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.
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.
Begin's credentials as a peacemaker were as improbable as Sadat's. He was born in 1913 in the Polish city of Brest-Litovsk, then part of the Russian Empire. In later years he would say that his first memory was of a Polish soldier beating a Jew. Thin and frail, Begin studied law in Warsaw. But he never practiced. He was a disciple of Revisionist Zionism, a movement that advocated establishing a Jewish state immediately and not leaving the decision up to Britain, which, in 1922, had been given a mandate by the League of Nations to oversee Palestine. The Zionist faction favored establishing the state either by settling an overwhelming number of Jews in Palestine or taking it by force.
In World War II, Begin reached Palestine as a soldier in a Polish Army detachment. His parents, a brother and other relatives all perished in the Holocaust. Begin was haunted by their memories. "The sighs of the condemned press in from afar and interrupt one's slumber," he once wrote, adding: "In these inescapable moments, every Jew in the country feels unwell because he is well."
Begin became the leader of a Jewish guerrilla group called Irgun Zvai Leumi. In 1944, he ordered the bombing of Jerusalem's KingDavidHotel, headquarters of the British military in Palestine. The explosion killed 91 people, among them 42 Arabs, 28 Britons and 17 Jews. He rejected allegations that the attack was terrorism; the hotel was a military target, he maintained, and the Irgun had phoned a warning to the British eight minutes before the bomb went off. Begin expressed regret only for the death of the 17 Jews.
The incident made Begin something of a pariah to Israel's founders. David Ben-Gurion, then the chairman of the Jewish Agency, a precursor of Israel's government, called the Irgun "dissidents and terrorists." After Israel achieved independence and Ben-Gurion became prime minister in 1949, he refused to refer to Begin by name, even after Begin had entered the Knesset, or Israeli parliament, as the leader of a small, right-wing party that same year.
Through seven failed campaigns for prime minister, Begin stuck to his Revisionist Zionism, which advocated a much larger homeland than that recognized by the United Nations in 1947 when it delineated Israel's borders. Begin's slogan after the 1967 war was "not one inch"—the amount of West Bank land he thought Israel should return to the Arabs.
Begin's political fortunes rose after a financial scandal involved leaders of the Labor Party in May 1977. He was by then leader of a right-wing coalition called Likud, which had won a national election, making him prime minister in June. Begin believed the majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza should be satisfied with limited autonomy under Israeli control. "He felt that Israel, with its sophisticated democratic philosophy, could . . . have a benign relationship [with the Palestinians]," Harold Saunders, assistant secretary of state for the Middle East at the time of Camp David, recalled to me.
"I don't think he ever met a Palestinian," Samuel Lewis, the U.S. ambassador to Israel from 1977 to 1985, said in an interview. "If he ever met one, he certainly never had much of a conversation with him."
Carter, 53 at the time of Camp David, had a strong interest in the Middle East, rooted in his Baptist faith. Carter read a chapter from the Bible every evening (in Spanish), steeping himself in the region's history of conflict. Preparing for the summit, he referred in his notes to the possibility of the first peace between Egypt and the Jews in 2,600 years.
Within four months of taking office, the new president had held summit meetings with the leaders of Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia. He had sounded them out about their opinions and sharpened his own. He thought that Israel, in exchange for peace, would have to give back the territory it had acquired in 1967, except for minor border modifications to enhance security. He spoke of a homeland, though not necessarily a state, for the Palestinians.
Carter hoped that Camp David's informal, sylvan setting would encourage the leaders and their delegations to mix, to see one another in human terms, to begin to trust each other, to compromise. Accordingly, Carter ordered that the attendees remain sequestered: the only news from the summit would come from daily briefings by Carter's press secretary, Jody Powell. "If you got into a situation in which both sides were playing to their constituencies back home, that would substantially diminish the chances of success," Powell recalled. "You'd get a dynamic where reporters are looking for the sexiest quote they can get, and one of the best ways to do that is to bait one side with a paraphrase or quote from someone on the other side. Before you know it, the public debate is escalating and people get themselves boxed in."
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!"
The next day, Begin rejected Sadat's proposal point by point. He dismissed the requirement that Israel withdraw from virtually all of the West Bank and Gaza, adding that Sadat must allow Israel to retain the 13 settlements it had established on Egyptian territory in the Sinai. Sadat pounded the table. "Security, yes! Land, no!" he shouted.
"There was no compatibility between the two," Carter wrote later. "Almost every discussion of any subject deteriorated into an unproductive argument."
The press was bivouacked in an American Legion Hall in Thurmont. Powell put the best spin on things. "I am not in a position to characterize [the talks] or go into [their] substance," he told reporters. "It is my impression that the personal relationships among all three principals are good."
In reality, the summit was on the verge of breaking down. Aharon Barak, then a legal expert with the Israeli delegation, asked Quandt to get a message to Carter requesting that he not bring Sadat and Begin together again. Barak said Begin was hardening his position and thinking of ways to leave Camp David without being blamed for the summit's failure.
