Wright Is Wrong

October 29, 2014 Topic: Politics Region: Palestinian territoriesUnited States

Wright Is Wrong

 The influential author Lawrence Wright gets the Camp David accords badly wrong in his book Thirteen Days in September.


THE TALKS ground on from point to point like a drawn-out Chinese torture, the three delegations feeling trapped and claustrophobic in the remote presidential retreat. Bad personal chemistry also came into play. Carter liked, or even loved, Sadat from the get-go. (We don’t really know what Sadat thought of Carter.) But neither Carter nor Sadat took to Begin. After their first meeting, Carter described Begin as seeming “rigid and unimaginative, parsing every syllable; he was entrenched in the past.” At one point, Carter even described him as a “psycho.” Begin was certainly pedantic, legalistic, distant and haunted by the Holocaust. Sadat was something of the opposite. Warm and visionary, he looked at the big picture, a man of grand gestures. Carter and Sadat shared religious piety, but Carter was also an engineer and naval officer by training; he was interested in the nuts and bolts of things. Given Carter’s past support for Palestinian self-determination, Begin suspected Carter of harboring anti-Israeli, if not downright anti-Semitic, sentiments. Begin’s past, among hostile Poles and Russians during the Holocaust, anti-Semitic British officers during the mandate, and inimical Arabs through the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, left him with a distrust of all Gentiles.

Begin, at least at first, was unpersuaded about the genuineness of Sadat’s quest for peace. After all, Sadat had launched the Yom Kippur War and, in his younger days, during World War II, had collaborated with the Nazis. Like many Muslims, he had an anti-Semitic streak (“I knew that a Jew would do anything if the price was right,” Sadat once said). Ezer Weizman, a Begin aide and the only Israeli Sadat bonded with before and during Camp David, described, probably quite fairly, the difference between Sadat and Begin: “Both desired peace. But whereas Sadat wanted to take it by storm . . . Begin preferred to creep forward inch by inch. He took the dream of peace and ground it down into the fine, dry powder of details, legal clauses, and quotes from international law.” Weizman and Begin fell out at Camp David and after, and Weizman resigned from the cabinet in 1980 after concluding that Begin was not serious about negotiating with the Palestinians and had no intention to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza.

Sadat came to Jerusalem, and then to Camp David, interested in reaching an Egyptian-Israeli peace. But he initially insisted that it be contingent on arriving at a solution to the Palestinian problem—meaning Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian-populated territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. This linkage was rejected by Begin, who wanted to retain for Israel the West Bank or, in his terminology, Judea and Samaria. Eventually, Begin, supported by Carter, wore Sadat down. Two agreements were eventually reached, one relating to Egypt and Sinai, and the other to the Palestinian territories, but no real linkage or contingency was established.

Thus, Sadat within months signed a separate, bilateral Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty even though no substantive progress was achieved on the Palestinian track. Begin ultimately got what he wanted, and Sadat, for the (brief) remainder of his life, was reviled by the Palestinians and many other Arabs as having sold the Palestinians down the river. Sadat countered that the Egyptians had expended enough blood and treasure on behalf of the Palestinians and it was high time the Egyptians looked to their own welfare and interests. Sadat probably had, in the back of his mind, not merely the costs of the past and ongoing Egyptian-Israeli struggle but also the possible ultimate devastation of Egypt by Israel’s nuclear arsenal. This thought may have predominated in Sadat’s calculus when he decided to pursue his dramatic peace initiative.

Carter, for his part, was particularly focused on solving the Palestinian problem. But during Camp David he bowed, at least for the moment, to Begin’s resolve not to establish a Palestinian state and made do with what he regarded as a lesser achievement, Israeli-Egyptian peace. There is a surfeit of ironies here, not least of which is that Carter engineered a lasting peace between two powerful enemies and never received the Nobel Peace Prize he most certainly deserved (alongside Begin and Sadat, who both received one) while one of his Democratic successors, Barack Obama, was awarded a Nobel for achieving absolutely nothing, a state of affairs that has not noticeably altered since he received the honor, at least when it comes to the Middle East. (Shouldn’t Nobel committees have the right—duty?—to demand the return of prizes when their recipients renege or fail to deliver? The late Yasir Arafat also comes to mind in this context.)


