How Jimmy Carter Almost Derailed Peace With Egypt

The Strategic Interest

By Yossi Alpher

Published April 23, 2008, issue of May 02, 2008.
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The unique synthesis of activism, idealism and ignorance that drove Jimmy Carter to meet with Hamas in late April is nothing new for the former president. It dates back to well before his 2006 book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” — all the way back to his time in office, when he nearly derailed the incipient peace effort that would eventually become the Camp David Accords.

On November 9, 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat startled the world by announcing his intention to go to Jerusalem. Ten days later he arrived for the groundbreaking three-day visit, which launched the first peace process between Israel and an Arab state. As would be the case with later Israeli-Arab peace initiatives, Washington was taken by surprise.

Since taking office that January, Carter had launched a major initiative to reorient America’s Middle East policy away from superpower confrontation and toward cooperation. To that end he had suggested bringing Israel, the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel’s immediate neighbors — Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan — to a renewed Geneva Conference at which the United States and the Soviet Union would try to work out a comprehensive peace agreement among their clients.

It would have been an invitation Israel could not refuse, much as it would like to. The hostile Soviet presence in the region, the reality of negotiating opposite not one but a host of Arab countries, and the Carter administration’s ideological orientation all seemed to ensure that Israel would be subject to awesome pressures to make concessions that it deemed dangerous.

The Geneva Conference had met only once before, briefly. In December 1973, just after the Yom Kippur War, the United States had consented to it as a means of placating the Soviets and resolving the tense confrontation between Washington and Moscow that had accompanied the end of the war. It had been a dead letter ever since.

Now Carter, who had taken office less than a year earlier, seemed to be prepared to let Moscow back into the Middle East peace process at Geneva.

Until Sadat announced his initiative on November 9, only Israel had actively opposed Carter’s plan. Israeli-American tensions over the issue had peaked in early October, after the United States and the Soviet Union issued a joint statement that appeared to the Begin government to present Israel with a fait accompli regarding PLO participation and Soviet-American cooperation on a new Middle East peace process to be dictated at Geneva.

Moshe Dayan, Menachem Begin’s foreign minister, made an emergency trip to Washington, where he alternately threatened and cajoled Carter and his secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, into distancing the United States from the joint statement with the Soviets. Dayan enlisted massive pressure from the American Jewish community, which had overwhelmingly backed Carter for president.

Dayan insisted that a separate Israeli-Egyptian track was preferable. His American interlocutors thought he was fantasizing, but they agreed to back down temporarily. Dayan had registered a significant short-term accomplishment; it turned out to be all the time he needed.

When Sadat announced he was going to Jerusalem, scarcely three weeks after Dayan’s visit to Washington, the Carter administration understood the move as yet another attempt, this time by an Arab leader, to scuttle its scheme to bring everyone together in Geneva. Carter wanted a comprehensive process. Now not only Dayan but Sadat seemed to prefer a bilateral one.

Carter’s people apparently had no inkling of the secret talks in Morocco between Dayan and Sadat’s representative, Hassan Tuhami, that paved the way for Sadat’s initiative. Indeed, in a sense Egypt and Israel were ganging up to push Carter off his Geneva track.

By December 1, 1977, three weeks into the Sadat peace initiative, the Carter administration had offered only the faintest approval for the Egyptian president’s visit to Jerusalem, and had not yet abandoned its support for Geneva in favor of the bilateral Egyptian-Israeli process that Sadat, Begin and Dayan were actively proposing.

Meanwhile, a mechanism had yet to be created for Israel and Egypt to pursue the talks begun by Sadat and Begin in Jerusalem. The Egyptian president suggested to Begin that Israel place a secret representative in the American embassy in Cairo. With American “cover,” the true identity of the Israeli, who would liaise between the Egyptian and Israeli leaders, would be known only to the American ambassador in Cairo.

Sadat’s liaison initiative spoke volumes about his reasons for wanting to make peace with Israel. He wanted an alliance with the American superpower and he wanted to kill Carter’s Geneva initiative. His trip to Jerusalem signaled a major reorientation of Cairo’s place in the global scheme of things, from the Soviet to the American camp.

Carter’s acceptance of the proposed liaison scheme would have signaled American backing for Sadat’s unprecedented peace initiative. But Carter said no.

Try as he might, though, Carter couldn’t thwart the Israeli-Egyptian peace push. Within days Israeli journalists were allowed into Cairo, breaking a symbolic barrier, and from there the peace process quickly gained momentum. An Israeli-Egyptian working summit was scheduled for December 25 in Ismailiya, near the Suez Canal.

By then, Carter and his team had finally bowed to realities and agreed to be the exclusive sponsors of the bilateral Israeli-Egyptian process. The Geneva Conference was never mentioned again.

Carter went on to play a crucial role in producing the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel in September 1978. Half a year later, he himself shuttled between Cairo and Jerusalem for two weeks to nail down a peace treaty. No other American president, before or after, has so successfully filled such a hands-on activist role.

The lesson of Carter’s encounter with the Sadat initiative is that American policy toward the Israeli-Arab conflict — and indeed, toward the Middle East in general — is most effective when it is reactive and not preconceived, when it is pragmatic rather than idealistic.

Henry Kissinger taking advantage of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 to negotiate force-separation agreements — which were the real beginning of the Israeli-Arab peace process — and ease the Soviets out of the region is a positive example of this dynamic. President Bush’s attempt to restructure the Middle East and impose democracy in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks is a negative one.

Carter’s most recent forays into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, based as they are on ideology and ignorance, are reminiscent of his misguided attempt in 1977 to thwart Sadat’s peace initiative, rather than the exemplary statesmanship he exhibited the following year at Camp David.

Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications.

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