Essays on Arab-Israeli conflict

The events that brought Egypt and Israel together in 1977 seemed surprising at the time, but in retrospect they were merely the best moves available to the two players, given the strategy of each. Carter’s push for a new Geneva round inadvertently caused the interests of Sadat and Begin to coincide for the first time, and they took advantage of that opportunity.

Sadat’s opening move was his historic trip to Jerusalem to speak before the Knesset on November 19-21, 1977. In doing so, he officially recognized Israel, a step no Arab state had yet taken and one that was sure to be opposed by many Egyptians. Because of its historic and symbolic value, opening diplomatic channels with Israel was one of the most powerful trump cards that Sadat held at this time. Thus, the trip was a dangerous gambit for him because he was giving up much bargaining leverage without being certain of a worthwhile payoff.

It is instructive to look at why Sadat made this move. He was worried about the possibility of another Geneva conference for two reasons: 1) he did not want to deal with the Soviets and 2) he was afraid that Egypt’s desire to regain control of the Sinai would be eclipsed by other pan-Arab interests (Touval 288). Sadat felt that Egypt’s power in the Arab world was eroding, and his strategy focused in part on reasserting its leadership role. To achieve this goal, he could not afford to be obstructionist and damage Egypt’s 3
relationship with the United States. So the best strategy facing Sadat was to work bilaterally with Israel and head off the Geneva process.

Sadat knew very well that Arab fundamentalists would criticize him for working with Israel. But he also realized that the more dramatic his move, the more it could galvanize support for the peace process. Furthermore, he knew that public opinion is swayed more by symbolic gestures than by political arguments or secret deals. He thus took a calculated risk that the psychological effects of a high visibility trip to Jerusalem, which would give the peace process momentum, would overpower the negative backlash expected from the Arab world (Eisenberg and Caplan 39). The gamble paid off. Sadat’s well-publicized visit and passionate speech in the Israeli Parliament “played a crucial role in convincing Israelis of a new reality”¯ (Eisenberg and Caplan 39). Pressure immediately began to mount for Begin to take advantage of this new opportunity for peace. Meanwhile, public demonstrations in Egypt also expressed some support for the new initiative, but opinion was clearly more divided in that country (Eisenberg and Caplan 39). Nevertheless, Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem achieved its major goal, which was to create an atmosphere in which it would benefit Begin to respond with concessions of his own.


The Israelis also opposed reopening the multilateral Geneva talks for several reasons: 1) they resented the U.S. invitation to the PLO and the implication that America favored establishing a sovereign Palestinian entity, 2) they distrusted the Soviets, and 3) they feared isolation with so many Arab states at the table (Touval 287). So their interest at the time in heading off the U.S. initiative coincided perfectly with Egypt’s. Furthermore, Prime Minister Begin’s strategy for negotiating with the Arab world was to pick off individual states and make bilateral deals with them. The public pressure for a deal set off by Sadat’s visit largely served to provide political cover for continuation of this strategy. Begin found himself freer to act in Israel’s best interest without opening himself to criticism. By unilaterally recognizing Israel and opening a channel for dialogue, Sadat had played directly into Begin’s hands.

Begin’s opening move was to concede on one of Egypt’s most important priorities, control of the Sinai Peninsula. Shortly after Sadat’s visit, Israel agreed to withdraw its troops and restore Egyptian sovereignty over the disputed territory. One might question the prudence of surrendering so much this early, especially since Sadat’s unilateral concession had given Israel the bargaining advantage. But this course of action fit Begin’s strategy for two reasons. First, this issue was not as important to Israel as it was to Egypt. Much more crucial to Begin was blocking the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, so he made concessions on the Sinai to divert international attention from the other issue (Eisenberg and Caplan 31). Second, he perceived Israel and Egypt to be in competition for the favor of the United States, and since Egypt had demonstrated a willingness to work for peace it behooved Israel to do the same. In short, Begin chose his opening move to “earn credit for flexibility and cooperativeness in the eyes of the U.S. Administration, while at the same time sidestepping the Palestinian issue as much as possible”¯ (Eisenberg and Caplan 31).

Thus, one can see that the opening 4
moves made by Sadat and Begin fit their overall strategy and their desire to undercut the Geneva process.
Following these concessions, the parties conducted negotiations throughout the first half of 1978, but little progress was made towards a settlement. Fearing that the talks would dissolve completely, President Carter decided to invite Sadat and Begin to Camp David for secret meetings in September. The bargaining strategy involved in these negotiations, which ultimately led to the signing of the Camp David Accords, will be the focus of this analysis.

