Explaining the Camp David Summit: An Individual-Based Approach to Foreign Policy Decision-Making


From September 5, 1978 to September 17, 1978, the American President Jimmy Carter, the Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the Egyptian President Anwar Al Sadat gathered in the presidential retreat of Camp David. From these thirteen days of negotiation emerged the Camp David Treaties, which provided a framework for both the signature of a bilateral peace between Egypt and Israel and for the treatment of the Palestinian question.

This paper will analyze the factors behind foreign policy decision-making as it occurred at Camp David. I will argue that an individual-level analysis on the cognitive, psychological and interpersonal level is most able to explain such decisions. To flesh out this hypothesis, I have analyzed the secondary literature on the Camp David Accords as well as direct accounts from participants. I will make extensive use of primary sources, beginning with the text of the Accords themselves. I have also delved into the autobiographies of the decision-makers of Camp David—Jimmy Carter, Sadat, Begin, Vance, Dayan, Brzezinski, Fahmi, Eizmann, Kamil and Rosalynn Carter. Numerous papers on the theory of individual-centered decision-making will strengthen the theoretical backing of this piece.

While I firmly believe that the political decision-making at Camp David is best analyzed at the individual level, I will nonetheless admit the limitations of this theory. The most potent counter-argument is that Camp David constituted a very specific arena for foreign policy decision-making, the mechanisms of which are not replicated in more traditional diplomatic arenas. I will also analyze the domestic factors explanation, which states that the behaviors of Carter, Sadat and Begin are best explained through their domestic contexts. I will nevertheless attempt to show how these factors were subverted at Camp David, being used as bargaining chips by the three leaders rather than constraining their behavior.

Such research may not only further enrich the academic dialogue on high-level bargaining contexts, but can also entail policy prescriptions regarding the adverse effects of stress-filled negotiation arenas and emotionally loaded political relations on foreign policy outcomes.


I. The History of the Camp David Negotiations

A. The Road to Camp David

To analyze the context of the political decision-making as it occurred at Camp David, one needs to understand the international developments that led to the summit. This brief historical analysis will present the opening bargaining positions of the decision-makers, which will help to determine the extent of the concessions extracted from each actor during the Summit.

1. The Near East After the Wars

In 1967, the State of Israel defeated a coalition of Arab armies, including Egypt’s. The Six-Day War rendered direct confrontation with Israel a costlier option than before for the neighboring Arab states. After the war, the UN adopted its Resolution 242, asserting “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” Both Israel and Egypt accepted this resolution, even though Israel retained control over the Golan, the West Bank and Gaza.[1] In 1972, Sadat expelled the 20,000 Soviet advisers present in Egypt, signaling to the United States a willingness to negotiate—a decision based on his intimate conviction that the US could put a decisive pressure on its Israeli ally. In 1973, after the military stalemate of the October War, American leaders came to realize the need for an agreement, largely because of the oil embargo implemented by Arab states as a retaliation against American support for Israel. Henry Kissinger spearheaded this new engagement, negotiating the disengagement agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

2. Anwar Al Sadat in Jerusalem

The step-by-step formula of the Nixon and Ford administrations yielded few results. Inaugurated as President on January 20, 1977, James Earl “Jimmy” Carter put forward the idea of a multilateral peace conference. The opening bargaining position of the Carter administration was clear: a Palestinian homeland should be established in return for the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and its Arab neighbors.[2] The victory of Menachem Begin’s Likud against the Israeli left in May 1977, however, thwarted the success of the conference. The far-right Likud party ran on a platform of permanent Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza, which would be the opening bargaining position of the Israeli delegation at Camp David.[3] This stalemate led to Anwar Sadat’s surprise declaration, in front of the Egyptian National Assembly, that he was prepared “to go anywhere for peace”—including to Jerusalem.[4] In this decision, Carter’s personal influence on Sadat is striking. During October 1977, fearing the end of the direct negotiations between Israel and Egypt, Carter wrote a handwritten letter to Sadat that he ended with “Your friend, Jimmy Carter.” Answering this message, Sadat promised in another handwritten letter a “bold step” on the path towards peace.[5] On November 20, 1977, Sadat addressed the Knesset, outlining what I consider to be his opening bargaining position at the Camp David Summit: the Arabs would only agree to a peace with Israel in exchange of a withdrawal from all occupied territories—the Sinai, the West Bank and Gaza included.[6] The Egyptian President explicitly ruled out the option of a bilateral peace treaty: “There can be no peace without the Palestinians.”[7] While Sadat trusted that his historical visit to Jerusalem would provide the necessary breakthrough to surpass the psychological obstacles to peace, the visit actually led to few concessions from Israel.[8] At the December 1977 summit of Ismailiya, the negotiations came to a full stop: reacting to the construction of new settlements in the West Bank, Sadat threatened to end the direct talks with Israel.[9]

3. The Peace Initiatives of Jimmy Carter

By the end of 1977, Carter’s involvement reached a new level. After one year of intense commitment to peace in the Middle East, the President had little to show for his efforts. He personally appealed to Sadat, whom he considered a “friend,” to join him at Camp David in February 1978. This appeal deterred Sadat from breaking the direct negotiations with Israel.[10] Attempting to go beyond the regular step-by-step American approach, Carter made an extremely risky bet: in response to continuing deadlock and growing pessimism with regards to his involvement in the Middle East peace process, Carter personally invited Begin and Sadat to join him for a high-level summit at Camp David.[11]

B. Thirteen Days in September

Having established the context leading up to Camp David and the opening bargaining positions of the three major actors, I now turn to the day-to-day unfolding of the summit.

1. “For the President’s Eyes Only”

On September 5, Sadat and Begin arrived at Camp David. Begin immediately pressured Carter by presenting him a letter written by his predecessor Gerard Ford in 1975, which promised the Israelis that the Americans would consult them on the drafting of any peace proposal regarding the Middle East. On September 6, Sadat put forward a formal Egyptian proposal; he called not only for a full withdrawal from the Sinai, the West Bank and Gaza, but also for the establishment of a five-year transitional authority to establish Palestinian self-determination. Sadat also stated that he was seeking a comprehensive agreement rather than a bilateral peace. Nevertheless, Sadat, in a sign of immense personal trust in Carter, also delivered a handwritten document to his host. Marked “For the President Eye’s Only,” this contained his fallback positions.[12] On September 7, Sadat lost his temper at Begin’s presentation of the formal Israeli proposal. In front of Carter, he pounced on the table shouting “Security, yes! Land, no!” William Quandt, member of Carter’s National Security team, concluded, “Begin and Sadat are not speaking the same language.”[13] This was the first and last direct working session between the two leaders. On September 8, Carter met with Begin, who criticized the stubbornness of Sadat. Carter, contrary to Sadat’s wishes, revealed to Begin that he had already secured “significant Egyptian concessions”—referring to the fallback positions of Sadat. From this point onwards, Begin became even more intransigent with regards to Egyptian demands, stating, “the eventual sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza will not be solved at Camp David.”

2. Shifting Gears

On September 8, realizing that negotiations were deadlocked, Jimmy Carter started developing an American proposal. From this point onwards, the goal of the American delegation was to obtain a bilateral Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty—a significant departure from its initial objectives. On September 10, while Carter met with Begin for a three-hour session that yielded little progress, Moshe Dayan, Israel’s Foreign Minister, proposed crafting two different documents. One would be devoted to a bilateral agreement between Egypt and Israel, and one to dealing with the Palestinian issue. Sensing the growing tension among the negotiators after nearly a week of complete isolation, Carter organized an outing to Gettysburg, one of many initiatives to encourage the delegations to mingle. The visit was especially directed at Begin, who had gradually become even more rigid, stating that Camp David was “beginning to resemble a concentration camp de luxe.[14]

3. From Deadlock to Agreement

On September 12, Carter began to consider different ways to minimize a failure of the negotiations. Facing a complete deadlock, he knew that the rest of his duties could not wait much longer, as he had already been out of the Oval Office for more than a week. On September 13, Carter was informed that the Egyptian delegation was starting to pack its bags. He personally visited President Sadat, convincing him to stay. The following day was spent by the American and Israeli delegations working on the parameters of the Palestinian document, in quasi-absence of the Egyptian delegation. As throughout the entire summit, the Israeli delegation had become the main focus point of Carter’s bargaining efforts. Menachem Begin had gradually become isolated, even within his own delegation, with regard to the continued presence of Israeli settlements in Sinai—the withdrawal of which was a core priority for Sadat and Carter. Begin finally accepted, in the words of the Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizmann, to “come to terms with reality” on Sinai settlements. He nevertheless refrained from any concessions on Jerusalem: “Even cutting off my hands and feet will not make me change my position.”[15] Ultimately, Carter settled for an exchange of letters on Jerusalem—letters attached to the treaties that had no operational value.

