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The Camp David Accords: A Case of International Bargaining

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The Camp David Accords: A Case of International Bargaining
Shibley Telhami *
University of Maryland
September 2001

The Camp David Accords: A Case of International Bargaining (Full Text, PDF, 34 pages, 57 KB)

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The Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel, concluded with the mediation of the United States on September 17, 1978, represent a remarkable event in Middle East history. For three decades Egypt had been Israel's most avowed enemy, having fought four wars and championed the pan-Arab and Palestinian causes. A generation of Egyptians grew up knowing Israel simply as "the illegitimate Zionist enemy" that had displaced the Palestinian people. It is no wonder, then, that when President Anwar el Sadat of Egypt announced his intention to visit Jerusalem, in a gesture that led to Camp David, most people were surprised, some indeed shocked; Israelis danced in the streets in a state of euphoria. And when the accords were finally signed, the repercussions were equally dramatic: Egypt, the historical leader of the Arab world, was expelled from the Arab League, and the Egyptian people showed no great enthusiasm. The Camp David accords are thus something of a puzzle.

As a case of international bargaining, Camp David provides an unusually appropriate opportunity for examining the relative explanatory power of several causal variables. At the level of superpower and regional relations, the outcome of the Camp David process promised a substantial impact on superpower interests, the chances of war, and regional politics in the Middle East. In addition, the bargaining process, involving the highest levels of government, was so well defined (especially in its later stages), so clearly isolated, and so intensely continuous that it offers a clear insight into the effect of the art of negotiating on the final agreements.

Moreover, the striking contrasts between the systems of government in Egypt, Israel, and the United States should shed some light on the relative effects of internal structures on the process of bargaining. Finally, if personalities ever play a major role in international affairs, then surely the dominant personalities of Anwar Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin should be expected to show their unmistakable marks on the events leading to the accords, especially in the context of their respective systems of government.

Although the accords were bilateral agreements between Israel and Egypt, they also proposed a framework for Palestinian autonomy on the West Bank and in Gaza—non-Egyptian territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 War. The stakes were high, and the terms promised to affect Middle East politics for years to come. Explaining these terms and understanding the negotiations leading to them, while of interest to students of international bargaining, is a challenging task.


The Pre-negotiation Context

Traditional Egyptian Pan-Arabism and hostility toward Israel as the "illegitimate, temporary, Zionist entity" were largely based on a profound sense that the Palestinians had been wrongly displaced and that Arab land was forcibly taken from them when Israel was established in 1948. Adding to this hostile Egyptian attitude was Israeli collaboration with France and Britain, the former colonial powers, in attacking Egypt following its nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956.

Although Israel and Egypt had been in a state of war since 1948, the road to Camp David began fol-lowing the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War. In that war Israel had soundly defeated the armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan and had occupied the West Bank and Gaza (the only parts of Palestine not under Israeli control), Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, and Syria's Golan Heights. As a result, the reality and durability (if not the legitimacy) of the State of Israel were anchored in Arab minds. In addition, the previously rhetorical confrontation with Israel became a costly business for Egypt and Syria: their own territories were occupied and many of their people became refugees.

The changing atmosphere demonstrated itself quickly after the war when key Arab states, notably Egypt, accepted United Nations Security Council Resolution 242. Besides calling for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, Resolution 242 also affirmed the right of all states in the region to live within secure borders. It was the first time that Arab states had officially signaled willingness to recognize the State of Israel.

But progress was slow. Israel, with complete military dominance and newly-occupied territories, had little incentive to negotiate. The Egyptians had mini-mal leverage not only over Israel, but also over oil—rich Arab states, whose economic aid Egypt needed, and the Soviet Union, whose military aid was neces-sary to rebuild the Egyptian army. The superpowers were preoccupied with other issues. Except for the initiative of U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers in 1969-1970, the United States did not seem inclined to expend much effort on the problem. And although the Egyptians accepted the Rogers Plan, largely based on UN Resolution 242, even before Anwar Sadat became president, the plan finally failed due to lack of support from Israel. Israel also accepted Resolution 242 following the 1967 War, but by 1970 Israeli sentiment for keeping significant parts of the territories had increased.