A. Initial Positions

There were four basic issues to deal with at Camp David: 1) a peace treaty and normalization of relations between Israel and Egypt, 2) demilitarization and removal of Israeli settlements from the Sinai, 3) linkage between these issues and the future of the West Bank and Gaza, and 4) a statement on principles, including Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territories and the right of Palestinians to self-determination (Telhami 631).

Fortunately for Sadat, Egypt’s international and domestic interests coincided and led him to one dominant strategy. The Egyptian economy had been flagging throughout the 1970’s, due in part to large defense expenditures (Eisenberg and Caplan 30). Sadat realized that recovery would depend upon both increased investment from his oil-rich Arab neighbors and reduced military spending. He could not lower the defense budget until he was sure that Israel no longer posed a threat, a guarantee that would require a peace treaty and a withdrawal of Israelis from the Sinai. These security needs could not be met without the active engagement of the United States (Stein 81-3).
Sadat’s strategy thus aimed at impressing both the Americans and the other Arab states. The former he felt could easily be achieved by continuing to demonstrate flexibility and, in the words of his Foreign Minister Muhammad Ibrahim Kamil, “expose the Israeli intransigence before the U.S. and before the world”¯ (Eisenberg and Caplan 30). The latter aim was more difficult, as Sadat had already lost some political capital with his Arab peers by recognizing Israel. To regain Arab support, he had to secure Israel’s withdrawal from all the occupied territories and to establish the right of self-determination for Palestinians. These two goals became Egypt’s bottom line at Camp David (Stein 81-3).

Israel had largely the same domestic and international considerations as Egypt, but its position at the outset of the negotiations was much different. It too was facing an economic downturn, as spiraling defense budgets were causing rampant inflation. Internationally, the Israel’s principal concern was security, and the 1973 war had 5
demonstrated that mere military superiority was not a strong enough deterrent to its Arab adversaries. Begin felt he could solve both problems simultaneously by striking a bilateral peace with Egypt. By eliminating the largest member state from the Arab coalition, Israel could afford to ratchet down defense spending while still feeling secure against potential military threats. Therefore, Begin’s bottom line was a peace treaty with Egypt and demilitarization of the Sinai, while avoiding as much linkage to the domestically volatile Palestinian question as possible. Maintaining the support of the United States was also crucial to the strategy because America was seen as the only party that could help broker and enforce such a deal (Stein 83-4).

The United States:
Though President Carter was officially only a mediator, the United States had clear interests in the negotiations that must be taken into account. Carter faced numerous opposing interests from widely varying constituencies. The influential Jewish community would only support an agreement that met all of Israel’s needs. The energy sector cared more about the U.S. relationship with the oil exporting Arab states. Corporate America in general wanted merely to avert future conflict for economic reasons (Stein, 84). However, Carter’s major interest was in salvaging his presidency. Having already sunk much political capital into the Middle East peace process and with the next presidential election just over the horizon, Carter needed to produce results. His goal was to achieve “any agreement, not necessarily an agreement that protected each side’s interests”¯ (Princen 67).

B. The Bargaining Process
The negotiations at Camp David lasted for 13 days. Each delegation had its own cabins at the Presidential retreat, and members often did not mix except during structured negotiating sessions. Furthermore, the press was excluded from the proceedings, and very little contact was maintained with the outside world. At times, many of the delegates found the intense and isolated atmosphere to be claustrophobic (Quandt 235).

The first two days consisted of each side establishing its position in separate meetings with the American delegation. President Carter was not surprised to hear an extreme position from the Israelis, but was dismayed when Sadat also presented him with a very uncompromising stance. However, because Sadat valued his personal friendship with Carter, the Egyptian leader felt that maintaining an open relationship with the Americans would best serve his interests. He therefore presented a letter to Carter on the second day outlining the concessions Egypt would be willing to accept. Disclosing his fallback position gave Carter a renewed optimism that agreement was possible, but ultimately turned out to be a strategic mistake for Sadat (Telhami, Pew Study 6).
The role that the U.S. delegation would play became clearer throughout days 3 and 4. The first trilateral meetings occurred on the third day, and personality conflicts were immediately obvious. The meetings quickly devolved into shouting matches between Begin and Sadat, and the Americans realized that the leaders “could not interact constructively on a personal level”¯ (Telhami, Pew