On Saturday, September 16, Carter, Begin and their closest aides met in the evening to work out the final details of the agreement regarding the West Bank and Gaza. The continued settlement policy of Israel had become the last remaining bone of contention between the delegations. At 1:30 AM, Carter adjourned the meeting, convinced that he had finally secured a precious promise from Begin: a freeze on all the settlements for as long as the negotiations lasted. The next day, however, Begin refused to acknowledge this promise.[16] For fear of failing to reach an agreement, as Carter had stated to both Begin and Sadat that Sunday was to be the last day of the negotiations, Carter opted for ambiguity in the final Treaties. “On the West Bank and Gaza, we have chosen to postpone until later what cannot be solved today” William Quandt wrote in his notes. At 10:30 PM, the three haggard leaders signed the Camp David Accords at the White House.

C. The Outcome of Camp David: Two Treaties and One Victor

Having described the day-to-day unfolding of the negotiations, I will analyze the content of the Camp David Treaties.

1. The Ambiguity of Peace

The first treaty is entitled a “Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel.” In this text, Israel agrees to relinquish its sovereignty over the Sinai and to dismantle the settlements that had been established in the peninsula. Egypt agrees to sign a peace treaty, ultimately leading to full diplomatic relations with Israel.[17] The second treaty is entitled “Framework for Peace in the Middle East,” and regards the fate of the Israeli-controlled West Bank and Gaza. Its broad title is indicative of its lack of precision. This imprecision strongly contrasts with the thorough first document, which includes deadlines and many operational mechanisms to reach bilateral peace.[18] The second text establishes the model of a transitional phase before the final issues, including but not limited to Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, were to be discussed. The agreement was deeply compromised by the absence of any time limit for each transitional period. As such, the pre-Camp David status quo of a de facto military occupation of the West Bank and of Gaza could be maintained without violating the treaty.[19] The exchange of letters that accompanied the treaty made its content even more vague, allowing several competing explanations of the same concepts.[20] Additionally, the UN General Assembly declared, on November 29, 1979, that the Camp David treaty had no validity with regards to the Palestinian people. On the other hand, the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was signed on March 26, 1979 on the White House lawn, a direct outcome of the Camp David Summit.

2. The Consequences of Camp David

The fact that the two treaties are unrelated is a significant Israeli victory. Because the two agreements were legally separate, the tangible improvements in Egyptian-Israeli bilateral relations did not trigger any positive evolution on the Palestinian issue.[21] The Egyptian army, the most significant Arab military force, effectively laid down its weapons without obtaining any guarantee for Palestinian self-determination, a goal which had been at the core of the Egyptian foreign policy for most of its modern history. Beyond legitimizing the military occupation of the West Bank and of Gaza, the Camp David treaty empowered the Israeli cabinet. Israel quickly stepped up its settlement policy, and also invaded Lebanon in 1982 in what it recognized as “war of choice.”[22]

Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, while aware that the agreement was “not entirely fair,” genuinely believed that it represented a “significant first step on the road of peace.”[23] The continuous oppression of the Palestinian people, along with the security plight this represents for every Israeli citizen, would debunk this overly optimistic assessment. Indeed, on September 18, the very day after the agreements, Menachem Begin declared to the Israeli media that Israel’s settlement policy was not be affected by the Treaties. Begin also openly stated to the Knesset that Israel was to retain control of the West Bank beyond the five-year transitional period that Carter had sought to implement at Camp David. On the very same day, Carter claimed in front of the Congress that the summit marked the end of Israel’s settlement policy, illustrating the degree of willful misunderstanding that the negotiators had allowed.

With regards to Sadat’s fate, the Camp David agreements were a fully-fledged disaster. Isolated both at home and in the Arab world, Anwar Al Sadat saw Egyptian diplomats expelled from most Arab countries, crowds of Egyptians taking the streets, and Egypt excluded from the League of Arab States.[24] In 1981, an Islamist fundamentalist, Khalid Al Islambuli assassinated Sada; he identified the President’s abandonment of the Palestinians as the core motive of his action.

It is hence clear that Begin was the most able negotiator at Camp David. He knew how to play the game of brinkmanship, holding back on his final concessions until he fully identified the needs of the other negotiators. Throughout two weeks of intense negotiations, Menachem Begin managed not to admit the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” Essentially, “For Begin, Sinai had been sacrificed, but Eretz Israel had been won.”[25]


II. The Individual-based Explanation: Cognition, Personality, and Interpersonal Relations for Decision-Making

A. Cognitive Decision-Making at Camp David: Defending’s One Self Against Reality

Before focusing on the particular motivated biases of each individual actor at Camp David, I intend to describe the theoretical background on which this section is based.

1. The Cognitive Setting of the Camp David Summit

What this paper understands as the cognitive context of decision-makers is the broad “mental construction a leader develops about the world,” which regiments not only his vision of politics but the entire range of his social cognitive processes.[26] Robert Jervis underscored the cognitive/psychological setting of the decision as being located within the individual himself.[27] Alexander Wendt further asserted that the psychological factors for decision-making are not necessarily more flexible than the traditional realist systemic factors for decision-making, hence reinforcing the centrality of individual-based factors to explain foreign policy.[28] Jerel Rosati further stated that the political behavior of each actor is the product of the interaction between the objective and the psychological environments in which the decision occurs.[29]

Alexander George furthered this analysis by constructing two models to explain sub-optimal decision-making by individual political actors, a phenomenon that is clear at Camp David. The decision-maker might adopt the “problem solver paradigm,” selectively assessing information in order to be able to remain cognitively operational, or the “consistency seeker paradigm,” only accepting information that suits his pre-existing beliefs. The issue here is not the information itself, but rather how it is perceived, assessed and processed by decision-makers.[30] At Camp David, I argue that Jimmy Carter, for the sake of obtaining an agreement, ignored—willfully or not—several obstacles which could prevent the effective implementation of the treaties. The misunderstanding on settlements is a powerful instance of such a cognitive shortcoming.

Richard Ned Lebow, recognizing the inevitable shortcoming of cognitively limited individuals, put forward the concept of “satisficing”: in the context of limited rationality, decision-makers tend to settle for the next best available option. This matches Carter’s acceptance of an inherently flawed agreement for the sake of obtaining an agreement, however imperfect and vague it might be. Lebow also states that actors tend to exhibit the “value dominance paradigm,” becoming unable to correctly assess trade-offs between different policy options. Barbara Farnham wrote that decision-makers routinely fail to realize the value conflicts inherent in each decision, especially in situations of high stress.[31] This also matches Carter’s behavior, as the President refused to acknowledge that a bilateral peace treaty between Egypt and Israel without concrete guarantees for the Palestinians would ultimately dampen the prospects of peace. This ties in with a third concept that Lebow develops, the “post-decisional rationalization” paradigm: while Jimmy Carter initially presented the agreement as an imperfect yet significant first step towards peace, he later became more adamant in exclusively underscoring the positive aspects of the Treaties.[32]

A final cognitive limitation of the Camp David negotiators is the pre-eminence of losses in their strategic assessments. Losses loom larger than gains, writes Barbara Farnham. In Carter’s very own words, “I hate to lose more than I like to win.”[33] This checks out with the behavior of the American President, who chose to sign a treaty, however imperfect, for fear of failing to show any results for his personal involvement in the Middle East peace process. This analysis is relevant for the history of the Carter Administration as a whole. For instance, Carter attempted to rescue the American hostages in Iran, in spite of the high risks the mission presented, in order to remove the prospect of a significant loss. Farnham argues that Carter would not have taken such a risk had the operation been designed to secure gains rather than to avoid losses.[34]

These arguments are made even more powerful by the high-pressure nature of the Camp David negotiations. I argue that this context further hampered the ability of decision-makers to critically assess their own cognitive limitations, leading to the suboptimal political outcome of two separate treaties.[35] More generally, the entire political context of the negotiations was conducive to individual decision-makers, along with their personal cognitive failings, playing prominent roles. Hermann and Walker have stated that the idiosyncrasies of decision-makers matter most when the decision-makers have a strategic position—as Carter, Begin and Sadat did—when they deal with new policy elements using non-traditional diplomatic settings—such as Camp David—and when they find themselves in the context of a relative power balance—which, at that time, described Egyptian-Israeli relations.[36] Gaddis Smith further described the 1978 Middle East situation as a “point of juncture,” reinforcing the strategic importance of each individual decision-maker.[37]

2. The Cognitive Biases of Carter, Sadat and Begin

I argue that the inherently biased cognitive context through which each actor approached the political problems at hand greatly shaped their respective bargaining behaviors.

A. The Motivated Biases of Sadat: A Prophet Beyond His Time

According to Lawrence Wright, the Egyptian President saw himself as a “grand strategic thinker blazing like a comet through the skies of history.” He gradually developed strikingly grandiose cognitive schemes about the world, leading him to become both “reckless and flexible” policy-wise.[38] In his own autobiography, Anwar Al Sadat describes his quest of identity and that of Egypt as “one and the same thing,” thinking of himself as the incarnation of Egypt’s 7,000 year-old civilization.[39] This grandiloquent cognition of Sadat was further heightened by the international media praise he received after his visit to the Israeli Knesset in 1977. He was described as a savior, and “believed every single word.”[40] As the negotiation process drew on, the Egyptian President grew increasingly isolated, and consequently more and more grandiose.

