Declassified Camp David Accords Reveal a Little and a Lot

by Robert E. Hunter

The CIA has just declassified a raft of documents related to President Jimmy Carter’s historic meeting at Camp David in September 1978, with Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin. At least a cursory reading of the most salient documents does not reveal a lot that has not already been reported and commented on a thousand times in the last thirty years.  But taken together, they say a lot, and point to what can — and perhaps cannot — be done with the current US-brokered negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The first thing that leaps out is how much President Carter was both in charge and deeply engaged. While some historians have faulted him for focusing too much on details during his presidency, at Camp David he proved that he could deal with both “trees” and “woods.” He could deal with minute and difficult details; but he never lost sight of the big picture, which was necessary to bring to bear the political leadership that ultimately created success. It is also evident from the documents — and was evident at the time — that Carter was supported by an immensely able, talented, knowledgeable, and experienced team, from Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski at the top, to key advisors. These notably included Assistant Secretary of State Harold Saunders and NSC staff director for the Middle East, William Quandt. Together, they molded a successful US position.

Of course, so much credit also has to go to Egypt’s Sadat and Israel’s Begin , two very unlikely peace partners only a short time before Camp David, but both with a vision for their peoples that enabled them to take decisions that would have likely eluded lesser men. Sadat, as much as anything, wanted to get Egypt out of the business of having to confront Israel on behalf of other Arab states, to no benefit (and a lot of risk) to Egypt and its people. Begin wanted to eliminate Israel’s principal enemy from the Arab military balance, without which — Egypt — no coalition of Arab states had any chance of besting Israel in combat. And so it proved to be. In pursuing this goal, Begin gave hostages to his political enemies, including those who stoutly opposed Israel’s evacuation of Jewish settlements on the Egyptian side of the old Egyptian Israeli border, but which Begin agreed to do and then made happen.

The US had a major geopolitical stake, as well. On three previous occasions, the 1956 Suez War, the 1967 Six-Day War, and the so-called Yom Kippur War of 1973, conflict posed risks of confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union — and at least in 1973 came perilously close to becoming the second most risky moment of the Cold War after the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Camp David Accords, which took Egypt out of the Arab military balance, thus not only dropped the risk of a plausible Arab military attack on Israel almost to the vanishing point, it also dropped the risk of a US-Soviet confrontation in the region virtually to zero. Everyone gained.

Since then, there have been a series of attempts to build on the Camp David Accords and the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. Israel has peace with Jordan and Lebanon. It has evacuated Gaza (though this has not brought peace, for a variety of reasons). But the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians of the West Bank (and Gaza) is not all that much advanced from where the first talks began in the mid-1980s. (Note: I assumed the Arab-Israeli portfolio at the NSC after the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty was completed, and served for nearly two years as the White House representative to the so-called Autonomy talks over the Palestinian territories). Indeed, any negotiator from that time would recognize all the issues are still in play 33 years later.

That should not be surprising. Unlike the first Camp David and the resulting treaty, there is no common interest among all the parties in reaching a basic deal. Israel (at least its government) is not keen on relinquishing much of the West Bank and at least some of the Jewish settlements (that now include half a million people): this is a deeply conflicted issue in Israel, with no obvious direct security payoff. For their part, the Palestinians want gains that go beyond what any Israeli government has been willing to contemplate. Gaza, meanwhile, is isolated by Israel and the West, thus making almost impossible a united negotiating posture on the part of the Palestinians. And while the “West” is committed to a resolution of the conflict, getting there remains in the “too tough” category, especially when the only potential arbiter, a succession of US presidents since Jimmy Carter, has not seen such a resolution as being of anything like the magnitude of peace between Israel and Egypt, at least in terms of gaining security for the United States (the Soviet Union has long since disappeared).

President Bill Clinton did try, by convening Israeli and Palestinian leaders at Camp David in late 1980. But he had waited until too late in his second term, without the prospect that he would still be in power to help foster the implementation of any agreement that would be reached — a necessary requirement.  Neither Israel’s Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, or the PLO leader, Yasser Arafat, had the political backing needed to take major “risks for peace,” and there was not a sufficient overlapping of interests. Nor did Clinton undertake the careful preparations that marked Jimmy Carter’s efforts a generation earlier, and which are revealed in the newly-declassified documents. And he did not take with him to Camp David a “first team” of experts able to provide both the institutional memory or capacity to help work a deal. What Bill Clinton did achieve was the enunciation of a set of principles, a few days before he left office, and which can be found here. They are relatively simple as a set of compromises that could lead to a settlement — something that just about every serious negotiator over the last three decades would attest to. Simple to state but, so far, impossible to gain politically.

Now there is a third try to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave negotiations a wide berth, secretary of State John Kerry has placed this high on his agenda, as did President Obama in his address this fall to the UN General Assembly. But the chances of success are still remote, for all the reasons that have bedeviled the last three decades of effort. Further, other events in the region work against hopes for ending the conflict anytime soon. Israel is preoccupied with turmoil in Egypt (where the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty remains the cornerstone of its security and thus of its sense of confidence in the future); Iran poses a critical challenge; and the situation in Syria also provides no comfort. Together, these three crises grossly limit the capacity of the Israeli government to take risks for peace, even if it were predisposed to do so, which is far from evident. Meanwhile, there is little or no prospect of fostering a basis for serious negotiations on the Palestinian side, in major part because of the domination of Gaza by the radical group Hamas, which is ratified in power by the Israeli-Western blockade.

Further, like Bill Clinton, Barack Obama has not made the sustained commitment to move the peace process forward, given any indication that he would take the risks in US domestic politics that would be needed, or created a top-class team of advisors and — below Kerry himself — negotiators needed to increase the chances of success. Given the low probability that the talks will produce results, none of this can really be faulted.

Jimmy Carter’s legacy lives on; but neither objective circumstances, leadership of the contending parties (Israel and the Palestinians), or a strong US team argue for a repetition of success any time in the foreseeable future.  The new documents show what can  be done if all three factors come together.  Regrettably, however, none of them now exist.

Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat with U.S. President Jimmy Carter at Camp David in 1978.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. Nice piece, but with the Palestinian Negotiators resigning today, saying there is no way to reach an accord with Israel, then what difference does it make to look back in time?

  2. To this day, Jimmy Carter is sorry he could not get Israel out of the West Bank (and Gaza), and the Golan Heights, at same time as he did get Israel out of the Sinai.

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