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Declassified Documents Shed Light On Camp David Peace Talks


Thirty-five years ago the U.S. negotiated an historic peace deal between Israel and Egypt. Over 13 long days at the presidential retreat Camp David, President Jimmy Carter walked a delicate line to get Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israel Prime Minister Menachem Begin to reach an agreement. Now we're learning more details of how they succeeded. Last week, the CIA declassified 1,400 of pages of documents related to those Camp David peace talks.

For more we turn to Shibley Telhami, who has spent years studying the negotiations. He serves as the Anwar Sadat chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. Welcome back to the program.


MONTAGNE: Break it down for us. What were some of the motivations of each side, the Israelis and the Egyptian teams, that the U.S. was most attuned to?

TELHAMI: Well, the U.S. was, of course, attuned to the basic change in strategic reform. Remember, we're operating in the middle of the Cold War still, and you have the context of Egypt having been an ally of the Soviet Union for so many years - the most important influential Arab state - and here is Egypt essentially saying look, I'm going to into the Western camp, develop a relationship with the U.S. and make peace with Israel. So the context of that for the U.S. was huge and it was strategic. The Israelis obviously, had an extraordinary opportunity because the Israelis, really from the beginning of the state of Israel in 1948, always thought that decoupling Egypt from the rest of the Arab world would be central to them because it's the only country that can fight them effectively. If they take Egypt out of the game, the chance of war is reduced. For the Egyptians, priority was for Sadat A, to consolidate a relationship with the U.S. and to get back the Sinai.

MONTAGNE: And the appropriation was enormous. It shows through in this. What was President Carter told to look out for with Sadat and then separately with Begin?

TELHAMI: Carter was very attuned to the personality traits. He's the one who said, you know, I want to know who they are what they want, what leverage they can use with them individually. One of the memos that was declassified was actually a particular document from then the national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, in which he really lays it out. And he said here is the strategic environment for Sadat. Here's the strategic environment for Begin. Here is why Sadat can't afford to fail. Here's why Begin may be able to afford to fail, but you have to lay it out that if, in fact, we fail because he has obstructed or seemed to have obstructed the peace process, we warn him that we'll go to the American people and tell them he was the one to blame because he cares about that relationship. So at one point when Carter believed that Menachem Begin really wasn't making the sort of concessions that are necessary, he essentially had the team prepare a speech that would go to the American people in case of failure. And just as suggested in the strategy paper that he received, and he went and told Begin that.

It was pretty clever, but also, you know, it's like Carter is not known historically to have been tough because he seemed to have been relatively soft on Iran and the Soviet Union. In fact, as a negotiator, Carter was remarkably tough and very much responsive to the advice of his aides and he was prepared to use muscle.

MONTAGNE: What do you think leaders today should take note of today in this trove of documents?

TELHAMI: Number one I think is preparation, preparation, preparation. That hasn't been the norm in American diplomacy. And I think part of it is also, at that time the U.S. saw Arab-Israeli peace as a primary strategic interest of the United States. If you contrast with Camp David 2000, the negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians mediated by Bill Clinton, one of the striking things is that Bill Clinton, with all his commitment to that issue and all the time he spent on it, he didn't see it as a central issue. And you can see that in the way that the Clinton administration handled the negotiations. They didn't have major preparation for the summit at 2000. And they didn't have interagency analysis of the consequences of failure and success. And all of that was particularly consequential for the aftermath of Camp David in a negative way, I think.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.

TELHAMI: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Shibley Telhami's most recent book is "The World Through Arab Eyes: Arab Public Opinion and the Reshaping of the Middle East."


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.