The Camp David Accords, which were negotiated over a period of twelve days in 1978 between Egyptian, Israeli, and American delegations at the Presidential retreat of Camp David, Maryland, marked a historical watershed as Egypt became the first Arab state to recognize Israel. It led to the signing of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty in 1979. The negotiation process required constant compromise between the two nations, and there were numerous moments when it appeared that disagreements over parts of the framework would lead to the collapse of the entire process.
The reason it did not collapse can be attributed in no small way to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, whose statesmanship and nearly authoritarian power allowed him to make concessions and negotiate with greater flexibility than his Israeli counterparts. His ability to build a strong rapport with President Jimmy Carter was crucial to the negotiating process, as it allowed the two presidents to speak frankly and approach issues in ways they could not be in a more formal negotiating process.
But such political risks, even in the name of peace, often carry enormous downsides. His friendliness towards Israel led to condemnation of his policies and eventually, his assassination.
Robert Korn worked as the Director of Israeli Affairs in the State Department’s Near Eastern Affairs Bureau from 1978-1982. Robert Hunter was a member of the White House National Security Council during the Carter Administration and was heavily involved in the Camp David negotiations. Herbert Hansell was the Legal Advisor to the State Department under the Carter Administration and was involved in drafting the Camp David frameworks, as well as the SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty) negotiations with the Soviet Union. Alfred Leroy “Roy” Atherton Jr. was Ambassador to Egypt from 1979-1983 and attended the military procession at which Anwar Sadat was assassinated.
Korn, Hunter, and Hansell were all interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy, Korn beginning in December 1990, Hunter in August 2004, and Hansell in March 1995. Atherton was interviewed by Dayton Mak beginning in the summer of 1990.
Read Hal Saunders’ account of the get-acquainted session for the parties at Leeds Castle. Go here for Atherton’s full account of the lead-up to Sadat’s assassination and the aftermath. Click here for other Moments on the Middle East.
“It would have collapsed right there if it had not been for Sadat”
Robert Korn, Director of Israeli Affairs, Near Eastern Affairs, 1978-1982
KORN: For those of us who had worked on the Arab-Israeli problem before, it was really hard to imagine that Carter was going to achieve this goal of peace, an overall settlement that he announced. There seemed to be a great element of unreality to the policy discussions we would have.
After a meeting with [Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs] Roy Atherton and later on with [Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs] Hal Saunders, we had discussions on how the agreement was going to be structured and I think I was not the only one who felt that this was really a kind of daydreaming exercise.
And it would have remained that way had not Sadat broken with the other Arabs and decided to go to Jerusalem (pictured) and Carter was able to lead him little by little to accept the idea of a peace agreement now and not 20 years in the future. But if Sadat had not been willing to go all the way to break with the other Arabs this would not have occurred.
The whole business of a Geneva Peace Conference was absolutely unrealistic. Carter for the first ten months of his presidency was going for just getting a conference to convene at Geneva. We were going to worry about what we do at Geneva after we got there. It was a desperate, unrealistic effort and would have collapsed right there if it had not been for Sadat.
Certainly Sadat had the view that [Former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser had made a mistake in challenging the West and siding with the Soviet Union and that Nasser had brought great ruin on Egypt through the ’67 War and through the war of attrition that followed it. He felt that the way to bring Egypt out of its difficulties was to reach an agreement with Israel and to re-establish good relations with the West — that was where the money was and there is where prosperity would come, it would not come from the Soviet Bloc.
I myself was concerned at a certain point that Sadat was going further than he could afford to go. That he would be overthrown. And that the Peace Treaty that we were sponsoring and pushing very hard for after Camp David could end up getting Sadat thrown out. That did not happen. It happened later — that got him assassinated. So there was that concern.
The summer of ’77 to the summer of ’78…we were trying to get the Geneva Conference reconvened. The idea was to reach an overall settlement there. This proved impossible.
Sadat made his speech and went to Jerusalem and immediately thereafter there began an effort to parlay this visit to Jerusalem into something broader — basically into a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.
