Lessons From Camp David For Negotiators Today
Letter From Israel

Lessons From Camp David For Negotiators Today

Forty years on (and 25 years after Oslo), an Israeli go-between reflects on the peace deal with Egypt.

Contributing Editor, The NY Jewish Week

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, President Jimmy Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at the Camp David Accords ceremony at the White House in 1978. Wikimedia Commons
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, President Jimmy Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at the Camp David Accords ceremony at the White House in 1978. Wikimedia Commons

‘We dreamed that the Israeli Philharmonic would play in Cairo,” said Robbie Sabel, when asked about his days spent negotiating the Camp David Accords.

Monday marks the 40th anniversary of this agreement, and today, the idea of the Israeli Philharmonic in Cairo seems like a pipe dream. These days, Israeli performers would not be welcome there — and are becoming less welcome in parts of the Western world.

In terms of cultural exchange, tourism and trade between Israel and Egypt, the Camp David Accords, signed on Sept. 17, 1978, have been a disappointment for their architects.

The expectations were high. This wasn’t just an agreement to end hostilities, but a peace process that saw one of the most powerful Arab leaders of the era go far from his comfort zone and engage with Israeli culture. A few months before signing the accords, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat visited Jerusalem, laid a wreath to Israeli war dead and visited Yad Vashem.

The Washington Post reported at the time that the Yad Vashem trip “climaxed an extraordinary day of symbolism during which the Egyptian leader piled gesture upon symbolic gesture in his bid to achieve a psychological breakthrough in Arab-Israeli relations.”

Four decades later, this probably remains the high point in terms of cultural connections. But despite this, Sabel, who was deputy legal adviser to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time, and recalls his awe at being dispatched to Egypt to open talks in the late-’70s and seeing the Pyramids, still considers the Camp David Accords to have been the “greatest achievement of Israeli diplomacy.”

Its significance lies in the fact that Egypt was Israel’s most powerful foe, but also in the determination that Israel showed to exceed American expectations. “The Americans told us that we can reach something called non-belligerence, meaning no fighting, but you can’t get a full peace treaty,” said Sabel, adding that the Egyptians also were not assuming a comprehensive deal.

In Sabel’s telling, it was the determination of the Israeli prime minister of the day, Menachem Begin, that led to a full peace deal. And despite the fact that relationships didn’t flourish, he sees major value in the quiet border, absence of hostilities and diplomatic connections, however cool they may be.

Robbie Sabel: The deal exceeded American expectations. Hebrew University

His team’s success in achieving this offers lessons to negotiators working today on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, or other diplomatic fronts. The key, he said, was that Camp David gave both sides a feeling of success and gains achieved, and neither side felt humiliated. “We knew we must reach an agreement in which both sides feel they have a lot but not everything. If you outsmart them and get an agreement they’re not going to like, it’s not going to last.”

The negotiation process also taught Sabel the dangers of trying to negotiate under the glare of the media. He negotiated at the Israeli-Palestinian Madrid Conference of 1991, where he said regular updates to the press held back the process; he compared that to Camp David, where media were kept at bay and progress was fast.

One of the biggest lessons that Sabel takes from the Camp David Accords is about the value of Palestinian autonomy, and what he considers the shortsightedness of Israelis who think that the Palestinian Authority is dispensable.

The Camp David Accords started the long and winding road to the kind of Palestinian autonomy that exists today. The accords consisted of “A Framework for Peace in the Middle East,” which dealt with the Palestinian issue, and “A Framework Peace Treaty Egypt and Israel,” addressing the Israel-Egypt dynamic.

Sadat and Begin agreed to hold, in the words of the accords, “negotiations on the resolution of the Palestinian problem in all its aspects,” together with Palestinian representatives. The two leaders decided that in the West Bank and Gaza “the Israeli military government and its civilian administration will be withdrawn as soon as a self-governing authority has been freely elected by the inhabitants of these areas.”

Yasir Arafat’s Fatah party was furious that the Egyptian leader had made an agreement on the Palestinian future and rejected it. The United Nations also shunned the framework. But a decade later, Israelis wanting to fulfil the spirit of it begun what would become the Oslo peace process.

Some 25 years ago, on Sept. 13, 1993, Israel and the Palestinians agreed to limited Palestinian self-government in Gaza and the West Bank. The idea of autonomy was more or less copy-and-pasted from Camp David to Oslo.

“Camp David gave birth to something that has worked,” said Sabel, referring to the Palestinian Authority.

The PA was set up as an interim body that would take the Palestinians to a final peace agreement with Israel. This agreement hasn’t happened, and in Israel much blame is placed on PA intransigence. Today, the Trump administration and the Israeli government are losing patience with the PA, feeling particularly angry about its stipends to terrorists and other actions that are seen as questioning its commitment to peace.

PA leaders periodically talk about disbanding the organization, and there are fears of it losing its relevance, especially if the diplomatic route with Israel fails to bear fruit while Hamas gets stronger.

Sabel warns against the nonchalance often encountered in Israel when the possibility of a PA’s collapse is raised. “It’s much better than us having to control the areas. It’s not a very good regime, but if you look at the alternatives it’s preferable,” he said. 

To him, this means cuts to American funding to the PA, such as those mandated by the Taylor Force Act to discourage money going to the families of terrorists, are a “gamble.” If it actually changes PA attitudes, it will be a success, but if it simply weakens the PA financially without this result, it could be against Israeli interests.

“You always have to look at the alternative, which, in the case of the PA, is a big anarchy that Israel couldn’t live with, or Israeli control, which it doesn’t want. It’s very much in Israel’s interests to have the Palestinian Authority, which is a fruit of Camp David and a result of Oslo.”

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