A breakthrough seemed possible in 1972. To the surprise of most analysts, President Sadat suddenly expelled Soviet advisers from Egypt and signaled to Washington his willingness to negotiate. He hoped that his move would open the way for better rela-tions with Washington, which he could eventually use as leverage with Israel. Indeed, Ezer Weizman, former Israeli defense minister, viewed Sadat's moves with concern. "In driving out the Russians from Egypt," Weizman wrote, "[Sadat] brought the West closer to him, necessarily diluting its loyalty to us ... costing us our position as the cosseted god-child of the Western world." 1

U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, however, did not see the need for an urgent response. The Egyptian army was considered weak, Sadat had not yet established domestic or international credibility, and the Soviets were cooperating with the United States in the atmosphere of detente. (The Soviet Union, for example, partly out of deference to Nixon's wishes, restrained their arms supplies to Cairo.)

But, as before in Middle East history, the unexpected startled the international community: despite perceived military weakness, in October 1973 Egypt and Syria launched a surprise war against Israel, without much hope of military victory. This war turned out to be the catalyst for the Camp David negotiations.

Most Middle East experts now agree that the war was, in effect, the first bargaining move by Egypt and Syria. Although the war ended in a military stalemate, Egypt and Syria performed much better than expected. More important, the war led to a serious confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States and created an urgent need to address the Arab-Israeli conflict. A simultaneous Arab oil embargo also highlighted a serious tension among several American interests in the Middle East, the commitment to Israel on the one hand, and the need to secure the flow of oil to the West and to minimize Soviet influence in the region on the other. Only through a durable settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict could this tension be substantially reduced. Indeed, an appreciation of this dilemma at a time of energy shortage later led the Carter Administration to great efforts to resolve this conflict.

It was in the wake of the 1973 War that the United States began to play a more active role in the Middle East peace process. Efforts to negotiate "disengagement of forces" agreements between Egypt, Syria, and Israel were mediated by Secretary Kissinger. In 1974-75, disengagement agreements were reached between Syria and Israel on the Golan Heights and between Egypt and Israel on the Sinai. These agreements defused the immediate crisis and minimized the chance of surprise war. But the agreements were intended only as a prelude to a compre-hensive settlement to the conflict, to be negotiated at an international conference in Geneva and co-chaired by the United States and the Soviet Union.

The Geneva Conference bogged down over the same substantive and procedural issues that figured heavily in the Camp David process: Palestinian representation and the future status of the Israeli-occupied territories. Moreover, while Israel viewed Geneva largely as a "cover," preferring instead to negotiate with each Arab state bilaterally, the Arab states, with the possible exception of Egypt, preferred collective bargaining as a way of improving their leverage. It was not until the late 1970s that conditions arose for the more serious pursuit of a negotiated settlement by Egypt, Israel, and the United States.

In 1977 the Carter Administration began a new Middle East initiative. Strategically, Egypt's continued shift away from the Soviet Union offered the United States an opportunity to play a leading role in the negotiation process while limiting Soviet participation. Regionally, several events influenced the new American effort. First, the Israeli Government's decision to hold early elections (in May) suggested that a solid government would be in place by mid-year. Second, U.S. officials became concerned about Egypt's political stability as riots broke out in Egypt following food price increases. 2 More generally, the United States enjoyed good relations with the pri-mary regional actors: Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. Finally, at a more individual level, President Carter's personal interest in a resolution to the conflict was important to the new initiative. 3

Much of the early U.S. strategy toward the Middle East was based on the idea of holding another Geneva Conference. According to this framework, all parties to the dispute—including the Palestinians—-would be represented, and the United States and Soviet Union would serve as co-chairmen of the discussions. There was initial consensus within the administration that bilateral talks with all participants should take place before Geneva and that the objective should be a comprehensive settlement based on the "territory for peace" formula. 4 This for-mula was itself based on Resolution 242 and stressed the "inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war" and the "withdrawal of Israeli forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict."

