Preparation, Trust and Perseverance – Jimmy Carter’s Mediation at Camp David

As a mediator I’ve helped settle many cases.  Often the disputes were complicated, the parties despised each other, and resolution seemed hopeless.  Despite the odds, the parties nevertheless reached agreement.  In none of these negotiations, however, did world peace hang in the balance.


This could not be said about former president Jimmy Carter’s mediation of the dispute between Israel and Egypt that culminated in the Camp David Accords of 1978.  For 13 days  Carter pushed two parties divided by years of hatred, violence and mistrust to achieve a peace agreement that has held for 45 years.  Given their long and bitter history, this may have been the greatest mediation result ever.


What events led up to the Camp David Accords?  After World War I, Great Britain governed Palestine under a League of Nations mandate.  The United Nations later devised a plan to divide Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states, but Palestinian Arabs refused to recognize it.  When Jewish forces declared the independent state of Israel on May 14, 1948, Egypt and other Arab states attacked.


The UN dispatched Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte to reconcile the parties.  His glum report in mid-September 1948 betrayed the difficulty of that task:


I have striven ceaselessly to find a common basis upon which peace negotiations between [Israel and Egypt] might be undertaken.  I have tried to bring them together in my presence or without it.  I have studied carefully their respective positions, claims, and contentions, and . . . have devised compromises. . . put to them either orally or in writing.  I have employed abundantly both reason and persuasion, but to date neither agreement between the parties nor a basis for agreement has been found.


The count’s assassination in Jerusalem the next day validated his pessimism.


Finally, after difficult negotiations supervised by American Ralph Bunche, Israel and Egypt signed an armistice on February 24, 1949.  Until the Camp David Accords, it remained the most significant diplomatic achievement in the Middle East.


Sustained peace remained elusive, and war broke out again in 1956, 1967 and 1973.  But glimmers of hope slowly appeared.  On November 19, 1977, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat stunned the region by becoming the first Arab leader to visit Jerusalem, telling the Knesset,  “You want to live with us in this part of the world. . . In all sincerity, I tell you, we welcome you among us, with full security and safety.”


Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin reciprocated by flying to Ismailia, Egypt, and peace talks commenced.  Carter followed the talks from afar, and when they appeared ready to collapse, he took the risk of inviting Sadat and Begin to the presidential retreat Camp David in hopes that the secluded setting might facilitate an agreement.


It’s hard to conceive a more intractable and complex dispute than the one Carter mediated from September 5 to September 17, 1978.  Two obstreperous principals- Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin- stridently presented opposing views.  Israel’s primary founder David Ben-Gurion called Begin “a racist willing to kill all the Arabs.”  Sadat appeared softer by comparison, but he spent much of World War II in jail for aiding Germany against the British, and once in power did not shrink from jailing political opponents.


At Camp David, Begin and Sadat met jointly with Carter, but that quickly proved too volatile, and by day three Carter had separated them.  For the next ten days Carter shuttled back and forth exchanging proposals and twisting arms.


Despite all obstacles, the parties reached agreement after 13 arduous days.  In the end Israel agreed to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula (which it captured in the 1967 Six Day War) in exchange for full diplomatic relations and the right of passage through the Suez Canal.  The accords also established a framework for resolving territorial issues related to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  On March 26, 1979, the two nations signed a peace treaty on the White House lawn.


Carter’s role was essential.  Middle East analyst Aaron David Miller interviewed many officials for his book The Much Too Promised Land and concluded: “No matter whom I spoke to—Americans, Egyptians, or Israelis —most everyone said the same thing: no Carter, no peace treaty.”


What lessons can mediators and lawyers take from Carter’s work at Camp David?  There are many, but here are a few:


Carter was prepared– In advance of the talks, Carter devoured CIA background reports on the principals, studied the assessments of his national security team and understood the parties’ positions.   His often-criticized tendency to micromanage served him well as he mastered the minutiae and came to the talks with an encyclopedic knowledge of the dispute.


Carter was trusted– Carter gained the parties’ trust.  He respected their faiths and customs.  He converted Camp David’s movie theater to a prayer room for Friday Muslim prayers, Saturday Jewish services, and Sunday Christian worship.  He provided cooks trained in the preparation of American, Egyptian and kosher foods. Sadat had sufficient faith in the president to give him a confidential document outlining Egypt’s fallback positions, which he trusted Carter to use at his discretion at the appropriate time.


