Lessons from Camp David for Middle East Peace Today

The Mixed Legacies of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Summits

US President Donald Trump could lay out his vision for peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority at a summit at his Camp David residence – home to the historic 1978 peace accords and the summit of 2000 - before the Israeli elections on 17 September. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and senior adviser, reportedly invited leaders of designated Arab states during his trip to the Middle East earlier this month to finalize details of the proposed $50 billion economic development plan for the Palestinians, Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon. According to reports, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was involved in planning the summit, but won’t attend in an effort to ease domestic pressures and make it easier for Arab leaders to go.  Washington has denied that a summit is being planned, nonetheless, examining the legacy of the summits held at Camp David and what, if any, lessons can be learned could help advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process today.


In 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat flew to Israel in a surprising move to show his willingness to negotiate for peace, becoming the first Arab head of state to visit the Jewish nation. A year later, US President Jimmy Carter invited Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to Camp David to help facilitate negotiations. The two leaders accepted. The peace talks held from September 5–17, 1978 at the Maryland presidential retreat became a cornerstone of regional security and US strategy in the Middle East. The talks resulted in two agreements. The first was called A Framework for Peace in the Middle East. It laid down principles for peace, expanding on resolution 242, set out what it hoped was a way of resolving what it called the "Palestinian problem", agreed that there should be a treaty between Egypt and Israel and called for other treaties between Israel and its neighbors.

The weakness of the first agreement was the section on the Palestinians.  By the time he arrived at Camp David on September 1978, Carter had fully abandoned any pretense of support for Palestinian statehood. In his personal notes written before his first meetings with Sadat and Begin, the president admitted his plan was to get the parties to accept a “common definition of peace” that would ensure “no independent Palestinian State” and provide the participation of only “West Bank Arabs” in a future Palestinian government. “This formulation was a clear indication that officials from the PLO, who resided outside of the West Bank, would be excluded from any involvement,” wrote Craig Daigle, author of "The Limits of Détente: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1969-1973." in the Washington Post.

The second accord was the framework for the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.  The negotiations resulted in a handshake between Sadat and Begin and led to Egypt becoming the first Arab state to recognize Israel, bringing an end to nearly thirty years of hostilities. It led to Egypt regaining the Sinai Peninsula in 1982 and secured the dismantling of Israeli settlements there. This marked the first time the Israelis had agreed to withdraw from Arab territory since the Six-Day war in 1967. Sadat and Begin shared the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize for their historic achievement and the treaty has defined the framework for subsequent peace treaties signed under US auspices. While their relationship has often been chilly, it is warmer today—at least on the official level—than at any time since Anwar Sadat’s assassination in October 1981.

The second accord probably stands as the most successful negotiations in the whole peace process. Robert Satloff, Executive Director of The Washington Institute,  wrote in The American Interest, that Camp David suggests that implementation can be achieved against considerable odds and in doing so galvanize radical strategic change in unpredictable directions.

“It is a measure of Camp David’s success that few now recall that Egypt was for decades Israel’s most militarily dangerous foe and the strategic linchpin of a pan-Arab order. Most policy analysts in the mid-1960s (and, most likely, in the mid-1970s) would have considered the idea of an enduring, decades-long Egyptian-Israeli security partnership to be outrageously implausible. Camp David shows that a seemingly unthinkable strategic reorientation of leading rivals is entirely possible, if not likely and that once achieved can be normalized remarkably quickly,” he said.
But according to Saloff, what sets these negotiations apart from the peace process underway today is that in the current political environment  that there is “no possible overlap between the most Israel will offer and the least the Palestinians will accept (and vise versa).”

Following an interview with Jared Kushner on the Middle East peace process,  earlier this year at the Washington Institute’s annual conference Satloff wrote that “while the US should be prepared to offer its own ideas to help the parties close the gap in negotiations – as Jimmy Carter did at Camp David in 1979, after Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat, and their teams had already spent 17 months in intensive bargaining - the chasm between Israelis and Palestinians today is so wide that no conceivable bridging formula exists.”


In July 2000, at the invitation of President Bill Clinton, Israeli and Palestinian leaders met at Camp David to negotiate final status issued for a hoped-for final peace agreement between the parties. The summit took place nearly seven years after the singing of the Oslo Accords, which were supposed to lead to a final deal within five years.  For nearly two weeks Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat wrestled with the core issues of the conflict – territory, refugees, security, and, of course, Jerusalem – in front of the US President. Although there was no agreement, the negotiations were the most comprehensive effort to resolve the conflict and were more detailed than ever.

U.S. President Bill Clinton walks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (L) and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat (R) July 11, 2000 at Camp David during peace talks. (Getty)

Israel offered the Gaza Strip, a large part of the West Bank, plus extra land from the Negev desert while keeping major settlement blocks and most of East Jerusalem. It proposed Islamic guardianship of key sites in the Old City of Jerusalem and contributions to a fund for Palestinian refugees. The Palestinians wanted to start with a reversion to the lines of 1967, offered the Israelis rights over the Jewish quarter of the Old City and wanted recognition of the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees.  In the end, the Camp David summit ended without an agreement and the failed talks were immediately followed by the eruption of unprecedented violence.

Non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Shibley Telhami said in an article published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute, that part of the reason for the failings of Camp David in 2000 was Clinton’s view of Arab-Israeli peace as principally a humanitarian gesture – not as a vital American strategic interest.   “His administration prepared poorly for the negotiations, with little inter-agency coordination, and made decisions at the end without much consideration for the broad strategic consequences. The issue became somewhat personal for Clinton, but there is no indication that it ranked highly as a strategic priority for the United States. Although that was not the principal reason for failure, it certainly was one that contributed to it,” he wrote.

These sentiments were echoed US policy advisers Robert Malley and Aaron David Miller. Drawing from inside experience on Middle East summitry, they wrote in Politico that one of the reasons that Clinton’s summit failed was that the advisers who accompanied him to Camp David were not on the same page in regards to the contours of an anticipated peace agreement, and therefore it was difficult for the US to thoroughly prepare for a summit or adhere to a consistent view.

They also wrote that one of the key lessons from the negotiations is to avoid a do-or-die mentality, “the kind Barak insisted on in 2000 when negotiating with Palestinians and persuaded us to carry out when Clinton met with then-President Hafez Assad of Syria earlier that year.”

“The Israeli prime minister swiftly quashed any talk of a series of meetings, arguing that only under the pressure of a decisive encounter would his Arab counterparts take the plunge. He got his way, but his way didn’t get him—or us—what he wanted. Even the prospect of failure, of a crisis in their relations with Washington, of forfeiting whatever economic or other incentives would accompany a deal proved insufficient to get either Arafat or Assad to agree to less than they were determined to achieve.”

In their telling, Clinton also made a mistake by shutting out other parties. “Instead of mobilizing key Arab states to support its efforts, the US excluded them from our planning, largely because of Israel’s worry about leaks and pressure. Midway through Camp David, we needed them, their lack of information made it hard for them to help; their lack of involvement made them unwilling to try.”