Israel, Egypt, the Palestinians, and the Legacy of the Camp David Accords, 40 Years Later


Sept. 17, 2018, marks the 40th anniversary of the Camp David Accords and the historic peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.

In 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat steered Cairo’s policy on Israeli relations in a new direction, abandoning its intent to destroy the young nation. In a surprising move, Sadat flew to Israel to show his willingness to negotiate for peace. Shortly after that visit, U.S. President Jimmy Carter invited Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to Camp David to help facilitate negotiations. The two leaders accepted. Begin wanted American oversight to pressure Egypt into a fair deal and Sadat wanted American aid as a reward for the deal. They both wanted help to end the cycle of war.

In 1978, after a dozen days of negotiating at Camp David, two documents emerged — the Framework for Peace in the Middle East agreed at Camp David and the Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel. The Framework for Peace in the Middle East agreed at Camp David aimed to materialize U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338 and contained three specific sections.

The first section — “West Bank and Gaza”— called for negotiations on the resolution of the Palestinian problem, specifically relating to the West Bank and Gaza territories. A subsequent letter from Begin and Sadat to Carter, reveals that the parties indeed intended for the agreement to apply to both the West Bank and Gaza territories. The framework laid out three stages for the negotiations.

First, transitional arrangements were to be made, whereby an autonomous Palestinian entity would be established in the West Bank and Gaza. The agreement unilaterally volunteered Jordan as a future negotiator of this transitional arrangement. The transition was not to exceed five years, with Israeli troops withdrawing after the inhabitants elected a self-governing authority.

In the next stage, Egypt, Israel, and Jordan would agree on the mode to establish the elected self-governing authority, determining its powers and limits. The agreement stated that Egypt and Jordan may include Palestinians in their delegations. The future arrangement would also include a method for maintaining security and public order, including a local police force (which may include Jordanians) and Israeli-Jordanian joint patrols at border points.

The third stage clarified that the transitional five-year period would begin after the establishment of the self-governing authority. Thereafter, negotiations would commence no later than the third year among Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and elected representatives of the West Bank and Gaza to decide the status of the territories and to conclude an Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty by the end of the transitional period. Notably, the agreement required that the solution from the negotiations “recognize the legitimate right of the Palestinian peoples.”

This first section of the framework also assured that appropriate steps would be taken to protect Israel during the transitional period and thereafter, including the establishment of the local police force by the self-governing authority. The agreement also called for a committee with representatives from Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and the self-governing authority to establish an admission process for persons displaced from the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. Additionally, Egypt and Israel agreed to cooperate, along with others, to establish a system to resolve the refugee problem.

However, this section, detailed though it was, did not address the issue of Jerusalem’s status, as well as the Palestinians’ claimed right of return. However, separate letters exchanged on September 17, 1978 between Sadat and begin, and President Carter, have indeed addressed the status of Jerusale,. Sadat wrote: “…Arab Jerusalem is an integral part of the West Bank. Legal and historical Arab rights in the City must be respected and restored… Arab Jerusalem should be under Arab sovereignty.” Begin wrote “…the Government of Israel decreed in July 1967 that Jerusalem is one city indivisible, the Capital of the State of Israel.” Also, for all its verbiage, little attention was paid to specific arrangements and logistical planning outside of a five-year deadline. And it laid out no monitoring mechanism for implementation. Nevertheless, there was a certain effort to implement it.

The Cabinet Committee for the Autonomy Negotiations, headed by Israeli Minister of the Interior and Religious Affairs Yosef Burg, began in 1979 to work with American and Egyptian negotiators to materialize this section. During these negotiations, the United States proposed a resolution in the United Nations to force the participation of Palestinians in these negotiations. Surprisingly, Israel and Egypt jointly opposed the action, raising the question about the motives of the framework in the first place. Even so, Palestinian leaders wanted no part of a deal they had not been a part of creating. After a series of setbacks — including and especially the Israeli-Lebanese war in 1982 — Egypt refused to move forward and the committee dissolved. Due to the lack of logistical details and the absence of indispensable parties, this first section remained largely theoretical. Moreover, the Palestinians had no sense of ownership over an agreement in which they had not had a voice and, thus, had no incentive, authority, or power to implement it.