APART FROM the linkage issue, the main point of contention during the protracted negotiation was Israel’s initial insistence on retaining its settlement complex, around and including the town of Yamit, in the northeastern corner of the Sinai Peninsula. Begin had earlier told reporters that he himself intended to settle in Yamit when he went into retirement. But more importantly, the Israelis feared, or argued, that the Israeli-Egyptian peace might at some point break down and that Egypt might once again send its armored divisions into Sinai. In that event, the Yamit bloc would serve as a trip wire and initial obstacle to a possible Egyptian lunge at Israel’s heartland, and at least slow it down. The Israelis also feared that the precedent of uprooting the Rafah Approaches settlement bloc, as it was called, would possibly be perceived as a sign of a readiness to uproot its settlements in the Palestinian territories. (In general, Zionist leaders since the 1920s have been extremely resistant to the idea of uprooting Jewish settlements, as it would lead to loss of territory and project infirmity of purpose.)

But Sadat flatly refused to countenance the continued presence on Egyptian soil of Israeli settlers; they were both the reality and symbol of Israeli expansionism, and leaving them in place would complicate any effort to remove the more substantial settlement enterprise in the West Bank. Moreover, the Yamit settlements were seen as a delimitation of Egyptian sovereignty and, as such, as a slight to Egyptian honor, and almost certainly would give rise to future imbroglios. What if Arab terrorists took Yamit settlers hostage? How would Israel react and how would this affect Israeli-Egyptian relations?

For days, Sadat and Begin, to Carter’s frustration, haggled over the Sinai settlements. In the end, Begin backed down—partly because he feared that he would be blamed for the collapse of the talks and the damage it would inflict on U.S.-Israeli relations, and partly, it seems, because he received the assent of Ariel Sharon, his agriculture minister, who was also the patron of the settlement venture and whom Begin greatly admired as a military figure. If Sharon believed that Israel could and should give up the settlements—that this was an acceptable price to achieve peace—then he, Begin, could live with it. But the main reason Begin backed down, of course, was because he wanted peace with Egypt and understood its benefits for Israel.

Begin withdrew his veto and agreed to bring the matter to a vote in the cabinet and in the Knesset—and if these bodies approved the deal, including the removal of the settlements, he would bow to the people’s will. He also agreed not to impose party discipline on the matter, allowing his fellow party members to vote their conscience.

At the end of the thirteen days, the three summiteers were exhausted. “There was no sense of jubilation,” as Wright puts it. On September 17, 1978, the three leaders signed two agreements in the White House. The first, “Framework for Peace in the Middle East,” dealt with the future of the Palestinians and the West Bank and Gaza; the second, “Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel,” dealt with future relations between Egypt and Israel.

The first accord provided for “transitional arrangements” for the West Bank and Gaza, lasting no more than five years, during which time the inhabitants would enjoy “full autonomy” under “a self-governing [freely elected] authority” or “administrative council.” Israeli troops would be redeployed out of parts of these territories, and a “local police force” would be established. Negotiations between representatives of Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza on the “final status” of the territories would begin no later than three years after the start of the transitional period. The negotiations were to “recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and their just requirements.”

This accord can be said to have led nowhere, as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the umbrella organization of the Palestinian national movement, immediately spurned it. The PLO rejected Israel’s existence and legitimacy, claimed all of historic Palestine and rejected all thought of a territorial compromise based on a two-state solution. (Had Yasir Arafat accepted the Camp David accords, and then built on the “autonomy” that was being offered, the futures of Israel and Palestine might well have been quite different. And it is highly likely that Begin was willing at Camp David to offer the Palestinians “autonomy” in the belief that the PLO would, indeed, reject the deal.) But a decade and a half later, the Israeli government under Yitzhak Rabin, one of Begin’s successors as prime minister, and the PLO under Arafat agreed in the Oslo accords to “autonomy” for the bulk of the Palestinian territories. And, between 1993 and 1995, Israel withdrew from the core areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and an “autonomous” Palestinian National Authority took control, “police force” and all. So it can be said that the seed planted by Begin, Sadat and Carter at Camp David did in the end bear some fruit.