Decades later, Camp David’s legacy remains debatable

Camp David was about peace, but it was also about resistance to steps facilitating peace, writes Michael Young

From left, Egyptian president Anwar Al Sadat, US president Jimmy Carter, and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin meet at Camp David in 1978. AP Photo
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Thirty-six years ago this month, Israel and Egypt negotiated the Camp David accords under the watchful eyes of US president Jimmy Carter, leading to an Egyptian-Israeli peace settlement.

What lessons can we learn from Camp David? Lawrence Wright has tried to answer that question in a new book, Thirteen Days in September. As he shows, the messages are mixed.

Optimists will say that Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Al Sadat arrived in Camp David with maximalist positions, and that only their willingness to compromise produced a historical final agreement.

The pessimists will say that Camp David was a flash in the pan. It led only to an Egyptian-Israeli peace accord because a major item on the summit’s agenda, a resolution of the Palestinian problem, was undermined by Begin, without his interlocutors being able to do much about it. Mr Carter split the negotiating tracks into two and focused on an Egyptian-Israeli accord, realising the Palestinian issue could sabotage the talks.

Both interpretations are correct in some ways, but looking back at Begin’s behaviour, it is difficult not to conclude that his intransigence is still very much alive today among Israel’s political leadership, with his Likud party still playing a dominant role.

Begin arrived at Camp David with a very peculiar interpretation of the United Nations resolution governing the negotiations, Resolution 242, passed after the June 1967 war. The resolution affirms “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in which every State in the area can live in security”.

This formulation effectively outlined a “land for peace” process, one that continues to serve as a basis for Arab-Israeli negotiations today. However, Begin strongly resisted its implications. When Mr Carter presented an American paper to break the logjam, the Israeli prime minister focused on reference to Resolution 242, arguing it was unacceptable.

“The language applies only to wars of aggression,” Begin said. “The war of 1967 gives Israel the right to change frontiers.” In fact Resolution 242 says nothing about wars of aggression, and the prime minister appeared to use that argument less out of conviction than to hold on to land Israel coveted.

In the end Begin did allow for the return of Sinai to Egypt, although he himself was unconvinced, in exchange for the grand prize of a peace treaty with Egypt that would severely divide the Arab world and weaken it militarily. But this would little alter the view on the right expressed by Begin that victory in 1967 gave Israel “the right to change frontiers”.

Indeed, a central objective of Israeli policy since that time has been to do precisely that. In 1981 Israel annexed the Golan Heights from Syria, while its expansion of settlements there and in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza has made a “land for peace” deal far more difficult to achieve.

Even prime minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip in 2005 was designed mainly to facilitate Israeli consolidation over other occupied areas that would be integrated into Israel after final peace accords.

Camp David would also signal the end of boldness in Arab relations with Israel. When Jordan and Syria engaged in negotiations with Israel a decade and a half later, they would do so on a road first opened by Al Sadat, under the guidance of a United States that was by then the sole superpower.

However, neither King Hussein of Jordan nor Hafez Al Assad in Syria saw benefits in taking risks with Israel. King Hussein had many secret contacts with Israelis over the years, but Jordan’s peace treaty with the Israelis came only after Oslo. As for Al Assad, he refused to meet Israeli officials or engage in confidence-building measures until his conditions were met.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s attitude towards the Palestinians has reflected that of Begin at Camp David. It is remarkable how deep Begin’s contempt for the Palestinians and their aspirations was, to the extent that in a paper he presented to the parties, Mr Carter removed a reference to ending Israeli settlement building in the occupied territories, knowing that Begin would concentrate on that point to reject the document as a whole.

Rather, Begin offered an insulting autonomy plan to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. They would be placed under an Arab administration with minimal powers. Israel, in turn, would continue to build settlements and would be the final authority on most decisions. “All who beheld [the plan] praised it,” an irony-free Begin said, according to Mr Wright’s account.

After the Oslo accords, Israel finally accepted the principle of a Palestinian state. However, with Mr Netanyahu back in office, the entity he is willing to allow Palestinians seems marginally more attractive than what Begin offered.

Last July, Mr Netanyahu explained what he envisaged in a speech in Hebrew. According to journalist David Horovitz, the prime minister made it clear that he could never countenance a fully sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank. “[T]here cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan,” Mr Netanyahu was quoted as saying.

Nor is Mr Netanyahu likely to concede anything substantial on Jerusalem or refugees. Camp David was about peace, but it was also about resistance to steps facilitating peace. That’s why the lessons of the summit still remain ambiguous.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

On Twitter @BeirutCalling