Precisely because of his grandiose self-conception, Sadat was strikingly impermeable to adverse criticism. This led him to develop delusional ways of thinking about the political context of his time, ways that were left unchecked by contrary views. Sadat was, for instance, deeply convinced that the US could shape Israeli policies: “If the Middle East is a deck of cards, America holds ninety-nine percent of them,” he frequently asserted.[41] As a result, Sadat bet his political career on his friendship with Carter, trusting the American President to coerce Israel into compromise. This explains why, at the very outset of the summit and against his adviser’s opinions, Sadat decided to disclose to Carter his fallback positions. The fact that Carter stated to Sadat that he over-assessed the ability of the US to put pressure on Israel makes this cognitive tendency of the Egyptian President even more striking. When confronted by his delegation on the concessions he made at Camp David, Sadat dismissed his advisers at “plumbers,” while describing himself as a “statesman” with a “sense of history.”[42] Sadat was, in short, an extremely self-deceiving decision-maker. Brzezinski deemed him “excessively inclined towards wishful thinking,” and even said of him that he “had the tendency to be let himself be carried away by his own words.”[43] Mohammed Ibrahim Kamil, Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, deems Sadat an “extremely inconsistent personality”:[44] Sadat is described as usually drawing on his pipe during Camp David, “lost in his own world” whilst crucial questions were being discussed.[45] The overwhelmingly negative Egyptian and Arab reactions to the Camp David treaty—which came as a complete surprise to Sadat—are a testimony of how out of touch with reality the Egyptian President had become.

B. The Motivated Biases of Begin: A Prisoner of His Time

While Sadat had a self-constructed image of his own position as that of a prophetic leader freeing himself from the burden of his time, I consider Menachem Begin’s individual cognition as that of a decision-maker constrained by his own psychotraumatic history, to which he associated the history of the Jewish people as a whole. To Wright, Begin embodies the “most wounded and aggressive qualities in the Israeli psyche.”[46] The cognitive framework of the Israeli Premier hence fits well with the writings of David Welsh, who deems cultures and emotions significant variables in decision-making.[47] Begin was constrained by his emotional link with his people’s history: deeming continued Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza the only way to ensure the survival and the welfare of the Jewish citizens of Israel, he maintained a state of occupation which impeded not only the legitimate rights of the Palestinians to self-determination, but also the security of Israeli citizens. I argue that the Camp David Treaties represent a suboptimal outcome for the Israelis themselves, as it enshrined a military occupation that hampers their safety to this day. I consider the cognitive limitations of Begin a major explanation for this suboptimal outcome.

By describing Menachem Begin as being of a “distinctly Hitleristic type,” David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the State of Israel, encapsulated the constrained cognitive framework of Begin. Begin’s cognitive framework is at the origin of his restless attention for detail, of his legalism—his granitic sense of protocol was a major source of annoyance for Carter—and of his impermeability to the emotional appeals of Carter, poles apart from Sadat’s “Nobel Price Complex.”[48] Indeed, unlike Sadat’s emotional and sanguine approach to international bargaining, Begin adopted an extremely cold and seemingly detached stance. In Carter’s own words, “Begin was calmer than Sadat.”[49] For Cyrus Vance, Begin’s semantic precision explains, to a large extent, his ability to extract concessions from both Carter and Sadat.[50] In addition, Begin could, unlike Carter and Sadat, afford to walk out of Camp David empty-handed. This paper argues that Begin’s willingness not to reach an accord stems from Begin’s traumatized and biased personal cognition rather than from the Israeli domestic context of the time. Such intransigence led the American delegation to revisit its bargaining tactics and negotiation stances to accommodate the stiffness of the Israeli Premier, ultimately yielding a complete sidelining of the Palestinian issue.

C. The Motivated Biases of Carter: A Moralist Engineer and the Saturday Night Fever

I approach the cognitive mechanisms of the American President within the theoretical framework of the bounded rationality concept, as developed by Barbara Farnham. In this theory, the decision-maker attempts to rationally assess each policy option, but does so within his own cognitively limited context. This prevents him from considering a broad range of options that could potentially yield an optimal outcome.[51] Farnham also states that high-stress situations lead decision-makers to resort to even more skewed forms of bolstering.[52] In Carter’s case, bolstering meant considering an agreement between Egypt and Israel as a political outcome that could satisfy all the different values of the President. This explains Carter’s choice to bow in front of Begin’s claim that he had not promised any permanent settlement freeze during the negotiations of September 16, 1978—an episode that has been described as the “Saturday Night Fever.”[53] This ultimate bargaining session encapsulates the particular setting of the Summit, during which most negotiations occurred closer to dawn than to nightfall. In such a high-pressure context, I argue that motivated biases become even more prominent in shaping political outcomes.

Another argument is derived from prospect theory literature: for Carter, the risk of failing to reach an accord was considered more significant than the prospect of reaching a satisfying comprehensive settlement. Chances are, indeed, that Begin would never have signed an agreement containing a clear limit on the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Ultimately, however, what matters is that Carter was convinced that Begin would never have signed such a pledge. Such a conception explains Carter’s final concession.

Another crucial cognitive aspect is that Carter is extremely thorough and approaches political challenges is a detailed-oriented manner. According to Gaddis Smith, Carter’s preparation for the Camp David summit was exceptionally thorough: “Carter studied thousands of pages of documents, familiarized himself with every kilometer of disputed territory, learned the names and populations of scores of villages.”[54] Ezer Weizmann was impressed by Carter’s restless drive for control and attention to detail: “This is the way an engineer thinks, in square and rectangles.”[55] Once an engineer in the Navy, Carter retained the meticulousness of engineers far into his political career.[56] De Mause and Ebel describe Carter as possessing a “narcissistic personality with obsessive compulsive defense” and a phenomenal “drive for control.”[57] Carter even confessed that he found it challenging, when transitioning to the White House, to delegate authority.[58] This hands-on approach to decision-making was striking at the Camp David Summit. Quandt stated that the American president adopted the roles of “draftsman, strategist, therapist, friend, adversary, and mediator”—it is obvious how the role of Carter was at least as much psychological as political.[59] Because of this extreme personal and cognitive commitment, Carter was inclined to resort to motivated biases. In discussing the contentious events of the last night of negotiations, Carter simply stated in his autobiography: “On the West Bank settlements, we finally worked out language that was satisfactory.”[60] Carter’s intense moral involvement in the Camp David negotiations led him to extreme frustration when he faced Begin’s intransigence.[61] As for Sadat, his fleeing moments of rigidity quickly elapsed.[62] Carter’s frustration explains his final concession to Begin during the last night of negotiations.

Last but not least, such motivated biases took their full toll precisely because of Carter’s lack of prior experience with the Middle East. If the President is to be believed, “My interest in the region had not begun when I moved into the White House.”[63] In this context, Rosati asserts that Carter’s general approach towards human nature, rather than towards the political issues of the region, was most instrumental in shaping the behavior of the American President. This reinforces the strength of a cognitive analysis as opposed to a systemic political explanation. Jimmy Carter was as such often times described as an “American moralist,” propelled by uniquely powerful moral passions that profoundly affected his cognitive appraisal of the political issues at hand.[64]

B. Personal Decision-Making at Camp David: Three Men Alone

I will now explain the particular personality traits of Carter, Sadat and Begin, as shaped by their own personal heritages, which constitute a second level of analysis in the individual-based explanations of political decision-making.

1. Carter, Begin, and Sadat: The Prophet, The Terrorist, and The Pharaoh

A. Jimmy Carter, “From Peanuts to Presidency”[65]

“Though we face extraordinary responsibilities, we are first and always Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter from Plains, Georgia,” wrote Rosalynn Carter.[66] While it is true that the decision-maker’s personal heritage is crucial for all politicians, I argue that such a heritage, precisely because it was at the center of Carter’s self-constructed narrative, was even more instrumental in shaping the 39th President’s political decisions. Jimmy Carter was born in a farm in Archery, three miles away from Plains, Georgia, a town of a few hundred inhabitants at that time. Carter was raised on a diet of sweet potatoes, which he says was usually the only available meat at the farm.[67] Young Carter did not have many friends,[68] which could account for the high value he would later assign to interpersonal relations.[69] In his very own words, Carter’s “life on the farm during the Great Depression more nearly resembled farm life of fully 2,000 years ago than farm life today.”[70] The humiliation that Carter underwent as a peanut salesman and hazing he suffered at the Naval Academy also shaped his personality.[71] After a short career as a Navy engineer, Carter decided to come back to the farm in Archery following the death of his father. During 1954 he earned a profit of less than $200, which contrasted starkly with the bright military future that Carter could have secured for himself.[72]

Throughout the 1960s, Carter became more involved in Georgian local politics. In 1966, he ran for Governor. Defeated, he waited for only one month before starting to campaign again for the 1970 race, following the axiom that he claims for himself in his autobiography: “Show me a good loser and I will show you a loser.”[73] This renewed political ambition coincided with his newly found faith, which he described as a “born again” experience.[74] Carter’s passion for politics became intrinsically intertwined with his personal spiritual quest: “The core of his religious and personal faith seems to be the core of his political philosophy as well,” a reporter at that time wrote.[75] In 1972, once he had been elected as Governor, he began campaigning for the Presidency. Reflecting the importance of his own personal origins for his political development, Carter ran his campaign, at least nominally, from Plains.[76] On January 20, 1977, Carter, a genuine outsider from politics, was sworn in as President.

