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Before, During and After the Camp David Accords

Highlighting: “President Carter: The White House Years,” by Stuart Eizenstadt, forward by Madeleine Albright. Thomas Dunne Books; illustrated hardcover edition (April 24, 2018) ISBN: 1250104556.

This book spans 999 pages with many chapters. I am going to limit most of my discussion to the one chapter about the Mideast peace negotiations.

As many of us know, President Jimmy Carter will be remembered, to his tremendous credit, for obtaining an agreement between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat at Camp David in September of 1978, after 13 days of negotiations there. Mr. Eizenstat, someone with a strong Jewish background, was Carter’s Chief White House Domestic Policy Adviser during the four years of the Carter presidency, 1977-1980. But he was involved in foreign policy as well.

Other than the fact that the book is very long and heavy, it is a very interesting and well-written book, designed to show that Carter was a far better president than history has so far recognized. The author, very patient, waited 40 years to publish it!

Here are some insights that I would like to share.

  1. I. The Period Before Camp David

-We all remember Carter dealing with Begin. But this book reminds us that it was Yitzchak Rabin who was Israel’s Prime Minister when Carter was elected. That is who Carter expected to be dealing with in his ambitious initial plans to achieve a comprehensive Mideast peace.

-There was even an early visit by Rabin to the White House. The author describes their meeting as disastrous for a variety of reasons. One story he tells is that, to help establish a personal rapport, Carter planned to have Rabin join him in putting his child Amy to sleep and saying good night to her. But Rabin declined and Carter felt very insulted.

-At the time of this visit, Rabin was apprehensive due to the forthcoming election. Why was there a forthcoming election? A few months before, four Phantom jet fighters had been delivered from the U.S. to Israel, but they landed after Shabbat had started. Nevertheless, they were given an official welcome. The Agudat Israel Party filed a motion of no confidence due to the Shabbat violation. Then Labor’s Orthodox coalition party, the NRP, also could not vote for the government because of the Shabbat violation. They had to abstain. This brought down the government and forced a new election! The author writes: “No one imagined the winner would be Begin…. Of such quirks history is made.”

-Thereafter came the matter of Rabin’s wife having left money in a U.S. Bank in violation of Israel’s currency laws. Rabin agreed that he would resign when the new prime minister would take office. Shimon Peres became the new Labor candidate in his place.

-Before Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in Nov. 1977, Carter had tried to get Israel to sit down at a conference with all the Arab leaders and with the Soviet Union and work out a comprehensive peace. But this grand idea did not work. This failure motivated Sadat to decide to gamble and visit Jerusalem. He did this without consulting Carter.

-Carter’s initial reaction upon hearing that Sadat decided to come to Jerusalem? “Stu, I think I am going to oppose Sadat’s visit. It will be the end of any hope of a comprehensive peace and will result only at best in a bilateral agreement between Egypt and Israel.” Fortunately, Carter changed his mind and decided to support the visit. Two days before the visit, as a gesture, Begin sent Carter a letter saying that the visit “would have been impossible without Carter’s efforts.”

  1. II. Insights about Camp David

-After Sadat’s visit, the negotiations stalled. The idea of bringing Begin and Sadat together to this retreat at some point seems to have been Rosalynn’s. Rosalynn wrote in her book that the suggestion had come from her husband. But later he reminded her that she suggested it to him before that. She said something like: “I don’t see how they could do anything [but make progress]; it’s so peaceful and quiet and nice up here.”

-Regarding Carter inviting Begin and Sadat to Camp David, the author writes: “It cannot be overemphasized how unprecedented this conduct was for an American president. Time-honored practice is to test the waters before inviting another head of state … without even knowing whether he or she would accept.”

-Begin and Sadat had completely different expectations for what would happen at Camp David. The author writes that “Begin envisioned an agenda-setting conference that would demand little commitment.”

-Sadat and Begin were kept apart for most of the 13 days, to prevent tensions from flaring up between them. The Americans shuttled between them.

III. Miscellaneous Insights

-The author writes that “it was clear from first sight that [Sadat] was a devout Muslim, since his forehead bore the mark that comes from a lifetime of kneeling with head to the ground during daily prayers.” (We, in contrast, have our hair flattened by our yarmulkes. If one of us takes off our yarmulka temporarily for whatever legitimate reason, we can still be identified!)

-Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan told the author that his family had learned that his maternal grandmother was Jewish. He also once quipped that if a certain peace proposal was accepted, he would change his last name to “Judea and Samaria.”

-Carter’s advisers had prepared a book for him outlining the strategy he should employ in the debate with Reagan that was taking place one week before the 1980 election. But someone stole the book and gave it to James Baker of the Reagan camp. The Reagan team knew everything Carter would say in advance! Baker told the author that he “probably shouldn’t have passed it on—but I did.” This bit of espionage may have been arranged by a past Kennedy supporter who felt that Carter did not deserve re-election.

-On election night, the returns were coming in so poorly for Carter that he decided to make his concession speech at 9:30 p.m. (The end result of this election was 480 electoral votes for Reagan and 49 for Carter. John Anderson? Do you remember him? He ran as a third party candidate in this election.) Carter’s press Secretary Jody Powell told Carter to wait until 11 p.m., but Carter wanted to get the speech over with. House Speaker Tip O’Neill was incensed at the early concession. By conceding so early, Carter was causing all those California voters not to go to the polls to vote for the rest of the Democratic candidates. O’Neill said (referring to events of four years earlier): “You guys came in like a bunch of jerks, and I see you’re going out the same way.” (Carter ran as a Washington outsider and brought in a team of outsiders. They were known as the “Georgia Mafia.”)

-Begin and Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski were both from Poland. Brzezinski’s father had saved many Jewish lives from the Nazis while he was a Polish diplomat. One time Begin arranged for a private breakfast together so he could give Brzezinski some records that he had located from an archive that documented the heroic activities of his father. Brzezinski was deeply touched.

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. Brzezinski was from a highly educated Polish diplomatic family, while Begin’s roots were in a poor Polish shtetl. Begin’s adviser Yechiel Kadishai quipped that they were “Poles apart.”

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