Middle East scholar says Sadat was ‘engine’ that pushed Camp David talks

From left, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin make a three-way handshake during the White House signing of the Middle East peace accord in March 1979. Photo: The Carter Center/Used With Permission

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Kenneth W. Stein, a leading scholar on the politics of the Arab world, credits the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat for serving as the “engine that drove the Camp David Peace Process forward” to a successful conclusion.

Stein has taught Mideast history and political science at Emory University for 41 years and is founding director of the Emory Institute for the Study of Modern Israel. He is regarded as a pioneer in Israel education, having established the Center for Israel Education in 2008 in Atlanta. The center’s website is considered one of the most reliable and innovative web-based sources for learning about modern Israel.

Stein’s discussion topic Tuesday at the Jewish Federation building (see infobox at bottom of page for full details) will focus on events leading up to and between the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and negotiations between Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.  President Jimmy Carter mediated the talks, which culminated in the signing of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty on the White House lawn in March 1979.

The Jewish Light caught up with Stein before he comes to St. Louis.

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Who deserves the most credit among Sadat, Begin or Carter for the ultimate success of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty of 1979?

During the negotiations from 1973 and 1979, Sadat was clearly the engine that kept the process on track and moving forward. America played the role of midwife.  Without Sadat, we would not have had an agreement. Credit has been given to Begin, but not enough to Sadat.

So what about the American role?

I am not trying to minimize the role America played.  The United States tried to show the Egyptians and the Israelis the points of overlap in their positions. In September 1977, both Sadat and Begin said they wanted to try to meet face-to-face and without the Russians. Whenever the Sadat-Begin talks began to sputter, America would step in and restart the engines.

How has the Egypt-Israel Treaty been able to last so long, through Sadat and all of his successors, Hosni Mubarak, Mohammed Morsi and Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi?

Nations are a lot like people. They will do what is in their interest and now do what is harmful to their interests.  People don’t just run onto a busy freeway. Both Sadat and Begin were clear on what they wanted from their talks.  Sadat wanted the Sinai back and all of the Israeli settlements moved out of the Sinai. Begin wanted an end to the hostile encirclement of Israel. Both men got what they were seeking.

 So what lessons have been learned from the success and endurance of the Egypt-Israel Treaty?

To be successful, you have to have leaders who demonstrate wisdom and foresight and who have control over their own people. Also, both sides must see that today’s status quo will not be better tomorrow if they don’t reach a deal.

Was the Egypt-Israel Treaty a one-off? Why can’t Israel and the Palestinians reach a solution on a two-state deal?

One reason is that the Palestinians are not seen by Israel as an existential threat to its survival. Another reason is that the Palestinians do not know what they don’t want (with Fatah on one side and Hamas on the other side). 

If the two Palestinian sides would come together and indicate their acceptance of Israel as a Jewish State within its 1967 borders that they would recognize as legitimate, the Israelis would be likely to seriously consider it. But because of the nature of the Fatah-Hamas split, they can’t come to a consensus on what they want.

The Israeli leadership on all sides supported Begin’s efforts to make a deal with Sadat. Both sides had clear objectives and achieved them.

So, are you saying that there will never be an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians on a two-state solution?

In diplomacy, you never say never. If I had told my students at Emory back in 1977 that Egypt and Israel would sign a peace treaty in 1979, some would have called for my Ph.D. and teaching to be terminated.

Middle East history lecture

WHAT: ‘Forty Years After the 1978 Camp David Accords: Why Egyptian-Israeli Negotiations Worked then, but Palestinian-Israel Talks Remain Remote Today’ by Emory University professor Kenneth W. Stein

WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 28

WHERE:  Jewish Federation building, 12 Millstone Campus Drive

HOW MUCH: Free

MORE INFO: RSVP online at JFedSTL.org/events/Ken-Stein. For more information, contact Kathy Schmeltz at [email protected] or 314-442-3761. The event is sponsored by the Center for Jewish Learning and Jewish Federation of St. Louis. The Sh’ma: Listen! Speaker Series is funded by the Lubin-Green Foundation, a supporting foundation of Jewish Federation.