Jimmy Carter and the United States in the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty

Please note: the views expressed within are part of an intellectual exercise and do not necessarily reflect the personal views of the author.

The American role in establishing peace between Egypt and Israel in 1979 was largely one of mediation. President Jimmy Carter persisted in urging the two countries’ leaders toward compromises. Carter was personal and friendly, and he constantly emphasized how close they were to reaching a peace that would change the world forever, and how much of a shame it would be if the talks fell through.

Carter facilitated key compromises between Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, most notably involving the United States on the issues of Israel’s oil supply and the future of Gaza and the West Bank. Unfortunately, the agreements had a limited effect on the Palestinians, though this was not the priority of any party. The peace treaty has maintained the peace between Egypt and Israel; it has benefitted both countries economically and militarily; and it has strengthened both countries’ relations with the United States.

From the start of his presidency in 1977, Jimmy Carter was determined to make progress on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Carter first attempted, though failed, to reconvene the 1973 Geneva conference.[1] Then in November 1977, Sadat made an unprecedented visit to Jerusalem to address the Knesset and try to advance the Arab-Israeli peace process. At this time, Egypt and Israel had been in a state of war for nearly 30 years, since the establishment of Israel in 1948.

Although Sadat was welcomed in Israel, Begin remained steadfast in his policy.[2] Despite Begin’s resoluteness in Israel, Carter invited him and Sadat to continue peace talks with the support of the United States at Camp David in September 1978. This was a politically risky move for Carter—he was now directly engaging in the Arab-Israeli conflict and he decided to host a summit that could end in utter failure. However, the twelve days at Camp David resulted in two “framework” documents, which served as the basis for the Egypt-Israel peace treaty signed by Sadat, Begin, and Carter, in Washington D.C. on March 26, 1979.

Some argue that by 1977, Egypt and Israel were on their way toward making peace without the help of the United States.[3] Others maintain that peace between Egypt and Israel was only made possible by the participation of the United States.[4] The United States played a crucial role at Camp David and in the negotiations that followed. Both Egypt and Israel wanted American involvement and both sides wanted to win over the United States to their point of view. Importantly, the United States remained largely a neutral mediator. Carter did not put heavy pressure on either side and did not reveal a clear preference on most issues. The United States was, however, able to offer judgements about potential compromises, consider possible trade-offs, and speculate as to how other countries in the region would react to certain deals.[5] Carter needed a foreign policy success and he truly believed that peace between Egypt and Israel was a significant first step towards peace in the Middle East.

At Camp David, Carter played the role of mediator. Sadat and Begin’s differing approaches and understandings of the region’s history clashed. Begin has been characterized as being excessively legalistic and pedantic about the wording of the terms, while Sadat focused on the big picture.[6] Seeing that the talks were going nowhere, and after having to convince Sadat not to leave the summit, Carter realized that he, and the United States, would have to take a more active role in order to make any progress.[7] Instead of merely facilitating the negotiations, the Americans would now lead them. Carter ended the face-to-face talks and sequestered Sadat and Begin. Carter would then present an American draft proposal to each leader, receive their feedback, and revise the proposals until a single text was agreed upon.

Because of the United States’ preeminent military and economic status, its ability to make bilateral commitments to each of the parties gave the United States influence over the negotiations. Carter used the prospect—and the threatened withdrawal of—American friendship and aid as leverage to persuade both sides to offer concessions and remain diplomatically flexible. [8] However, the United States was never in a position to impose terms on either Egypt or Israel.[9]

After nearly two weeks of discussions at Camp David, the three men signed two framework agreements[10] on September 17, 1978, which would form the basis of the 1979 peace treaty. One document called for Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula, which it had captured from Egypt in the 1967 Six-Day War, in exchange for the establishment of full diplomatic relations. Egypt thus became the first Arab state to recognize Israel’s right to exist. The other document, more vaguely worded, called for a “self-governing” Palestinian authority in the West Bank and Gaza and the recognition of “the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.”[11]

Translating the framework documents into a formal peace treaty proved to be a daunting task. Meetings and correspondences between September and March of the following year were resulting in deadlocks. On account of the stalemate, Carter travelled first to Egypt and then to Israel on March 10, 1979, bearing Sadat’s approval to negotiate on behalf of Egypt. Three days later, all three parties agreed to a treaty text.

