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Camp David Accords: Jimmy Carter Reflects 25 Years Later

This speech was made at the 25th anniversary reunion of the Camp David accords, held in Washington, D.C.

Thank you all very much. First, I want to express my personal thanks to Lee Hamilton [Woodrow Wilson Center President and Director] for his kind remarks and for being our host today. This is a historic and wonderful place for us to assemble.

I just came back a few days ago from Japan and China. The Carter Center has had programs in 65 nations in the world. In Sub-Saharan Africa, we have had about 1 million test plots in agriculture financed by a Japanese partner, and we are involve--The Carter Center is--in monitoring elections in almost 800,000 small villages in China. They are very honest and democratic elections.

While I was in Japan, I remembered going through China and Japan in 1981, soon after I left the White House. At that time I was asked to make a speech at a small college near Osaka. When I got to this little college, everybody was so nervous, it made me nervous. So, I got up to make a speech, and I thought I would put the Japanese at ease-the students and professors and their parents-by telling a joke. It takes so long to translate English into Japanese that I didn't choose my funniest joke--I just chose my shortest joke. So I told my joke, and then the interpreter gave it and the audience collapsed in laughter. It was the best response I have ever had to a joke in my life.

I couldn't wait for the speech to be over to get to the green room and ask the interpreter, 'How did you tell my joke?' He was very evasive. But I persisted, and finally he ducked his head and said, "I told the audience, 'President Carter told a funny story. Everyone must laugh.' " So there are some advantages in having been president. That is one of the advantages in my life.

Today, I'm not sure I have an advantage in trying to summarize what we've done this morning. I had some notes made out beforehand, but almost everything I wanted to say has already been said. I will just take a few moments to encapsulate what has been done involving the Middle East, at least during my time in public life.

I remember the earliest stages of my involvement in the Middle East. I took a trip over there with Jody Powell and Rosalynn in 1972 when I was governor, and we had a chance to travel around Israel and to try to understand the problems there. We spent about half the time looking at biblical places and half the time learning about what was going on between Israel and her neighbors after the wars that had attacked the existence of that nation.

I formed an alliance there that came to the forefront when I was president. After the election, even before I was inaugurated as president, I had decided that I would make every possible effort to get away from a step-by-step process, which was very effective in the past in some cases, and try to deal with the entire gamut of Mideast problems. That was really what precipitated my meeting during the first few months of my administration with the leaders of the Middle East.

All of them came to the United States except Assad [president of Syria]. He refused to come to the United States throughout his entire life, so I did go to Geneva, Switzerland, to meet with him. But that started a process, at least in my own administration, for the Camp David effort.

Looking back on all of the issues or events that took place, including the Camp David accords, there is a continuity that is both discouraging and also offers some modicum of hope. United Nations resolution 242 was passed unanimously, including a positive vote by the United States and Israel, at the conclusion of the 1967 war. Its basic premises call for withdrawal of Israel from the occupied territories and for the acknowledgement of Israel's existence and sovereignty--and its right to exist in peace--by all the nations of the world. And a third thing that it calls for is a just settlement of the refugee problem.

Those were the three basic elements for peace, but obviously peace was not achieved. Additional wars took place-the latest one was in 1973. When we went to Camp David, it was with an effort to continue the process that had been begun a long time before.

I'm not going to try to repeat what we have talked about this morning, but I would like to just outline a few things, because, in reading my voluminous notes that I took at the time, it's obvious that some issues were in the forefront.

First was Arab recognition of Israel's right to exist in peace. Second was Israel's withdrawal from the occupied territories, with exceptions that had to be negotiated for Israel's security. A contiguous, or Palestinian, state was assumed with--to use Prime Minister Begin's phrase, "full autonomy for the Palestinians," or to use his more precise phrase "Palestinian Arabs"--because he maintained to me that Israeli Jews were also Palestinians.

And third was an undivided Jerusalem. As a matter of fact, while we were at Camp David, we negotiated a paragraph that for a number of days was completely acceptable to both Begin and Sadat. But toward the end of the session, the last few hours, both of them urged me to delete that paragraph from the final document because it was so sensitive on both sides. They thought they had enough sensitive stuff in it to begin with.

