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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

"Mr. President, no threats, please."

Carter persisted, making more changes in the U.S. proposal—there would eventually be 23 drafts—and showing the new version to Sadat the next day. Sadat was severely disappointed. He went back to his lodge and told his advisers that thanks to Begin's intransigence, he would withdraw from the talks and leave Camp David the next day.

Meanwhile, down in Thurmont, Powell was finding it more and more difficult to steer reporters away from stories that the summit was about to end in failure. Barry Schweid of the Associated Press reported that the talks were stalemated, despite "gigantic" efforts by Carter to get concessions from Begin. "It is correct that the president has been making gigantic efforts generally," Powell said when reporters sought his comment. "Beyond that, if I were an editor, I would be leery of making that a front-page story." But the story flashed around the world. And it was accurate.

Faced once again with disaster, Carter made two decisions that would prove critical. He "decoupled" proposals covering the Sinai from ones covering the West Bank and Gaza. Previously, those problem areas had been viewed as linked. The move essentially separated Israeli-Egyptian disputes from Israeli-Palestinian disputes. For the Israelis, it raised the prospect that they could get peace and recognition from Egypt without jeopardizing their plans for the West Bank. Carter also began to rely heavily on the pragmatic Barak as an interlocutor. Barak, now chief justice of Israel's Supreme Court, enjoyed Begin's confidence. Carter convened a committee composed of himself, Barak and Osama al-Baz, Egypt's under secretary for foreign affairs. For almost the entire ninth day of the summit, the three men laboriously pored over drafts of the proposed agreement.

Slowly, they made progress. Carter agreed to drop language about the "inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war" from the main text of the agreement while Barak persuaded Begin to permit similar language, based on United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, in the preamble. Still, the talks threatened to break down, primarily because Begin insisted that Israel keep its Sinai settlements. "My right eye will fall out, my right hand will fall off before I ever agree to the dismantling of a single Jewish settlement," Begin told Brzezinski during a morning walk. Nor would he agree to a freeze on settlements in the West Bank.

Nerves were frayed. At 4:14 on the morning of the tenth day, Carter called Brzezinski and said he was worried about Sadat's security. He was afraid that word of the concessions Sadat had made would leak out and prompt Palestinian terrorists to assassinate him. Carter ordered the security around Sadat's lodge strengthened.

Sadat was showing signs of emotional distress. In a meeting with his staff later that day, he erupted at their criticism of the deal Carter was maneuvering toward. "What can I do? My foreign minister thinks I'm an idiot!" he shouted. He ordered them to leave the room. Later, he apologized to Kamel for losing his temper. "It's the fault of this accursed prison we find ourselves in," he said.

On the 11th day, with Begin still holding firm on the Sinai settlements, Sadat asked Vance to arrange transportation home for the Egyptian delegation. Alarmed, Carter went to Sadat's lodge, spoke with him for 29 minutes and persuaded him to stay. After that, Sadat turned curiously passive, according to his aides. "I shall sign anything proposed by President Carter without reading it," he said at one point.

But even Carter was losing hope. He instructed Quandt to begin drafting a speech to be delivered to the American people, explaining why the summit had failed. Quandt did so, laying most of the blame at Begin's feet.

How much of that Begin knew is a matter of conjecture; he never wrote his memoirs. But with peace between Israel and Egypt in sight, some in his delegation had been working to persuade him to yield ground on the Sinai. An aide arranged for Begin to phone Ariel Sharon, who is currently prime minister but then served as minister of agriculture and represented the pro-settlements forces in Likud. Sharon told Begin he would not object to dismantling the Sinai settlements if it meant a peace with Egypt.

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