The Camp David Accords are a 1978 agreement signed by the Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. The accords, which were negotiated with the assistance of the then U.S. president Jimmy Carter, provided for the return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt and also outlined a framework for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. Subsequently, in March 1979, the two sides formalized this agreement into a peace treaty: the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty. This treaty made Egypt the first Arab state to recognize Israel, and it garnered Begin and Sadat the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize. The agreement presaged a major shift in the national security polices of both Egypt and Israel, and the accords remain a cornerstone of both countries’ foreign policies. For Israel, the treaty ended more than two decades of armed conflict with Egypt, at that time its chief antagonist in the Arab world. For Egypt, the argument cemented the country’s strategic shift away from the Soviet Union and toward the United States.
The conflict between Egypt and Israel dates to Israel’s founding in 1948, when Egypt joined a coalition of Arab states in attacking the new country. From 1956 until 1970, under the government of President Gamal Abul Nasser, the dual pillars of Pan-Arab unity and antagonism toward Israel guided Egyptian foreign relations.
Nasser’s desire to avenge Egypt’s loss in 1948 led to the Six-Day War in June 1967. During the war, Israel fended off an attack by Egypt, Jordan, and Syria; at the conclusion of the conflict, Israel had wrested control of the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt, as well as claimed the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.
In 1973, Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, rallied Arab forces for another attack on Israel in the hope of regaining the lost territory and boosting his domestic support. Although the Arab forces made a stronger showing than in 1967, Egypt failed to regain the Sinai, and it eventually accepted a cease-fire brokered by the United Nations.
By the late 1970s, Sadat was prepared to make a strategic shift in his country’s foreign relations. Specifically, Sadat no longer believed that Egypt’s security was best preserved through a close alliance with other Arab nations and the Soviet Union. Instead, he sought to cultivate a relationship with the United States, viewing the country as a more reliable alliance partner that would provide Egypt with significant military aid. In accordance with this, in November 1977, he offered to travel to Israel to speak before the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Several weeks later, Israel extended an invitation to Sadat, making him the first Arab leader to visit Israel. Subsequent one-on-one meetings between Sadat and Begin failed to produce an agreement, and on September 5, 1978, Carter hosted the two men at the secluded Camp David retreat in Maryland.
Although Begin agreed in principle to the return of the Sinai in exchange for Egypt’s diplomatic recognition of Israel, the issue of Palestinian self-determination proved to be a far more contentious subject. Specifically, Begin resisted plans to disband Israel’s settlements in the Sinai and rejected Carter’s call to return East Jerusalem to the Palestinians. The negations nearly broke off on two separate occasions, with Sadat and Begin each threatening to leave Camp David; both were eventually mollified by Carter’s personal appeals. The talks concluded on September 17, and Carter, along with Begin and Sadat, flew to Washington, D.C., to sign the accords at the White House.
The Camp David Accords comprised two separate documents and called for the parties to formalize these principles into a peace treaty within 3 months. The first document, the “Framework for Peace in the Middle East,” outlined a broad agenda aimed at achieving Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza within 5 years. To accomplish this, the framework called for Israel’s withdrawal from these territories, followed by elections to select representatives for the Palestinian people.
The second component of the accords, the framework for a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, set conditions for the return of the Sinai to Egypt in exchange for the normalization of relations between the two countries. The document outlined a three-stage process for the return of the Sinai, which would occur between 1979 and 1982.
Following approval by both the Egyptian cabinet and the Israeli parliament, the official signing ceremony for the peace treaty took place at the White House on March 26, 1979.
Although the peace treaty represented a significant milestone in the United States’ quest for a comprehensive settlement between Israel and the Arab countries, the document left several major issues unresolved. Notably, the contentious issue of Jerusalem was eventually excluded from the accords. Moreover, Begin refused to commit to a freeze on Israeli settlements in the West Bank over the next 5 years and would only agree to a 3-month freeze. Finally, the accords made no mention of the Golan Heights and Israel’s ongoing conflict with Syria.
The signing of a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel represented a high point for the Carter administration. In addition, as noted earlier, Begin and Sadat were jointly awarded the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize. The response to the accords, however, was not uniformly positive. The United Nations rejected the “Framework for Peace in the Middle East,” since the United States had excluded both the United Nations and representatives of the Palestinian people from the negotiating process. In addition, leaders in the Arab world almost universally condemned the accords; the Arab League suspended Egypt from 1979 to 1989 and moved its headquarters from Egypt to Tunisia.
The accords also angered Egyptian hardliners, who rejected any rapprochement with Israel. On October 6, 1981, a member of Al Gamaa al-Islamiyya, a radical group favoring an Islamic revolution in Egypt, assassinated Sadat.
Although the accords were initially controversial, the peace between Egypt and Israel has proved durable. Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, maintained peaceful relations with Israel during his nearly 3 decades in power. Following the 2011 Egyptian revolution and the subsequent election of a government led by the Muslim Brotherhood, many analysts feared that Egypt would abrogate the treaty. Despite the upheaval of the Arab Spring, however, Egypt continues to honor the treaty and maintains a close alliance with the United States.
See also Peace Talks and Peace Agreements
Feron, James. “Menachem Begin, Guerrilla Leader Who Became Peacemaker.” The New York Times (March 9, 1992). http://www.nytimes.com/1992/03/09/world/menachem-begin-guerrilla-leader-who-became-peacemaker.html?src=pm&pagewanted=1 (Accessed May 2014).
“Peace Talks at Camp David, September, 1978.” PBS.com . http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/carter-peace/ (Accessed May 2014).
Quandt, William B. Camp David: Peacemaking and Politics. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2016.
Wright, Lawrence. Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David. London, England: One World, 2014.