The second major section of the framework — “Egypt-Israel”— committed Israel and Egypt to negotiate a peace treaty between themselves, and the final section — “Associated Principles” — encouraged other states to also conclude peace with Israel. The second section — calling for peace between Israel and Egypt — was probably the main reason Egypt entered negotiations. The first section regarding the West Bank and Gaza was the façade Egypt used to justify such negotiations to its Arab neighbors.

However, the cause of the Palestinians had been the rallying cry of the Arab world. If there were no sovereign Palestinian entity, there would be no deals between Israel and other Arab states, period. Thus, to the Arab world, Sadat’s peace with Israel prior to solidifying Palestinian autonomy was a betrayal of their Palestinian brothers, one which threw Palestinians under the bus while making Egypt look like a hero to the West. Despite this, and the failure of the West Bank/Gaza section to materialize, the Camp David Accords set the political climate, as well as the conceptual framework, for a future deal. If nothing else, Sadat’s move destroyed the notion that Arab and Israeli leaders could never agree on anything.

Nine years later, in late 1987, the first intifada revealed the reality of how split the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was, with central PLO leadership only able to indirectly influence the events while new local leadership began to emerge. To unify Palestinians, the PLO proclaimed its declaration of independence from exile in Algiers the following year. It thereby reinforced the notion of a Palestinian state before one even existed, thus creating a tension of political theory — a people that were a legal, autonomous body without having a legitimately recognized state. While not solving the greater need for a central Palestinian state or government, the declaration set the stage for future negotiations by bringing the Palestinian people under a recognized leadership with which Israel might negotiate. However, Israel still labeled the PLO as a terrorist group with which it would not negotiate, at least until the Madrid Conference.

The Madrid Conference of 1991 was President George H.W. Bush’s effort to capitalize on his Gulf War victory by bringing together multiple Arab states and parties, including Israeli and Palestinian representation (Israel refused to attend if the PLO participated). The immediate, visible results of the conference were slim. However, it succeeded in laying the groundwork for a number of bilateral and multilateral conversations between states aimed at eventually reaching peace in the Middle East. By the end of the conference, Israel finally declassified the PLO as a terrorist group. This opened the door for future talks between the two, culminating in the Oslo Accords in 1993.

Possibly influenced by the Camp David Accords, the Oslo Accords similarly set up a five-year deadline for a complete settlement of the status of the West Bank and Gaza. Learning from the Camp David Accords, the Oslo Accords took an even more incremental approach to reaching a full agreement instead of insisting on an instant change. Correcting mistakes of the Camp David Accords, Palestinians actually participated in Oslo, and the agreement established detailed implementation mechanisms. However, the core issues of Jerusalem, refugees, security arrangements, and territory continued to remain untouched until future negotiations on Permanent Status.

Significantly, the 1995 Interim Agreement as part of the Oslo Accords finally created a self-governing body for the Palestinian people — the Palestinian Authority — to govern the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. As with the 1978 Camp David Accords, Israeli troops were to withdraw from those territories, as the Palestinian Authority took control over the territories.

Despite these incremental successes in Oslo, peace remains elusive. Yet, although the success of the Oslo Accords is contested, the framework used in the negotiations, created at Camp David in 1978, was vital to the talks happening at all.

Forty years since Camp David, all central players are still present — except the Palestinians have moved onto the stage from behind curtain, and Jordan has stepped back from representing them. That happened with the signing of the Oslo Accords, providing mutual recognition and a goal, yet to be attained, to separate Israel and the Palestinians into two distinct national entities through negotiations. Such an agreement, if pursued diligently, implemented to the letter, and finalized into Permanent Status, would make Israel the Jewish democracy it set out to be and provide freedom and statehood for the Palestinians, with the two nations co-existing in peace with each other. And it would restore the United States’ influence in the Middle East.

