In ’78, a Different Set of Campers Occupied the Camp David Cabins

When President Clinton invited Israeli and Palestinian leaders to a summit at Camp David last week, he said he hoped the setting “will help to inspire them.”

Clinton was alluding to the success that capped the 13-day effort in September 1978 involving President Carter, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

While hoping for the best when announcing the summit, Clinton was also well aware that the issues facing Israel and the Palestinian Authority would be “far more difficult to resolve” than “any issues between Israel and the Egyptians.”

Not that those issues were easily resolved.

Indeed, the differences between Begin and Sadat were so pronounced at the beginning of their summit that Carter kept the two apart for most of the negotiations. With the exception of the first few days, Begin and Sadat had no face-to-face meetings until the Camp David Accords were signed.

In the absence of such meetings, Carter spent the two weeks tirelessly shuttling between the cabins of the Israeli and Egyptian leaders.

For his part, Clinton has already proven himself as ready to put in the long hours that Carter did in pursuit of peace. In October 1998, Clinton burned the midnight oil with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat during the nine days of roller-coaster talks at the Wye Plantation on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Although Clinton said this week he did not want to set an “artificial deadline” for the summit, he plans to leave July 19 for a meeting of industrialized nations in Japan. There are indications that a second summit could be held when Clinton returns.

Both presidents had an eye to their political legacy. But Carter had more than two years until the next election, when he unsuccessfully ran again. Clinton has only four months before he is officially a lame-duck president. This puts more pressure on Clinton, a fact that will not be lost on either Barak or Arafat — and which each will likely try to play for his own benefit.

Carter made it clear to both Begin and Sadat that he was fully ready to assign public blame to either — or both — of them in case no agreement was reached. This has often been listed among the reasons why the summit ultimately proved a success.

Clinton, however, may not be ready to play the blame game — and without such pressure, it is unclear whether Barak and Arafat will be prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to reach an accord.

In certain ways, however, Barak and Arafat have an easier task ahead of them than the participants at the first Camp David summit.

When Began and Sadat met, no Arab state had ever forged peace with the Jewish state.

Now, the Israeli-Egyptian and Israeli-Jordanian peace treaties have already set important precedents.

In both instances, analysts warned in advance of the talks that failure could lead to bloodshed.

The first Camp David summit provided a framework for future Israeli-Egyptian talks that resulted in a full-blown peace treaty six months later.

If the second Camp David also results in a framework agreement, Israel and the Palestinian Authority could likewise take more time to draft a final peace treaty, even though the two sides have already set a deadline of Sept. 13 for such an accord. A successful summit would enable the two sides to miss that deadline.

While focused on the Egyptian track, the first Camp David also produced a framework for Palestinian self-rule. This was because Sadat had not wanted to be seen as pursuing a peace accord with Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.

While the framework for the Palestinian track was ignored following Camp David, much of it was fulfilled in the Oslo Accords.

As at the earlier summit, Israel will again have to trade land in order to achieve peace. But while Begin traded the Sinai for peace with Egypt, Barak now has to contemplate land transfers — including the possibility of handing over portions of Jerusalem — that Begin would never have been willing to contemplate.

What remains now are a series of questions that “go to the core of both sides’ identity and sense of themselves,” as Clinton put it when he announced the summit.

“Behind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lie the most profound questions about beliefs, political identity, collective fate,” Clinton said last week. “Etched in each side’s mind are intense fears and emotions.”

Clinton seemed to be acknowledging already that the second Camp David may not prove as successful as its precursor.

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