The Camp David accords that U.S. President Jimmy Carter negotiated in 1978 between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin were supposed to be the beginning of the end of the Middle East’s terrible conflicts. Yet the killing goes on, and the situation in the region continues to deteriorate. In his book, “Palestine Peace Not Apartheid” ( Simon and Schuster ), to be published next month, Carter takes a tough look at the reasons why. Last week, on the 25th anniversary of Sadat’s assassination, the 82-year-old former president spoke by telephone with NEWSWEEK’s Christopher Dickey about the critical turning points in the long struggle to build on the accords, and where the process might go from here.
NEWSWEEK: Do you remember the moment when you heard that Anwar Sadat had been assassinated?
Jimmy Carter: Absolutely. I got a call directly from Cairo. I was at home and they told me at first that Sadat had been attacked but had only been slightly wounded. So I prayed that he would recover. And then they called me back within the hour to say that Sadat had been killed. It was like losing my own brother because Sadat was the closest of all foreign leaders to me. I probably have met more than 100 foreign leaders and he was the boldest and most courageous and most effective leader I’ve known.
Yet some Egyptians and other Arabs say he moved too far too fast, that his people weren’t ready to make peace with Israel.
I don’t think he was ahead of the vast majority of Egyptians. Obviously he parted ways with a fringe element of fanatics who later assassinated him. But behind the scenes, some of the other Arab leaders gave me every encouragement for the peace treaty and for the Camp David accords. And that included Saudi Arabia, Jordan and some others who later, because of a desire for unanimity among the Arab League, boycotted Sadat. But I don’t think that he was ahead of the vast majority of his people. In fact, they still look upon the Israel-Egyptian treaty as one of the greatest things that ever happened to them.
But it’s been a cold peace. Israel calls it a cold peace. There has never been a real mixing of the people, the Israelis and the Egyptians, back and forth, for instance, in serious tourism.
Well, that’s not exactly true. When I was over there in the early ‘80s, I went up the Nile River and I visited the ancient sites and there was a vast array of Israeli tourists there. And I remember once they sang a very wonderful song to me and came over by the busload to thank me for making it possible for them to experience these tourist visits. But I don’t think there ever has been a reciprocal visitation among Egyptians into Israel.
Why do you think that is?
Well, I’m not really sure. First of all I don’t think that the Egyptian culture is all that highly attuned to visiting the holy places in Israel, with the exception of the Temple Mount. I don’t think there was that encouragement to visit, although it was only later, when Israel had invaded Lebanon and was occupying Lebanon that Mubarak tightened down and put out the word that Israel had violated the spirit of the Camp David accords. Still, he didn’t disavow the treaty.
Do you think the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon was the real turning point?
Well, they invaded Lebanon in ‘82 and they stayed there 18 years. As you know, they didn’t come out until 2000.
Looking back, you have the accords, the treaty, then Sadat murdered in 1981, a few months later the completion of Israel’s withdrawal from the Egyptian Sinai, and then, very quickly, Israel invades Lebanon.
That’s true. Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai was obviously the high point of the agreement because the Israelis did observe very carefully all the terms of the treaty. In fact, you say ‘cold peace’ and I wouldn’t disagree with that now, but the fact is that not a word of that treaty that was so carefully negotiated has ever been violated.
Why do you think the peace hasn’t grown warmer? Do you think both sides are to blame? Or do you think that either the Arabs have refused to make a real peace or Israel’s actions have been too provocative?
You have to remember that the Camp David accords made some very substantial demands on Israel: that is, Israel agreed to withdraw its political and military forces from the West Bank and Gaza. And it agreed for the Palestinians to have full autonomy, and so forth. And Begin also agreed at Camp David to forgo the building of further settlements. Those kinds of agreements have obviously not been honored and I think despite those factors, which certainly have aroused consternation in some Arab countries and I would say coolness in Egypt, the treaty between Egypt and Israel has survived.
If you look at milestones since then, another turning point was the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
Out of the Camp David accords came the effort to have the Oslo Agreement between Rabin and Shimon Peres on one side and Yasir Arafat on the other. And it was out of that that the Palestine Liberation Organization was recognized by Israel. And there were further promises there for substantial withdrawal of Israel from the occupied territories and also for an agreement that over a five-year period, the full terms of the Camp David accords, including implementation of United Nations Security Council Reslutions 242 and 338 would be honored.
Obviously, at the time the Oslo Accords were consummated there were some prominent Israelis, including Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu and others who disavowed the Oslo Accords. Sharon said “the Oslo Accords are national suicide for Israel.” Despite that, Rabin went ahead with the early stages of the Oslo Agreement, including the formation of the Palestinian National Authority and permitting Arafat to be elected president and form a governing council or parliament.
I was over there, with Arafat at Arafat’s request and with Israel’s approval, to help hold that election. And it was an honest and fair and peaceful election and Arafat became the leader of the Palestinian National Authority. Subsequently, with Rabin’s assassination and with the election of Netanyahu and later Sharon, of course the Oslo Agreement has not gone anywhere.
Is there a way to move forward now with the peace process?