B. Menachem Begin, From the Irgun to Camp David

Menachem Begin was born in Poland. His early exposure to anti-Jewish hatred fundamentally impacted his personality, reinforcing his stubborn, determinate and restless character. His detention in a Soviet labor camp further fueled his belief that Jews needed a state of their own, “a strong and powerful” one, which led him to adhere to the revisionist ideals of Ze’ev Jabotinsky.[77] In White Nights, Begin writes about his experience in the Soviet labor camp. In The Revolt, he narrates his experience as the head of the underground Irgun, a terrorist organization that fought the British presence in Mandatory Palestine. In both works, Begin appears as intransigent, full of rage, passionate, and supremely sure of his intelligence. Begin saw himself as a “new specimen of human begin”: the “Fighting Jew” born of the trauma of the Holocaust.

Most of Begin’s closest relatives were killed during World War II. It is with deep suffering at heart that Begin immigrated to British-controlled Palestine as part of a Polish army unit in 1942. Once in Palestine, Begin created the Irgun, a terrorist organization that fought for the end of the British presence in what its members called “Eretz Israel”—understood as encompassing both the West Bank and Jordan. The Irgun targeted both military personnel and civilians. Its most notorious attack, directly planned by Begin, was the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on July 22, 1946, which caused 91 casualties. Begin subsequently declared that he was mourning the 17 Jewish victims, while leaving “the mourning for the British victims to the British.” Begin did not say a single word for the 41 Arabs who perished in the attacks. On July 29, the Irgun hanged two British soldiers and booby-trapped their bodies. Begin, summoned to condemn such actions, justified the crime by stating that the two soldiers had been convicted for “anti-Hebrew activities.” As a side note, Lawrence Wright reports that Begin’s book, “The Revolt,” was later found in an al-Qaeda training camp.[78]

Begin was thus an extreme figure in the nascent Israeli political scene. When Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion became convinced that the rogue Begin wanted to stage a coup d’état, he commissioned Moshe Dayan to confiscate a new shipment of weapons the Irgun was scheduled to receive. A gunfight ensued, leading to tens of deaths on both sides. After this tragedy, Begin went into seclusion, and later reinvented himself as a politician. He founded the Herut Party and led the opposition to the Labor Party for a full 29 years. An extremely doctrinaire figure, Begin resigned from Golda Meir’s cabinet when she accepted UNSC Resolution 242.[79] The fervor of Begin’s convictions as well as the violence of his political struggles make him apparently ill-suited to a diplomatic context, the essence of which is to strike deals and accept compromises. I will nevertheless attempt to show that it is precisely his cold and stubborn character that granted Begin a historical victory at Camp David.

C. Anwar Al Sadat, An Upper Egypt Peasant on the Throne of Egypt

Anwar Al Sadat grew up in Mit Abul Kum, a village of mud huts in Upper Egypt. The future Egyptian President, who was born two generations away from slavery, studied at the Royal Military Academy in Cairo. There, he was directly exposed to the British colonial presence in Egypt, as well as to the ideals of Attatürk. His tendency for autocracy, fueled by the uncompromising policies of the British, is ultimately what led him to support Adolf Hitler during World War II. In a Cairo magazine years after the end of the war, he wrote a letter to Hitler as if the German dictator was still alive: “My dear Hitler, I admire you from the bottom of my heart.”[80] As such, like Begin, Sadat did not hesitate to resort to violent means to achieve his goals.

Sadat’s entire autobiography is suffused with the extreme ego of the Egyptian President, a self-righteousness that survived even the most striking political defeats, such as the 1973 war with Israel. Imprisoned several times, both before and during World War II, Sadat lived the life of a solitary man utterly convinced by the rightness of his cause. In his own words: “I am simply a man who has come to know himself and is therefore true to himself in everything he says or does.”[81] Sadat was alone in the underground when he fought the monarchy of Farouk. But he was also alone after reaching power in 1952, as he did not trust any of his fellow officers. Weizman, the Israeli Defense Minister, perfectly understood the personality of Sadat. When visiting him in Cairo, he offered him a clock with the inscription “The leader who moved the clock forward,” hence acknowledging Sadat’s disproportionate ego and thirst for historical success.[82] Sadat routinely claimed to Weizman that, unlike his advisers, he was “Thinking bi-i-ig,” attempting to position himself beyond the political fray of his time.[83] Sadat despised most foreign leaders, and indeed most people who surrounded him. He nevertheless felt a direct emotional link with Carter, whom he called “President” or “Mr.” unlike other leaders.[84] Another crucial emotional linkage that Sadat developed was with Nicolae Ceaușescu. It is after his meeting with the Romanian dictator that Sadat decided to accept a peace summit geared towards obtaining a bilateral peace with Israel, which ultimately led to Camp David.[85]

Sadat was also excessively inclined towards wishful thinking. Sadat genuinely believed that his 1977 visit would quickly lead to a full comprehensive peace, believing that only “details” needed to be worked out for the Palestinians to finally obtain a state of their own.[86] Lawrence Wright describes Sadat as a “fevered mind, often defiant and arrogant, even towards the members of his own delegation,” a probable consequence of his life in the Egyptian underground.[87] Kenneth Stein concurs in remarking on Sadat’s “flamboyance and disdain,” along with his secretive style and excessive impatience.[88] These personality traits explain the suboptimal bargaining behavior that Sadat adopted at Camp David.

2. Three Men Alone: The Delegations Sidelined

It is now a well-established fact that Anwar Al Sadat went to Camp David not because of his advisers’ opinions but rather because he trusted Jimmy Carter. Both Kamil and Fahmy, the two successive Egyptian Ministers of Foreign Affairs, disapproved of the entire negotiation process with the Israelis.[89] The prevailing opinion in Sadat’s cabinet was that no Arab leader should take any unilateral action that could endanger the positions of the Arabs as a whole with regards to Israel, which is exactly what Sadat did by signing a bilateral peace.[90] Kamil advocated for the rupture of the talks in January 1978, after it had become clear that Menachem Begin would not react to Sadat’s visit to the Knesset by striking the historical compromise the Egyptian President had hoped for.[91] Sadat nevertheless travelled to Camp David in February 1978, from which he came back convinced by his “good friend” Carter that pursuing direct negotiations with the Israelis was the way forward. As a result of such isolation, Sadat spent most of the Camp David summit secluded in his own cabin, even refusing to eat with the rest of his delegation.[92] By all accounts, Sadat “ignored the opinions of his colleagues and took decisions single-handedly.”[93]

The autocratic character of Egypt’s government further strengthens the individual-centered framework of this paper. Indeed, while Ismail Fahmy claims that the entire peace process with Israel “should have been submitted to the approval of competent political institutions in Egypt,” I see no genuine counter-balancing power that could have mitigated Sadat’s autocratic tendencies.[94] Carter’s opinion of the Egyptian delegation further hampered its role: as he considered the Egyptians—except Sadat—as doctrinaire and rigid, Carter routinely went over the heads of the delegates, directly pleading for concessions with Sadat.[95]

Menachem Begin too was extremely isolated in his delegation. Moshe Dayan, Begin’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, states that the Israeli Premier routinely dismissed his suggestions.[96] To Dayan’s mind, the treaty was indeed the outcome of a bargaining between “The Big Three,” who positioned themselves—even spatially, as shown by the locations of their respective cabins at Camp David—at a distance from their delegations. Ezer Weizman and Rosalynn Carter also concur in deeming Begin’s positions as excessively steadfast.[97], [98] Ultimately, however, the positions of Begin—especially his unwillingness to strike any significant compromise on the West Bank and Gaza—most influenced the outcome of the political bargaining of Camp David. As a side note, Weizman and Dayan later quit their positions within the Israeli Cabinet owing to their disapproval of Begin’s policies, a pattern matching Fahmy and Kamil’s departures from the Egyptian government.