For Egypt, the incentives to move toward a peaceful settlement were largely international and regional in nature. 5 At the strategic level, it had become clear that by the mid-1970s Egyptian reliance on military power to increase its bargaining leverage was ineffective. Sadat's abrogation of the Egyptian-Soviet treaty was the beginning of a closer Egyptian relationship with the United States intended to undercut U.S.-Israeli commitments and possibly increase bargaining power for the future. Regionally, changes in the military and economic distribution of power made Egypt highly dependent on other oil-rich Arab states and inhibited its ability to prevent Israel from politically dominating the region. 6

Israel's interests in renewed negotiations probably stemmed from its long-term relationship with the United States, as well as from perceived regional benefits. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin viewed a settlement as insurance for continued U.S. military and economic support and as a means to increase Israel's regional influence to the detriment of renewed Arab unity.

Although all parties had an interest in obtaining a peaceful settlement, the Geneva framework became increasingly inappropriate throughout 1977. There had been various high-level meetings between the United States and the parties concerned, and it was generally felt that while progress had been made on procedural matters, issues of substance remained unresolved. Other events provided a sense of deadlock late in the year. The Israelis became frustrated with the Geneva model when it appeared that the United States would insist on Resolution 242, and they resented the continuing efforts to have the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) present during negotiations. Sadat, on the other hand, objected to the idea of Geneva being a negotiating forum rather than a perfunctory document signing ceremony. He preferred that the details be worked out ahead of time, preferably according to the U.S. proposal. Egypt's bargaining power, Sadat feared, would be undercut in real negotiations, especially with Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad and Jordan's King Hussein at the table.

Meanwhile, the United States was frustrated by Israeli military bombings of PLO targets in South Lebanon and the continued building of settlements in the occupied territories. Various bilateral meetings occurred between the United States, Arabs, and Israelis, but agreement on the structure of the negotiations and PLO representation proved elusive. Finally, the Carter Administration tried to provide impetus for the process on October 1, 1977, by issuing a joint U.S.-Soviet communiqué regarding a format for the Geneva Conference, only to be caught politically on the defensive by conservatives and the pro-Israel lobby in Congress.

Although U.S., Egyptian, and Israeli officials continued discussions on the structure and substance of Geneva, there was a general sense that efforts toward negotiations had stalled. Continued Israeli opposition to Egypt's position that Palestinians sanctioned by the PLO be part of a unified Arab delegation prompted President Carter to appeal personally to Sadat to help break the stalemate. It was less than a month later that Sadat, in a speech before the Egyptian National Assembly, announced that "he was prepared to go anywhere for peace, even to talk to the Israelis in their Knesset in Jerusalem." 7 When Israel decided to take him up on this suggestion by issuing a formal invitation, Sadat accepted as much of the world watched.

During his historic trip to Jerusalem in November 1977, Sadat launched his opening bargaining position in his speech to the Knesset. This position was essentially consistent with Egypt's previous demands, calling for the return of all Arab territories in exchange for peace with Israel and vowing that Egypt would not accept a bilateral treaty with Israel that would exclude other Arab interests. Egypt's formal opening position at Camp David was largely similar.

Despite the hard line of Sadat's formal statement, many of his advisers were concerned that he was inadvertently making poor bargaining moves. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ismail Fahmy, who apparently agreed with Sadat on the need to make peace with Israel, resigned largely because he thought that Sadat was making unnecessary compromises. He argued, for example, that in going to Jerusalem Sadat was recognizing Israel before the actual nego-tiations and thus undermining Egyptian leverage. Similarly, he believed that Sadat's declaration in the Knesset of "no more war" removed Egypt's military leverage prematurely. 8 Sadat disagreed, believing that the goodwill his visit would generate in Israel and the United States would bring bigger rewards.

