Though the White House spoke publicly of modest goals prior to the summit, privately Carter was more optimistic. William Quandt, then the National Security Council staff expert on the Middle East, recalls a meeting just before the summit began. "[Carter] said, 'What's going to happen is we'll be here about two or three days, and once Sadat and Begin realize their historic opportunity and once we isolate them from their domestic politics and the press and create the atmosphere for them to rise to this historic occasion, they're going to sit down and work out the principles on which peace will be done, and we'll announce it to the world.' " To Quandt, that sounded naive. "I remember thinking to myself, Oh, my God, this is group therapy, not negotiations." Quandt might have been still more concerned about the prospects had he heard what the other two leaders were saying on the eve of the summit.
Sadat saw Camp David as the stage on which he would perform the feat of loosening the ties that bound the United States to Israel. "Sadat was convinced that it would all soon be over," Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then a diplomatic official in the Sadat government and later United Nations secretary general, would write in his 1997 memoir. "He would present his position. Israel would reject it. American public opinion would support Egypt. Carter would see that Egypt's position was good and Israel's was bad. The United States would then pressure Israel into acceptance of what Sadat had offered. It was simple."
Begin also saw the meeting as simple, but hardly in the way the Egyptian leader did. "We have a tough nut to crack," he told his delegation. "His name is Anwar Sadat."
From the outset, the summit did not unfold as Carter had hoped. The setting that seemed to him so restful and serene struck the desert dwellers of Egypt and Israel as dark and forbidding. "Camp David . . . has a somewhat claustrophobic feeling," Israeli defense minister Ezer Weizman later wrote. "The tall trees make the light gloomy, and one has to lift one's eyes to find a patch of blue sky." Nor did the informality help. Boutros-Ghali would recall his discomfort at seeing for the first time a head of state without a necktie.
The strain was most apparent in the main dining room. The Israeli delegation sat together in one section of the hall, the Egyptians in another section. The Americans tried to bridge the gap, but as Weizman wrote, "the atmosphere remained oppressive and tense." Only years later did Boutros-Ghali disclose that the Egyptians were under orders from Foreign Minister Muhammad Ibrahim Kamel not to socialize with the Israelis.
The negotiations began no more auspiciously. Carter met first with Begin and suggested that Sadat would not sign an agreement unless Israel recognized the principle that territory cannot be acquired by force. Begin replied that such a principle would not pertain to the war Israel had fought in 1967. In other words, he recognized no obligation to give back any of the territory Israel acquired in that conflict. Carter was disappointed. "Begin's boilerplate positions had not been discernibly modified," he wrote.
When Begin told his delegation that Carter's views were close to Sadat's, the Israelis were apprehensive. "It won't be long before we're on our way home," Weizman thought.
Carter met with Sadat the next morning. The Egyptian president presented a proposal that Begin could never accept. It called on Israel not only to withdraw from lands captured in 1967 but also to pay for past use of the territory. Then Sadat did an odd thing. He handed Carter three pages of concessions he was prepared to make, backing away from the formal proposal he had just laid down. He asked Carter to keep the concessions private until he felt it was time to use them. Then he went back to his lodge and watched Alex Haley's "Roots" on TV.
Sadat's ploy "wasn't all that stupid," Brzezinski recalled. "It was an effort to get Carter committed, to make Carter, in a sense, his lawyer."
Carter finally brought Begin and Sadat together on the afternoon of the summit's second day. Begin listened frostily to Sadat's opening position. When he got back to the Israeli delegation, he described his reaction to it with a Yiddish term: "What chutzpah!"