Yes. We have a series of unequivocal and undeviating standards based on United Nations resolution 242 which Begin accepted without question, every word of it: that is, the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force and the pledge to withdraw from occupied territories. That’s still the basis of all the agreements. That was the basis of Camp David; that was the basis of Oslo. That is the international law. And that is also the basis for the so-called “Roadmap for Peace.” And on several occasions the Israeli government has confirmed that commitment. And it has been approved not only by the Prime Minister at that time, but also ratified by the Knesset.
But the process doesn’t actually seem to move forward.
I sometimes detect in your writings over the last few years, Mr. President, what really seems to be frustration if not anger with Israel on this score.
Well, I wouldn’t say anger. I would say that in the last 30 years or so one of my main commitments in life, certainly in international affairs has been to bring peace to Israel. That has been a major goal and I’ve supported every move that’s been made to bring a peace to Israel and acceptance by all the Arab countries of Israel’s right to exist to live in peace. But I am frustrated when terrorist activities cause a serious setback as they have among the Palestinians and earlier by the PLO with cross-border raids, and by Hizbullah, and the reluctance of Israel to withdraw from occupied territories. All those things concern me very much because I see them as a major obstacle to a final peace for Israel with acknowledgement by the Palestinians and all of the Arabs of Israel’s right to exist and the right of the Palestinians to have a state side-by-side with Israel.
Yet the title of your new book “Palestine Peace Not Apartheid” suggests that things could be running in an extremely ugly direction.
I use the word “not” to discourage that happening. What I want to see in the future is not apartheid, but I want to see peace.
Do you think it is possible to make peace with an organization like Hamas now running the Palestinian government?
Yes, I think within the bounds of a unity government, which is not beyond the realm of possibility—they have been on the verge of it recently—I think that the acceptance of that could lead to an accommodation among the Palestinian political parties, Fatah and Hamas. The Hamas leaders have stated publicly and often that they would accept any peace agreement negotiated between the Palestinian people and Israel if the Palestinians were permitted to approve it in a referendum. That was one of the premises of the Camp David accords: after any agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, that it should be submitted to the Palestinians for approval. So those things stay below the surface, they are still there.
This is purely speculative, but how different do you think things would have been if Sadat had remained alive?
The treaty has held up. And of course that has removed the preeminent military threat to Israel. There were four wars before that treaty over a period of 25 years. Some of them were quite serious threats to Israel; certainly the 1973 war was. And they were all lead by Egypt. To remove Egypt from the military equation obviously has been a major factor in protecting Israel from existential threat by its neighbors. I think that is still very significant. It is a document that has been binding.
And yet leadership is important in determining the quality of a peace: the question of whether the people on both sides can actually support it.
That’s true. I don’t think that there is any doubt though that the people on both sides do support that treaty. Although I can’t argue with you when you call it a cold peace—it is a peace! And the Israelis have almost full confidence that they are not going to be attacked by Egypt, and I think that if you get any kind of opinion polling in Egypt you’ll find an overwhelming portion of the Egyptians support the treaty that prevents Israel and Egypt going to war again.
Nobody, or almost nobody, on either side would seriously like to go back to war.
Right, well that’s what the treaty does.
Even though provisions for the Palestinians and on many other fronts have not been observed by Israel.
Remember, that is not in the Egypt-Israel treaty. That was actually in the Camp David accords that were also signed and which included the framework for the treaty.
So, do you think it would have made a big difference if Sadat had lived?
I think it would have, yes. Because Sadat had a lot of influence on the Palestinians and Egypt has always been the preeminent Arab country, at least militarily. But I can’t really answer that question, because as you know it wasn’t until after Sadat was killed that Israel decided to go into Lebanon. And a big question in my mind is: would Israel have invaded Lebanon in ’82 if Sadat had still been alive? I’ve always had doubts about that, because it could very well have been that if Sadat was living [the Lebanon invasion] would have caused a rejection of the peace treaty by Egypt. But that is just a matter of hypothetical conjecture.
Still, the personalities are important.
Of course Sadat looked on that treaty and the Camp David accords as inseparable. The Camp David accords, with all of Israel’s commitment to the Palestinians, and the treaty with Egypt was one unit. And later I don’t think that Mubarak had that commitment. He didn’t feel that he was an author of and a party to the agreements by Israel concerning the Palestinians. But he did cherish the part of the agreements that I negotiated that related to Egypt.
Looking to the present day, I know you’ve been very critical of the wall that Israel is building on the West Bank .
The wall and the Jordan River actually completely circles what is left of the West Bank.
Do you see that as a sign of “apartheid” to come?
It’s a sign of division, obviously, between the two. I make it clear in my book that when I refer to apartheid I’m not talking about racism. But it is certainly a division and there is no place where the wall separates Palestinians from Israelis—the wall in its entirety separates Palestinians from other Palestinians. It’s completely within the West Bank, and sometimes miles and miles within the West Bank. I’ve got an entire chapter in my forthcoming book describing the wall in detail, and in fact the cover of the book will be a picture of the wall.
Do you see the wall as an insurmountable obstacle to peace?
Yes, as presently located it is an insurmountable obstacle to peace.