There was a conference in Cairo between the Israelis and Egyptians and all the other Arabs were invited but no one else came. [Secretary of State Cyrus] Vance went out to Jerusalem and I went on this mission in January of 1978 for a meeting of what was called the Political Committee — in other words, sit down and try to lay out the terms for an agreement between Egypt and Israel. After Sadat went to Jerusalem our effort was to build on it and make it into something.
As Begin refused to make any serious concessions, the Egyptians became more and more disenchanted. Sadat was under increasing pressure from home and from other Arabs. The Saudis were offering him a lot of money to pull out of it.
Finally in the late summer of 1978, Carter decided the thing was going to collapse unless he did something. He decided to go for broke. He sent Vance out again to the area, I went on this trip, to talk to Begin and then Sadat and invite them to come to Camp David. This was not announced until afterwards. After the trip was announced, Vance dispatched Atherton to Saudi Arabia and Jordan to explain to the governments there what the purpose was — what we hoped to accomplish at Camp David — and to try to get their support….
“Sadat was dragging his advisors along with him kicking and screaming”
Begin couldn’t refuse the President of the United States inviting him to come to Camp David to talk with the Egyptian leader.
The remarkable thing on the Egyptian side was the extent that Sadat was dragging his advisers along with him. They were going kicking and screaming. They didn’t want to go in that direction.
The Foreign Minister, Mohammed Kamel, had several nervous breakdowns. Sadat sent him to Jerusalem in January of ’78 for the Political Committee meeting and I remember the poor man remarking to me that he was in Jerusalem for two or three days and didn’t sleep the whole time because it made him so nervous the whole time to be there in an Israeli city. He broke into tears at the Leeds Conference in July of ’78. Osama El-Baz was there and reminded me of [Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph] Goebbels in his demeanor. All of them were just dead set against it but they had to go along. They did go along but at every stage they tried to torpedo the thing.
Robert Hunter, NSC, Director of Middle Eastern Affairs, 1979-1981
HUNTER: Because Carter had created a situation which had an opportunity to work, Sadat did what he did. Incidentally, we calculated, we analyzed, whether or not Sadat ever pronounced on this, that he had run the ’73 War in order to show that he had guts, so that he could then make peace in order to rescue his country from this conundrum of having to look like he was an Arab in fighting Israel, which didn’t really matter much to him.
The Egyptians always have this duality. They’re Arabs when it’s useful, they’re not Arabs when it’s not useful. I remember being with Sadat with [Senator] Ted Kennedy, it was about ’73 or ‘74. At one point in the meeting, at Sadat’s home at the Barrages, outside of Cairo, Kennedy raised the issue of Saudi Arabia. And Sadat said, “Saudi Arabia? Who are they? They are these people who came out of the desert. But I am Egypt.” You heard the whole Pharaonic thing, you know. (Photo: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
So the Israeli strategic calculation was that the only country that could make war potentially successfully was Egypt. If you took Egypt out of the military balance, any rationally calculated Arab attack on Israel dropped virtually to the vanishing point. I say rationally, there’s always irrationality. After all, since Israel had beaten all-comers with Egypt in the military balance, nothing was going to happen with Egypt out of the balance.
“The Israelis may have been better coordinated, but Sadat was the master negotiator”
Herbert Hansell, State Department Legal Advisor, 1977-1979
HANSELL: Well, clearly, the Israelis were more cohesive and better organized as a negotiating team. However, I would say that President Anwar Sadat and Prime Minister Begin were both masters at identifying their fundamental objectives and manipulating their constituencies to achieve them.
I think Sadat was superb. He played the Egyptian people like a piano. Of course, he had some comparative advantages. There wasn’t an army of reporters following him. His every move was not reported in the press in Israel, which is a vigorous democracy and in which every newspaper knows virtually everything that is going on, as is the case in Washington. The Egyptians were just as good and as tough negotiators [as the Israelis], but I think that Sadat had considerably more room to maneuver and more flexibility.