The other issue that has been persistent throughout all these years has been the United States playing a very strong role. I personally used what was called a single document--I have been involved in a lot of negotiations since then, and I've always used a single document--getting my superb assistants, who were all on the program this morning, to ultimately prepare a proposal that was presented precisely word by word to the Israelis, primarily to Prime Minister Begin, and to Sadat and to the Egyptians on the other side. We didn't have one document for one and one for the other.

This was a very long and torturous effort to get everybody to agree on exactly the same document. It has been pointed out this morning that some of the things were put in with an element of ambiguity because we could not decide on precise definitions, and we could not decide on precise schedules.

We had alternatives. One was for me to prepare a document that was patently fair, at least in our opinion, and that would be acceptable by one side. Then to use the threat against the other side of being isolated when the document was made public, and it became obvious that one side had rejected it.

I'll give you a quick example that may not necessarily be the only one involved. If everything else had been accepted that we had in the entire Camp David accords, including full diplomatic recognition for Israel, the right to traverse the Suez Canal, all of those elements and the only issue that remained was Israel's insistence on maintaining a few Israeli settlements in the Sinai, and that was the only thing, then Israel would have been in a very difficult position to put their whole premise on that point. In my opinion the Israeli people would have been disappointed had the entire process been voided because of a few settlements.

That was a technique of negotiation that, luckily, didn't have to be implemented because at the last minute Prime Minister Begin did permit the settlements to be dismantled. One was at Yamit, which I believe had about 3,000 settlers, it was a fairly large settlement, and there were 13 other very small ones.

What Sadat wanted was very clear. He wanted good relations with the United States, which Begin also wanted. He wanted his sovereign territory returned. That was something on which he would not deviate at all. He wanted peace with Israel for many reasons so that he could deal with other challenges to his own regime. There were some very important and serious challenges, for instance, from Libya against Egypt at that time, and Sadat wanted to be looked upon at the end of the whole discussion as making a strong attempt to protect the rights of the Palestinians.

Begin, as I said, wanted good relations with the United States, and he wanted Israel to be accepted in the world community by the major Arab nation that had been a threat militarily and politically to Israel above all others. The fact that Sadat was finally willing during the Camp David accords to give full diplomatic relations with Israel was important to him. He wanted peace, and he wanted to demilitarize the Sinai if he gave up control of it.

The worst disagreement that we had at the end of the Camp David accords, as we've discussed quite thoroughly this morning, was concerning the Israeli settlements: whether Israel would continue to build the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza or whether they would be frozen during the time that we were negotiating to conclude all of the elements of autonomy for the Palestinians. I misunderstood what Prime Minister Begin said. I have no reflection on his integrity or his honesty.

A couple of days ago I got the "Road Map to Peace" text that has been prepared under the leadership of President George W. Bush and I read it very carefully. It was very interesting to me how almost completely compatible it is with what was done at Camp David and what was confirmed later on in the Oslo negotiations performed by the Norwegians in 1993, almost exactly 10 years ago.

I will quote one paragraph from it, and this is a key paragraph. This was issued on the 30th of April this year.

"A settlement . . . will result in . . . an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbors. The settlement will resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and end the occupation that began in 1967, based on the foundations of the Madrid Conference, the principle of land for peace, United Nations resolutions 242, 338, and 1397, agreements previously reached by the parties, and," it went on to say, "the initiative of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah--endorsed by the Beirut Arab League Summit--calling for acceptance of Israel as a neighbor living in peace and security, in the context of a comprehensive settlement."

"This initiative," it concludes by saying, "is a vital element of international efforts to promote a comprehensive peace on all tracks, including the Syrian-Israeli and the Lebanese-Israeli tracks."

You can see that this description of what the so-called "Road Map to Peace" now encompasses is almost identical to the basic premises of the Camp David accords combined with the Oslo agreement.

Unfortunately, at this time, the most difficult decisions in the "Road Map to Peace," which is what we are talking about now and what we will be talking about this afternoon, were avoided or postponed to some uncertain time. I say that not in criticism, because there were some elements of the Camp David accords that we delayed to be implemented within three years or five years. Some of the most difficult decisions were delayed.