Jordan followed Egypt in signing a peace treaty with Israel, and both agreements still hold — 24 and 40 years later, respectively. Both countries have been involved in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations several times since, and Egypt has been the main facilitator for Fatah-Hamas reconciliation talks and the broker of a number of domestic Palestinian unity arrangements. All of them have failed to date.

The United States has remained the most substantively engaged facilitator for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations throughout these four decades: the Madrid Conference in 1991 during George H.W. Bush’s administration and the subsequent multilateral talks throughout Bill Clinton’s presidency; including the Oslo process in 1993–95, the Hebron Protocol in 1997, Wye River in 1998, the Sharm el-Sheikh memoranda in 1999, the Camp David summit and the Clinton Parameters in 2000; the Road Map and the Annapolis Conference and talks in 2003, and 2007–08, respectively under George W. Bush; and the 2013–14 peace talks under Barack Obama.

In Israel, since the signing of the Camp David Accords, four Prime Ministers, following Menachem Begin’s footsteps, have understood that division of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea into two distinct and separate national entities, Israel and a Palestinian one, is imperative. Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Olmert all took steps in that direction. All five leaders were ready to take actions to attain such a reality and bear the risks of doing so.

Currently, both sides’ leaderships today lack the will to pursue peace and are averse to taking the risks requited.

Today, getting out of the political deadlock and preserving the conditions for an eventual two-states-for-two-peoples solution requires a proactive approach and a binding, continuous, and gradual process led by the United States. The parties should at least seek to delineate provisional boundaries along, say, the security fence in the West Bank, incorporating the major settlement blocks, thereby reversing the current trend leading towards a disastrous single bi-national state. The United States should simultaneously promote tangible progress on the ground, enabling bottoms-up improvements to sustain any political dialogue.

For this to happen, the parties should differentiate between the main settlement blocks plus the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and the remote settlements outside the main blocks and east of the security fence. While about 80 percent of the settlers reside in the former and are likely to be incorporated within the final borders of Israel under any arrangement, the remote settlements comprise roughly 100,000 Israeli settlers who are likely to be relocated if a final agreement is ultimately attained.

Forty years on, it is time to change two key negotiation dynamics. One, replace the “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” formula with “Whatever is agreed or mutually coordinated is implemented.” Two, abandon the “bilateral negotiation-exclusive paradigm” and add regional dialogue within the framework of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and constructive independent steps by Israelis and Palestinians.

Finally, after reflecting on the hard work, compassion, and determination Jimmy Carter needed to achieve a framework for peace in Camp David in 1978, I would offer the following advice to President Donald Trump.

Since December 2017, in a tour de force, the U.S. president has hit the Palestinian cause with a series of blows. While some of the measures are justifiable, they lack coherence, substance and context. Moreover, they do not provide alternatives, specifically to cutting funds related to education, welfare, and healthcare in the Palestinian Territories.

What is bad for Palestinians is not automatically good for Israel or the United States, and the collapse of the Palestinian Authority might well backfire on both Israel and the United States. Israel and the Palestinians need the Trump administration’s hands-on assistance, not a blitz of symbolic and financial actions that strangle the Palestinians and evoke rejoicing by short-sighted Israelis. Both parties need the United States to lead a balanced, continuous, and binding process that provides both sides with the long-term goal of two nation-states and the practical means for reaching it.

The Camp David Accord, despite its flaws, left a viable framework, addressing both the West Bank and Gaza, that remains vital today for negotiations towards an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. It must be based on the principle of two-states-for-two-peoples. From an Israeli perspective, that principle is indispensable to the ultimate realization of a secure and democratic nation-state of the Jewish People, consistent with the Zionist vision.

As was the case 40 years ago, making a deal remains subject to the willingness of the respective parties, as well as the resolve and vision of their — and America’s — leaders.


Gilead Sher, a former Israeli senior peace negotiator who was Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Ehud Barak, is co-founder of the Israeli NGO Blue White Future and heads the Center for Applied Negotiations at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Image: Wikimedia Commons