While the American team by no means exhibited the same internal political dissensions, Carter’s restless drive for control and extremely personalized style of decision-making also sidelined his delegation. Brzezinski and Vance, Carter’s two most crucial advisers, were pushed aside to the point that they were playing tennis on September 6, at the very moment Carter was orchestrating the first crucial encounter between Sadat and Begin.[99] Brzezisnki would later admit that his role was “quite secondary,”[100] and Weizmann narrates the anecdote of Hamilton Jordan, the White House Chief of Staff, who apparently “tried his luck on one of the secretaries.”[101] Even Vance found himself idle when, having informed Carter of Sadat’s intent to depart the summit, the President went to directly confront Sadat.[102]

C. Inter-Personal Decision-Making at Camp David: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

1. Carter’s Political Style and Intentions: Camp David as a Group Therapy

A. The Importance of Camp David for Carter

The Camp David negotiation is in and of itself a formidable case study in international bargaining. Yet, precisely because Carter was so personally involved in the Middle Eastern peace process, the Summit can serve as a point of entry into understanding the whole Carter Presidency. From his inauguration as 39th President, Jimmy Carter identified reaching peace in the Middle East as one of his foremost political objectives. In his own White House Diary, Carter ranks the Middle Eastern question as the most crucial political battle he fought as President. Most books that Carter has written since 1980 also discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.[103] The Middle East took more of Carter’s time than any other single issue, as is made obvious by the hundred pages which Carter allocates to the Camp David Summit in his memoirs.[104] Camp David is the most recurring word in Carter’s Keeping Faith—more than SALT, China, or even his wife Rosalynn. The Middle East was crucial to Carter not only as a politician, but also “as a person.”[105] During the summit itself, all direct participants concur in praising the extreme efforts that Carter devoted to reaching an agreement.[106] Convening the Camp David summit was not the product of the American governmental machine, but rather of Carter’s own personal intuitions and affects, particularly with regards to President Sadat. The decision was even criticized by Carter’s closest advisers and friends.[107] During the summit, the American delegation prepared twenty-three versions of the Framework for Peace, with Carter personally drafting the Sinai agreement.[108] Such an involvement would continue even after the summit: it is now commonly accepted that the final Peace Treaty would not have been signed without Carter’s last-minute visit to Jerusalem in March 1979.[109] In Carter’s own words, “Looking back on the four years of my Presidency, I realize that I spent more of my time working for possible solutions to the riddle of the Middle East than on any other international problem.”[110]

B. The Carter Style of Doing Politics: Individuals, Morals and Emotions

Carter’s political method was based on an intermixing of politics and personal inter-relations, as attested by his ability to build strong relationships with political figures over a short amount of time—Ismail Fahmy, Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, found him “extraordinarily candid and honest.”[111] Carter not only valued his personal charm for political endeavors, but also adopted a highly centralized vision of presidential decision-making. Brzezinski describes a President who routinely offered birthday cakes to his subordinates, but who also weighed in with his full influence on decisions he took to heart.[112] Carter wrote: “There have been Presidents in the past that let their Secretaries of State make foreign policy. I don’t.”[113] Cyrus Vance wrote, “In the Carter foreign policy apparatus, the personal dimension would be unusually important,” also stating that Carter prioritized informal, high-level information and decision channels over more traditional ones.[114]  Trusting the goodwill of high-level negotiators, Carter routinely circumvented the machinery of government.[115], [116]

Jimmy Carter began his Presidency by walking down Pennsylvania Avenue with his wife Rosalynn, an unprecedented symbol.[117] When settling in the White House, Carter asked for his cooks to prepare the very same food he had in Plains, and after 1980 he returned to his home city.[118] Carter devoted great personal effort to the choice of his White House staff, down to the most trivial positions.[119] Additionally, when hosting foreign leaders, Carter developed the habit of taking his guests upstairs after the official diner in order to interact with them in complete privacy. Both Begin and Sadat were given such treatment.[120]

Carter was well aware that, ultimately, his personality was going to make the difference.[121] Laurence Shoup even states that the “considerable charm” of Carter was a crucial asset, if not the most crucial one, in his political ascension.[122] Betty Glad relays the statement of a reporter who said of Carter that he had a “self-assurance that would shame Muhammad Ali.”[123] In 1970, Carter won his Governor’s seat through a campaign “relying on the strength of his personal qualities.”[124] To put it bluntly, Carter reached the Presidency by “shaking hands with literally thousands of people.”[125] Betty Glad has analyzed such a personalized vision of politics as a consequence of Carter’s Southern heritage, under which ideological allegiances mattered less than interpersonal alignments.[126] Carter’s personal charm evolved into a crucial part of his own self-narrative; he for instance entitled one of the chapters of his autobiography “The Person in Front of You.”[127] “I prefer to be called Jimmy” quickly became the main punch line of America’s new populist President, who would always sign as “Jimmy” and not James.[128]

Jimmy Carter considered that there was “no difference between private and civic virtues.”[129] He never truly separated the two sides of his life, the personal and the political. As a result of this very personal engagement with politics, Jimmy Carter was especially vulnerable to sudden attacks of discouragement: in “Keeping Faith,” he describes his presidency as “successive moments of exhilaration and despair.”[130] After his defeat in 1966, Carter lost 22 pounds and briefly suffered depression, which shows how personally Carter approached his own political battles.[131] Smith further states that Carter entered the government with the belief that moral flaws, and not political miscalculations, were at the origin of his predecessors’ failures.[132] He hence resolved to work primarily through his moral and personal lens to deal with the political issues at hand. Additionally, Carter “made no efforts to separate his religious views from his political objectives.”[133] His first autobiography, Why Not the Best?, begins with these revealing words: “The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world.”[134] Carter indeed perceived his political role through a deeply moral prism. With regards to Camp David itself, I argue that proto-religious motives were a crucial factor in Carter’s ultimate decision to convene the summit. Carter even traveled to Camp David with his annotated Bible.[135]

For all of these reasons, and especially because Carter always failed to differentiate the personal from the political, Jimmy Carter has been called “the most amazing man ever to be President, but at the same time one of the most inept.”[136] I argue that there is a gap between moral traits and political abilities, a gap that Carter failed to acknowledge.

C. Carter’s intent for Camp David

As a result of both the extreme importance of Camp David for the President and of his personalized style of doing politics, Jimmy Carter designed the summit as a highly interpersonal encounter between decision-makers. Carter hoped that the relations that Israelis and Egyptians would build among each other would remove the psychological obstacles to peace, a presidential strategy that further heightens the relevance of an individual-based framework.[137] “I felt that in going to Camp David we would be burning our bridges,” writes Carter.[138] Therefore, Jimmy Carter prepared himself by reading the CIA psychological profiles of Begin and Sadat, assuming that the two other leaders would be preparing in the same way.[139] “My only hope was that, in the quiet and peaceful atmosphere of our temporary home, both Begin and Sadat would come to know and understand each other,” writes the President.[140] Carter designed the entire atmosphere of the summit with this strategy in mind, for instance attempting to create an informal negotiating environment. Beyond the purely political contentions at play, the action of Carter at Camp David was also, to a great extent, about “defending each of the leaders to each other.”[141] Carter intended for the subordinates to be sidelined at Camp David, so that state leaders could allocate both the time and the energy necessary to strike a historical compromise. The summit was also completely shut to the press, occurring in an atmosphere of utmost secrecy. Quandt compared Camp David to a high-level political “group therapy,” with the American President himself strolling back and forth between the cabins of Sadat and Begin.[142] The summit even ended with a flagrant breach of protocol as the three leaders travelled back to Washington in the same helicopter, after Carter personally insisted that Begin and Sadat stayed together until the final signature of the treaties.[143]

As such, Carter’s political action defined both the existence of the summit and its political content. Menachem Begin even stated, when signing the agreement, “The Camp David conference should be renamed. It was the Jimmy Carter conference.”[144] Throughout the thirteen days of the summit, Carter fully involved himself in the negotiating process. He even bargained with Israeli officials of lower ranks and used interpersonal bargaining techniques, such as when Carter delivered handwritten letters to both Begin and Sadat stating that the summit would be adjourned on September 17, regardless of the advancement of the negotiations.[145] The entire idea of Camp David was a bet on human nature. Nevertheless, despite his high initial hopes, Carter quickly realized that the best he could hope for out of Sadat and Begin was for them to ignore each other. Carter’s frustration, coupled with his narcissistic drive for control, produced an intense despair in the American President.[146] One of the crucial theses of this essay is that this situation put Carter at a disadvantage with regards to Begin, precisely because he was so emotionally involved in the entire process. As such, the emotional range of Carter was the most constrained of the three negotiators. Carter’s personality and behavior at Camp David were ill suited to optimal bargaining behavior, as opposed to Menachem Begin’s.[147]

2. The Perception of Each Actor Towards Each Other

I will now attempt to show how the deep emotional bonds that tied Carter and Sadat impacted the ultimate political outcome of the summit, as they drew Carter’s attention to extracting concessions from Sadat rather than from Begin and made Sadat more likely to blindly trust Carter. I will contrast this behavior with Begin’s uncooperative and withdrawn attitude towards Carter, which ultimately resulted in optimal bargaining behavior and led to the victory of the Israeli delegation at Camp David.