The compromises made during these three days between Begin, Carter, and Sadat were critical. The United States guaranteed Israel’s oil supply; the proposed treaty’s references to a “special role” for Egypt in Gaza were omitted; and section VI’s wording was finalized.

Before the Shah fell in February 1979, Israel obtained 60 percent of its oil from Iran. There were oil wells in the area of Sinai that Israel agreed to withdraw from, and at the time, Israel had obtained 1.6 million tons from those wells. Begin wanted a commitment from Sadat that Israel would be able to purchase Egyptian oil, as well as an American guarantee. So, in return for Israel’s “courageous step”[12] in voluntarily giving up control and use of its oil wells, the United States agreed to guarantee Israel a secure oil source for a fifteen-year period.[13]

Throughout the negotiations, Begin emphasized the “mortal danger” Israel would face if the Palestinians were to establish a “second state.”[14] Thus, Begin staunchly objected to any Egyptian presence or liaison officers in Gaza, fearing that Egypt wanted to restore its control there or encourage the establishment of a Palestinian state in that area.[15] On this issue, President Carter took a strong American stand and told Begin, “to me [this] is a very crucial issue and your response has not been adequate.”[16] The Israelis met and “finally agreed [that] if Israelis can move freely in Egypt, then Egyptians can do so in Israel, [the] West Bank, [and] Gaza.”[17]

Begin also objected to Sadat’s proposed change in the wording of section VI, which was meant to effectively pledge Egypt to give this peace treaty precedence over any agreement with Arab states. Begin argued that this clause was the heart of the entire peace agreement and if it was worded or interpreted incorrectly, Egypt would not only be free to join a war against Israel waged by “a Baghdad conference state,”[18] but obliged to. Carter proceeded to discuss the article with Sadat, who “agreed to the text of the letter without mention of Gaza or liaison and to the agreed minutes on Article VI.”[19]

Additionally, it is important to note the U.S. military and economic aid to Egypt and to Israel as part of the agreement. At the time, both countries needed American aid desperately. Cairo now receives $1.3 billion in U.S. military assistance and $250 million in economic assistance annually. Since 1979, Egypt has received $69 billion from the United States and Israel has received $98 billion. The two countries have been the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid since 1979.[20] Undoubtedly, the prospect of American aid encouraged compromises between Sadat and Begin.[21]

The agreements reached in the peace treaty regarding Palestinians proved ineffective. The treaty text established “full autonomy to the inhabitants” of the West Bank and Gaza. It set forth a timetable for negotiations to elect the new “self-governing authority (administrative council)” and to define its powers and responsibilities. But the talks ultimately fizzled for several reasons.

First, Sadat had volunteered Jordan’s participation in deciding how Palestinian autonomy would look and how the West Bank would be administered.[22] Carter, focused on Egypt, did not question Sadat’s claim that he could involve King Hussein of Jordan. But Jordan could not risk adhering to the terms of the unpopular peace treaty without the support of powerful Arab nations like Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. So, the Jordanians did not participate. Negotiations around Palestinians also slowed following the peace treaty due to the continued construction and controversy surrounding Israeli settlements,[23] inconclusive subsequent autonomy talks, the emerging cold peace between Egypt and Israel, and changes in foreign policy priorities.[24]

Overall, the peace treaty merely provided lip service to the Palestinian cause. Each party had a different understanding of what the treaty’s appended letter meant for Palestinians, but none of them believed it meant statehood. Sadat undoubtedly put Egypt’s interests first and was criticized for not pushing Israel further for the Palestinian cause. Following the treaty’s ratification, Egypt was suspended from the Arab League and Sadat was assassinated in 1981.

For Carter, Palestine was a secondary concern in these negotiations. The most noticeable time Carter insisted on terms from the United States’ perspective was in regard to Egyptian access to the West Bank and Gaza, which would affect the establishment of the self-governing authority over Palestinians there. Even with Carter’s preference agreed to, the effect on Palestinians proved to be limited and irrelevant.

