Last week, national security adviser John Bolton announced the closure of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) office in Washington. This came on top of President Trump’s decision to cancel U.S. funding of the United Nations aid program for Palestinian refugees. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat responded angrily to the news, accusing Trump and his administration of “destroying the two-state solution.”
But as we look back at the 40th anniversary of the Camp David Accords this week, it’s worth remembering that U.S. efforts to thwart an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza are not unique to this administration. Their roots were firmly planted during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Carter’s decisions cleared the way for Israel to expand its grip over the Palestinian territories and impeded the dream of a comprehensive and lasting peace between Arabs and Israelis.
The accords, which were signed by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin after 13 days of grueling negotiations with Carter at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, are frequently celebrated for ending 30 years of hostilities between these two neighbors. It was the first time the Israelis had agreed to withdraw from Arab territory since the Six-Day War in 1967, and it brought with it normal diplomatic, economic and cultural relations with Egypt, the most populous state in the Arab world. Sadat and Begin shared the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize for their historic achievement.
Less understood about the Camp David summit, however, is how the Carter administration abandoned its support for Palestinian self-determination, blocked the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank and perpetuated the indefinite Israeli occupation of the occupied Palestinian territories — policies that continue to this day.
This was a remarkable retreat for a president who viewed the Palestinians, like black southerners during the era of segregation, as “victims of injustice” and who had pledged to adopt “a more ambitious American approach” to the region to ensure that Palestinian rights were recognized as part of any solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“Since I had made our nation’s commitment to human rights a central tenet of our foreign policy,” he later wrote, “it was impossible for me to ignore the very serious problems on the West Bank. The continued deprivation of Palestinian rights was not only used as the primary lever against Israel, but was contrary to the basic moral and ethical principles of both our countries.”
As a sign of this commitment, in March 1977, Carter came out publicly in favor of a “homeland” for Palestinian refugees as a “prerequisite” to any Arab-Israeli peace settlement, something no previous president had ever done. During his first meeting with Begin, four months later, he made it clear that no comprehensive settlement could be accomplished that did not provide self-determination for the Palestinian people.
But after a year of negotiations and a serious domestic political hit for calling for a Palestinian “homeland,” Carter withdrew his support for Palestinian self-determination. Instead, he grudgingly endorsed Begin’s “self-rule” plan for the West Bank and Gaza. The plan called for Arab residents of these territories to elect an administrative council that would govern the daily affairs of Palestinians, while leaving Israel in charge of security in these areas. Begin’s plan was a clever way to ensure Israel would retrain sovereignty over the these areas in perpetuity, offering the Palestinians some autonomy over their daily lives but not full control over their borders.
By the time he arrived at Camp David in September 1978, Carter had fully abandoned any pretense of support for Palestinian statehood. In his personal notes written before his first meetings with Sadat and Begin, the president admitted his plan was to get the parties to accept a “common definition of peace” that would ensure “no independent Palestinian State” and provide the participation of only “West Bank Arabs” in a future Palestinian government. This formulation was a clear indication that officials from the PLO, who resided outside of the West Bank, would be excluded from any involvement.
Throughout the summit, the Egyptians repeatedly pressed U.S. and Israeli officials to modify their positions and agree to language that would allow the Palestinian people to “exercise their fundamental right to self-determination.” But Carter could not convince the Israelis to budge, and eventually the parties agreed to accords falling short of this commitment.
In fact, the Camp David accords deliberately contained no mention of “self-determination” for the Palestinians, and the agreements purposefully excluded relevant elements of United Nations Resolution 242, passed after the 1967 war. This decision fundamentally altered the Carter administration’s position that Israel should withdraw from the occupied Palestinian territories subject to minor border adjustments.
Why did Carter abandon the Palestinians at Camp David? In part, the president simply acquiesced to Begin’s rigid belief that the West Bank and Gaza were integral parts of the land of Israel. But Carter also — understandably — wanted the summit to succeed. Its participants' inclusion, therefore, played a role. If concessions had to be made to ensure Israel’s participation in any agreement, it was far more likely that they would be made over further arrangements for the West Bank and Gaza, not the Sinai Peninsula, because Palestinians were not represented at the summit. Egypt cared far more about its own territory than about the Palestinians.
After he left the presidency, Carter reemerged as a champion of Palestinian statehood. But the damage to the Palestinians had already been done. In his 1985 book “The Blood of Abraham,” Carter admitted that by lending his support to the Camp David framework, U.S. and Israeli leaders successfully “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 and removing perceived threats by preemptive military strikes against some of their neighbors.”
Carter would later receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his decades of work to resolve conflicts through mediation, international cooperation and respect for human rights, with the Camp David Accords as chief among the reasons he deserved such recognition. But it is hard to ignore that his administration’s policies toward the Palestinians came up well short in protecting their rights, leaving a stain on his larger human rights record.
As Palestinians continue to struggle for these rights, and as Trump appears ready to abandon the two-state solution and further Israel’s grip over the West Bank, it serves as a useful reminder that the seeds of these policies were planted at Camp David.