Rosalynn Carter states it clearly: “Jimmy and Sadat liked each other immediately.”[148] Rosalynn also correctly assessed that “when Sadat trusts someone, he will work with them and go all out with them,” a personality trait of Sadat’s which his interactions with Carter at Camp David confirmed.[149] “This has been my best day as President,” writes Carter after his very first meeting with Sadat on April 4, 1977, describing Sadat as a “shining light.”[150] In his own words, Carter would “come to admire Sadat more than any other leader.”[151] Carter’s reaction to Sadat was hence by no means purely political, but was also emotional and personal. Carter felt, in many ways, as if he had shared the life experiences of the Egyptian President. He too was born a peasant, and had to fight restlessly to attain power. He too was deeply religious. Wright even states that Carter’s protective stance towards Sadat was also tied to his dark skin: Carter had shielded Wesley Brown, the first African American cadet of the US, during his time at the Naval Academy.[152] Additionally, Carter became convinced that Sadat’s initially harsh positions against Israel resulted from peer pressure from other Arab leaders.[153] This assessment, coupled with Carter’s deep friendship with Sadat, would shift the American administration from seeking the multilateral option, involving several Arab countries in a multilateral agreement with Israel, to striving for a bilateral treaty.

As a result of such bonds, Carter focused most of his bargaining efforts on the Egyptian leader rather than on the Israeli Premier. Carter had even invited Sadat to Camp David in February 1978, during which he convinced him not to end direct diplomatic relations with Israel.[154] During the Summit, Carter developed the habit of reaching directly to Sadat when Begin proved excessively stubborn, quickly securing an Egyptian concession before he sat back at the negotiating table with the Israelis.[155] He routinely made personal appeals to the Egyptian President, which he never did with the Israeli Premier. Over the course of the Camp David negotiations, Carter sent Sadat several warm, personal letters, while the only ones he sent Begin were cold formalities.

Between Carter and Sadat, it was never only about politics. Sadat was truly a “special friend” to Carter.[156] Sadat even visited Carter when he returned to Plains after 1980, while Carter mourned with Sadat’s son at his funeral “as if he were my own son.”[157] In his autobiography, Carter allocates tens of pages to Sadat, much more than to any of his European counterparts even when taken together. At Camp David, Carter watched one of Muhammad Ali’s boxing matches in Sadat’s company, and took daily strolls with the Egyptian President.[158] Ultimately, such seemingly trivial interactions had an immense political impact. I argue that the very signature of the treaties would not have been possible without Carter’s trust in Sadat’s ability to strike historical compromise and without the American President’s ability to convince Sadat, against Egyptian public opinion and against the overwhelming majority of his advisers, that a bilateral peace with Israel was the right way forward. This claim is supported by events on day 11 of the negotiations, when after another fruitless confrontation with the Israeli Premier, Sadat decided to leave the conference. As soon as he heard the news, Carter rushed to Sadat’s cabin.[159] Carter argued with Sadat about the significance of his departure, stating that it would not only be a political disaster but that he would also lose Carter’s “friendship.” Sadat finally decided to stay, against his advisers’ opinions, because he trusted Carter.[160] He would agree to several other significant concessions before leaving Camp David. I argue that Carter tapped into his relationship with Sadat in order to secure further concessions, appearing less emotionally reliant on Sadat than Sadat was on him.

Carter’s relationship with Sadat, to Brzezinski’s mind, was “warm and sincere,” while it was “icy, formalistic, and devoid of any personal feelings with Begin.”[161] Carter wrote it himself: “It was soon to be obvious that Sadat seemed to trust me too much, and Begin not enough.”[162] Moshe Dayan states that, unlike with Sadat, the relations Carter had with Begin were exclusively working relations.[163] I argue that this lack of emotional involvement on the part of the Israeli Premier played in his favor at Camp David. Carter found it so emotionally draining to interact with Begin that he restricted their interactions to the minimum, only reaching to the Israeli Premier when he had to, and when no concessions could be extracted from Sadat.

Carter’s relation with Menachem Begin had long been problematic. The American President, in his own words, felt “frightened” by Begin’s election in May 1977.[164] Quandt writes that Carter had to re-assess his entire Middle East policy after the ascension to power of Begin, an ex-terrorist who adamantly refused UNSCR Resolution 181 in 1947.[165] Carter’s December 1977 meeting with Begin further reinforced this conflict of personalities and political ideals. Having privately described Carter as a “cream puff,” Begin approved the expansion of new settlements on the very day of his return from the White House, infuriating the American President. Such negative opinions were confirmed by Begin’s obstructive behavior at Camp David; Carter went as far as deeming him an “insurmountable obstacle to further progress.”[166] Carter considered Begin not only a “bitter” man, but also as a “formal” individual whom he deemed difficult to approach. He also considered him a complete “psycho.”[167] With an attitude poles apart from Carter’s approach to politics, Begin was comfortable differentiating his personal role and his political position. Rosalynn Carter said of Menachem Begin: “he does not want to be emotionally involved.”[168] Carter ultimately resolved to deal with Begin by avoiding controversy, adopting an incremental rather than a confrontational approach with the Israeli Premier. The failure of such an approach, which is evident when reading the Camp David Treaties, was to constitute what Rashid Khlaidi deemed a “bitter object lesson” for subsequent American administrations.[169] Towards the end of the summit, having realized the extent of Begin’s stubbornness, Carter asked his advisor William Quandt to draft a speech to announce the failure of the negotiations. In this “speech that never was,” Quandt identified the intransigence of Begin as the main obstacle to peace. Forced to re-examine his naive assumption that direct interactions would break down the psychological enmity between Begin and Sadat, Carter was completely mastered by the Israeli Premier, who well understood that success at Camp David implied changing the bargaining stance of Carter even more than that of Sadat’s.[170] Lawrence Wright tells the story of an incessant back and forth of American and Israeli advisers during the last day of the negotiations, as the Americans gradually incorporated Israeli proposals into the final resolutions, a process from which the Egyptians were altogether excluded.

A crucial, but seemingly trivial, aspect of the negotiations is the clothing style of the decision-makers. Carter insisted on a spirit of informality, under which even heads of state would be dressed comfortably. Menachem Begin, however, refused to depart from his classic suit and tie, dressing at Camp David as if he were meeting Carter in the Oval Office. Anwar Al Sadat was initially puzzled by Carter’s informal clothing choices. As the negotiations went on, the Egyptian President nevertheless adopted Carter’s informality. This evolution reflects the gradual weakening of Sadat’s bargaining position, as opposed to Begin’s steadfastness. It is precisely Begin’s reluctance to play into Carter’s personalized bargaining context that allowed him to refrain from making unnecessary concessions at Camp David. On September 17, for instance, when it became clear that the Israelis would not agree to an end of settlement expansion for as long as the negotiation would last, Carter ultimately chose not to confront Begin on the issue.[171] Carter had become convinced, by Begin’s detached and cold attitude, that confrontation could cost him the entire agreement. Sadat, meanwhile, was to accept this final concession because of the immense trust and deep affection he felt for Carter.

The Israelis, and especially Begin, did not come to Camp David to accept a comprehensive agreement on the fate of the Palestinians. Rather, they came in with limited expectations of a “Framework” for future negotiations, and accepted the prospect that the summit may fail. As a result of such low initial expectations, and of Begin’s cold behavior, the Israelis won a clear-cut victory at Camp David. The Egyptian delegation had come to the summit refusing to differentiate the bilateral Egyptian-Israel file and the Palestinian file, and so did the American delegation.[172] By contrast, Begin held his ground, obtaining an agreement which, to Shibley Telhami’s mind, “corresponds most closely to the Israeli opening position.”[173]

The Domestic Factors Explanation: Strengths and Weaknesses

A. Domestic Pressures at Camp David: A Comparative Study

Domestic political forces may have produced significant political pressures upon the three main decision-makers of the Camp David Summit, ultimately accounting for their bargaining behaviors and for the outcome of the negotiations. This hypothesis would begin by underlining the extreme level of domestic political pressure which weighed on Jimmy Carter at Camp David: being fully and personally involved in the Middle East file since the first day of his Presidency, Carter had had little to show for his efforts. His complete involvement in the negotiating process for two full weeks was to prove an extremely risky bet, especially with America’s isolationist public opinion that was not keen on criticizing Israel. As a result, “Carter would probably have been the primary victim of such a failure.”[174] Carter openly acknowledged it: if the summit was a failure, he was probably to lose not only his prestige, but also his entire Presidency.[175] This exposure of the American President explains, under such a framework, the importance of signing an agreement, and hence accounts for his ultimate concessions to the Israeli delegation. Additionally, the very fact that Carter made such a domestic exposure obvious to both Sadat and Begin further reinforces the strength of the domestic factors explanation: knowing that Carter was constrained at home, the two players, especially Begin, tapped into Carter’s domestic constraints in order to weaken his bargaining position. The domestic pressures on Carter, especially because they were very public, were hence a crucial determinant in the resulting Camp David Treaties.