Lewis recalls a conversation he had with Carter as they walked in the woods after a particularly frustrating meeting. "Sam, I don't think Begin wants peace," Lewis remembers the president saying. "I don't think Begin wants peace at all."
Lewis, a career diplomat, believed that nations generally do want peace. The conflict, he told the president, was over the conditions for achieving it, the risks and compromises that leaders were prepared to accept. In that respect, Lewis said, Israel was no different from other nations.
"Well, no," Carter said. "I don't think they really want peace."
Carter had to improvise. With Plan A—the brief meeting that would produce warm personal feelings between Sadat and Begin—in shambles, he fell back on Plan B. He would take Barak's advice and keep Begin and Sadat separated. He would hold what diplomats call "proximity talks," in which leaders are in the same location but do not talk directly. The Americans would shuttle proposals between them. One proposal—outlining concessions by both sides—had been developed weeks before by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, Saunders, Quandt and Ambassador Alfred "Roy" Atherton, Jr., a roving envoy for the Middle East. Now the American staff reworked the proposal.
On the sixth day of the summit, a Sunday, Carter showed the revised American plan to the Israelis. The meeting did not go well. A mention of the national rights of the Palestinians was "out of the question," Begin said. So was a proposal that Israel dismantle its Sinai settlements. "We do not dismantle settlements," Begin declared. As to the proposed wording that acquiring territory by war was inadmissible, Begin said, "We will not accept that."
"You will have to accept it," Carter said.
"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.
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."
Begin emerged from Camp David perceived as the winner, having given up nothing of vital importance. "He was the strongest negotiator," in Quandt's estimation, "because he was prepared to walk away and say, 'No deal.' " But Begin found that triumph could turn to ashes. In 1982, he authorized the invasion of Lebanon, chiefly to eliminate the P.L.O. Opprobrium was heaped on Israel for permitting the massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christians in a camp outside Beirut. Begin's wife, Aliza, died later that year, and Begin resigned the prime ministership. He spent the rest of his life in seclusion, dying in 1992 at age 78.
Camp David earned Carter wide praise at home but did not save him from electoral defeat two years later. Looking back, Powell says, it's clear that trying to achieve peace in the Middle East does an American president no good in the domestic political sense. "We got a smaller percentage of the Jewish vote in 1980 than we had in 1976," he recalls. "The reason is that if you're going to get an agreement, you're going to have to push the Israelis some too. If you do that, you're going to get a backlash in this country."
Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, partly for the Camp David accords but also for promoting peace and human rights after his presidency. He said CampDavidmight have led to a comprehensive settlement if his successor in the White House had picked up where he left off. "But President Reagan took very little interest," Carter said. "Then Israel began to expand its settlements. You can't perpetuate an agreement unless it has the support of the incumbent leaders."
Richard V. Allen, national security adviser in the first year of the Reagan administration, agrees that Reagan's priorities in the Middle East differed from those of Carter. "President Reagan thought Camp David was a significant achievement," Allen says. "But he wanted to conclude an agreement on a strategic alliance with Israel, partly to resist Soviet incursions into the Middle East and partly to make a clear statement that Israel would be defended and would not be as heavily pressured as it would have been if Carter had been reelected."
In any case, the autonomy talks for the West Bank and Gaza produced little progress, whether because Washington stopped exerting diplomatic pressure, as Carter believes, or because the agreement had failed to resolve crucial issues. The United States tried to enlist the participation of Palestinians living on the West Bank, but they held out largely because the P.L.O. refused to support a process that did not recognize the group's claim to represent the Palestinians. For its part, Israel refused to accept any proposals that might compromise its settlement program or its ability to claim sovereignty over the territories.
Over the years, some of the Americans who participated in the Camp David talks have changed their opinion that it was Begin who got the best of the bargaining. Instead, they say Israel missed an opportunity to settle disputes that would only grow far more complicated. As Carter sees it, Camp David gave Israel a chance to settle the West Bank issue when there were only 5,000 or 10,000 Israeli settlers there, compared with some 200,000 today; when there was no intifada, suicide bombings or Hamas. If Begin had been more flexible and accepted ideas that Israel accepts today, such as the inevitability of a Palestinian state, reaching a comprehensive peace agreement "no doubt would have been easier in the late 1970s," Carter told me.
Still, many experts agree that the accords represent a high point in U.S. diplomacy. They "stand with the reconstruction of postwar Europe and Japan as an American diplomatic success," says Martin Indyk, the ambassador to Israel in the Clinton administration. "They were the big breakthrough in the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. From that point on, it has only been a matter of time before the other parts of that conflict are settled."
James A. Baker III, secretary of state under President George H. W. Bush, says the accords "established the principles of land for peace and recognition of United Nations resolutions, which were very helpful to us in the first Bush administration." Camp David also set a precedent for other Middle East peace agreements, including that between Israel and Jordan, Baker says, adding, "I, for one, remain optimistic that in my lifetime we will see a comprehensive peace" built on Camp David and subsequent agreements.
One fact is certain. As Carter points out, "In the years before Camp David, there were four major wars between Israel and its neighbors, generally led by Egypt." In the 25 years since Camp David, there has been none.