Back Door Channels: The Price of Peace 07.05.13
Part II: The Camp David Accords
When I was in the Jerusalem Theatre at the historic moment of Sadat`s visit to Jerusalem when Sadat, Begin and Peres made speeches, I was overwhelmed with how articulate, witty, warm and forthcoming Sadat had been. Peres was also his usual serious political self clearly open to peace and welcoming to Sadat. Begin was the grouch. It was as if Sadat had not said anything and had not taken the bold step of coming to Jerusalem. Begin told Sadat about the Jews as victims of the Holocaust, as if Sadat was a school child. The second note Begin struck was on the Jewish historic right to Palestine and Jerusalem. Begin could have been giving a speech to Irgun followers in 1946. The session was filmed at the time, but there are no clips from the Jerusalem theatre included in the documentary, Back Door Channels: The Price of Peace.
I tried to indicate in my last blog what an amazing military and political leader Sadat had been. My own sense is that the film failed to convey the enormity of his role. As a military leader, he rivals Churchill for he had to remake a demoralized and dysfunctional military organization, depoliticize it and give it a sense of purpose and pride. He succeeded. In this blog I want to focus on Jimmy Carter. For he does deserve great credit for both initiating the Camp David talks and for personally mediating between two very opposite personalities, one of whom Carter detested. How did he do it? What does the documentary contribute to help us understand how the Camp David Accords were concluded? What happened in the thirteen days of negotiations at Camp David that allowed President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel to sign an accord on 17 September 1978 at the White House to agree to end the state of war between Egypt and Israel? How do you pull off a peace accord when one of the leaders, Menachem Begin, is contemptuous of both Sadat and Carter and where Sadat despises and Carter comes to hate Begin?
One form of credit must be given to all three leaders – all three were very courteous gentlemen, even when they were separated by bitter differences. More specifically, Jimmy Carter was a true southern gentleman. He may often not hear what is really being said and somehow manage to convert what his said into his own predilections, but he was always the ultimate in consideration in ensuring that others had and were enabled to voice their views no matter how he weighed those views.
One might have expected that back door channels would be irrelevant now that direct talks between the leaders of the two states had been initiated. In fact, Leon Charney, an American lawyer who became an agent for Ezer Weizman’s book, not only played a small role in feeding information to Weizman that Sadat was sincere in wanting to make a peace deal based on return of the Sinai to Egypt, but during the Camp David discussions he served as the conduit between Ezer Weizman and Robert Lipshutz who had been close to Jimmy Carter for many years, had served as the treasurer in Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign and then served as counsel to President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1979. That back channel was critical in overcoming personality blockages as well as figuring out how to get around roadblocks, such as the insistence that all land be returned to Egypt in exchange for peace and that provision be made for a settlement on the Palestinian issue.
As background, hinted at but not detailed in the documentary, Wolf Blitzer when he was a reporter for The Jerusalem Post contacted Robert Lifshutz and told him that there was a predominant narrative about Lipshutz circulating in Israel that Lipshutz was anti-Israel and even anti-Jewish even though Lipshutz was Jewish. Blitzer introduced Lipshutz to Leon Cheney who was close to Ezer Weizman. The film is particularly strong on the back channel developed from Carter to Lipshutz to Cheney to Weizman and from Lipshutz to Stuart Eizenstat who played the most important role in the senior White House staff in communicating to the Jewish community leadership in American and through them back to Begin. The back channels helped break down problems and determine what was possible and what was impossible. Strengthened by the information he received, especially on Begin’s views, Carter was able to come up with proposals that Ezer Weizman could sell Begin on directly. However, by focusing almost exclusively on the role of the back channel, the whole sense of perspective is lost.