Its key early provisions, however, a good number of them, have been rejected by the Israeli cabinet. There are 14 caveats that have been promulgated by the present Israeli cabinet that subvert some of the major portions of the "Road Map to Peace."

Terrorist attacks, as you know, have been launched and continue to be launched by Hamas and other violent Palestinians.

There are four partners in the "Road Map to Peace," hopefully combining enough international strength to implement and to convince doubtful parties. But the European Union, Great Britain, and Russia have been put aside, and the United States plays the same role that we did 25 years ago, almost a unilateral one. The entire effort seems to be languishing. Again, let me point out that I'm not saying that in a critical way, because I understand, having been president, that President Bush and his administration are deeply involved with other issues of international importance affecting the security of the United States. One is obviously the Iraqi war, another is Afghanistan, another one is the challenge of nuclear capabilities from Iran, and some statements have come out in the last few hours concerning Syria and North Korea. I need not go on any more. There is enough there to show that it would be impossible now even if he wanted to, for President Bush to go up in isolation for 13 days to try to deal exclusively with the Mideast peace process.

In the meantime, as you all know, a wall or a fence is being constructed, which can be of great concern. I don't know the exact delineation of it, although I've seen a map of it. It follows, in some ways, the pre-1967 border or the so-called "green line." In other places, it is departing from the pre-1967 line and encroaching substantially on Palestinian land in the occupied territories.

I've outlined very briefly a parallel series of challenges and problems that have been disturbingly persistent for the last half-century. I, and many others, have attempted to resolve these issues. Well-meaning and courageous and deeply committed leaders of the opposing parties have participated as well.

Do we face a hopeless prospect for peace? No, I don't think so because I think there is a tremendous focusing of global attention and deep concern on this existing or remaining problem.

Let me point out that United Nations Resolution 242, the Camp David accords in 1978, the Oslo agreement in 1993, and the "Road Map to Peace" in this current year all agree that peace will come to the Mideast only if two things happen.

One is that Israel refrains from retaining in the occupied Palestinian territories or the West Bank and Gaza, the multiple settlements that have to be defended militarily and connected with a web of relatively uncrossable highways. That's important and extremely difficult.

The other one is that the Palestinian national authority and all Arab nations must acknowledge the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Israel and its right to live in peace, and must exert their combined effort to control and to prevent any further acts of terrorism or violence by any Palestinian group against the people in Israel.

Those are the two basic issues that must be addressed. There are others with which I am very familiar. One is Jerusalem and the other is the right of return. The right of return is required to be resolved fairly in United Nations Resolution 242 and, also as you notice, in the current "Road Map to Peace." But, in my own opinion, that can be handled. I think a tiny number of Palestinians could ever hope to return to Israel proper, and the number that would come to even the West Bank and Gaza would be limited. There is something of an escape valve there and that is the generally accepted principle that Palestinians who can put forward a legitimate claim for the right to return can be compensated for property they've lost, not as determined by Israel or the Palestinians in another altercation, but through some international claims tribunal.

When I resolved the hostage crisis with Iran, during the last few hours of my administration, I also agreed to a process for determining what would happen to $12 billion in Iranian assets that had been frozen by the United States. There was a multitude of claims against Iran filed by a wide range of Americans, and Iranians also had claims against the U.S. An Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal was established in The Hague to resolve these disputes through binding third-party arbitration. Essentially all of the claims involving private claimants were resolved successfully. A similar process could be established for resolving the Palestinian claims.

So I think the refugee question and the Jerusalem question are not the burning issues. I think the issues are full acceptance of Israel's right to live in peace-to stamp out any hope that terrorists can prevail and to prevent further acts of terrorism against Israel-and the relinquishing of a substantial portion of the settlements that now permeate the West Bank and Gaza. Those are the two basic issues, and I don't see them as impossible to resolve.

With strong leadership, determined mediation that is trusted, a balanced role between Israel and the Palestinians, and good faith, I believe we can still see peace in the Middle East in our lifetime. That is my prayer. And that is my expectation. Thank you all.

President Carter gives the keynote speech of the 25th anniversary reunion of the Camp David accords. Photo by Bill Fitz-Patrick.

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