How Israel Undermined Washington and Stalled the Dream of Palestinian Statehood

From left, President Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt, President Jimmy Carter and Prime Minister Menachem Begin signing the preliminary Camp David Accords in 1978. Credit Credit Wally McNamee/Corbis, via Getty Images
From left, President Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt, President Jimmy Carter and Prime Minister Menachem Begin signing the preliminary Camp David Accords in 1978. Credit Wally McNamee/Corbis, via Getty Images

This week, Israelis and Egyptians commemorate the signing 40 years ago of the Camp David Accords, the agreement that led to the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state. Through this peace deal, Egypt secured the return of the Sinai Peninsula, which it had lost in the 1967 War, and Israel neutralized its military threat from the southwest while gaining crucial recognition in the Middle East.

Americans will no doubt take pride in this anniversary, recalling their role in mediating the negotiations that led to the accords, which are still regarded as the leading diplomatic achievement of Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

For Palestinians, however, this anniversary is a painful reminder of their political disenfranchisement. Although born of a genuine effort by the Carter administration to address their fate, Camp David instead hamstrung Palestinians’ aspirations for statehood and left them under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, stripped of basic rights like the freedom of movement.

My exploration of recently declassified archives in Jerusalem, in London and across the United States shows how, largely because of the work of Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel, the Egyptian-Israeli peace came at the expense of Palestinian self-determination. This was a missed opportunity that set the course for the political stalemate in the Middle East today.

Mr. Carter’s goal was never just for a separate peace between Israel and Egypt. He was the first American president to openly call for a Palestinian “homeland.” Early in his administration, he began developing plans to achieve a comprehensive resolution between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

His administration had formulated a secret blueprint that was premised on Israeli territorial withdrawal from land conquered in 1967, as well as adjudicating the status of Jerusalem and addressing the right of return for Palestinian refugees displaced in 1948. It was an early iteration of what would later be called a “two-state solution.” While the Palestinian component was limited to a “homeland” that was possibly linked to Jordan, rather than an independent state, the Carter administration’s vision could have ultimately led to sovereignty for the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

To this end, Mr. Carter strongly opposed Israeli expansion in the territory where a Palestinian homeland might be created and advocated direct talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which at the time was moving from armed struggle toward diplomatic engagement.

Mr. Carter’s positions rankled Israel and many of its most stalwart supporters in the United States. But the approach evoked sympathy and interest from Arab leaders — especially President Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt, who was a vocal advocate on behalf of the Palestinians and who wanted to recover Egyptian territory and shift his country’s alliance from the Soviet Union to the United States.

While Mr. Sadat was initially eager to support Mr. Carter’s plans for a revival of a regional peace conference, his impatience with the Arab divisions and Israeli negotiating tactics led to his unilateral decision to visit Jerusalem in 1977 in an effort to resuscitate talks. In so doing, he broke with the wider Arab world and inadvertently set in motion the possibility of a narrower bilateral peace.

At a time when the Middle East seemed finally poised for a regional settlement, bringing an end to three decades of war and settling the issue of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, Mr. Begin, Israel’s new right-wing leader, had other plans as well. In parallel, both leaders hindered a major breakthrough based on Washington’s blueprint.

Israel had its own ideas

Mr. Begin had long stressed the impossibility of a Palestinian state. His views on the central importance for the Jewish people of “Judea and Samaria” — using the biblical term for the territories of the West Bank — were well known. After he was elected in May 1977, becoming the first prime minister from the right-wing Likud party, he declared he would “encourage settlements, both rural and urban, on the land of the homeland.”

The Sinai was another story. Israel had captured the peninsula from Egypt in 1967, but though the territory was a welcome strategic buffer, it held none of the religious appeal of the West Bank. Mr. Begin indicated early on a clear willingness to withdraw forces substantially in the Sinai as part of a peace deal with Egypt; the West Bank and Gaza Strip were never part of his negotiations.

These “peace principles” were made clear to Mr. Carter during Mr. Begin’s first visit to the White House. “Concerning Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip our position is that we shall not place them under any foreign rule or sovereignty,” Mr. Begin said, according to newly declassified Israeli records.

The American government believed it could reconcile these clashing views on territory by drawing a distinction between Israel’s opening position and the final outcome of negotiations with Mr. Sadat in late 1977 and 1978. It did not count on the Egyptian leader undercutting Palestinian demands in the process.

