Christian Caryl

What I Left Out

I wrote a book about 1979, but I left out the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Here’s why.

AFP/AFP/Getty Images
AFP/AFP/Getty Images

John Kerry is back in the Middle East this weekend. While there, he’ll be confronting the lingering civil war in Syria as well as an Arab-Israeli peace process that once again seems to have lost its steam. As the secretary of state tries to leverage American power to infuse new life into the talks between Israel and the Palestinians, he may have occasion to consider one of the moments in recent history when an American president managed to intervene in Mideast politics to powerful effect — and still failed to find a lasting solution to the problems that bedevil the region. 

In 1977, Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat visited Israel, where he paid a historic visit to the Knesset — the first by a reigning Arab leader — and told Israeli parliamentarians of his country’s will for peace and the need to satisfy demands for Palestinian self-determination. The following year, U.S. President Jimmy Carter persuaded Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to meet at the presidential retreat in Maryland in order to thrash out a framework for peace between their two countries. In March 1979, Begin and Sadat finally came together at the White House to sign the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, which ended 30 years of hostilities and allowed for mutual diplomatic recognition. The Camp David Accords have been described as "one of the great diplomatic achievements of recent American history." Maybe, but it’s not nearly one of the most important events of that most important year. 

My book about 1979, the year in which Begin and Sadat signed that treaty, just came out. (For the record, the title is Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century.) In it, I tell the stories of five big events that roiled politics that year: Margaret Thatcher’s election as British prime minister; the Iranian Revolution; Pope John Paul II’s fateful pilgrimage to his Polish homeland; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; and the start of economic reform in China. But I didn’t include the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. Now why would I do a thing like that? 

It’s a good question. The answer has two parts. First, when I set out to write my book, I quite consciously decided that I wasn’t going to write a history of the year. There were a number of other important events over those 12 months that I opted to leave out. Nicaraguans staged a Marxist revolution that overthrew the long-ruling Somoza family, shaking up the politics of Latin America. The president of South Korea, Park Chung-Hee, was assassinated by his chief bodyguard, ending an 18-year stint in power that transformed his country. The former Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was executed by his successor, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. It was, in short, a pretty eventful moment in twentieth-century history. 

All three of the moments I describe above were important; each had a profound effect on the situation in its respective region. But I don’t think that any of them had the same profound impact on world history as the five stories that I chose to concentrate on. That’s because my five stories — Afghanistan, Britain, China, Iran, and Poland, — didn’t just change the world. They also changed something far more fundamental: the very terms in which we think about global politics and economics. 

My book tells how events in these five countries ushered in the beginning of the end of communism and also signaled the arrival of the twin forces of free-market ideology and politicized religion as defining forces on the world stage. The year 1979 was also a watershed in the history of ideas. Before that year, terms such as "political Islam" and "privatization," "jihad" and "deregulation" barely figured in global discourse. After 1979, it was almost impossible to imagine the world without them. They still define the world in which we live today. 

Which brings me to my second point: Was Camp David really such a game-changer? Did it redefine the very vocabulary with which we describe the world of international affairs? 

Those who defend its importance might well argue that it did. In their terminology, Camp David signaled the end of the "rejectionist front," the first crack in the unified bloc of Arab countries that had, until then, denied Israel’s very right to exist. Sadat’s willingness to accept Israel as a negotiating partner and to recognize it diplomatically marked the first occasion since Israel’s founding in 1948 that any Arab state was willing to do so. It’s certainly true that the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty served as the foundation for subsequent negotiations between Israel and its neighbors. 

Israel itself certainly benefited hugely from the treaty. With the threat posed by Cairo’s huge military machine removed from the scene, the Israelis were able to shift vast resources from defense to the civilian economy, laying the foundation for the remarkable prosperity of the past few decades. Not having to worry about the Egyptians also made it easier for the Israelis to divide and rule the rest of their Arab foes. It’s highly unlikely that the Israelis would have been able to invade Lebanon in 1982 if the Egyptian army had still been poised on their southern flank. The "cold peace" between Israel and the Egyptians has held throughout. 

All that said, I simply don’t see that Camp David altered anything fundamental about the terms of dispute in the Middle East. Arab-Israeli tensions have been reduced but hardly eliminated. Today, 34 years later, the majority of Egyptians still disapprove of the peace agreement; 89 percent of Egyptians say that they have a "very unfavorable" view of their neighbors to the north. (Nonetheless, the new Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government has vowed to maintain the peace treaty, presumably because of the billions of dollars in U.S. aid that Cairo receives every year as a reward for sticking to the 1979 agreement.) Opinion surveys throughout the Muslim world (and not just among the Arabs) show consistently that resentment of the Israelis remains persistent and deep. Nor has the treaty entirely kept the peace. Israel has fought a whole series of small wars with hostile elements in its neighborhood since 1979. 

We can argue over why this is the case. Many Israelis would contend that the other peoples in the region hate them essentially for being who they are: Jews
who had the temerity to build a non-Muslim homeland in the Middle East. And many would say that there won’t be real peace until the Islamic world can break through its own lingering legacy of religious intolerance and anti-Semitism. (They note that Sadat was pilloried as a traitor by the other Arab countries, who immediately expelled Egypt from the Arab League as punishment for making concessions to Israel.) 

Many Arabs, of course, would point to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians — contending, among other things, that the Israelis have yet to extend meaningful self-determination to the Palestinian people. (The original Camp David framework included discussions on affording some sort of autonomy to the Palestinians, but the talks never really amounted to anything — though some elements of that process were later picked up again in the 1993 Oslo Accords.) Post-Camp David, the Israelis showed their good faith toward Egypt by fully dismantling the settlements they had built in the occupied Sinai after the 1967 Six-Day War. Settlement activity on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, by contrast, has continued to this day with nary a pause. (Today there are some 534,000 Israelis living in the occupied territories.) 

Sadat himself, of course, was assassinated in 1981 by Islamists who condemned him for signing the peace treaty. That sort of religiously fueled terror was still something relatively new at the time. In the 1960s and 1970s, Arab terrorist groups tended to consist of secular ultranationalists and revolutionary Marxists; by the 1980s, their ranks were dominated by the new religious extremists. But that shift had more to do with larger forces at work in the Muslim world, and less to do with Camp David itself — though the fact that Egypt’s betrayal was orchestrated by the secular nationalist Sadat (a professed admirer of Turkish modernizer Mustafa Kemal Atatürk) certainly aggravated matters. 

So yes, the Camp David process was important but ambivalent. Though the accords delivered peace between Israel and its most powerful foe, they left the more fundamental issues of Middle East discord unaddressed. Nor did they fundamentally change the way we think about Israel, Egypt, or the Middle East. Camp David reduced tensions and the threat of all-out war, but the underlying problems in the region continue to fester. From today’s perspective, the Egypt-Israeli Peace Treaty looks less like a turning point than an important way station on a journey that has yet to end.     

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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