The Camp David Accords, Jimmy Carter's 1978 Middle East Peace Plan

How Three Men, in 13 Days, Hammered Out a Peace Plan at Camp David

photo of Begin, Carter, and Sadat at Camp David
Menachem Begin, Jimmy Carter, and Anwar Sadat at Camp David, 1978. Keystone / Getty Images

The Camp David Accords were two frameworks for peace negotiated and signed by Egypt, Israel, and the United States, after a two-week conference held at Camp David in September 1978. The rustic presidential retreat in Maryland had been offered by President Jimmy Carter, who took the lead in bringing Israeli and Egyptian leaders together when their own negotiations faltered.

The two accords, titled "A Framework for Peace in the Middle East" and "A Framework for Conclusion of a Peace Treaty Between Egypt and Israel," led to considerable changes in the Middle East. Israel's prime minister, Menachem Begin, and Egypt's president, Anwar Sadat, were later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. Yet the Camp David Accords did not produce the comprehensive peace the participants had initially sought.

Fast Facts: The Camp David Accords

  • Meeting of Israeli and Egyptian leader was sponsored by President Jimmy Carter, who fervently wanted to bring peace to the Middle East.
  • Carter was warned by advisers not to risk his already troubled presidency on a meeting with a very uncertain outcome.
  • The meeting at Camp David was planned for a few days, but stretched into 13 days of very difficult negotiations.
  • The final result of the Camp David meeting did not bring a comprehensive peace, but did stabilize relations between Israel and Egypt.

Background to Camp David Meeting

Ever since the founding of Israel in 1948, Egypt had been both neighbor and enemy. The two nations had battled in the late 1940s and again in the 1950s, during the Suez Crisis. The Six-Day War of 1967 expanded Israel's territory in the Sinai Peninsula, and the stunning defeat of Egypt in the war was a major humiliation.

The two nations engaged in a war of attrition from 1967 to 1970, which ended with a treaty that kept the borders as they had been at the end of the Six-Day War.

Wreckage of an Egyptian tank in the Sinai, 1973
1973: Israeli jeep drives past wreckage of an Egyptian tank in the Sinai. Daily Express / Archive Photos / Getty Images

In 1973, Egypt launched an audacious offensive in the Sinai to recapture the territory lost in 1967. In what became known as the Yom Kippur War, Israel was surprised but then battled back. Israel emerged victorious and the territorial boundaries stayed essentially unchanged.

By the mid-1970s, both nations seemed locked in a state of perpetual antagonism, seemingly awaiting the next war. In a move that shocked the world, the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, announced in November 1977 that he would be willing to travel to Israel to try to resolve the problems between the two countries.

Many observers didn't take Sadat's statement as anything but political theater. Even the media in Egypt barely paid attention to Sadat's offer. Yet the Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, responded by inviting Sadat to Israel. (Begin had previously put out peace feelers to Begin, but hardly anyone knew that.)

On November 19, 1977, Sadat flew from Egypt to Israel. The world was fascinated by images of an Arab leader being greeted at the airport by Israeli leaders. For two days, Sadat toured sites in Israel and addressed the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

With that stunning breakthrough, peace between the nations seemed possible. But talks lagged over territorial issues and the perennial issue in the Middle East, the plight of the Palestinian people. By the summer of 1978, the drama of the previous fall seemed to have faded, and it looked like the standoff between Israel and Egypt was no closer to being solved.

The American president, Jimmy Carter, decided to take a gamble and invite the Egyptians and Israelis to Camp David, the presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains. He hoped the relative isolation might encourage Sadat and Begin to make a lasting deal.

Three Distinct Personalities

Jimmy Carter came into the presidency by presenting himself as an unpretentious and honest man, and following Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and the Watergate era, he did enjoy a honeymoon period with the public. But his inability to fix a lagging economy cost him politically, and his administration began to be seen as troubled.

Carter was determined to bring about peace in the Middle East, despite the seeming impossibility of the challenge. In the White House, Carter's closest advisers cautioned him against being drawn into a hopeless situation that could create even more political problems for his administration.

A deeply religious man who had taught Sunday school for years (and has continued to do so in retirement), Carter disregarded his advisers' warnings. He seemed to feel a religious calling to help to bring peace to the Holy Land.

Carter's stubborn attempt to broker peace would mean dealing with two men quite unlike himself.

Israel's prime minister, Menachem Begin, had been born in 1913 in Brest (present day Belarus, though ruled at various times by Russia or Poland). His own parents had been killed by the Nazis, and during World War II he was taken prisoner by the Soviets and sentenced to hard labor in Siberia. He was released (as he was considered a Polish citizen), and after joining the free Polish army, he was sent to Palestine in 1942.

In Palestine, Begin fought against the British occupation and became the leader of the Irgun, a Zionist terrorist organization that attacked British soldiers and, in 1946, blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing 91 people. When he visited America in 1948 protesters called him a terrorist.

Begin eventually became active in Israeli politics, but was always a hardliner and outsider, always fixated on Israel's defense and survival amidst hostile enemies. In the political instability that followed the 1973 war, when Israeli leaders were criticized for having been surprised by the Egyptian attack, Begin became more prominent politically. In May 1977, he became prime minister.

Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt, had also been a surprise to much of the world. He had long been active in the movement that overthrew the Egyptian monarchy in 1952, and served for many years as a secondary figure to the legendary Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. When Nasser died of a heart attack in 1970, Sadat became president. Many assumed Sadat would soon be pushed aside by another strongman, but he quickly consolidated his hold on power, jailing some of his suspected enemies.

Though born in humble circumstances in a rural village in 1918, Sadat had been able to attend the Egyptian military academy, graduating as an officer in 1938. For his activities opposing British rule in Egypt, he was imprisoned during World War II, escaped, and stayed underground until the war's end. Following the war, he was involved in the coup organized by Nasser that overthrew the monarchy. In 1973, Sadat masterminded the attack on Israel that shocked the Middle East and nearly led to a nuclear confrontation between the two great superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union.

Both Begin and Sadat were stubborn characters. They had both been imprisoned, and each had spent decades fighting for his nation. Yet they somehow both knew they had to strive for peace. So they gathered their foreign policy advisers and traveled to the hills of Maryland.

Begin, Sadat, and Carter at Gettysburg
Begin, Sadat, and Carter visiting Gettysburg. Gene Forte/CNP/Getty Images

Tense Negotiations

The meetings at Camp David were held in September 1978 and were originally intended to last only a few days. As it happened, the negotiations lagged, many obstacles emerged, intense personality clashes emerged at times, and as the world awaited any news, the three leaders negotiated for 13 days. At various times people became frustrated and threatened to leave. After the first five days, Carter proposed a visit to the nearby battlefield at Gettysburg as a diversion.

Carter finally decided to draft a single document which would cover a resolution of the major issues. Both teams of negotiators passed the document back and forth, adding revisions. Ultimately, the three leaders traveled to the White House, and on September 17, 1978, signed the Camp David Accords.

Sadat, Carter, and Begin in the White House
The announcement of the Camp David Accords in the White House. Arnie Sachs/CNP/Getty Images

Legacy of the Camp David Accords

The Camp David meeting produced limited success. It did establish a peace between Egypt and Israel which has sustained for decades, ending the era in which the Sinai would periodically become a battlefield.

The first framework, titled "A Framework for Peace In the Middle East" was intended to lead to a comprehensive peace in the entire region. That goal, of course, remains unaccomplished.

The second framework, titled, "A Framework for Conclusion of a Peace Treaty Between Egypt and Israel," did eventually lead to a lasting peace between Egypt and Israel.

The issue of the Palestinians was not resolved, and the tortured relationship between Israel and the Palestinians continues to this day.

For the three nations involved at Camp David, and especially the three leaders, the gathering in the wooded mountains of Maryland produced significant changes.

Jimmy Carter's administration continued to sustain political damage. Even among his most dedicated supporters, it seemed that Carter had invested so much time and effort into the negotiations at Camp David that he appeared inattentive to other serious problems. When militants in Iran took hostages from the American embassy in Tehran a year after the meetings at Camp David, the Carter administration found itself appearing hopelessly weakened.

When Menachem Begin returned to Israel from Camp David, he was met with considerable criticism. Begin himself was not happy with the outcome, and for months it appeared that the proposed peace treaty might not be signed.

Anwar Sadat also came into criticism in some quarters at home, and was widely denounced in the Arab world. Other Arab nations pulled their ambassadors from Egypt, and because of Sadat's willingness to negotiate with the Israelis, Egypt entered a decade of estrangement from its Arab neighbors.

With the treaty in peril, Jimmy Carter traveled to Egypt and Israel in March 1979 in an effort to ensure the treaty would be signed.

Following Carter's travels, on March 26, 1979, Sadat and Begin arrived at the White House. In a brief ceremony on the lawn, the two men signed the formal treaty. The wars between Egypt and Israel were officially over.

Two years later, on October 6, 1981, crowds gathered in Egypt for an annual event marking the anniversary of the 1973 war. President Sadat was watching a military parade from a reviewing stand. A truck full of soldiers stopped in front of him, and Sadat stood up to salute. One of the soldiers threw a grenade at Sadat, and then opened fire at him with an automatic rifle. Other soldiers shot at the reviewing stand. Sadat, along with 10 others, was killed.

An unusual delegation of three former presidents attended Sadat's funeral: Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, and Jimmy Carter, whose one term had ended in January 1981 after he failed in his bid for reelection. Menachem Begin also attended Sadat's funeral, and, tellingly, he and Carter didn't speak.

Begin's own political career ended in 1983. He resigned as prime minister and spent the last decade of his life in virtual seclusion.

The Camp David Accords stand out as an achievement in the presidency of Jimmy Carter, and they did set a tone for future American involvement in the Middle East. But they have also stood as a warning that a lasting peace in the region would be extremely difficult to achieve.

Sources:

  • Peretz, Don. "Camp David Accords (1978)." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa, edited by Philip Mattar, 2nd ed., vol. 1, Macmillan Reference USA, 2004, pp. 560-561. Gale Ebooks.
  • "Egypt and Israel Sign the Camp David Accords." Global Events: Milestone Events Throughout History, edited by Jennifer Stock, vol. 5: Middle East, Gale, 2014, pp. 402-405. Gale Ebooks.
  • "Menachem Begin." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 2, Gale, 2004, pp. 118-120. Gale Ebooks.
  • "Anwar Sadat." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 13, Gale, 2004, pp. 412-414. Gale Ebooks.