This month marks the 40th anniversary of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s historic trip to Jerusalem to meet directly with Israel’s leaders. A week and a half after announcing his willingness to travel to Israel to make peace — a stunning gesture, given that no Arab nation recognized Israel’s existence — Sadat journeyed to Jerusalem at the invitation of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
Sadat’s brief visit, vividly beamed around the world, set in motion a chain of events leading to the Camp David Accords of 1978 and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979. Both agreements, brokered by President Jimmy Carter, committed Egypt to make peace with Israel in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from occupied Egyptian territory. The agreements were hailed in the West as major breakthroughs, but they aroused bitter condemnation of Sadat throughout the Arab world.
Today, many Americans celebrate Sadat’s Jerusalem trip as an act of courage and statesmanship that powerfully advanced the cause of Arab-Israeli peace. Sadat’s assassination in 1981, by Egyptian soldiers partly motivated by opposition to his overtures to Israel, only heightens his heroic stature in American eyes.
Yet courageous though they may have been, Sadat’s actions actually harmed the overall Arab-Israeli peace process more than they helped. They fatally undermined a preexisting initiative to achieve a comprehensive Middle East settlement, replacing it with a narrower peace process that ultimately doomed Israel, the Palestinians and other Arab nations to decades more of conflict.
Though it is largely forgotten today, the celebrated bilateral Egyptian-Israeli agreements fell short of President Carter’s original diplomatic objective. Throughout his first year in office, Carter pursued a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute. He sought to convene an international conference in Geneva attended by Israel, all of its main Arab adversaries (including a Palestinian delegation) and the U.S.S.R.
Carter and his advisers hoped to broker an agreement under which Israel withdrew from virtually all of the Arab territory captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and acceded to the establishment of a Palestinian “homeland,” perhaps federated with Jordan, in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In return, the Arab states and the Palestinians would recognize and make peace with Israel. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, Israel and its Arab adversaries, including the mainstream factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), expressed their willingness to cooperate with this initiative.
Although all of the Middle Eastern parties found things to dislike in Carter’s plan, the Arab actors were more positive about it. They were eager to end Israel’s occupation of the lands captured during the 1967 war, and they had begun to reconcile themselves to coexisting with Israel, however grudgingly. Carter’s initiative offered the opportunity to make the best of an intolerable situation.
The Israelis were much warier of the U.S. scheme, fearing it would force them to relinquish more territory than they deemed acceptable and to accommodate demands for Palestinian statehood, a most unwelcome prospect. They also criticized Carter’s willingness to involve the Soviet Union, a sharp diplomatic adversary of Israel, in the peace process. Israel’s stance hardened further in May 1977, when Menachem Begin of the right-wing Likud bloc was elected prime minister. Yet even under Begin’s leadership, and despite a growing list of Israeli reservations about the U.S. plan, Israel continued to express a willingness to take part in it.
In the fall of 1977, however, Carter’s Geneva scheme ran into serious trouble. The U.S. and Soviet governments issued a joint communique outlining the core objectives for the conference: a land-for-peace exchange between Israel and its Arab neighbors and a resolution of the Palestinian issue that respected “the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.”
The communique provoked a firestorm of protest from the Israeli government and pro-Israel Americans. These critics blasted Carter for so conspicuously legitimating a Soviet role in Arab-Israeli diplomacy and for countenancing the phrase “legitimate rights” in connection with the Palestinians. Such language, charged the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, amounted to “code-words for Israel’s destruction.”
Carter reassured the Israelis that acceptance of the communique was not a prerequisite for taking part in the Geneva Conference. He also authorized changes to the conference’s ground rules that limited the scope of Palestinian participation. These moves, however, prompted Syrian and PLO protests and threats to stay away from the conference unless Carter rescinded the concessions.
Against this unsettled backdrop, Sadat stunned the world with his historic announcement. Publicly, Sadat portrayed his visit to Israel as an effort to salvage the Geneva initiative. Only a dramatic move of this magnitude, he claimed, could break the psychological impasse between Israelis and Arabs and compel all parties to set aside their procedural squabbling and advance to the conference.
Privately, however, Sadat was ambivalent about the Geneva Conference. He worried that the forceful demands of other Arab delegations would limit Egypt’s freedom of action. His primary concern was securing the return of the Sinai Peninsula, and if his flight to Jerusalem scuttled the conference, so be it. At least under that scenario, Egypt could conduct streamlined bilateral negotiations with Israel.
Still, Sadat apparently hoped that any resulting bilateral agreement would contain general language committing Israel to an eventual withdrawal from the other occupied territories. That way, he could claim to have guarded broader Arab interests even as he forged ahead to recover Egyptian territory.
Jerusalem was indeed the death knell of Geneva. In unilaterally deciding to make the trip, Sadat defied two widely accepted principles of inter-Arab diplomacy. The first was that no direct engagement with Israel should occur as long as it continued to occupy Arab lands. The second was that, if any negotiations did take place, the Arabs should conduct them collectively rather than individually.
Sadat’s Jerusalem trip was widely condemned in the Arab world. In response, Egypt broke diplomatic relations with several Arab governments. Publicly, Sadat acted as if everyone would still be going to Geneva, but the uproar he had provoked made this scenario increasingly unlikely. With some reluctance, the Carter administration indefinitely postponed its plans for a conference and embraced the new Egyptian-Israeli dialogue.
After 13 days of arduous negotiations at Camp David in September 1978, Sadat and Begin, with Carter’s indispensable mediation, reached an agreement. It would be formalized in an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in March 1979. Egypt extended formal recognition to Israel in exchange for Israel’s relinquishing of the Sinai Peninsula.
Sadat did try to secure a firm Israeli commitment to withdraw, at some later date, from the remaining occupied territories and to grapple seriously with the Palestinian issue. But Begin, determined to maintain Israeli possession of the occupied territories, adamantly resisted such linkage, and Carter, though sympathetic to Sadat’s position, was increasingly reluctant to pressure Israel. The closest the parties came to tackling broader issues was an amorphous set of understandings on Palestinian autonomy that, in the end, did nothing to loosen Israel’s grip on the Palestinian territories.
Today, the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel is widely hailed as a major diplomatic breakthrough, ending the conflict between Israel and the most powerful and influential Arab country and laying a sound basis for broader peace efforts.
But one could just as easily contend that Camp David impeded, rather than aided, the quest for a comprehensive Middle East peace. Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula, but it continued to occupy the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights.
With Egypt out of the conflict, Israel no longer had to worry about military pressure from the southwest and was able to consolidate its occupation elsewhere. After leaving the presidency, Carter himself lamented that the treaty “removed Egypt’s considerable strength from the military equation of the Middle East and thus gave the Israelis renewed freedom to pursue their goals of fortifying and settling the occupied territories.” Basically satisfied with the status quo, Israel had little incentive to bargain seriously with its remaining Arab adversaries — though the peace process would resume in later decades and even produce some breakthroughs in the 1990s.
We will never know whether Carter’s original diplomatic project, if allowed to run its course, would have yielded positive results. But we can say with certainty that Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem prematurely derailed the comprehensive effort, leaving bilateral diplomacy as the only option for the foreseeable future. Considering the unsatisfying results that bilateralism has produced, Sadat’s decision looks more tragic than visionary.