Study 7). From then on, the two 6
leaders were kept apart while Carter and his aides proceeded with a kind of “shuttle diplomacy,”¯ constantly moving between cabins to speak with each delegation separately. It was at this point that the Americans truly took on the role of mediators: their job was to bring the two sides together while only being able to talk with each side individually.
During days 5 through 7, the U.S. delegation played its part well. Carter and his aides began by developing a draft proposal that addressed many of the major issues at stake. Each consecutive version would be critiqued by both sides and then rewritten by the American drafters to reflect the comments (Telhami, Pew Study 8). This process achieved some initial progress on the sticky issues of the Sinai and the future of the West Bank and Gaza, but Begin was proving to be intransigent. Needing a way to galvanize the negotiations, Carter revealed to the Israelis that he had been given the Egyptian fallback position. Knowing that Carter needed an agreement and that he would offer Sadat’s concessions to keep the negotiations on track, Begin was in a powerful position. For the remainder of the negotiations, he would offer inconsequential concessions and expect Carter to respond with larger concessions on behalf of Egypt (Quandt 225).
The process reached a stalemate between days 8 and 10. The iterative drafting process had achieved as much accord as possible, and it became largely an exercise in cleaning up the language on smaller issues that had been settled. Having eliminated many of the side issues, the fundamental gap between the two sides became clear. The parties had reached an impasse on the Sinai and on the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and everyone was discouraged (Quandt 233). After another discussion between Sadat and Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan fell short of resolution late on day 10, Carter “seemed to be convinced that the Camp David talks were headed towards failure”¯ (Quandt 234).

C. Endgame
On the morning of the eleventh day, Sadat’s delegation packed their bags to leave in frustration. Though Carter was pessimistic about finalizing an agreement, he realized that his presidency would be greatly jeopardized without one. He convinced the Egyptians to stay by threatening to end the US-Egypt bilateral relationship as well as his personal friendship with Sadat (Quandt 239). Carter then shifted his strategy to be more proactive in offering incentives to overcome sticking points. The Sinai issue was at an impasse because Begin would not agree to abandon Israeli settlements and air bases there. Carter persuaded him to do so by offering both to guarantee Israel continued access to oil supplies and to build two new air bases in the Negev Desert (Touval 306-8). While he was wary of “buying peace,”¯ Carter realized that he could use America’s “vast economic and military resources [to] help to change the calculus of benefit and risk for the parties to the conflict by making bilateral commitments to them”¯ (Quandt, Political Science Quarterly 359).

By day 12, only one major issue remained outstanding: the future of the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. It was clear that no definitive resolution of this question was possible, so language was drafted to gloss over the disagreements. After a 7

long negotiation session that night, Carter failed to receive a firm commitment from Begin even on the vague, undefined language (Quandt 253). But Carter forged ahead, despite the lack of clarity on settlements, because he feared derailing the negotiation process just when a deal was in sight. While in retrospect most historians agree that leaving the settlements issue unfinished was a mistake, at the time it made sense for the sake of expedience (Quandt 253). Having bypassed that final hurdle, the three parties finalized the deal on the thirteenth day, September 17, 1978, and returned to the White House for the official signing ceremony.

Based on the evolution of the bargaining, it is not surprising that the agreement ultimately favored Israel. The two leaders signed a formal peace treaty and agreed to a phased normalization of relations that would culminate in the exchange of ambassadors. Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai settlements was linked to the timetable for this normalization. In addition, much of the Sinai territory would be demilitarized, and a UN force was created to implement this process (Eisenberg and Caplan 36).

The Accords failed to solve the dispute on the future of Palestinian self-determination. Sadat and Begin could not concur on language to address this issue, so the final document used the constructions favored by both parties, calling for the creation of a “self-governing authority (administrative council) in the West Bank and Gaza”¯ (Camp David Accords 93). This vague wording did nothing to solve the underlying disagreement. Furthermore, no timetable was specified for the development of the authority, so the Israelis were given the ability to block the process from going forward. By failing to decide the future of the Palestinians, Camp David merely perpetuated the status quo (Eisenberg and Caplan 38-9).

The outcome of the negotiations was much closer to Israel’s initial position than to Egypt’s. Begin accomplished his major goals of securing a peace treaty and demilitarization of the Sinai without sacrificing much ground on the Palestinian issue. Sadat, in contrast, gained an Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai and some other small concessions, but failed to establish Palestinian self-determination. I will now address two factors in the negotiations that help to explain their unbalanced resolution.

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