Mr. Begin also put forward his own ideas to address this divergence of views, encapsulated in his extensive “Home Rule for Palestinian Arabs, Residents of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza District.” Instead of allowing for collective self-determination, Israel would retain the territories acquired in 1967 while promising local authority for elected Arab officials to guide decisions in areas like commerce, education, health and transport. At its heart, Mr. Begin’s offer of autonomy was couched in benevolent language but predicated on the denial of self-determination for Palestinians.

The negotiations between Mr. Carter, Mr. Sadat and Mr. Begin took place during a 13-day-long summit that concluded with the signing of the Camp David Accords on Sept. 17, 1978. Although the preparatory memos written by the Americans had clearly established the desire for Israeli territorial withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza and a moratorium on settlement construction, the accords ended up securing Mr. Begin’s narrow vision of a peace agreement focused on Egypt alone.

The newly declassified sources illustrate how, in a formidable exercise of statecraft, Israel’s prime minister detached the Palestinian issue from the overall proceedings, without substantive opposition from Mr. Sadat and with Mr. Carter’s implicit understanding of a diminished outcome: The Israeli delegation deployed deliberate legal ambiguities on the Palestinian issue and limited the extent of a settlement freeze. Any reference to self-determination was also excluded; United Nations Resolution 242, which called on Israel to withdraw from the territories occupied in 1967, was not applied to “all fronts of the conflict”; and there was no retreat on the Israeli claim to sovereignty in Jerusalem.

Israel’s imprint was evident in the final text of the accords, where Palestinian concerns were relegated to a separate agreement, “A Framework for Peace in the Middle East.” Building on Mr. Begin’s autonomy plan, it introduced a transitional arrangement for limited self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that was vague about territorial or political control. A second agreement, the “Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty Between Egypt and Israel,” paved the way for an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty six months later.

The pursuit of a peace deal with Egypt had become a means to avoid peace with the Palestinians.

Many realized at the time that the Camp David summit would allow the Begin government to consolidate Israel’s hold on the West Bank and Gaza, and they spoke out forcefully against Mr. Sadat’s concessions. Mohammed Kamel, Egypt’s foreign minister, boycotted the signing ceremony and resigned from office. The P.L.O. announced its “total rejection” of the accords soon after they were signed, warning of an “open plot” against Palestinian rights. Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, later described the autonomy idea as “no more than managing the sewers.”

Shortly after the 1979 ratification of the peace treaty, “autonomy talks” between representatives of Egypt, Israel and the United States began, ostensibly to deal with Palestinian self-rule. These discussions were abandoned on the eve of the 1982 Lebanon War, but they nonetheless became the basis of limited self-rule for Palestinians. Their imprint was eventually evident in the emergence of the Palestinian National Authority after the 1993 Oslo Accords. By conditioning Palestinian political rights on a narrowly functional, nonterritorial definition of autonomy alongside continued Israeli settlement expansion, the possibility of sovereignty was severely undermined.

40 years later

Having sacrificed a great deal of political capital on the Middle East, Mr. Carter was bitterly disappointed with the failure of a broader effort on the Palestinian front. “I don’t see how they can continue as an occupying power depriving the Palestinians of basic human rights, and I don’t see how they can absorb three million more Arabs into Israel without letting the Jews become a minority in their own country,” he said during his final meeting with Israel’s ambassador in Washington. “Begin showed courage in giving up the Sinai. He did it to keep the West Bank.”

Four decades later, Mr. Carter’s words seem prescient. The Palestinian quest for self-determination remains unfulfilled. In paving the way for Oslo, Camp David actually enabled the triumph of an Israeli vision that empowers a sub-sovereign Palestinian Authority to help manage the occupation.

Without an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, Palestinians are confronting renewed efforts by Israeli leaders to undermine the possibility of meaningful sovereignty. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has endorsed a “state minus.” Naftali Bennett, Israel’s education minister and an influential politician, has called for “autonomy on steroids” to be administered in the West Bank, specifying “self-rule” with a focus on limited control over “water, sewage, electricity, infrastructure and so on.”

The echo of Menachem Begin is clear, this time with active support from the American government. While commemorating the key breakthrough leading to a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, we might therefore consider Camp David’s more troubling legacy: a crucial step in the perpetuation of Palestinian statelessness.

Seth Anziska is a lecturer in Jewish-Muslim Relations at University College London and the author of Preventing Palestine: A Political History From Camp David to Oslo.

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