Further, although this was a back channel that worked superbly, the same back channel was unsuccessful when it was used to deal with the American hostages held by Iran. Leon Charney got word from Austrian Prime Minister, Kreisky, that, because Kreisky had a close relationship with Yasser Arafat, that channel could be useful in negotiating the release of the hostages. After all, Khomeini had given the American embassy in Tehran for the Palestinians. Charney contacted Lipshutz, who was by then no longer White House Counsel, who told Jimmy Carter. Carter arranged to have Charney and Lipshutz fly to Vienna to see what could be done. Charney flew to Israel to get the Israelis on board and Charney fed back to the White House that, “Provided you keep us well informed, we want to cooperate and help you get the hostages out.”
That back channel opening failed because the Carter White House thought that utilization of that back channel would have amounted de facto recognition of the PLO. In my estimation, this was an error by the White House and could possibly have allowed Carter to win a second term. Cy Vance had convinced Carter that the risk was not worth it when the whole point of back channels is that you can take such risks because Carter could deny everything. The film, in this case, missed an opportunity to show the importance three critical elements: 1. personal long term trust; 2. intimate contact; and 3. sidetracking spoilers to make back channel diplomacy effective. The second was only present in small part and the third aspect was lacking.
There is another source that somehow was not used in the film. On the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Camp David Accords, a year after Jimmy Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, on 17 September 2003, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars held a forum chaired by Lee Hamilton from the Woodrow Wilson Center on the topic that, though it did not include Lipshtiz, did include many of the participants including, President Jimmy Cater, Vice-President, Walter Mondale, William Quandt, the member of the U.S. National Security Council who was the best informed of the Americans on Middle East issues, Elyakim Rubinstein who had been the assistant director of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zbigniew Brzezinski U.S. National Security Adviser to the President, Aharon Barak then Israeli Attorney General and subsequently Chief Justice on the Supreme Court of Israel, Harold Saunders U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, Hamilton Jordan U.S. Chief of Staff to the President, Jody Powell U.S. Press Secretary to the President, Samuel Lewis U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Hermann Eilts U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, Osama el-Baz Foreign Policy Adviser to the President of Egypt and, representing the back channel, Leon Charney, who, as was his custom, rarely spoke. Rosalyn Carter was also present for it was she who planted the idea in Jimmy’s head of inviting Begin and Sadat to meet at Camp David and was both present and active in the whole process. Osama el-Baz, Sadat’s adviser could not be there because he was at the time actively involved on behalf of President Mubarak in dealing with the Palestinian resort to violence, but he appeared on a video hook-up.
In that forum, Carter recalled the meetings after the historic visit of Sadat to Jerusalem between Sadat and Begin at Ismailia and between representatives of the two sides at Leeds in Great Britain that ended not only in failure but in acrimony, hostility and bitterness between the two leaders, though the wide-ranging discussions did allow the Americans to grasp the opportunities for compromise and define the pitfalls so important in allowing the Americans to write the first draft of the Camp David Agreement that was forged immediately after Leeds and produced at a strategic moment at Camp David. The film omits this context.
Sadat had his ambitious agenda. Carter had a modest one of simply setting an agenda for a fuller peace process and conference. Begin was amenable to Carter’s modest goal. As the film shows, the attempt to get Sadat and Begin to talk directly was a complete failure. The two ended their first discussions in a shouting match. Carter began a process of shuttle diplomacy within the confines of Camp David. When faced with failure on the 11th day, Ezer had pressed for another try and Aharon Barak became the key to writing a compromise to which both Begin and Sadat could agree on the settlement issue.
Barak was clear that Camp David would “never, never be possible without the involvement, the care, and the dedication of President Carter.” But Barak also threw a few sly and gentle digs at Carter, complimenting him for his mastery of detail, but also referring to his arguments with Carter over detailed wording when Carter was neither a legal specialist not an expert on the Middle East. This is not in the film. Second, though alluded to in the film, an important difference is that the Egyptians were split but led by a forcible personality who believed primarily in attitude and commitment. The Israelis believed in detailed preparation and, in that regard, Carter personally, in contrast to the American delegation, was ill-equipped. The Israelis had a peace plan and a solution for the Palestinians based on autonomy that was in accord with the Egyptian position. The Israelis came with draft agreements and fallback positions. They also had a detailed knowledge of the position of the Egyptians. Carter came with a genial smile and very deep convictions.
