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1978 Camp David Summit
By Brian Fitzgerald
It seems like a simple concept: take three leaders, bring them to the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md., and see if they can reach a peace accord. But as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and former U.S. President Bill Clinton discovered last year, an agreement isn't guaranteed.
Another Camp David summit, however, this one almost 23 years ago, reached a historic land-for-peace accord. Why were the 1978 negotiations successful? On April 9, Hermann Fr. Eilts, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and a professor emeritus at BU, recalled his experiences during the far-from-placid negotiations. The Road to Camp David and the Beginning of the Arab-Israeli Peace Process: A Personal Reminiscence, was the 2001 Inaugural Lecture in the Witness to History Series, sponsored by the International History Institute at BU.
Eilts served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt from 1973 to 1979, "during an important transitional period in American history, when this country was becoming actively involved in the search for a permanent solution for the conflict in the Middle East between the state of Israel and its Arab neighbors," said CAS History Department Chairman William Keylor, who introduced Eilts.
Entering the negotiations, Eilts had had plenty of practice as a diplomat. He joined the foreign service in 1947, and for the next 32 years focused almost exclusively on the Middle East during his assignments at overseas posts and at the State Department. He knew the nuances of the politics in that region; he knew that Israel and Egypt wanted peace. But he also recognized that a history of war between the two countries, along with the deep suspicions of their leaders, could scuttle the negotiations.
Eilts reminded those assembled in the SMG Auditorium that since World War II, "no problem has been more enduring than the Arab-Israeli conflict." After four wars during 30 years, including the Yom Kippur War in 1973 -- in which Egypt attacked Israel -- the prospect for any kind of settlement between Arabs and Israelis looked bleak to many in the 1970s. But, Eilts said, the Yom Kippur War, which Israel won, was a watershed event because it convinced Egypt that attacking Israel would be futile, even with the help of other Arab states, such as Syria. In 1974, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had succeeded in getting a partial Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel had captured from Egypt in the Six-Day War in 1967.
Then, in 1977, Egyptian Prime Minister Anwar Sadat made his historic visit to Jerusalem, where he was warmly welcomed. "It was the first time an Arab leader had visited Jerusalem," said Eilts. "The visit went fairly well," even though the Palestinians and the other Arab states condemned him for the trip -- and his peace effort was the reason Islamic extremists assassinated him in 1981. Six weeks later, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin visited Ismailia, Egypt. "He gave Sadat two documents," said Eilts. "One was a document on a tentative Egyptian-Israeli peace, the other was a document dealing with the Palestinians, offering autonomy -- whatever autonomy might be. Autonomy is a very elastic word." But Sadat was dissatisfied. After several failed meetings in 1978, the situation deteriorated. On July 30, 1978, a flash cable from Eilts informed President Jimmy Carter that a furious Sadat had said he was at the end of his patience. Carter decided that it was time for a summit, and that day he invited both leaders to Camp David.
"Some of us were not convinced that the time was right for a summit," said Eilts. "The gaps between the parties were so great; you don't risk a summit, you don't risk your president getting involved unless the area of disagreement has been narrowed to a point in which there is a reasonable chance of bridging the gap. Nevertheless, Carter decided to have the summit."
Both Begin and Sadat were disillusioned. Eilts recalled, "Sadat told me, 'Tell President Carter I want a confrontation, because everything I've done, including the trip to Jerusalem -- which has cost me so much in the Arab world, [Begin] does not appreciate.' Mr. Begin, feeling he was being pressured by President Carter, was equally uneasy."
The summit took place from September 5 to September 17. It was not an easy process. "On the first day, Carter called Sadat and Begin together, and he asked Sadat to read the Egyptian proposal," said Eilts. Sadat did. But Begin became angrier by the minute. "Carter said, 'It's time to take a break. Let's sleep on this and meet again tomorrow morning.' The following morning, the first thing Mr. Begin said was, 'If that is to be the basis for negotiations, it's unacceptable.' This brought an immediate response from President Sadat." Eilts recalls Sadat pointing to Begin and saying, " 'That man is the one who does not appreciate my effort in going to Jerusalem and trying to break down the psychological barrier between us.' The fireworks were about to begin. Carter very wisely adjourned the meeting."
Eilts called the negotiations "a painful effort." But after 13 fitful days, the summit ended with the signing of two agreements at the White House. The first dealt with the future of the Israeli-occupied Sinai Peninsula and peace between Israel and Egypt, which was to be concluded in three months. Israel agreed to withdraw its settlements in Sinai. The second was a framework agreement to establish a format for the conduct of negotiations leading to the formation of an autonomous regime in the West Bank and Gaza.
Still, subsequent talks between Egypt and Israel to implement the accords quickly broke down. In March of 1979, Carter flew to the Middle East and spent a week shuttling between the two countries before finally gaining a peace accord, which was signed on March 29. The agreement regarding the future of the West Bank and Gaza territories was interpreted differently by Israel, Egypt, and the United States, but the consensus is that it provides a foundation for peace.
"In the last quarter-century," said Eilts, "it is still the only successful major international conference which an American president presided over."