Additionally, the issue of domestic pressure was present in most of the conversations Carter, Sadat and Begin had at Camp David. Carter even stated that both Begin and Sadat had to depart from personal positions they had held in the past, hardline positions which to a large extent corresponded to the state of their respective public opinions during the Camp David Summit. Carter was especially aware of the pressures on the Israeli Premier, who “had to change the commitment of a lifetime.”[176] I argue that Carter was much more convinced of the strength of the domestic pressures on Begin rather than those on Sadat, if simply because Begin emphasized them so much. This ultimately yielded a final agreement broadly respectful of the wishes of Israel’s public opinion, or rather of the picture of the Israeli public opinion that Begin conveyed to Carter.

The domestic factors explanation could also account for the behavior of Anwar Al Sadat. Shibley Telhami adopts such a thesis, analyzing the 1976-77 food riots in Egypt, which made it vital for the Sadat regime to divert Egyptian public attention away from domestic politics. A diversion became a “matter of regime survival” for Sadat.[177] Sadat’s “Infitah” policy, a nationwide scheme to attract foreign investors, also relied on Egypt’s international credibility. This would be greatly enhanced should Egypt become the first Arab country to strike a peace with Israel. Telhami also writes that Sadat felt the pressure of the Egyptian military class that, dissatisfied by the quality of Soviet weapons, favored strengthening the Egyptian-American alliance.[178]

Unlike Carter and Sadat, Begin successfully convinced his counterparts that he was constrained domestically. He did this even though he was less constrained than Carter was, and perhaps even less than Sadat was. This accounts, according to this explanation, for the strength of his bargaining position. Begin indeed came to the negotiations with a trump card that neither Carter nor Sadat possessed: because of the state of the Israeli public opinion, Begin could afford to walk out of the negotiations empty-handed.

B. The Domestic Context at Camp David: Constraint or Tool?

While this paper acknowledges the strength of the domestic factors explanation, I will attempt to integrate this explanation within my individual framework of decision-making. I will argue that domestic parameters, rather than effectively constraining the behaviors of the negotiators of Camp David, were used by each of the heads of delegations as additional bargaining chips to strengthen their respective bargaining positions.

The first counter-argument is that, ultimately, none of the actors present at Camp David based their participation in the negotiations on an analysis of domestic factors. For Carter, convening the Camp David summit entailed much more risk than benefit in regard to domestic approval.[179] After the several rounds of personal diplomacy Carter had orchestrated in the Middle East, the President appeared personally frustrated not to have secured any major breakthrough. As such, the decision to convene the summit, rather than resulting from domestic pressures, “was as a result of the frustrations of Carter.”[180] Gaillard goes as far as stating that “As President, it seemed, Carter lacked the ability—and maybe even the interest—in selling his policies to the American people.”[181] It thus seems that factors relevant to Carter’s own personality entail a greater explanatory power for the decision to convene the summit.

Regarding Egypt, it became clear, with the overwhelming popular rejection to the treaty, that Sadat was not at Camp David to conquer the hearts of the Egyptian people. Between 1977 and 1981, Sadat was targeted in 38 assassination attempts—the last one successful—most often plotted because of Sadat’s stances towards Israel. Decades after the treaty, the bilateral peace Sadat struck still seems not to have transformed into a fully-fledged mutual recognition between the Egyptian and Israeli people. It thus seems that the reasons behind such an unpopular move by Sadat cannot be found in the domestic factors of the time, and must hence be found within Sadat’s political personality.

Lastly, Israeli public opinion appeared much more conciliatory than the Israeli Premier, as made obvious by the massive demonstrations which followed the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The Israeli political class itself was also more compromise-prone than Begin, as underscored by the resignations of Weizman and Dayan. A different Prime Minister would most certainly have brought a different outcome. This contradicts the most basic assumption of the domestic factors explanation, the inevitability of the application of domestic factors.

Additionally, during the summit itself, domestic constraints seemed to matter little for decision-makers. In Carter’s own words: “We had no need, while working in the privacy of Camp David, to convince the public.”[182] I also argue that the respective domestic contexts of actors provided for convenient political tools to further their respective bargaining positions. Menachem Begin’s behavior most closely fits such an explanation. Begin repeatedly argued with Carter before, during, and after Camp David that the domestic public opinion in Israel could not possibly accept the removal of the Sinai settlements. Regardless of whether this is true or not, it effectively made Begin’s ultimate concession on the Sinai settlements more valuable in the eyes of Carter, further defusing Carter’s combative spirit towards the Israeli Premier. The same goes for the fate of the Palestinians: Begin routinely argued that no Israeli leader could support the withdrawal of West Bank settlements, effectively integrating his domestic context within his bargaining approach.


Through this research, I attempted to shed light on political decision-making as it occurred at Camp David through an emphasis on individual-based factors. I analyzed the contrasting cognitive profiles of decision-makers, which not only constrained the negotiators but also account for the comparative strength of their bargaining positions. Secondly, I analyzed the personal life trajectories of Carter, Sadat and Begin, which significantly shaped their personalities and reinforced their cognitive differences, further shaping the ultimate outcome of the negotiations. I have also demonstrated that the very intent of the summit as well as the broader political style of its host were geared towards reaching political decisions through interpersonal relations. Finally, I described the relations between the three main bargainers, discussing their contrasting levels of emotional involvement and their impact on decision-making.

I find that these three aspects of the individual-based explanation converge in explaining the success of the Israeli bargaining team of Menachem Begin. While I believe that such research sheds light on not only the entire Middle East negotiation process but also on the political style of the Carter Administration, I acknowledge that the specific context of Camp David is a possible confounding variable. Camp David is an extremely specific context; I have found only one historical precedent, with the convening of the Portsmouth Conference by Theodore Roosevelt to secure a Russo-Japanese peace treaty. Had such a negotiation occurred in a more regular diplomatic setting, the prevalence of individual factors for decision-making might have been mitigated.

I nevertheless assert that the findings of this paper regarding the role of cognitive contexts, psychological portraits and styles of interpersonal relations are transferable outside of the framework of the Camp David negotiations, providing a useful framework of analysis for many cases of international bargaining and foreign policy decision-making. It also entails relevant policy prescriptions, suggesting cautiousness with regards to high-level stress-filled bargaining contexts as well as emotionally loaded interpersonal political relations.

Diego Filiu graduated from Columbia University in the spring of 2016, with a degree in Political Science focusing on the Middle East.



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[1] Shibley Telhami, The Camp David Accord, A Case of International Bargaining (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University, 1998), 78.

[2] Lester A. Sobel and Hal Kosut, Peace-making in the Middle East (New York: Facts on File, 1980), 37.

[3] C. Paul Bradley, The Camp David Peace Process: A Study of Carter Administration Policies (1977-1980) (New Hampshire: Tompson and Rutter, 1981), 56.

[4] Telhami, The Camp David Accord, 78.

[5] Sobel and Kosut, Peace-making in the Middle East, 98.

[6] Muhammad Ibrahim Kamil, The Camp David Accords: A Testimony (London: KPI, 1986), 68.

[7] Sobel and Kosut, Peace-making in the Middle East, 168.

[8] Shibley Telhami, Power and Leadership in International Bargaining: The Path to the Camp David Accords (New York: Columbia UP, 1990), 234.

[9] Ismail Fahmy, Negotiating for Peace in the Middle East (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1983), 192.

[10] Zbigniew Brzezinski, Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser, 1977-1981 (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983), 243.

[11] Thomas Parker, The Road to Camp David: U.S. Negotiating Strategy towards the Arab-Israeli Conflict (New York: Lang, 1989), 125.

[12] Telhami, The Camp David Accord, 170.

[13] William B. Quandt, Camp David: Peacemaking and Politics (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1986), 297.

[14] Lawrence Wright, Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), 56.

[15] Ibid., 341.

[16] Quandt, Camp David: Peacemaking and Politics, 156.

[17] United States of America Department of State, Office of Public Communication, Bureau of Public Affairs, The Camp David Summit, September 1978. September 1978, Ser. 88.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Telhami, Path to the Camp David Accords, 240.

[20] Sobel and Kosut, Peace-making in the Middle East, 232.

[21] Telhami, Path to the Camp David Accords, 9.

[22] Wright, Thirteen Days in September, 75.

[23] Cyrus R. Vance, Hard Choices: Critical Years in America’s Foreign Policy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), 376-377.

[24] Fahmy, Negotiating for Peace, 290.

[25] Quandt, Camp David: Peacemaking and Politics, 167.

[26] Mark Shafer, “Issues in Assessing Psychological Characteristics at a Distance: An Introduction to the Symposium,” Political Psychology 21, no. 3 (2000): 511-527.

[27] Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1976).

[28] Alexander Wendt, Constructing International Politics (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1995).

[29] Daniel L. Byman, Kenneth M. Pollack, “Let Us Now Praise Great Men, Bringing the Statesman Back In,” International Security 25, no. 4 (2001): 171.