Begin’s careful wording and refusal to negotiate substantively about Israel’s settlement population show that for him, this peace treaty was not about the Palestinian question. In fact, he was largely able to avoid the question. Sadat’s defenders noted that this is the first time Israel bound itself to any timetable regarding Palestinians, though critics said the timetable was loose and vulnerable to delays and obstructions, which turned out to be the case.

Just before Begin called Carter on March 13 to tell the president that he agreed to Sadat’s final changes, Israeli Minister Haim Landau bitterly exclaimed that he could sum up the agreement in one sentence: “Israel gives, Egypt receives and the Americans pay.” In many ways, this assessment is accurate. Israel withdrew from and returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt and the agreement stipulated an end to Israeli military rule over the Israeli-occupied territories.[25] It also prescribed full autonomy for the Palestinian inhabitants of the territories, which was not implemented but which became the basis for the Oslo Accords.[26] Egypt agreed to keep the Sinai Peninsula demilitarized, agreed to free passage of Israeli ships through the Suez Canal, and recognized the Strait of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba as international waterways (which it had blockaded in 1967).[27] Most significant though, is the mutual recognition, the end to the state of war, and the normalization of relations between Egypt and Israel. These factors make the agreement a success.

The United States’ motives for brokering the peace treaty remain a bit unclear.[28] There are certainly general positives to be gained from the treaty, but no one single reason has claimed precedence. Carter had a personal, and likely political, mission to improve the state of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Egypt and Israel reaching a peace agreement also ensured the United States’ alliance with two powerful and stable nations in the Middle East. Strengthening the American relationship with Egypt also weakened the Soviet Union.[29] Also, American access to Arabian oil is best protected when the Middle East is without strife and turmoil. Memories of the October 1973 war and the oil price shock of that year were still fresh in American minds. A combination of these factors, along with Carter’s personal ambitions, led the United States to successfully broker the first peace treaty between an Arab nation and Israel.

Works Cited

“Egypt and Israel Treaty of Peace No. 17813.” United Nations Treaty Collection, United Nations, https://treaties.un.org/doc/Publication/UNTS/Volume%201155/volume-1155-I-18232-English.pdf.

“Geneva Peace Conference (1973).” THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT: AN INTERACTIVE DATABASE, ECF, https://ecf.org.il/issues/issue/198.

“Israel and Egypt Framework for Peace No. 17853.” United Nations Treaty Collection, United Nations, https://treaties.un.org/.

“Jimmy Carter Administration: Statement on Implementation of the United States-Israel Oil Agreement.” Jewish Virtual Library, AICE, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/president-carter-statement-on-implementation-of-the-united-states-israel-oil-agreement-october-1980.

“Making Peace with Egypt, Part 4. Carter Intervenes: The President’s Visit to Egypt and Israel and the Signing of the Peace Treaty.” Israel State Archives, Government of Israel, https://catalog.archives.gov.il/en/chapter/making-peace-egypt-part-4-carter-intervenes-presidents-visit-egypt-israel-signing-peace-treaty/.

“President Carter to Menachem Begin, 1979, President Carter to Menachem Begin.” Archives.gov.il, Government of Israel, https://www.archives.gov.il/archives/Archive/0b071706800171a0/File/0b071706809d47ae/Item/0907170684ce2bea.

“Prime Minister Menachem Begin – Shaderim.” Archives.gov.il: (Continued from File No. 5) Broadcasts and Recording of Telephone Conversations between the Prime Minister and US President Jimmy Carter Regarding Peace Negotiations with Egypt, the Signing of the Peace Treaty and the Autonomy Talks. The File Also Contains Broadcasts about the Reception of Refugees from Vietnam in Israel and Assistance in the Return of Israeli Representatives from Tehran during the Revolution, https://www.archives.gov.il/archives/Archive/0b071706800171a0/File/0b071706809d47ae.

“The Meeting of President Carter and His Delegation with Prime Minister Menachem Begin, President Carter-Prime Minister Begin Meeting 1979.” Archives.gov.il, https://www.archives.gov.il/archives/Archive/0b0717068002f74b/File/0b07170680727ace/Item/0907170684cef1f5.

