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Analysis: Camp David Accords have been replaced with back channel diplomacy

On March 26, 1979, then US president Jimmy Carter (C) congratulates Egyptian president Anwar Sadat (L) and Israeli premier Menachem Begin (R) in a three-way handshake on the north lawn of the White House, after signing the Camp David Accords
- (CONSOLIDATED NEWS PICTURES/AFP/File)

Forty years after the signing of the  Camp David Accords, which brought peace between Israel and Egypt, Professor Robbie Sabel, former Legal Adviser to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs tells i24NEWS that the only other big Arab state that would foreseeably make peace with the Jewish State is Syria — though it’s unrealistic given the current state of affairs.

Although there have been suggestions of behind the scenes cooperation between Riyadh and Jerusalem and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman’s in April giving unprecedented acknowledgement of Israel’s right to exist, Professor Sabel doesn’t believe Saudi Arabia would be the next Arab country to sign any peace treaty with Israel.

“Saudi Arabia will work with Israel in the background but it will not make an open peace agreement with Israel until the Palestinian issue is solved,” Professor Sabel told i24NEWS in an exclusive interview.

On September 17, 1978 Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Camp David, mediated by US President Jimmy Carter, marking what has been dubbed the biggest diplomatic achievement in the 20th century.

Begin and Sadat signed two documents at Camp David. The first document, "Framework for Peace in the Middle East", dealt with the issue of the Palestinian territories. The second document, "Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel,” became the most significant treaty, and has been honored by every Egyptian and Israel leader since then.

The peace treaty thus ended 30 years of fighting between Israel and Egypt, and was signed only five years after Sadat launched a war together with Syria against Israel on the holiest days for Jews, Yom Kippur, which left some 2,800 Israelis dead.

FILES/CONSOLIDATED NEWS PICTURES/AFP

According to Jimmy Carter, the Camp David Accords “changed the reality of the Middle East,” but fell short of achieving what he had hoped for, namely resolving the “Palestinian problem in all its aspects.”  

On the 40th anniversary of the accords, Carter said the US is no longer pursuing the role of an honest broker.

“The United States had, and still has, an obligation driven by both strategic and moral imperatives. To succeed, we must be an honest broker and be guided by a sense of fairness and respect for human rights and international agreements and obligations….. I regret to say that the United states currently does not appear to be pursuing the role of an honest broker.”

Without specifying, Carter was most likely referring to US President Donald Trump’s list  favourable treatment of Israel and a host of punitive measures against the Palestinians, to Israel, meant to pressure the PA into participating a new round of peace negotiations.

Professor Sabel, who was an Israeli representative to peace talks with Egypt and Jordan, agrees with Carter that it was a major diplomatic achievement, but that the situation today is different from 1978, and that the the US is still an honest broker for the Middle East.

“I would say the US was a useful mediator (during the Camp David summit) because Israel and Egypt wanted to reach an agreement, and the US facilitated it. It was considered the biggest achievement of US diplomacy in the Middle East ever. And to get the Russians out of Egypt was a tremendous achievement. All of this is not relevant to the Palestinian situation today,” Professor Sabel told i24NEWS.

AFP/Archives

-National interest and diplomacy-

Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin won the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts at Camp David in 1978, but they did not reach the historic agreement because of their personal chemistry — on the contrary.

“Each side was acting out of national interest. In fact there was no personal chemistry between Sadat and Begin, but it was in the interest of each party to reach an agreement,” said Professor Sabel.  

“There was a joint interest between Egypt and Israel to reach a peace agreement. Egypt wanted to get Sinai back, and it wanted US support, while Israel wanted the biggest Arab state to make peace with it. The Palestinian part of the accords was simply a price Israel felt it had to pay in order to get Egypt to sign a treaty,” Professor Sabel elaborated.

Interestingly, Prime Minister Begin saw it as a national interest to concede the largest territory conquered by Israel, in return for peace and access to the Suez canal. The assessment proved right. Having signed a peace treaty with the biggest Arab state, the Israeli cause became legitimate in the eyes of a former enemy, and most importantly an Arab state.

Egypt, however, was ostracized in the Arab world and was expelled by the Arab League in 1979 after Cairo ratified the peace treaty with Israel. Only 10 years later did the Arab League accept Egypt as a member again.

The Camp David Accords did however give Egypt Sinai back, a gesture with symbolic value, and it did provide Cairo with a future partner in combating terrorism.

In February, The New York Times reported that Israel has carried out more than 100 air strikes in Egypt against jihadists with the approval of President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi.

The Israeli assistance in fighting jihadists on Egyptian soil is a direct result of the foundation laid by Sadat and Begin 40 years ago. It proves that today, as then, national interests drive both states’ actions.

HO (AFP/File)

Al-Sissi and Israel have, according to the NY Times report, tried to keep the military cooperation covert, most likely because of Egyptian public opinion towards Israel.  However, national interests often supersede public opinion in diplomacy.

The diplomatic back channeling between Riyadh and Jerusalem might be the best example of that. As pointed out by Dr. Sabel, Saudi Arabia will not follow suit and sign a peace agreement like the Camp David Accord until the Palestinian issue is resolved, mainly because the Saudi Kingdom hails itself as the leading Arab protector of Palestinians.

Riyadh and Jerusalem are now closer than ever due to one common cause; containing Iran. In an unprecedented interview with a Saudi newspaper last year, IDF chief of staff Gadi Eizenkot said Israel is ready to share intelligence with Saudi Arabia on Iran.

Israel is currently waging a diplomatic and military campaign against Iran’s presence in Syria which is highly welcomed in Riyadh. Both countries consider Iran the biggest threat to regional stability, a view shared by their common ally, the US.

Lastly, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, recognized Israel’s right to exist in an interview with The Atlantic earlier this year, saying both the “Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.”

The Camp David Accords proved that the right circumstances and national interests can cause historical diplomatic achievements, but it also underscored the importance of courageous leadership which both Israel and the Palestinians have yet to demonstrate. Israel can hope for a continuation of back channel diplomacy with Arab states while the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza need to reconcile before a serious attempt at peace negotiations can be made.

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