In the end, he basically gave President Carter just as much as Carter needed to strike a deal. You may remember that Carter made a last, final trip to Israel to try to close the gap between the parties. There was a very dramatic moment, when it looked as if the whole negotiation had fallen apart.
At the end of the next to the last day we were there, the planes were at the airport, ready to go home. There was one final round of discussions set for the next morning. We worked all night on various issues.
Finally, we and the Israelis arrived at a compromise of proposals on the remaining outstanding issues, which President Carter undertook to present to President Sadat. Carter met with Sadat at the airport in Cairo. It was clear that this was it — or nothing.
It was quite a tense occasion: after several hours’ discussion, Sadat agreed to the proposal, over objections of some of his advisers. I think that Sadat had a greater degree of flexibility and had more authority to compromise than Begin did. The Israelis may have been better coordinated, but I think that Sadat was the master negotiator. He was incredible.
The extraordinary thing to me, in the process of negotiating the Egyptian-Israeli treaty, was the way in which Prime Minister Begin, on the one hand, and President Sadat of Egypt, on the other, handled their respective ends of the negotiation. Each of them, of course, was a master at manipulating his people.
Sadat, in particular, “played” the Egyptian people like a piano. He was just so good. But he was only interested in the big issues, the big picture.
Begin, on the other hand, was a thorough and careful negotiator. The specific details interested him very much. He was the master of the whole picture. He, of course, came from an intensely democratic environment. Sadat, on the other hand, was in a situation where, within limits, his word was law. But they were both very astute leaders of their respective bodies politic.
It was really great theater to watch them operate. They seemed to develop a trust in one another, within limits; they also were wary of each other. President Carter had a sharp understanding of each of them and their interaction with each other. I went on the trip to the Middle East with President Carter that finally put together the pieces which made the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty possible. It was a very dramatic three or four days, first in Cairo, then in Jerusalem, and then back to Cairo.
HUNTER: It was clear that the Sinai didn’t mean a hell of a lot to Begin and that that was basically a security issue and if security could be worked out there, the Israelis would not quibble over it. The real problem was the West Bank and Gaza on the Palestinian side. There Begin was pretty much unyielding. The idea in 1979 was autonomy. If you could get autonomy for the Occupied Territories or Administered Territories, depending on who’s saying it — Israelis said administered, the Egyptians said occupied…
Incidentally, the Egyptians did the negotiating, not the Jordanians, because Sadat didn’t want the Jordanians to do it, in part because the Egyptians wanted not only to keep control, but they wanted to keep American friendship and the money flowing, you know? They didn’t want the money to go to somebody else.
The Egyptians were the ones who did the negotiating for the Palestinians, but everybody knew that when anything was discussed, their people would run around the corner and talk to Arafat about it. We did talk to Palestinians, Palestinians who, in fact, I’m sure some were actually members of the PLO, but, so long as they were part of the Egyptian delegation, no one checked their credentials at the door….
The Autonomy Talks closed down as we got into the election season, because there was a political question there, but it wasn’t decided by Carter, it was decided by Sadat. Sadat, you can check the date, April or May or whatever it was, called off any further effort on the Autonomy Talks.
Most people said, “Oh, Sadat has given up on Begin, blah blah blah.” I was convinced that it was quite the opposite. That he was trying to protect Carter from having to take political risks in the negotiations that might cause Carter to lose the election, because Sadat wanted him to win, because Carter was the guy who was most likely to do something effective.
In my judgment at the time, Sadat had miscalculated. Carter wanted the process to go forward and was prepared to do what was necessary to see whether he could get some success, he was so deeply committed to it emotionally, morally, and strategically for the United States.
Q: And what happened one minute after high noon on Reagan’s Inauguration Day, January 20th, 1981?
HUNTER: Fortunately, my successor, Geoffrey Kemp, was a very close friend of mine. He called me in and said “What do I need to know?”
