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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

Finally, on the 12th day, Begin budged. He told Carter he would let the Knesset vote on whether to dismantle the Sinai settlements. With that, the Camp David accords hove into view. To be sure, they were not a full-fledged treaty, which is legally binding, but rather statements of principles that would govern future negotiations. Still, Egypt would get back the Sinai. Israel would get a peace treaty and diplomatic recognition. For the West Bank and Gaza, there would be a plan for autonomy negotiations, followed, in five years, by a decision about their final status.

"Breakthrough," Carter recalls thinking.

But the exhausted president and his aides still had the endgame to play. Vance and Carter met with Begin, Israel's foreign minister Moshe Dayan and Barak until after midnight of the 12th day. Only Barak and Dayan took notes. Carter pressed Begin for a letter promising a freeze on building new settlements in the West Bank during the period of negotiations over the West Bank and Gaza. Begin said something that Carter took as agreement.

Quandt, who was sitting in an anteroom, remembers Vance coming out as the meeting broke up. "What have you got?" Quandt asked.

"I think we've got an agreement, but I'm not quite sure on the settlements," Vance replied.

The next morning, day 13, Begin sent Carter a letter saying the freeze on new settlements would last only until negotiations over the Egyptian-Israeli treaty were concluded, expected to be only a few months. Carter rejected the letter. But Begin held fast, and eventually Carter, rather than jeopardize the agreement, decided to sign the accords with the settlement issue unresolved. He eventually dropped the issue.

At about 5:30 that afternoon, Carter performed his last act of mediation, persuading Begin not to visit Sadat to congratulate him on the conclusion of the talks. Carter sensed that their animosity was so strong that even a brief encounter might undo everything. After Begin agreed, Vance turned to Carter. "That's it," he told the president. "I think you have it." Carter sat in a chair, looking tired, smiling wistfully.No one cheered. Everyone in the room knew that the success the president had achieved was imperfect, with compromise language papering over many disagreements.

The parties left Camp David, and the three leaders formally signed the documents that evening in a televised ceremony in the White House. Even so, only part of the peace envisioned at Camp David came to fruition in the months that followed. Egypt and Israel eventually agreed to a peace treaty, although it took many more months of negotiations than the three leaders had anticipated. Israel withdrew from the Sinai on schedule. Three months after Camp David, it was announced that Begin and Sadat would share the Nobel Peace Prize.

In return for getting Egypt's land back, Sadat got obloquy in the Arab world. His foreign minister, Kamel, had resigned in protest just before the summit ended and refused to attend the signing ceremony. Sadat "became embroiled in a series of concessions," Kamel wrote years later. "This ended in his total capitulation and he finally appended his signature to what Israel, in its wildest dreams, never imagined possible." Three years later, in October 1981, dissident Egyptian Army officers assassinated Sadat in Cairo as he reviewed a military parade.

Carter remembers Sadat as a hero. "The heroes of peace have been assassinated by those who hate peace," he told me, referring also to the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel, who was assassinated in 1995. "There are those on both sides who would rather sabotage the peace process and punish those who are successful at it."

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