|This Op-Ed appeared in The Washington Post. DO NOT REPRINT WITHOUT PERMISSION. Copyright© The Carter Center |
An underlying reason that years of U.S. diplomacy have failed and violence in the Middle East persists is that some Israeli leaders continue to "create facts" by building settlements in occupied territory. Their deliberate placement as islands or fortresses within Palestinian areas makes the settlers vulnerable to attack without massive military protection, frustrates Israelis who seek peace and at the same time prevents any Palestinian government from enjoying effective territorial integrity.
At Camp David in September 1978, President Anwar Sadat, Prime Minister Menachem Begin and I spent most of our time debating this issue before we finally agreed on terms for peace between Egypt and Israel and for the resolution of issues concerning the Palestinian people. The bilateral provisions led to a comprehensive and lasting treaty between Egypt and Israel, made possible at the last minute by Israel's agreement to remove its settlers from the Sinai. But similar constraints concerning the status of the West Bank and Gaza have not been honored, and have led to continuing confrontation and violence.
The foundation for all my proposals to the two leaders was the official position of the government of the United States, based on international law that was mutually accepted by the United States, Egypt, Israel and other nations, and encapsulated in United Nations Security Council Resolution 242. Our government's legal commitment to support this well-balanced resolution has not changed.
Although the acceptance of Resolution 242 was a contentious issue at Camp David, Prime Minister Begin ultimately acknowledged its applicability, "in all its parts." The text emphasizes "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in which every State in the area can live in security." It requires the "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent  conflict" and the right of every state in the area "to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force."
It was clear that Israeli settlements in the occupied territories were a direct violation of this agreement and were, according to the long-stated American position, both "illegal and an obstacle to peace." Accordingly, Prime Minister Begin pledged that there would be no establishment of new settlements until after the final peace negotiations were completed. But later, under Likud pressure, he declined to honor this commitment, explaining that his presumption had been that all peace talks would be concluded within three months.
There were some notable provisions in the Camp David Accords that related to Palestinian autonomy and the occupation of land. A key element was that "the Israeli military government and its civilian administration will be withdrawn as soon as a self-governing authority has been freely elected by the inhabitants of these areas to replace the existing military government." This transition period was triggered by an election in the occupied territories in January 1996, approved by the Palestinians and the government of Israel and monitored by the Carter Center. Eighty-eight Palestinian Council members were elected, with Yasser Arafat as president, and this self-governing authority, with limited autonomy, convened for the first time in March 1996.
It was also agreed that once the powers and responsibilities of the self-governing authority were established, "A withdrawal of Israeli armed forces will take place and there will be a redeployment of the remaining Israeli forces into specified security locations."
We decided early during the Camp David talks that it would be impossible to resolve the question of sovereignty over East Jerusalem, but proposed the following paragraph concerning the city, on which we reached full agreement:
"Jerusalem, the city of peace, is holy to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and all peoples must have free access to it and enjoy the free exercise of worship and the right to visit and transit to the holy places without distinction or discrimination. The holy places of each faith will be under the administration and control of their representatives. A municipal council representative of the inhabitants of the city shall supervise essential functions in the city such as public utilities, public transportation, and tourism and shall ensure that each community can maintain its own cultural and educational institutions."
At the last minute, however, after several days of unanimous acceptance, both Sadat and Begin agreed that there were already enough controversial elements in the accords and requested that this paragraph, although still supported by both sides, be deleted from the final text. Instead, the two leaders exchanged letters, expressing the legal positions of their respective governments regarding the status of East Jerusalem. They disagreed about sovereignty, of course, but affirmed that the city should be undivided.
As agreed, I informed them that "the position of the United States on Jerusalem remains as stated by Ambassador Arthur Goldberg in the United Nations General Assembly on July 14, 1967, and subsequently by Ambassador Charles Yost in the United Nations Security Council on July 1, 1969." In effect, these statements considered East Jerusalem to be part of the occupied territories, along with the West Bank and Gaza.
The Camp David Accord was signed by all three of us leaders with great fanfare and enthusiasm. President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin embraced warmly at the White House ceremony, and the final document was overwhelmingly ratified by their respective parliaments.
With the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan, there was a period of relative inactivity in the Middle East, except for the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the subsequent expulsion of PLO forces from Beirut. President Reagan used the announcement of this event on Sept. 1, 1982, to address the nation on the subject of the West Bank and the Palestinians. He stated clearly that "the Camp David agreement remains the foundation of our policy," and his speech included the following declarations:
"The Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza will have full autonomy over their own affairs."
"The United States will not support the use of any additional land for the purpose of settlements during the transition period. Indeed, the immediate adoption of a settlement freeze by Israel, more than any other action, could create the confidence needed for wider participation in these talks. Further settlement activity is in no way necessary for the security of Israel and only diminishes the confidence of the Arabs that a final outcome can be freely and fairly negotiated."
In 1991 there was a major confrontation between the governments of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and President George Bush concerning Israeli settlements in the West Bank, with U.S. threats of withholding financial aid if settlement activity continued. A conference was convened that year in Madrid with participants of the United States, Syria, other Arab nations and some Palestinians who did not officially represent the PLO. At a press conference on Nov. 1, Secretary of State James Baker said, "When we negotiated with Israel, we negotiated on the basis of land for peace, on the basis of total withdrawal from territory in exchange for peaceful relations. . . . This is exactly our position, and we wish it to be applied also in the negotiations between Israelis and Syrians, Israelis and Palestinians. We have not changed our position at all."
Norwegian mediators forged an agreement in September 1993 between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat committing both sides to a staged peace process. Although U.S. officials were not involved in this effort, our government commemorated the Oslo Accords in a ceremony at the White House, and built subsequent peace talks on its terms and those of the Camp David Accords. So far, these efforts have not succeeded, and this year there has been a resurgence of violence and animosity between Israelis and Arabs unequaled in more than a quarter of a century.
The major issues still to be resolved remain unchanged: the final boundaries of the state of Israel, the return of, or compensation for, Palestinians dislodged from their previous homes and the status of Jerusalem. It seems almost inevitable that the United States will initiate new peace efforts, but it is unlikely that real progress can be made on any of these issues as long as Israel insists on its settlement policy, illegal under international laws that are supported by the United States and all other nations.
There are many questions as we continue to seek an end to violence in the Middle East, but there is no way to escape the vital one: Land or peace?
Former president Carter is chairman of the Carter Center in Atlanta.