On This Day: Camp David Accords signed, leading to Israel-Egypt peace
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On This Day: Camp David Accords signed, leading to Israel-Egypt peace

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September 17, 2021 marks 43 years since the signing of the Camp David Accords between former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, under the auspices of then US president Jimmy Carter. It paved the way for the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace deal, the first such treaty between Israel and one of its Arab neighbors.

The Camp David Accords was the culmination of considerable political machinations and came just years after the conclusion of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, widely regarded as Israel’s darkest hour and where Egypt played a major role as the aggressor.

The war was devastating, with the Jewish state flanked in a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria. Though Israel achieved a military victory over its adversaries and came within shelling range of Damascus, the war shocked the Jewish state out of complacency, prompting the resignation of Israel’s prime minister Golda Meir. After the war Israelis viewed the Egyptian military in a new, more dangerous light.

However, Egypt had seen the conflict differently. Despite Egyptian military successes in the conflict, some in Cairo were convinced that Israel simply could not be beaten on the battlefield. As such, it seemed doubtful they could use force of arms to destroy the Jewish state.

But one thing it undoubtedly achieved was to shift the region’s status quo.

Two events then further changed everything and set the scene for the eventual peace talks. The first event was on May 17, 1977. This was Israel’s general election and saw the right-wing Likud Party, led by Begin, achieve a historic upset with a landslide victory, giving Israel a right-wing government for the first time ever.

The second event was Sadat’s historic interview on CBS News with Walter Cronkite on November 14 of the same year. During this interview, Sadat shocked the world by saying that he was more than willing to actually visit Jerusalem for peace negotiations.

“I want to discuss the whole situation with the 120 members of the Knesset and put the full picture and details of the situation from our point of view,” he said at the time.

This was not the first time Sadat expressed willingness to go to Israel, and he had said as much in a speech before the People’s Assembly just five days earlier. However, now his intentions were made public to the world.

That same day, Cronkite interviewed Begin and asked for his response.

“I can assure you, Mr. Cronkite, as we really want the visit of president Sadat, we really want to negotiate the peace, to establish permanent peace in the Middle East,” Begin said.

“Any time, any day he’s prepared to come, I will receive him cordially at the airport, and go together with him to Jerusalem, also present him to the Knesset and let him make his speech to our parliament. I will follow him onto the platform and greet him, receive him.”

Shortly after, this exact situation happened. Sadat, in an unprecedented and historic moment, arrived at Lod Airport (known today as Ben-Gurion Airport). On November 20, Sadat then made history by addressing the Knesset.

EGYPTIAN PRESIDENT Anwar Sadat (left) and prime minister Menachem Begin deep in conversation at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Sadat’s move threw out the rulebook, taking Washington by surprise. It led to negotiations that culminated in the Camp David Accords, which were signed at the White House by Sadat and Begin in 1978 after 12 days of secret talks at Camp David.

There were two frameworks in the accords. The first dealt with the Palestinians and faced condemnation for a lack of participation from the Palestinians themselves. However, the second framework was between Egypt and Israel, winning both Begin and Sadat the Nobel Peace Prize and directly leading to the treaty being signed a year later.

Notably, as part of the accords, Israel pledged to fully withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula in its entirety. Israel had taken the peninsula following the Six Day War, and Israeli settlements did exist in the area. But now they all had to be withdrawn. But ultimately, it was seen as a good thing in Israel, where it continues to enjoy support.

According to a 2001 poll by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, 85% of Israelis support the accords.

In Egypt, however, the response was less positive. The nations of the Arab world were harshly critical of Egypt’s move, costing them their membership in the Arab League and causing unrest and sedition to fester, particularly among Islamist groups.

Ultimately, on October 6, 1981, Sadat was assassinated at a victory parade by Islamists belonging to the Egyptian Islamic Jihad organization.

In total, 11 people were killed at the event outright, including Sadat, an Omani delegate and the Cuban ambassador, while 28 were wounded.

Sadat was ultimately succeeded by his vice president, Hosni Mubarak, who stayed in power for 30 years until the 2011 Arab Spring.

Today, Egypt’s relations with Israel are tense, particularly regarding the Palestinian conflict, and security remains strong at the Sinai border. However, Cairo has maintained an active role in regional affairs, particularly regarding the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, with which it shares a border.

Egypt played a critical role in the restoration of calm that ended the 11-day May war between Israel and Hamas, known as Operation Guardian of the Walls.

Ultimately, the Camp David Accords are remembered positively as the first truly successful peace negotiation between Israel and an Arab nation. It marked Israel’s first act of normalization with an Arab nation and was followed decades later by Jordan in 1994 and then 26 years later in 2020 with the Abraham Accords forging peace between Israel, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates.

Further, the now-iconic image of Sadat and Begin shaking hands remains a testament to the efforts of diplomacy.

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