Carter understood the parties’ red lines– Carter’s meticulous advance preparation allowed him to “understand [Begin’s and Sadat’s] character, to understand their red lines,” recalled advisor Stuart Eizenstat.  Once the talks started, Carter’s lengthy meetings with each delegation gave him additional insight into what concessions they might would or would not make.


Carter explained the risk of failure– Carter made clear the reasons why failure would be bad for each party, articulating benefits they’d not considered or had undervalued.  He delineated how an agreement could prevent a wider war, pave the way for other agreements and allow territory to be reclaimed.  Carter warned Begin that failure could enhance Soviet influence in the Middle East, to Israel’s detriment.  Carter bluntly told Sadat that failed talks “would severely damage the relationship between the United States and Egypt,”  an outcome Sadat desperately wanted to avoid.  To make plain the consequences of disagreement, Carter took Begin and Sadat on a Sunday afternoon tour of the Gettysburg battlefield.


Carter controlled a single negotiating text–  After hearing the parties’ bitter opening proposals, Carter prepared a draft agreement controlled by him.  As talks progressed he incorporated their concessions into this document, which went through 23 drafts, thereby incrementally locking in points of  agreement.


Carter applied external pressure–  Carter knew Begin was Israel’s decision-maker, but he used others to persuade him.  He soon realized that Israeli delegation members Moshe Dayan and Exer Weizman could serve as allies to nudge Begin towards an agreement.  Both Carter and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance engaged Dayan and Weizman to coax Begin to be more forthcoming.  At one point, an Israeli delegation member called General Ariel Sharon (who was not at Camp David) and asked him to prevail upon Begin to accept withdrawal from the Sinai if that would mean peace with Israel.


Carter never gave up– The best mediators are reluctant to concede defeat, and Carter embodied that trait, keeping the two sides going when all seemed hopeless.  As early as day three both Sadat and Begin said they’d had enough and were leaving.  Carter physically blocked them at the door, begging them for one more day.  “If you give me a chance,” he told them,” I don’t intend to fail.”  On day 11, after Sadat had ordered a helicopter and packed his bags,  Carter rushed to his cabin and warned that, in addition to ending the relationship between the United States and Egypt:


It would mean an end to this peacekeeping effort, into which I have put so much investment. It would probably mean an end to my Presidency because this whole effort will be discredited. And last but not least, it will mean the end of something that is very precious to me:  my friendship with you.


When Begin threatened to leave, Carter appealed to the hardliner’s love for his grandchildren.  Begin had asked Carter to sign a photograph for each of his eight grandchildren depicting him, Carter and Sadat.  Eizenstat recounts that Carter personally inscribed each grandchild’s name onto the photographs, along with messages expressing his hope that there would one day be peace.  He then walked to Begin’s cabin, hand-delivered the pictures, and watched as Begin looked at each and spoke each child’s name.  Carter observed the prime minister’s expression beginning to change.  “Begin’s lips quivered, his eyes teared,” Eizenstat said.  Begin “put his bags down, and he said, ‘Mr. President, I’ll make one last try.’”


Camp David succeeded for two main reasons.


First, courageous leaders decided to take risks.  Lawrence Wright chronicled the talks in Thirteen Days in September, and believes they succeeded because the three lead players had “an abundant amount of political courage.”


The second reason for success clearly was Carter’s tenacious and skilled mediation effort.  In a paper sponsored by the US War College, Colonel Carlton Day concluded:


Perhaps a time ripe for future peace treaties in the Middle East will come again.  If it does, it will require the mediator to possess the same skills that Carter had to achieve such a treaty, someone with a similar ethical stance, trusted by the parties involved, willing to exercise creativity and think critically, systemically, and understand how history is not merely events in the past, but a stream that continues to flow and can be channeled productively. These are the skills essential to the promotion of peaceful conflict resolution.


The agreement between Egypt and Israel remains intact, but recent violence has demolished any hope of a broader peace.  That is, of course, unless courageous leaders engage in hard dialogue- a dialogue based on trust and fueled by a tenacious desire for peace.  The leaders at Camp David have shown us what that looks like.