unconvinced that the summit played a large role in the peace process, and in his 1988 interview revealed that it was still hard for him “to see a direct connection between the Camp David accords and the peace that was signed later between Israel and Egypt.” Now, thanks to the CIA’s recent declassifications, the public has a chance to see the classified documents Carter used to make the Accords a success.

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