Critical to these negotiations, and absent in many, was trust in the integrity of the negotiators and honesty on each side quite aside from differences in interests and principles. Since the film emphasizes the back channels rather than the direct discussions and the roles those played in advancing the direct channels, these factors are underplayed in the film. But the back channels could not have been successful without first having that trust. If the back channels were only used to get around the enormous distrust between Begin and Sadat, they would have proven insufficient. What Carter, Sadat and a good part of the Israeli negotiating team brought was persistence combined with the creative imaginations of both Sadat’s and Aharon Barak.
What happened is that the real negotiations took place between Barak and el-Baz and then both the front channels and back channels used to sell the deal to Begin. When I was involved with the negotiations on the refugee issue when Canada gavelled the talks, I was told by our Canadian ambassador who led the talks that I would never succeed as a diplomat because I had been taught through my philosophical training to use clear and distinct ideas. A diplomat had to master the art of creative ambiguity. Barak and el-Baz were masters at that craft. Carter was trained as an engineer and was not facile with equivocation. Barak and el-Baz formulated ambiguous wording at a level of abstraction just sufficient to obscure their differences, but not so abstract as to be meaningless. But Carter was patient, indefatigable, dedicated and had a strong sense of mission that, whenever the negotiations flagged, managed to give them a new spurt of energy. Barak and el-Baz not only negotiated, they engaged in dialogue, told stories, explained background. Back channels are of little help in the hard slugging of negotiations themselves or providing the necessary dialogue that allows negotiations to be fruitful.
Carter deserves enormous praise. But he was often misguided – such as in his initial stress on the Geneva route. The U.S Ambassador to Egypt, Hermann Eilts, erred in this regard in giving credit to Jimmy Carter`s letter to Sadat urging a bold step as a key to the Jerusalem visit when historical documents seem to sustain a story line that Sadat went to Jerusalem in spite of American policies on the peace process. Eilts claimed correctly that when Jimmy Carter became president, he shifted from a stress on a step-by-step approach that had characterized the previous administration to a comprehensive approach. Eits believed even twenty-five years later that this shift had an enormous impact. I, and I believe most historians, would argue that the impact was negative for any comprehensive approach at that time was doomed to failure. The Geneva effort was a dead end.
It may be true that Carter gave up the comprehensive approach only when Assad of Syria did not agree to take part even when Carter supported Assad`s call for a united Arab delegation. Carter`s letter to Sadat encouraging a bold step was not even a catalyst in Sadat`s initiative. Sadat had already been on that route. Jimmy Carter`s accession to Assad`s push for a united Arab delegation only accelerated Sadat`s efforts. As the American ambassador to Syria said, President Sadat did not want to mortgage Egypt’s foreign policy to the lowest common denominator. Sadat decided to move ahead separately. Carter`s answer to this interpretation is revealing because he claimed that America was bound by United Nations resolution that called for an international conference to be headed by the United States and the Soviet Union. Carter simply evaded the question and narrated the details of his many efforts to get Assad aboard before, in fact, conceding, that Assad was inflexible. Carter conceded that his administration `by default` placed our eggs in the Sadat-Begin basket.
Even given that the timing was propitious for an agreement, and even given the extra assistance provided by the back channel, Carter does deserves enormous credit for his commitment and voracious persistence backed up, as Samuel Lewis has remarked, by an unusually united Defence, State, and Intelligence departmental coherence that matched the Israeli briefs in its detail. As Sam Lewis has said, “without that daily concentration of the president driving a process to a conclusion as quickly as possible, you’re not likely to get there, because something is going to blow it out of the water.” Persistence was needed. Timeliness was a prerequisite. So was detailed preparation and coherence. The Americans provided all four. Further, even if both Begin and Sadat were strong leaders, Begin was hard to negotiate with for the best of diplomats.
