40 years later, Camp David Accords hold many lessons for Trump

40 years later, Camp David Accords hold many lessons for Trump
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September 17 marked the 40th anniversary of the historic Camp David Accords brokered by President Jimmy Carter between Israel and Egypt, who had fought five wars since the Jewish state’s creation in 1948.

In one of the greatest acts of presidential diplomacy in American history, Carter helped create a framework for Israeli security that has lasted for two generations and greatly enhanced U.S. national security interests.


If Donald TrumpDonald TrumpDemocrats, activists blast reported Trump DOJ effort to get journalists' phone records Arizona secretary of state gets security detail over death threats surrounding election audit Trump admin got phone records of WaPo reporters covering Russia probe: report MORE is serious about forging a peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as his administration has stated, he’d do well to study Carter’s playbook.     

The path to Camp David was circuitous. Deeply schooled in the history of the Holy Land due to his Baptist roots, but a neophyte in international diplomacy, Carter was determined to make peace in the Middle East his top foreign policy priority.

To do this, he needed to balance the personalities and conflicting views of two leaders who deeply distrusted each other: Menachem Begin, Israel’s first Likud prime minister, and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

At first, Carter stumbled. In October 1977, the president announced in a joint-communique with the Soviet Union the reconvening of the long-stalled Geneva Conference that sought to create a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel, all its Arab neighbors and the Palestinians.

The Israelis and the Egyptians were not consulted in advance about the communique. The Jewish community in the U.S. and Israel were horrified by the thought of Israel facing over 20 hostile Arab states and the pro-Arab Soviets. 

Sadat’s surprise, courageous decision to fly to Jerusalem a month after the Geneva process collapsed was born out of his recognition that he would never regain the entire Egyptian Sinai if hardline Arab leaders held a veto over any comprehensive deal.

He pledged to the Knesset “no more wars,” after his country and Israel had already fought five. But months of direct negotiations between Begin’s camp and Sadat’s diplomats stalled.

Carter wisely pivoted, abandoning his dream of a single comprehensive settlement for one focused on a formal peace agreement between Egypt and Israel and self-government for the Palestinians.

Carter subsequently summoned the two leaders to the presidential retreat at Camp David in rural Maryland, against the wishes of his top, and risk-averse advisors. Carter prepared for the summit with the intensity of a lawyer, which he was not, and the zealousness of a Baptist Sunday school teacher, which he was.

He scrutinized reams of CIA intelligence reports to understand the red lines of each side, met with high-level Israeli and Arab ambassadors, and regularly commiserated with Henry Kissinger, President Richard Nixon’s secretary of state who had conducted his own shuttle diplomacy in pursuit of Mideast peace. 

Camp David proved to be an endurance test for Carter. For 13 agonizing days, he personally helped draft more than 20 proposed peace agreements, often with little or no sleep. He had to negotiate separately with Begin and Sadat because they refused to be in the same room.

The president needed to provide personal inducements and appeal to Begin’s and Sadat’s more humane sides to keep the process going. On the first Sunday at Camp David, Carter took Begin and Sadat in his presidential limousine to the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg to remind the two men of the costs of continued conflict.

On numerous occasions, the process neared collapse. On the last Sunday, Begin announced he could make no further comprises and was leaving Camp David. Carter, understanding the disastrous consequences of failure to Sadat, the Mideast and himself, appealed to the Begin to stay.

Knowing Begin’s love for his grandchildren, Carter personally inscribed photographs of himself with Begin and Sadat to each of the Israeli prime minister’s eight grandchildren and personally delivered them to his cabin.

Carter watched as Begin emotionally read each of his grandchildren’s names, and with tears in his eyes, told the president he would make one last try. An agreement was finally reached at the 11th hour, though Begin stressed the accords still needed to be approved.

The accords were only a framework, not a binding treaty, so the process dragged on for six long months. Carter, over the unanimous opposition of his advisers, pursued a shuttle diplomacy across the Mideast to try and seal the deal.

Up until the final hours, Begin would not agree, but on March 14, 1979, the deal was completed with a surprise visit by Begin to Carter's suite at the King David Hotel. For 40 years, it has never been violated, and now Egypt and Israel, despite a cold peace, share sensitive intelligence and a common commitment to fight terrorist groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah. 

The relationship between Israel and the Palestinians remains the unfished chapter of Camp David. Carter was a visionary on this front, being the first American president to call for “Palestinian homeland.”

But this stance cost him his standing with the American Jewish community, and he regularly butted heads with Begin over the issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which Carter believed were illegal.

Begin committed at Camp David to provide full autonomy to the Palestinians within five years and to abide by a settlement freeze in disputed areas, although the length of the freeze was disputed. But talks stalled, and since 1979, Jewish settlers in the West Bank has grown to 350,000 from 15,000. 

The Trump administration is working hard on its own peace plan, vowing to present it after the midterm elections. But Carter’s diplomacy at Camp David underscores just how difficult a viable peace will be for Donald Trump to achieve.

Carter’s victory was only attained through exhaustive preparation, even-handedness and creativity and sustained and direct presidential involvement. Conversely, the Trump administration has recently decided to cut aid to the Palestinian authority and shutter its offices in Washington, which hardly augurs well for earning their trust. 

The Trump administration has been among the most pro-Israel in U.S. history. This affords it credibility with Israeli leaders to build on what Jimmy Carter created 40 years ago. But to do so, Trump will need to demand painful compromises from both sides. I hope he will do so.

Stuart Eizenstat is the former U.S. ambassador to the European Union, undersecretary of commerce and international trade, undersecretary of state for economic, business and agricultural affairs and deputy secretary of Treasury in the Clinton administration (1993-2001). He was also the chief White House domestic policy adviser to former President Jimmy Carter (1977-81). He is the author of the new book, "President Carter: The White House Years."