[30] Alexander L. George, Presidential Decisionmaking in Foreign Policy: The Effective Use of Information and Advice (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1980).

[31] Barbara Farnham, Roosevelt and the Munich Crisis: A Study of Political Decision-making (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1997).

[32] Richard Ned Lebow, Between Peace and War: The Nature of International Crisis (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1981).

[33] Barbara Farnham, Avoiding Losses / Taking Risks: Prospect Theory and International Conflict (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 1994).

[34] Ibid.

[35] G. John Ikenberry, American Foreign Policy: Theoretical Essays (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2011).

[36] Ibid.

[37] Gaddis Smith, Morality, Reason, and Power: American Diplomacy in the Carter Years (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986), 12.

[38] Wright, Thirteen Days in September, 23.

[39] Anwar Sadat, In Search of Identity: An Autobiography (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), 314.

[40] Wright, Thirteen Days in September, 84.

[41] Ibid., 69.

[42] Ibid., 176.

[43] Telhami, Path to the Camp David Accords, 175-176.

[44] Kamil, Camp David Accords: A Testimony, 80.

[45] Telhami, Path to the Camp David Accords, 175-176.

[46] Wright, Thirteen Days in September, 65.

[47] Stanley Allen Renshon and Deborah Welch Larson, Good Judgment in Foreign Policy: Theory and Application (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).

[48] Wright, Thirteen Days in September, 254.

[49] Jimmy Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President (Toronto: Bantam, 1982), 359.

[50] Vance, Hard Choices, 181.

[51] Farnham, Roosevelt and the Munich Crisis.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Quandt, Camp David: Peacemaking and Politics, 359.

[54] Smith, Morality, Reason, and Power, 165.

[55] Wright, Thirteen Days in September, 285.

[56] Sunny Thomas, Jimmy Carter: From Peanuts to Presidency (Cornwall, Ont.: Vesta Publications, 1978), 70.

[57] Lloyd DeMause and Henry Ebel, Jimmy Carter and American Fantasy: Psychohistorical Explorations (New York: Two Continents, 1977), 45.

[58] Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President, 37 and 69.

[59] Quandt, Camp David: Peacemaking and Politics, 172.

[60] Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President, 406.

[61] Thomas, From Peanuts to Presidency, 88.

[62] Jimmy Carter, Why Not the Best? (Nashville: Broadman, 1975), 139.

[63] Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President, 280.

[64] Kenneth Earl Morris, Jimmy Carter, American Moralist (Athens: U of Georgia, 1996), 7.

[65] Thomas, From Peanuts to Presidency.

[66] Rosalynn Carter, First Lady from Plains (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984), 8.

[67] Carter, Why Not the Best? 28.

[68] Morris, Jimmy Carter, American Moralist, 52.

[69] Jimmy Carter, White House Diary (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), 306.

[70] Carter, Why Not the Best? 13.

[71] Ibid., 25 and 43.

[72] Ibid., 61.

[73] Carter, First Lady from Plains, 51.

[74] Morris, Jimmy Carter, American Moralist, 157.

[75] Ibid., 124 and 157.

[76] Morris, Jimmy Carter, American Moralist, 83.

[77] Vance, Hard Choices, 181.

[78] Wright, Thirteen Days in September, 158.

[79] Quandt, Camp David: Peacemaking and Politics, 242.

[80] Wright, Thirteen Days in September, 165.

[81] Sadat, In Search of Identity, 88.

[82] Ezer Weizman, The Battle for Peace, (Toronto: Bantam, 1981), 122.

[83] Ibid., 359.

[84] Sadat, In Search of Identity, 297.

[85] Ibid. 306.

[86] Wright, Thirteen Days in September, 183.

[87] Ibid. 186.

[88] Kenneth W. Stein, Heroic Diplomacy: Sadat, Kissinger, Carter, Begin and the Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace (New York: Routledge, 1999), 30.

[89] Fahmy, Negotiating for Peace, 76.

[90] Ibid., 191.

[91] Kamil, Camp David Accords: A Testimony, 79.

[92] Kamil, Camp David Accords: A Testimony, 303.

[93] Fahmy, Negotiating for Peace, 300.

[94] Ibid., 281.

[95] Brzezinski, Power and Principle, 365.

[96] Moshe Dayan, Breakthrough: A Personal Account of the Egypt-Israel Peace Negotiations (New York: Knopf, 1981), 154.

[97] Weizman, The Battle for Peace, 361.

[98] Carter, First Lady from Plains, 256.

[99] Brzezinski, Power and Principle, 256.

[100] Ibid., 273.

[101] Weizman, The Battle for Peace, 346-347.

[102] Vance, Hard Choices, 224.

[103] Carter, White House Diary, 99.

[104] Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President, XVI.

[105] Rod Troester, Jimmy Carter as Peacemaker: A Post-presidential Biography (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996), 167.

[106] Dayan, Breakthrough: A Personal Account, 155.

[107] Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President, 325.

[108] Ibid., 351.

[109] Sobel and Kosut, Peace-making in the Middle East, 346.

[110] Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President, 438.

[111] Fahmy, Negotiating for Peace, 195.

[112] Brzezinski, Power and Principle, 197 and 524.

[113] Ibid., 513.

[114] Vance, Hard Choices, 35 and 38-39.

[115] Betty Glad, Jimmy Carter: In Search of the Great White House (New York: W.W. Norton, 1980), 445 and 476.

[116] Daniel Strieff, Jimmy Carter and the Middle East: The Politics of Presidential Diplomacy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 182.

[117] Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President, 19.

[118] Ibid., 24.

[119] Ibid., 51.

[120] Ibid., 291.

[121] Glad, In Search of the Great White House, 487.

[122] Laurence H. Shoup, The Carter Presidency, and Beyond: Power and Politics in the 1980s (Palo Alto, CA: Ramparts, 1980), 27.

[123] Glad, In Search of the Great White House, 229.

[124] Morris, Jimmy Carter, American Moralist, 1996.

[125] Carter, White House Diary, 11.

[126] Glad, In Search of the Great White House, 158.

[127] Carter, Why Not the Best? 129.

[128] Victor Lasky, Jimmy Carter, the Man & the Myth (New York: R. Marek, 1979), 197.

[129] Glad, In Search of the Great White House, 478.

[130] Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President, 9.

[131] Glad, In Search of the Great White House, 108.

[132] Smith, Morality, Reason, and Power, 241.

[133] William Steding, Presidential Faith and Foreign Policy: Jimmy Carter the Disciple and Ronald Reagan the Alchemist (New York : Palgrave Macmillan., 2014), 29.

[134] Carter, Why Not the Best? 7.

[135] Steding, Presidential Faith and Foreign Policy, 80.

[136] Lasky, Jimmy Carter, the Man & the Myth, 11.

[137] Carter, White House Diary, 217.

[138] Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President, 325.

[139] Ibid., 327.

[140] Ibid., 331.

[141] Ibid., 347.

[142] Vance, Hard Choices, 145.

[143] Betty Glad, An Outsider in the White House: Jimmy Carter, His Advisors, and the Making of American Foreign Policy (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2009), 152.

[144] Steding, Presidential Faith and Foreign Policy, 79.

[145] Glad, In Search of the Great White House, 432.

[146] Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President, 378.

[147] Strieff, The Politics of Presidential Diplomacy, 188.

[148] Carter, First Lady from Plains, 240.

[149] Ibid., 251.

[150] Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President, 289.

[151] Ibid., 289.

[152] Wright, Thirteen Days in September, 54.

[153] Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President, 294.

[154] Brzezinski, Power and Principle, 243.

[155] Telhami, Path to the Camp David Accords, 167.

[156] Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President, 119 and 275.

[157] Ibid., 277.

[158] Carter, White House Diary, 238.

[159] Vance, Hard Choices, 224.

[160] Ibid., 226.

[161] Brzezinski, Power and Principle, 284.

[162] Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President, 372.

[163] Dayan, Breakthrough: A Personal Account, 156.

[164] Carter, White House Diary, 56

[165] Quandt, Camp David: Peacemaking and Politics, 242.

[166] Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President, 320 and 336.

[167] Ibid., 346.

[168] Carter, First Lady from Plains, 250.

[169] Strieff, The Politics of Presidential Diplomacy, 8.

[170] Telhami, Path to the Camp David Accords, 166.

[171] Brzezinski, Power and Principle, 270.

[172] Telhami, Path to the Camp David Accords, 129-130.

[173] Ibid., 159.

[174] Ibid., 151.

[175] Weizman, The Battle for Peace, 345.

[176] Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President, 379.

[177] Telhami, Path to the Camp David Accords, 9.

[178] Ibid., 142.

[179] Vance, Hard Choices, 163.

[180] Quandt, Camp David: Peacemaking and Politics, 71.

[181] Frye Gaillard, Prophet from Plains: Jimmy Carter and His Legacy (Athens: U of Georgia, 2007), 13.

[182] Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President, 412.