National Press Club

NPC in History: How the Camp David Middle East Peace Accords began in the ballroom

June 13, 2019 | By Gilbert Klein | gilbert.klein@me.com

Anwar Sadat talking with National Press Club President Frank Aukofer.

Anwar Sadat talking with National Press Club President Frank Aukofer.

The peace accords ushered in by President Carter at Camp David between Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin on Sept. 17, 1978, remain the most important development in Arab-Israeli relations since the birth of the state of Israel. For the first time after four wars, Israel did not have to worry about being attacked from the west by one of the Arab nations’ strongest military.

Bringing the two leaders together for 12 days of secret negotiations at the presidential retreat was President Carter’s greatest achievement. Sadat and Begin shared the Nobel Peace Prize. Carter’s peace prize would come later.

In the months leading up to the Camp David talks, all three of the principals spoke at the National Press Club as diplomacy progressed behind the scenes.

Invited to Camp David to meet one-on-one with President Carter from Feb. 3 to 5, Sadat appeared at the Club the following Monday. Less than three months earlier, Sadat had visited Jerusalem in a dramatic and historic visit that he said was his attempt to break the “psychological barrier” that had stalled peace negotiations for so long.

According to a Library of Congress analysis of President Carter’s memo, Sadat told Carter at Camp David “that he was going to announce at the National Press Club that the Egyptians will discontinue their participation in the military and political talks, that they had given Israel everything they could have possibility dreamed up a year ago, that he had 100 million Arabs with him – 90 percent of the Arab world.”

Carter told Sadat that if he did that it “would be a very serious blow; would make Begin look good and Sadat look like an obstacle to peace.” Instead Carter proposed a “secret strategy” to break the deadlock. Heartened by Carter’s proposal, Sadat did not end negotiations as he spoke to a packed luncheon on Feb. 6.

In his introduction, Club President Frank Aukofer of the Milwaukee Journal lauded Sadat’s peace initiative in traveling to Jerusalem and said, “Once in a while someone comes along and alters the minds of millions. Our speaker is such a man,” calling him “the man who forever changed the image of the Arab in the minds of the American people.”

Sadat said he did not go to Israel to “strike a deal,” but to “make peace.”

“I did not go to win an argument,” he said, “but to reassure the minds and hearts of millions of Israelis and Arabs. If some were unable to grasp the great significance of such a unique step, the fault is only theirs.”

He said the Israeli government “has gone back to the vicious circle of arguing every word or comma … one gets the impression that there is a deliberate attempt to erase the impact of the historic initiative and divest it of its driving spirit.”

But he said he remained “committed to the cause of peace. I am determined to give it every possible chance. Despite all difficulties, we will persevere. To us, the pursuit of peace is a strategic goal which we pursue with determination.”

President Carter was the next to the Club’s podium on March 2. Oddly enough, Carter’s talk was not focused on the Middle East, but civil service reform. In the Q & A following his talk, the subject came up. With a question passed up by Dick Ryan of the Detroit News, Aukofer asked the president what he hoped to achieve in his upcoming talks with Menachem Begin.

Carter replied, “So, this is what I hope to accomplish with Prime Minister Begin – to frankly discuss with him my previous agreements with President Sadat, to encourage direct negotiations to be resumed, and to search out common ground … on the latest possible language changes that might be necessary to let Egypt and Israel agree.

“I would much prefer that the personal discussions be carried on between Sadat and Begin. But in the absence of that possibility at this moment, we hope to restore it and act as an intermediary.”

Thus, he set the stage for the Camp David meeting.

Menachem Begin was up next on March 23 after his third set of talks with Carter since Begin’s election in 1977. Carter had been furious with Begin for the establishment of new Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory, calling them “illegal” and “an obstacle to peace.” The Club speech was, the Washington Post said, Begin’s attempt of making his case before the American people.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Begin “struck a combative note, bluntly defending Israel’s right to build new settlements on the West Bank of the Jordan River and his nation’s refusal to yield the West Bank,” according to the Library of Congress’ analysis. Those territories were crucial to Israel’s security, he said, and noted that the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s charter called for the destruction of the Jewish state through armed conflict.

“The government of Israel wants peace, and wants peace negotiations to move ahead at a speedy pace.” he told the Club. “We don’t want stalemate or procrastination. We yearn for peace. We pray for it. It is our innermost striving to bring peace to the people, to the land, to our neighbors. To accomplish this, we must have patience with each other, open minds, open hearts.”

The Camp David Accords returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt and it was demilitarized. Never again would Egyptian troops use it to stage an attack on Israel. But more than 40 years later, all of the other obstacles to a comprehensive Middle East peace remain firmly in place.

The Sadat and Begin talks were two of the 25 Club luncheons that the Library of Congress found most significant between 1953 and 1991. Audio recordings, photos and the library’s analyses can be found at two places, on Sadat and on Begin.

This is another in a series provided by Club historian Gil Klein. Dig down anywhere in the Club’s 111-year history, and you will find some kind of significant event in the history of the world, the nation, Washington, journalism and the Club itself. Many of these events were caught in illustrations that tell the stories.