What may be considered Israel's opening bargaining position was presented the following month during Prime Minister Begin's visit to Ismailiyya, Egypt. The key new element in that proposal was the concept of granting "autonomy" to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza instead of returning the territories to Arab sovereignty. Sadat rejected this proposal at once as unacceptable, believed Begin to be ungrateful for Sadat's own initiative, and threatened to call off the talks. From that point on, the process made little progress. Concerned about wasting a historic opportunity, the United States decided to act.

Because the Carter Administration viewed Begin as somewhat intransigent, effort was made to deal first with Sadat directly and then to focus on Israel. At Carter's invitation Sadat arrived in the United States in early February 1978 for talks at Camp David. The discussions revolved around the Egyptian stand on the occupied territories as well as potential Israeli compromises on Resolution 242 and settlements. Yet, like previous meetings, there tended to be agreement only on procedural issues; substantively, discussions centered on bilateral Egyptian-Israeli concerns (i.e., withdrawal from Sinai) and were less focused on the broader Palestinian problem. 9

With the hope of injecting some momentum into the negotiation process, the United States sent Vice President Walter Mondale to Israel and Egypt in early July, and later that month Secretary of State Cyrus Vance met with the Israeli and Egyptian foreign ministers in London. These discussions produced a number of proposals on the future of the West Bank and Gaza. Israel was particularly sensitive to the issue of sovereignty. Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan stressed that the farthest they would go "would be an end to the occupation, withdrawal of the occupying forces and a discussion of sovereignty after five years." 10 Both Israel and Egypt seemed willing to discuss various ideas pertaining to the West Bank and Gaza, but no consensus emerged. Fearing a complete breakdown in the talks and sensing that the political clock would soon be against him, President Carter decided to convene a summit meeting with Begin and Sadat. His invitations to Begin and Sadat were quickly accepted.


The Structure of Bargaining

Even before formal negotiations began, there was a great deal of maneuvering by each side to improve the bargaining situation in its favor. Two controversial issues surfaced: the role of the United States in the negotiations and the wisdom of isolated, open-ended negotiations at the highest level.

The first issue boiled down to this: should the United States play the role of a "full partner" in the negotiations or should its role be limited to that of a "mediator" in bilateral negotiations between Israel and Egypt? Egypt favored partnership, believing that it badly needed American leverage with Israel in order to improve its position. As Carter noted, "Sadat has urged me to play an active role, to be a full partner...." 11 Israel, fearing U.S. pressure, favored the more limited role of mediator. As Ezer Weizman put it,

My objections to excessive American involvement in the negotiations with Egypt stemmed from a simple consideration: I foresaw that U.S. interests lay closer to Egypt's than to ours, so that it would not be long before Israeli negotiators would have to cope with the dual confrontation as they faced a Washington/Cairo axis. " 12

The United States itself felt it necessary to play an active role; Carter wrote that he "saw no possibility of progress if the United States should withdraw and simply leave the negotiations to the Egyptians and the Israelis. We wanted final decisions at Camp David and . . . we were going to put forward our positions forcefully. " 13

But the United States may have sent mixed signals to Egypt and Israel. On the one hand, it assured Israel that it would not seek to impose a solution or exert pressure, prompting Begin to complain during the negotiations "that the United States negotiators were all agreeing with the Egyptian demands that the Sinai settlements be removed, and that this was no way for a mediating team to act." 14 On the other hand, Carter assured Egypt that the United States intended to use its leverage with Israel and secretly agreed with Sadat on a mutual strategy to generate Israeli compromise. 15 But Carter changed his mind, apparently on moral grounds, without informing Sadat of this change.

Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, suggested that wiretapping the cabins of Israeli and Egyptian delegations would enhance whatever role the United States played. Carter refused to go along with this suggestion, again apparently on moral grounds. As it turned out, both the Israeli and Egyptian delegations seem to have assumed that their cabins were bugged and conducted their private deliberations in the open air. 16

The second issue involved the desirability of secluded, top-level negotiations without a time limit. Carter believed that seclusion would allow maximum American leverage without domestic pressure and that the involvement of the leaders themselves was essential to the kinds of decisions required for success. Others, like Henry Kissinger, criticized this approach on the grounds that it was highly risky. Given global attention and expectations, a failure would seriously undermine American prestige, and setting no time limit would eventually put pressure on the United States as other matters began to require presidential attention.