Because of the focus on the back channel in the film which only dealt with a few issues that were blocked where behind the scenes maneuvering could help, look at the long road the negotiators had to travel in thirteen days. Menachem Begin, who had dedicated his life to a deep belief in the greater Israel, at a minimum, an Israel between the Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, had to agree to subscribe to UN Resolution 242 requiring Israel to withdraw from occupied territories. Begin had to subscribe to the principle that territories could not be acquired by force, and, in the case of Egypt, the withdrawal from all of the Sinai captured in the Six Day War. He had to agree to withdraw security forces to defined enclaves. The Israelis had to give up their advanced defence positions, including three airfields. Begin had to set the precedent of giving up 14 settlements, including the large infrastructure that had been developed at Sharm el Sheikh and Yamit (the latter with over 3000 settlers). Sadat had to agree to the part of its territory being returned to be demilitarized – a problem later for securing the Sinai from Palestinian terrorists and militant Bedouin as well as leading to the creation of the tunnel economy into Gaza. Sadat had to swallow the humiliation of having a foreign peace force on Egyptian territory and to limit how close his own troops and military, including artillery and tanks, could come to the Israeli border.
Of course, the greatest effort in creative ambiguity was over the surrender of the settlements as Begin had vowed never to return a Jewish settlement. Aharon Barak`s skills were really tested. This was the issue in which the back channel efforts were so effective in allowing Begin, a man of great principle, to keep his vow, by allowing the Knesset and not himself to agree to surrender the fourteen settlements. Without this final concession, the Camp David talks would have ended in failure. Begin got his way in agreeing to full autonomy for the Palestinian Arabs as a people but not a nation but without full self-governing authority over their own land which, for him, only the Palestinian Jews were entitled to have. Unfortunately, the film does not have and cannot take the time to convey the enormity of this leap for a leader of Begin`s ilk.
This was the biggest issue on which Sadat had to compromise. Neither the Americans nor the Israelis recognized his sincere belief in trying to advance this issue for they thought, given their realist assumptions, that he was negotiating simply to provide cover for himself. But he was a firm, both for his own political survival as for the success of the peace talks, in his belief that progress on the Palestinian front had to be in tandem with peace on the Egyptian-Israeli front. Both the Americans and the Israelis let him hang naked and exposed on this issue because the Palestinians were not part of the compromise. With his own contribution, the Israelis and the Americans had boxed Sadat into a suicidal cul-de-sac where he was forced to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians who were not present and for whom he could never be a legitimate negotiator, but unless he negotiated on their behalf, there never could be an Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement. That compromise alone would turn Sadat into an enemy for those who believed that no Muslim was entitled to cede Muslim territory to Jews.
Further, the peace negotiations had to overcome other obstacles that belonged to neither Sadat nor Begin. Jimmy Carter had then and continued to have a commitment to the principle that all settlement activity by the Israelis was illegal. This was the case even in his interpretations of the discussions twenty-five years later. Elyakim Rubinstein, who was a mandarin and not a party ideologue, had to remind Carter diplomatically that this was his belief and not that of every American administration as he mistakenly insisted. Further, in agreeing to Camp David, Israelis were agreeing to a new base line but for Palestinians who were not part of the agreement, Camp David was an extreme of surrender and not a starting point. Israelis were signing a deal on the issue of Palestinians without a Palestinian quid pro quo.
Finally, contrary to the advice of the Americans, both the Israelis and Egyptians insisted on a deadline for converting the Accords into a full agreement. As we shall see in our discussion of the path from the Camp David Accords to the Camp David Agreement, that deadline initially allowed for wasted time and later became an obstacle itself to an agreement. The film was unable to provide any sense of the dilemmas deadlines pose between their ostensible purpose in preventing endless discussion and their contribution to making discussions endless.
NEXT: The Camp David Peace Agreement