Arab-Israeli Diplomacy under Carter

The Carter Administration

Jimmy Carter came to office in January 1977, and his administration believed that the Arab-Israeli conflict called for a new approach that would replace the step-by-step process utilized by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. A reconvened Geneva conference was now regarded as an appropriate beginning, and the United States sought to establish a set of principles that might serve as the basis for negotiations among the parties.

Begin’s election raised doubts about the efficacy of the U.S. policy, so the Carter administration decided to wait and see what Begin would do once in power. When Begin came to Washington, D.C., in mid-July 1977, both he and Carter sought to allay suspicions of fundamental disagreement over the peace process.

Although no substantial changes in the position of either side resulted, a foundation of personal rapport and mutual confidence was established between them. Nonetheless, various actions of the Begin government clashed with the views of the U.S. administration; for example, the Begin government authorized further Jewish settlements in the West Bank although Secretary of State Cyrus Vance regarded them as illegal.

By the end of September 1977, Israel agreed to a U.S. proposal that Palestinian representatives constitute part of a unified Arab delegation at the opening session of a reconvened Geneva peace conference. Then, on october 1, 1977, the United States and the Soviet Union issued a joint statement on the Middle East that brought the Soviets back into the forefront of the peace process, to the dismay of both Israel and Egypt.

The intensity of opposition to this joint statement was not expected by the White House, which tried to diffuse the situation through a series of statements and in meetings reaffirming the support of the United States and Carter for Israel.

A series of meetings in New York between Carter, Vance, and Dayan, Israel’s foreign minister under Begin, moderated Israeli concerns and resulted in a working paper whose purpose was not only to avoid a crisis in U.S.-Israel relations but also to clear procedural obstacles on the path to reconvening the Geneva conference.

The working paper was accepted by the Israeli cabinet on october 11 but was flatly rejected by the PLo and was unacceptable to most Arab states. The basic objection of the Arabs was over the form of representation of the Palestinians at the Geneva conference, who were to be represented in a proposed unified Arab delegation, but not by the PLo.

Sadat Initiative

It was in this context that Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat changed everything when he announced, on November 9, 1977, to the Egyptian National Assembly that he was prepared to go to Jerusalem to discuss the situation face-to-face with the Israelis: “I am ready to go to the Israeli Parliament itself to discuss [going to Geneva] with them.” He asserted that he regarded the Geneva conference as a means for recovering lands lost by the Arabs in 1967 and for obtaining recognition of the right of the Palestinians to a homeland.

Begin welcomed Sadat’s offer and invited him to Israel. on November 19, Sadat debarked from his plane at Ben-Gurion International Airport in Israel, and the next day, after meetings with Israeli political leaders, he addressed the Knesset. Although in his Knesset speech Sadat made no policy concessions to Israel and reiterated his demands as a basis for peace, the fact that he came to Israel and was willing to meet with Israeli leaders had a fundamental effect on all parties to the conflict.

For Egypt and Israel, the process of moving toward peace through direct negotiation had begun. In the Arab world, reactions to Sadat’s trip ranged from concern (Jordan and Saudi Arabia) to outrage (Libya and Iraq); only three states (Morocco, Sudan, and oman) of the 22 members of the Arab League supported Sadat’s actions.

Sadat apparently felt that the military option was no longer a viable one. Since Israel could not be defeated militarily and the cost of continued conflict was becoming unbearable to Egypt, he undertook his “sacred mission” to Jerusalem to bridge the gap between the two sides with a single, dramatic action.

on November 26, Sadat invited all parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict, plus the Soviet Union, the United States, and the United Nations, to send representatives to Cairo to discuss the obstacles to reconvening the Geneva peace conference.

The invitation was accepted by Israel, the United States, and the United Nations and rejected by all Arab states and the Soviet Union. Sadat, in the meantime, announced that he was willing to negotiate with Israel alone, if necessary.

The Cairo Conference opened on December 14. Various meetings took place, and negotiations continued over the following month.The United States tried to persuade the parties to reduce the public recriminations and to continue private negotiations.

As a part of this process, Sadat conferred with Carter at Camp David, in Maryland, on February 3, 1978, and announced that the United States was no longer a “go-between” but a “full partner in the establishment of peace” and that Israel’s policy of building new settlements in the occupied territories was a barrier to negotiations.

After Sadat’s visit, U.S. spokesmen criticized Israel’s settlements policy and announced that the administration intended to sell military aircraft to Egypt and to Saudi Arabia, as well as to Israel, in part to encourage prospects for a resolution of the problem.