The Israeli team was not unanimous in their views on this issue. Although some, like Ezer Weizman, were concerned that such a format would allow Egypt and the United States to gang up on Israel, Prime Minister Begin was apparently less concerned. 17 Impatient with the slow progress of the negotiations, the Egyptian team favored this format both as a last ditch effort to save Sadat's initiative and also as a way of maximizing U.S. pressure on Israel.

In the end, Carter had his way. For thirteen remarkable days in September 1978, delegations from the United States, Israel, and Egypt, led by Carter, Begin, and Sadat, met in the seclusion of Camp David, away from reporters and television cameras. The outside world, intrigued and attentive, anxiously awaited the results, for the outcome promised to affect Middle East politics in significant ways. War and peace were hanging in the balance.



Note 1. Weizman, Ezer, "The Battles for Peace." New York: Bantam Books, 1981, p. 18.Back

Note 2. Quandt, William B., "Camp David: Peacemaking and Politics." Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1986,pp. 35-36. Back

Note 3. Ibid, p. 30; Carter, Jimmy, "Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President." New York: Bantam Books, 1982, pp. 273-274. Back

Note 4. Quandt, p. 33. This strategy refers to UN Resolution 242, which followed the 1967 War. It stressed the "inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war" and affirmed the "withdrawal of Israeli forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict." Back

Note 5. Telhami, Shibley, "Power and Leadership in International Bargaining: The Path to the Camp David Accords." New York: Columbia University Press, 1990, chap. 3. Back

Note 6. Ibid., chap. 4. Back

Note 7. Quandt, p. 146. Back

Note 8. Fahmy, Ismail, "Negotiating for Peace in the Middle East." (London: Croom Helm, 1983), pp. 256-257. Back

Note 9. For details, see Quandt, pp. 172-178. Back

Note 10. Ibid., p. 201. Back

Note 11. Carter, p. 328. Back

Note 12. Weizman, pp. 115-116. Back

Note 13. Carter, p. 414. Back

Note 14. Ibid., p. 356. Back

Note 15. Quandt, pp. 173-175, 208, 235-36. Back

Note 16. Brzezinski, Zbigniew, "Power and Principle. Memoir of the National Security Advisor, 1977-1981." New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983, p. 234. Back

Note 17. Telhami, p. 179. Back

Note *: Shibley Telhami holds the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park, and is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Before coming to the University of Maryland, he was Associate Professor of Government and Director of the Near Eastern Studies Program at Cornell University and a Visiting Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He has taught at several universities including the Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, Princeton University, Columbia University, Swarthmore College, and the University of California at Berkeley, where he received his doctorate in political science. Among his publications are Power and Leadership in International Bargaining: The Path to the Camp David Accords (Columbia University Press, 1990); International Organizations and Ethnic Conflict, ed. with Milton Esman (Cornell University Press, 1995); and Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East, ed. with Michael Barnett (forthcoming, Cornell University Press, 2001); and numerous articles on international politics and Middle Eastern affairs. 

Besides his academic activities, Professor Telhami has been active in the foreign policy arena and has been a contributor to the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. While a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow, he served as advisor to the United States delegation to the United Nations during the Iraq-Kuwait crisis, and was on the staff of Congressman Lee Hamilton. He is the author of a report on Persian Gulf security for the Council on Foreign Relations, and the co-drafter of another Council report on the Arab-Israeli peace process. In addition, he is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the advisory committee of Human Rights Watch/Middle East. He has been a member of the American delegation of the Trilateral American/Israeli/Palestinian Anti-Incitement Committee mandated by the Wye River Agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. He also has a weekly radio commentary that broadcasts all over the Middle East. He was recently appointed by President Clinton to the Board of the United States Institute of Peace. . (Columbia, 1990).  Back.

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