Behind the Headlines: Camp David Participants Revisit the Art of Diplomacy

Listen to more than 30 veteran Israeli, Arab and American diplomats discuss their craft for two days, and it is surprising and somehow reassuring to learn that even at the highest summits, success or failure ultimately comes down to plain old human relationships.

The diplomats, in this case, were linked by the historical bond of having served their respective countries in forging the Camp David Accords, which were signed by Israel and Egypt on Sept. 17, 1978.

That pact, hammered out by U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, secured an end to hostilities between Israel and Egypt.

Twenty years later, some of the participants in those historic discussions gathered here for a conference hosted by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev to measure the distance traveled since Camp David — and perhaps to derive some lessons for their present-day successors.

Among the participants were two of the key players at Camp David: former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and former Egyptian Prime Minister Mustafa Khalil.

Prominent Jordanian and Egyptian peace advocates also participated, as did such Israeli veterans of Camp David as Simcha Dinitz, Elyakim Rubinstein and Meir Rosenne.

The president of Ben-Gurion University, Avishay Braverman, said he had extended an invitation to Carter, but the former president was not able to attend.

The case for human relationships as the ultimate force in diplomacy was put forward in an address by Harold Saunders, who in 1978 served as U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs.

In diplomacy, and especially peace-making, “we must widen the angle of our lens from the traditional focus on government and institutions to include human beings outside government,” Saunders said.

“Many of today’s deep-rooted conflicts are beyond the reach of government,” he said, adding that negotiations are “not just about concrete issues, they are about human relationships.”

The importance of the human factor was well acknowledged by Carter, who before the Camp David summit was convened, told the CIA that he wanted to be “steeped in the personalities of Begin and Sadat” and asked for exhaustive personality profiles of the two leaders, said Saunders.

The task fell to psychiatrist Jerrold Post, who found that Sadat and Begin’s personalities could hardly have been further apart.

Sadat was a “big picture” man who detested details and felt he was destined to play a transcendent role in history.

By contrast, Begin’s mind focused on exacting details, legal precision and nuances of language. In addition, he was marked by the searing impact of the Holocaust, and he instinctively recoiled from what he felt as pressure exerted by a superior force.

How the two leaders were perceived, especially by their domestic enemies, bears considerable resemblance to the current situation in the Middle East, Post said in an interview with JTA during the conference.

When Sadat came to Jerusalem in November 1977, he “was seen by the radical Arab world as a traitor,” Post said. “Begin was expected to cement the Greater Israel, and when instead he compromised, many of his followers felt that he had betrayed them.”

Now, 20 years later, Arab rejectionists rail at Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as a traitor,” said Post. “On the other side, many who voted for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reverse the Oslo agreement now feel that they have been betrayed.”

Despite the collegial and civil tone of the conference, current regional animosities occasionally broke through.

Israeli tempers frayed when Arafat adviser Bassam Abu Sharif recited a list of grievances against the Netanyahu government.

And when Abu Sharif later proclaimed that Palestinians and Israelis should walk hand in hand for peace, former Begin aide Yehiel Kadishai called out: “Say it in Arabic to your people, not here in English.”

While the conference did not uncover any new historical findings about what transpired at Camp David, participants got a chance to see once again, in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian peace track, how personalities affect the road to peace.

During separate sessions with Netanyahu and Arafat, participants heard the two leaders reiterate their list of complaints about the lack of compliance from the other side.

Bickering and threats of a walkout marked Camp David 20 years ago — events mirrored during the marathon negotiations that preceded the Wye agreement reached by Israel and the Palestinians in late October.

Camp David secured an enduring — though largely frosty — peace between Israel and Egypt. The legacy of Wye, marked by angry recriminations both before and after the recent Maryland talks, remains to be determined.

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