Two Weeks at Camp David

There was no love lost between Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin. But at the very brink of failure, they found a way to reach agreement

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Sixty-two miles northwest of the White House, not far from the bloodied soil of the Antietam and Gettysburg battlefields, lies a rocky hilltop shaded by oaks, poplars, hickory and ash. This 125-acre site in the Catoctin Mountains of northern Maryland, federal property since 1936, became a presidential retreat in 1942 under Franklin D. Roosevelt. He called it Shangri-La. The first foreign leader to visit was Winston Churchill, who in 1943 not only met with FDR and planned the Normandy invasion but also went fishing with him and, according to local lore, dropped in at a café in the nearby village of Thurmont, Maryland, for a beer and a jukebox tune. Truman made the cabins usable year-round by adding heat. Eisenhower renamed the place for his grandson, David, and installed a three-hole golf course. Kennedy put in a bridle trail and stable. Nixon added several guest lodges.

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Then, 25 years ago this month, Camp David became the setting for an unprecedented episode of American diplomacy—and entered the lexicon as a near synonym for high-level peacemaking—when Jimmy Carter, Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar El-Sadat gathered there for a tense and grueling 13 days. Of course, the United States had previously been the host of international peace conferences. In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt had mediated a settlement of the Russo-Japanese War, closeting diplomats from both sides in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, until they reached an agreement. But the Camp David summit was the first time a president met personally with foreign leaders on U.S. soil for the purpose of brokering peace between rival nations.

I was a young reporter in Washington at the time of the summit, covering diplomacy for the Associated Press. Recently, as the summit's anniversary approached, I surveyed the history and interviewed many of the surviving principals. What I learned left me with an enhanced appreciation of the difficulty of crafting peace in the Middle East generally and of the feat that Carter, Begin and Sadat finally achieved.

In the summer of 1978, the prospects for an Arab-Israeli settlement looked bleak. Sadat had journeyed to Jerusalem in November 1977 and pronounced his willingness to make peace. But the apparent breakthrough had proved chimerical. Sadat and Begin had failed utterly to reach agreement on the two major issues between them: the disposition of the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel had taken from Egypt in the Six-Day War of 1967 and Sadat wanted back, and the future of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, both occupied by Israel since 1967. Sadat believed that Gaza and the West Bank belonged to the Palestinians. Begin always referred to those lands by their Biblical names, Judea and Samaria, and insisted that God had given them to the Jews.

In July 1978, Carter met with his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, to assess the problem. Brzezinski and Carter feared that a stalemate could degenerate into renewed warfare and believed that presidential mediation could overcome the history of bad personal chemistry between Begin and Sadat. "Who specifically popped up with the idea [of a Camp David summit] I am not prepared to argue," Brzezinski told me recently. "It was one of those conversations where there was a kind of spontaneous interaction."

Sadat, then 59, was the son of a minor Egyptian civil servant and a Sudanese mother. He had been a fervent Egyptian nationalist, and as a youth he had expressed admiration for Hitler and Gandhi alike, seeing both as leaders trying to rescue their people from British oppression. Sadat, trained as a military officer, had spent time in Cairo prisons for conspiring with German intelligence agents against the British during World War II. He once acknowledged being involved in an act of terrorism, the assassination of an Egyptian politician who had favored continuing ties with Britain.

Sadat was also personally fastidious, and loved tailored clothing and expensive shoes. His writings are sprinkled with references to suits he had bought or coats that poverty had forced him to sell. At the age of 31, he placed an ad in a Cairo publication offering his services as an actor: "I go in for comic acting and I am ready to play any role in the theater or cinema." The ad failed; he rejoined the army in 1950. When his friend Col. Gamel Abdel Nasser launched a coup d'état in 1952, Sadat almost missed it. He was at the movies.

Sadat became one of Nasser's propagandists, then vice president. He rose to power after Nasser's unexpected death at age 52 in 1970. Once in command, Sadat displayed a tendency for taking risks. In 1973, he initiated war with Israel and regained the east side of the Suez Canal. In 1972, he expelled Soviet advisers from Egypt, signaling his desire to align himself with the West. And in 1977, he went to Jerusalem.

That gambit made Sadat an international news media darling, and he gave more than 100 interviews about his desire for peace. Only cynics noted that the move was not entirely altruistic. Earlier that year, riots shook Cairo after Sadat's government removed commodity subsidies, which caused consumer prices to jump. The army quelled the riots, but there were concerns that the military might turn against Sadat because Egypt's forces were in sharp decline following the withdrawal of Soviet support. Sadat needed a new patron, a new source of economic and military aid. To become an American client, he needed to offer peace to Israel.

Whatever his motives, Sadat had great charm. Brzezinski recalls him as "warm, gracious, even ingratiating." Carter said in a recent telephone interview that of all the foreign leaders he dealt with, Sadat was his favorite.


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