Aderet, Ofer. “’This American Chutzpah Makes My Blood Boil,’ Menachem Begin Said during Jimmy Carter’s 1979 Visit to Israel for Egypt Peace Talks.” Haaretz.com, Haaretz, 17 Mar. 2013, https://www.haaretz.com/2013-03-17/ty-article/.premium/as-carter-visited-begin-railed-at-u-s-chutzpa/0000017f-e092-df7c-a5ff-e2fa408c0000.

Alter, Jonathan (2020). His Very Best – Jimmy Carter, a Life. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-1-5011-2554-6.

Alterman, Eric. “Jimmy Carter Took More Risks for Middle East Peace than Any Other President-by Far.” Newrepublic.com, The New Republic, 21 Feb. 2023, https://newrepublic.com/article/170676/jimmy-carter-camp-david-1978-took-risks-middle-east-peace.

Berenji, Shahin. “Jimmy Carter’s Role in Securing Middle East Peace.” E-International Relations, 28 Apr. 2016, https://www.e-ir.info/2016/04/21/the-camp-david-accords-jimmy-carters-role-in-securing-middle-east-peace/.

“Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office, Outside the System File, Box 66, Middle East: President Carter’s Trip to Jerusalem and Cairo: 2–4/79. Secret.” Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1977-80v09Ed2/d202.

Center for Preventive Action. “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict | Global Conflict Tracker.” Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations, 13 Jan. 2023, https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/israeli-palestinian-conflict.

Clarke, Duncan L. “US Security Assistance to Egypt and Israel: Politically Untouchable?” Middle East Journal, vol. 51, no. 2, 1997, pp. 200–14. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4329053.

Cody, Edward. “Egypt Says It Trains Afghan Rebels.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 14 Feb. 1980, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1980/02/14/egypt-says-it-trains-afghan-rebels/a09f455a-fca0-48c0-b7fe-12e8c9bcede6/.

Farrell, William E. “Envoy of Moscow Expelled by Egypt.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 16 Sept. 1981, https://www.nytimes.com/1981/09/16/world/envoy-of-moscow-expelled-by-egypt.html.

Greenspan, Jesse. “How Jimmy Carter Brokered a Hard-Won Peace Deal between Israel and Egypt.” History.com, 21 Oct. 2019, https://www.history.com/news/jimmy-carter-camp-david-accords-egypt-israel.

Hazaimeh, Hani. “When Sadat Went to Israel.” Arabnews.com, Arab News, 16 Apr. 2020, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1659751.

Kaufman, Diane; Kaufman, Scott (2013). Historical dictionary of the Carter era. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Makovsky, David. “Reviewing Egypt’s Gains from Its Peace Treaty with Israel.” The Washington Institute, 7 Mar. 2011, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/reviewing-egypts-gains-its-peace-treaty-israel.

Quandt, William B. “Menachem Begin: A Past Master at Negotiation.” The Brookings Review, vol. 2, no. 2, 1983, pp. 12–15. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/20079817.

Quandt, William B. Camp David: Peacemaking and Politics. Brookings Institution Press, 2016. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7864/j.ctt15hvr5s.

Ross, Dennis. “Did Camp David Doom the Palestinians?” Foreign Policy, 19 Oct. 2018, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/10/19/did-camp-david-doom-the-palestinians-israel-palestine-yasser-arafat-menachem-begin-jimmy-carter-reagan-bush-clinton-middle-east-peace/.

Seale, Patrick. “The Egypt-Israel Treaty and Its Implications.” The World Today, vol. 35, no. 5, 1979, pp. 189–96. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40395115.

Shipler, David K. “Israeli Completes Pullout, Leaving Sinai to Egypt.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Apr. 1982, https://www.nytimes.com/1982/04/26/world/israeli-completes-pullout-leaving-sinai-to-egypt.html.

Staff, CIE. “Memorandum of Conversation between Us President Jimmy Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.” Center for Israel Education, Zbigniew Brzezinski Historical Materials Collection. Box 36, Folder: Serial X’s (1/79-2/79). The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, 3 Sept. 2018, https://israeled.org/memorandum-of-conversation-between-us-president-jimmy-carter-and-israeli-prime-minister-menachem-begin/.

