What Were the Camp David Accords of 1978?

Sadat and Begin Achieve Lasting Peace

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli President Menahem Begin had a more abrasive relationship than their hand-shaking moments let on. This photograph dates from Sept. 7, 1978, at Camp david, as President carter was about to mediate talks. Jimmy Carter Library

The Camp David Accords, signed by Egypt, Israel and the United States on September 17, 1978, were a major step toward a final peace agreement between Egypt and Israel.

The accords set the framework for peace talks that followed over the next six months, compelling each side to agree to reach two goals: a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, and a final peace settlement in the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian issue. Egypt and Israel reached the first goal, but only by sacrificing the second. The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was signed in Washington, DC, on March 26, 1979.

Origins of the Camp David Accords

By 1977, Israel and Egypt had fought four wars, not including the War of Attrition. Israel occupied Egypt's Sinai, Syria's Golan Heights, Arab East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Some 4 million Palestinians were either under military Israeli occupation or living as refugees. Neither Egypt nor Israel could afford to remain on a war footing and survive economically.

The United States and the Soviet Union had their hopes set on a Middle East peace conference in Geneva in 1977. But that plan was stalemated by disagreements over the scope of the conference and the role the Soviet Union would play.

The United States, according to then-President Jimmy Carter's vision, wanted a grand peace plan that settled all disputes, Palestinian autonomy (but not necessarily statehood) included. Carter wasn't interested in giving the Soviets more than a token role. Palestinians wanted statehood to be part of the framework, but Israel disagreed. The peace process, by way of Geneva, was going nowhere.

Sadat's Trip to Jerusalem

Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat broke the stalemate with a dramatic move. He went to Jerusalem and addressed the Israeli Knesset, urging a bilateral push for peace. The move took Carter by surprise. But Carter adapted, inviting Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to the presidential retreat, Camp David, in the Maryland woods to start the peace process the following fall.

Camp David

The Camp David conference was by no means bound to succeed. To the contrary. Carter's advisers opposed the summit, considering the risks of failure too great. Begin, a Likud Party hard-liner, was not interested in granting Palestine any form of autonomy, nor was he initially interested in returning all of Sinai to Egypt. Sadat was not interested in any form of negotiations that did not, as a base, assume the eventual and full return of Sinai to Egypt. Palestinians became a bargaining chip.

Working to the talks' advantage was the uniquely close relationship between Carter and Sadat. "Sadat had total trust in me," Carter told Aaron David Miller, for many years an American negotiator at the State Department. "We were kind of like brothers." Carter's relationship with Begin was less trusting, more abrasive, often arduous. Begin's relationship with Sadat was volcanic. Neither man trusted the other.

The Negotiations

For almost two weeks at Camp David, Carter shuttled between Sadat and Begin, often doing his utmost to keep the talks from breaking down. Sadat and Begin never met face to face for 10 days. Sadat was ready to leave Camp David on the 11th day, and so was Begin. Carter cajoled, threatened and bribed (with what eventually would become the United States' two biggest foreign-aid packages: one for Egypt and one for Israel), though he never threatened Israel with an aid cut-off, as Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford had in their tense moments with Israel.

Carter wanted a settlement freeze in the West Bank, and he thought Begin pledged it. (In 1977, there were 80 settlements and 11,000 Israelis living illegally in the West Bank, plus an additional 40,000 Israelis living illegally in East Jerusalem.) But Begin would soon break his word. Sadat wanted a peace settlement with the Palestinians, and Begin wouldn't grant it, claiming he'd agreed only to a three-month freeze. Sadat agreed to let the Palestinian issue be delayed, a decision that would cost him hugely in the end. But by Sept. 16, Sadat, Carter and Begin had an agreement.

"Carter's centrality to the success of the summit cannot be overemphasized," Miller wrote. "Without Begin and particularly without Sadat, the historic treaty would never have emerged. Without Carter, however, the summit would not have occurred in the first place."

Signing and Consequences

The Camp David Accords were signed at a White House ceremony on Sept. 17, 1978, and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty granting the return of the full Sinai to Egypt on March 26, 1979. Sadat and Begin were awarded the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts.

Calling Sadat's deal with Israel a separate peace, the Arab League expelled Egypt for many years. Sadat was assassinated by Islamist extremists in 1981. His replacement, Hosni Mubarak, proved far less of a visionary. He maintained the peace, but he advanced the cause neither of Middle East peace nor of Palestinian statehood.

The Camp David Accords remain the United States' single greatest achievement for peace in the Middle East. Paradoxically, the agreements also illustrate the limits and failures of peace in the Middle East. By letting Israel and Egypt use Palestinians as a bargaining chip, Carter enabled Palestinian rights to statehood to be marginalized, and the West Bank effectively to become an Israeli province. Despite regional tension, the peace between Israel and Egypt endures.