Carter, now 89, said Wednesday in Atlanta the documents helped him grasp the full sweep of Middle East tensions in that era, convinced him U.S. diplomatic expectations were too low and steeled his resolve to seek a full-fledged treaty between Egypt and Israel — and nothing less.
A leading achievement of Carter’s foreign policy, the accord led then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to share the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978 for the first treaty between the Jewish state of Israel and one of its Arab neighbors.
The documents released this week include political and personality profiles of Sadat and Begin that Carter read before the 13-day summit at the Camp David presidential retreat in rural Maryland.
There also are transcripts of U.S. National Security Council sessions; summaries of key meetings, including conversations among the heads of state; and analyses of undercurrents among Mideast nations that still reverberate in the region.
The papers cover the period from January 1977 to March 1979, from the months before the summit to the following spring when Egypt and Israel signed the peace treaty that emerged from the outline forged at Camp David.
The deal did not curtail Israeli occupation of the West Bank, but it ended open hostilities between Sadat’s and Begin’s countries. Begin also withdrew Israeli troops from the Sinai peninsula and Sadat opened the Suez Canal to Israeli ships.
The collection suggests an American administration that knew the president faced a balancing act.
“You will have to control the proceedings from the outset,” Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in one memo to Carter.
In a January 4, 1977, assessment, the CIA suggested developments in the region — including the reconciliation of Egypt and Syria, a “more durable” cease-fire in Lebanon and Saudi eagerness for “progress on the Arab-Israeli dispute” — made conditions ripe for “the launching of a major Arab peace offensive led by Egypt and Syria and backed by Saudi Arabia.”
A secret National Intelligence Estimate around the same time cited a reduction in Soviet arms deliveries in the aftermath of the 1973 war and “Israel’s substantial military build-up” that resulted in “a relative diminution of Egypt’s ability to wage war against Israel.”
An August 16, 1978, intelligence cable, shortly before the Camp David talks began, observed that Saudi Arabia was signaling to its Arab allies support for such negotiations “and trying to persuade them to withhold comment on the meeting ... until the outcome is known.”
Carter paid a visit to CIA headquarters in August 1978 to help prepare for the talks. “President Carter ... indicated that he wanted to be ‘steeped in the personalities of Begin and Sadat,’” said a CIA document written after the summit.
Carter recalled Wednesday that he was particularly interested in the pressures and quirks that drove Begin and Sadat: “What were their strengths and weaknesses? What were there attitudes toward me? ... What did they say about the United States and each other privately?”
Brzezinski wrote to Carter, “Sadat cannot afford a failure and he knows it; both Sadat and Begin think that you cannot afford failure; but Begin probably believes that a failure at Camp David will hurt you and Sadat, but not him.”
The CIA’s analyses described Sadat, then 59, as “a former revolutionary and ardent nationalist ... a moderate leader and a pragmatic politician and diplomat.”
“He has become known for his realism, political acumen and capacity for surprising, courageous and dramatic decisions,” said the CIA profile.
As to Begin, 65 at the time, CIA analysts had written: “The situation is complicated by the uncertain state of Begin’s health. Despite the denials of his doctor that he is seriously ill, both coalition and Labor Party leaders are already jockeying for position in the succession sweepstakes.”
Carter said the analyses suggested the two men’s personalities might dictate speaking with each leader separately. Begin — Carter recalled — was obsessed with minutia, while Sadat preferred to talk in generalities, often involving long discourses on history.
Brzezinski told Carter in an Aug. 31, 1978 memo: “The risk is that you could lose control of the talks and be diverted from the central issues either by Begin’s legalisms or Sadat’s imprecision.”
Indeed, Carter called the early days of the summit, when he hosted the two leaders together in his cabin, a “disaster.” For the next 10 days, Carter served as the go-between, speaking to Begin and Sadat separately. “When the Egyptians were sleeping, I was talking to the Israelis,” Carter said.
“When the Israelis were sleeping, I was talking to the Egyptians.”
The documents note the range of reactions to the treaty, particularly anger from Palestinians who viewed it as a one-sided deal for Egypt.
Carter said Wednesday that, perhaps as much as anything, a moment between two grandfathers helped get an agreement, even if an imperfect one. He said Begin was dug in on not dismantling Israel’s Sinai settlement.
Separately, Carter said, Begin had asked his American counterpart to autograph eight pictures for Begin’s grandchildren. So Carter had his secretary find out the names of the grandchildren. He wrote messages to each by name and delivered the mementos to Begin personally. “He wept, and so did I,” Carter said, and Begin opened up to a key piece of the deal.
Months after the Egypt-Israel treaty, Carter plunged into a Middle East crisis that rocked his presidency when 52 Americans were taken hostage at the U.S. embassy in Iran in the fall of 1979. Carter’s public standing tanked amid the crisis, and the hostages weren’t freed until after Carter lost his 1980 re-election bid to Ronald Reagan.
Sadat was assassinated in 1981. Begin died in 1992.