A false dawn

Print edition : August 21, 2015

Camp David, Maryland, U.S., September 6, 1978: On the verandah of Aspen Lodge, U.S. President Jimmy Carter with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (left) and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin during the tripartite peace talks that resulted in the signing of the Camp David Accords. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The dynamics of diplomacy as demonstrated in the Camp David Accords and the lessons that the peace process associated with them hold for all strife-torn regions.

THIS excellent book by Lawrence Wright, a Pulitzer Prize winner, should be prescribed as a textbook for all trainees in diplomacy and deserves to be studied carefully by all those who are interested in the dynamics of the diplomatic process. The Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, which President Jimmy Carter painstakingly persuaded President Anwar Sadat and Prime Minister Menachem Begin to sign in 1978, were regarded as a breakthrough. All three won international acclaim. The author meticulously traces their genesis, the spadework done by Carter and the tortuous course of the negotiations he conducted at Camp David for 13 days.

The entire process holds lessons for all strife-torn regions, including ours. “War seldom achieves what was expected or hoped for by its participants; even victory often breeds a future defeat. The Middle East [West Asia] from distant times till now is a cautionary story of the failure of war to impose a lasting and just peace. There is never a perfect time or ideal people to bring an end to bloody conflicts, and unlike the talent for war, the ability to make peace has always been rare. The goal of this book is to provide some insight into how that arduous process is accomplished, even by violent men who are prejudiced by their backgrounds, hampered by domestic politics, and blinded by their beliefs. Camp David tells us of the compromises that peace demands, and of the courage and sacrifice required of leaders whose greatest challenge is to overcome their own limitations.” The author’s belief in the sincerity of Begin and Sadat is misplaced.

Begin envisioned a vastly expanded Israel; he did not even acknowledge the existence of Jordan, which he believed should be conquered. “Begin is a distinctly Hitleristic type,” David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founder and first Prime Minister, wrote of him. “He is a racist who is willing to kill all the Arabs in order to gain control of the entire land of Israel.” Prominent American Jews, including Hannah Arendt and Albert Einstein, denounced him as a terrorist chieftain. What were his calculations and those of Sadat in concluding those accords? The only person who was transparent about his objective was Carter—it was peace. Carter asked the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] to answer a host of precise questions about his interlocutors. One of them read: “What were their goals?”

Sadat began the peace process by his daring visit to Israel on November 19, 1977. Encouraged, Carter followed up. The day-by-day account of the tripartite parleys must be read carefully. Sadat signed up against the advice of his delegation. Foreign Minister Mohamed Ibrahim resigned at Camp David itself. His words to U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance proved prophetic. “You have drafted your project in accordance with whatever was accepted or rejected by Begin,” he said bitterly. “You will live to regret this agreement, which will weaken Sadat and may even topple him. It will affect your position in the moderate Arab states, who are your friends, while all the Arab peoples will resent you. As for Egypt, it will be isolated in the area. … All that will happen is that it will allow Begin a free hand in the West Bank and Gaza with a view to their annexation. Far from providing a solution to the Arab-Israeli dispute, the agreement will only add fuel to the fire.” He was an honest man. Sadat was not.

Begin soon began reneging on his commitments and “was actively working to defeat Carter for re-election”, the author records. He makes two important points. “In signing the treaty with Israel, Egypt severed its link to the Palestine cause.” His objective was altogether different. “The grand Egyptian design for Camp David was to create a deeper alliance with the Americans, no matter what the outcome of the talks with Israel.” A little over a decade later appeared the brilliant Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Ebban’s memoirs Personal Witness. His assessments are more accurate than Wright’s cheerful summing up of Camp David. He wrote: “Begin believed that if he could neutralise Egypt and offer the Palestinians minor functions of administration, it would be easier for him to enforce rigid Israeli sovereignty over the whole area between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea…. He could be flexible in Sinai in order to be obdurate in the West Bank and Gaza.” He was exchanging Sinai for absolute Israeli rule over the territories and populations of the West Bank and Gaza.

The gains Begin had in mind went much further. “With Egypt’s military strength neutralised by the peace treaty, Begin would be free to initiate operations against Syria, Iraq or the Palestinians in their Lebanese bases.” As for Sadat, “he was thinking of Egyptian interests alone. His devotion to the Palestinian cause was perfunctory and unconvincing.…

“The unpleasant truth is that the Egyptian-Israeli treaty undoubtedly facilitated the Israeli war in Lebanon and strengthened the capacity of Likud administrations to do exactly what they liked with the Palestinian population in the occupied territories. Even the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in June 1981, which nobody should now regret, would not have been possible if the threat to Israel from Egypt had not been neutralised.”

On October 6, 1981, Sadat was assassinated. Camp David was an utterly false dawn. Egypt remains America’s ally which helped to foil the Arab Spring and to buttress military rule in Egypt. The Palestinians remain abandoned and forsaken.