Stein, Kenneth W. Heroic Diplomacy: Sadat, Kissinger, Carter, Begin, and the Quest for Arab–Israeli Peace, 1999

Williams, Audrey. “Camp David, Hal Saunders, and Responsibility in Peacemaking.” Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution, George Mason University, https://carterschool.gmu.edu/why-study-here/legacy-leadership/camp-david-hal-saunders-and-responsibility-peacemaking

[1] Kaufman 2013

[2] Begin was unwilling to stop the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing ones; unwilling to withdraw Israeli settlers from Sinai, or to allow U.N. or Egyptian protection for them if they were to stay; unwilling to acknowledge that U.N. Resolution 242 applied to the West Bank or the Gaza Strip; and unwilling to grant Palestinians a genuine voice in determining their future (Alterman 2023).

[3] Quandt 1983, 3

[4] Berenji 2016, Greenspan 2019

[5] Quandt 1983, 4

[6] Alterman 2023

[7] Berenji 2016

[8] Quandt 1983, 4

[9] Memorandum of Conversation between US President Jimmy Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (2 March 1979), 2

[10] “A Framework for Peace in the Middle East Agreed at Camp David” and “Framework for the conclusion of a Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel”

[11] Greenspan 2019

[12] See here: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/president-carter-statement-on-implementation-of-the-united-states-israel-oil-agreement-october-1980

[13] The guarantee applied if Israel encountered a supply emergency, had to pay excessive prices, or rely on insecure arrangements (See here: https://www.upi.com/Archives/1980/10/17/US-guarantees-oil-for-Israel/6006340603200/)

[14] Jordan being the first, according to Begin. See Carter-Begin meeting transcript, March 11, 1979, here: https://www.archives.gov.il/archives/Archive/0b0717068002f74b/File/0b07170680727ace/Item/0907170684cef1f5

[15] Aderet 2013 and here: https://catalog.archives.gov.il/en/chapter/making-peace-egypt-part-4-carter-intervenes-presidents-visit-egypt-israel-signing-peace-treaty/

[16] Carter argued that the refusal to refer to Gaza in the joint letter undermined the US commitment to ensure that autonomy was implemented. Carter said, “[And] unless there is some assurance that the [Egyptian] negotiating team can have access to the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, I do not feel that I can carry out my commitment to the American people nor to you nor to the Palestinian Arabs nor to Egypt. It is a crucial issue to us and I think it is something you will have to decide.” (https://catalog.archives.gov.il/en/chapter/making-peace-egypt-part-4-carter-intervenes-presidents-visit-egypt-israel-signing-peace-treaty/)

[17] See here: https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1977-80v09Ed2/d202

[18] See Begin-Carter March 11 meeting transcript

[19] See Carter’s March 13 telephone call to Begin: https://www.archives.gov.il/en/archives/Archive/0b071706800171a0/File/0b071706809d47ae/Item/0907170684ce2bea

[20] Clarke 1997

[21] Begin letters asking for American aid, see here: https://www.archives.gov.il/archives/Archive/0b071706800171a0/File/0b071706809d47ae

[22] Prior to Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, governance of the Palestinian territories was as follows: Egypt had occupied Gaza; Jordan had annexed the West Bank; the Sinai Peninsula was under Egyptian sovereignty; and the Golan Heights was under Syrian sovereignty.

[23] Ross 2018

[24] Stein 1999, 254

[25] Meaning, the lands that were captured and occupied by Israel during the Six-Day War

[26] The 1993 Oslo Accords were based on the Camp David Accords (and thus, the 1979 peace treaty) and therefore merely put forth an interim agreement with first steps meant to be followed by more complete negotiations. Both accords shared similar fates, as Jordan agreed to peace with Israel in 1994, without the Palestinians

[27] See “Israel and Egypt Treaty for Peace”

[28] Quandt 2016, 5

[29] The Soviet Union had sent aid to Egypt during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. But then in 1979, Egypt supported the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan when the USSR invaded and Sadat expelled a Soviet envoy from Egypt two years later (Cody, 1980; Farrell 1981).