I remember two things I told him. I said, “One is that the Iraqis are building a nuclear reactor. If we don’t do something about it, the Israelis will. Second, we are overstressing Anwar Sadat. If we don’t back off a little bit, somebody’s going to kill him.”
“Clearly this was an assassination attempt at Sadat”
Alfred Leroy “Roy” Atherton Jr., Ambassador to Egypt, 1979-1983
ATHERTON: It was no secret that there were various groups, mostly Islamic fundamentalist groups, who had been trying for years to destabilize not just Sadat but his predecessor, Nasser.
But one of the first things Sadat did when he came to power was to decide that the real threat to him would come from the left, particularly since he had alienated the Russians, and he was afraid of the leftists and the crypto-communists in the small Egyptian Communist Party. [Read Atherton’s full account here.]
And so he amnestied all the Muslim Brotherhood leaders and made them respectable again, in the thought that they would be a counterweight to the threat from the left. It turned out in the end, of course, that they were the threat… There were spin-offs of the Brotherhood, militant spin-offs, clandestine spin-offs, who definitely looked to violent political action as a way of trying to change the regime.
Their objective was to achieve what Islamic fundamentalists basically had as their goal — to get the country back to the Koran, to make the Koran the law of the land, Islamic law and Islamic tradition, governing education, governing all aspects of society and all policies of the government. And that included not making peace with the infidel Israel, not being allied with the Western devils, the United States, and certainly not allowing women in public life, like Mrs. Sadat who became a public figure in her own right.
But there were lots of things that Sadat did, and Mrs. Sadat did, in their public life and in their public image, as well as in the policies of the government, that built up a very strong head of steam among the very conservative Islamic elements in Egypt against the regime.
There was increasing tension but no sign of how it was going to be resolved, until it was suddenly resolved by an assassin’s bullet at the October 6 parade, 1981, celebrating the October 1973 War, which Egypt had always celebrated as their victory.
Near the end of the parade, along came the heavy artillery with their crews sitting in the back of the trucks pulling the heavy guns. One of them stopped in front of the reviewing stand. The crew scrambled out.
Our assumption, and it was certainly Sadat’s assumption, was that this was going to be another one of these salutes for the president, as the paratroopers had been. They were going to come up to the stand and salute the president. The president stood up to take the salute. We all were watching. And at that moment, suddenly hand grenades were thrown and automatic weapons were being fired. Clearly this was an assassination attempt at Sadat.
It was ascertained that this was an Islamic fundamentalist cell led by an officer in the army that had infiltrated the military, got military uniforms and used forged papers and substituted them for the crew of this artillery prime mover. This was not in the mainstream of the Moslem Brotherhood but was a spinoff, a group dedicated to violent overthrow and to establish Islamic rule in the country.
To them Sadat had become the personification of evil, because he had made peace with Israel, because of his lifestyle, because he was seen as anti-Islamic. He had done all the things that the Islamic fundamentalists disapproved of. So it was no surprise that there were extremists in the Islamic movement who were out to destabilize the regime, including by assassination and other acts of violence.
[In the hours after the assassination attempt] I had a telephone call from former President Carter. He wanted to know what had happened to his friend Sadat….
It was a very strange kind of a funeral. In fact, it was a strange kind of mourning period. There was no outpouring of popular grief after Sadat’s assassination.
The city was very strangely muted; the country was strange. There were some outbreaks of violence, some local incidents and instability, anti-government, to build on the Sadat assassination in some parts of Cairo and in some parts of Upper Egypt, none of which was difficult to contain, although there were some casualties in the process. But I think the more likely explanation was that in fact Sadat’s popular base had badly eroded by that time.
President Reagan announced that he was going to send a very special, high-powered delegation to Sadat’s funeral, in honor of our high respect for Sadat. There was a dinner that evening [after the funeral] for all members of the American delegation and the American Embassy at the hotel where the American delegation was staying; an in-house dinner, with three presidents, each making remarks.
Probably the most personal, recalling his special relationship, were Jimmy Carter’s remarks. His were very personal, about his relationship with Sadat, the relationship between the Carter and the Sadat families.