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From Camp David to Wye: Changing assumptions in Arab-Israeli negotiations

Article  in  The Middle East Journal · June 1999




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Shibley Telhami

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From Camp David to Wye: Changing Assumptions in Arab-Israeli Negotiations
Author(s): Shibley Telhami
Source: Middle East Journal, Vol. 53, No. 3, Special Issue on Israel (Summer, 1999), pp. 379-
Published by: Middle East Institute
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Shibley Telhami

Over the past 25 years, the negotiating assumptions of Arabs and Israelis have

changed in a manner consequentialfor their negotiating tactics and strategies. This

article examines how Arabs and Israelis have perceived the role of the United States

in Arab-Israeli negotiations, and how each party viewed the role of the domestic

politics of the other in these negotiations. Specifically, it relates the conduct of the

negotiations to the ability of each party to understand and adjust to change in

domestic politcs.

Between the Camp David Accords in 1978 and the Wye River agreement in 1998, the

negotiating assumptions of Arabs and Israelis changed in ways that affected the two

parties’ behavior. It is the aim of this article to reflect on two primary areas of change:

perceptions of the role of the United States in the Arab-Israeli peace process, and

perceptions by each party-Arab and Israeli-of the role of the other’s domestic politics

in the negotiations.


In the early days of the Clinton Administration, conventional wisdom saw it as the

most Israel-friendly Administration ever. Both in its rhetoric and behavior, the Adminis-

Shibley Telhami holds the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland,
College Park.


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tration bolstered this perception. Quickly, President Bill Clinton became one of the most

admired men in Israel. No other president visited Israel more often. Diplomatically, no

other issue of US foreign policy received greater attention than Arab-Israeli peace.

Yet, midway through his second term, President Clinton was being called pro-

Palestinian by some Israeli and US critics. Palestinian National Authority President Yasir

‘Arafat seemed more welcome in the White House than the prime minister of Israel. The

State Department found itself in the unusual position of defending Palestinian compliance

with signed agreements and criticizing Israel for lack of compliance. How can one explain

this contrast?

The author’s intent in this section is to assess how Arabs and Israelis have viewed the

American role in the negotiations since the Camp David Accords between Israel and

Egypt in 1978, and to assess the changes in both perceptions and behavior. In particular,

the article will examine the changing Arab and Israeli views on the nature of the US role

(“mediator” or “partner”); on the extent to which US domestic politics mattered in the

formation of US policy toward the Middle East; and the degree to which US strategic

calculations implied support for Israel’s position in the negotiations.

Although the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 changed Arab and Israeli

expectations of the US role in the negotiations in important ways, Egypt already behaved

toward the United States as if the Cold War was over by the mid-1970s. It is thus useful

to contrast Egyptian and Israeli expectations of the US role in the Camp David

negotiations in the 1970s, with the Arab and Israeli perceptions of the American role in

the 1990s.

The Central Role of the United States at Camp David

As soon as the confrontation between Egypt and Israel moved to the diplomatic front

following the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat believed that the

United States held “99 percent of the cards.”‘ Egypt’s approach to the United States was

predicated on the assumption that American economic and strategic interests in the Middle

East were closer to those of Egypt than to those of Israel. Although US domestic support

for Israel was partly understood, Sadat emerged as the first Egyptian leader who believed

he could affect US domestic politics. As such, Sadat believed that his expulsion of Soviet

forces from Egyptian soil (1972), and his positive responsiveness toward Washington after

the 1973 war would present the United States with a strategic alternative to Israel. This

was especially so given the close relationship that Sadat had built with the leadership of

Saudi Arabia-an increasingly important state for the United States following the

quadrupling of oil prices in 1974-which manifested itself in the oil embargo of 1973-74.

Even in the Camp David negotiations, Sadat had reason to believe that Saudi Arabia

would remain “on board,” thus adding to his strategic weight with the United States.

President Jimmy Carter revealed recently that, in a private meeting with then Crown

Prince Fahd of Saudi Arabia, the latter assured him of Saudi support on the eve of the

1. See “Man of the Year,” Time, 2 January 1978.

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Camp David Accords, and that Saudi leaders dispatched an immediate letter of

congratulations to him upon the completion of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979.2

From this perspective, Egypt expected an active American role in the negotiations as

a “partner,” not a mere “mediator” as Israel preferred. Whereas a mediator is concerned

with reaching any settlement agreeable to the parties, without much concern for the details

of the agreement, a partner has interests to advocate and would prefer certain outcomes

over others. Egypt’s expectation was that American strategic interests would translate into

pressure on Israel during the negotiations. As Butrus Butrus Ghali, then Egypt’s minister

of state for foreign affairs, saw it, the Egyptian competition with Israel for alliance with

the United States was the “most important leverage” that Egypt held in the negotiations,

and the “secret weapon that Israel feared most.”3

Israel, on the other hand, preferred a minimal American role in the negotiations,

given that, left alone with Egypt, it had a favorable military balance and it occupied

territories that Egypt wanted back. But Israel was also concerned about the strategic

competition that Egypt brought to the table beginning with the Soviet expulsion from

Egypt in 1972. Former Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizman wrote that “In driving out

the Russians from Egypt [Sadat] brought the West closer to him, thus necessarily diluting

its loyalty to US.”4 At Camp David, Weizman presented Israel’s concerns about an active

American role this way:

My objections to excessive American involvement in the negotiations with Egypt stemmed

from a simple consideration: I foresaw that US interests lay closer to Egypt’s than to ours, so

that it would not be long before Israeli negotiators would have to cope with the dual

confrontation as they face a Washington/Cairo axis.5

In fact, there was reason for such concern: Carter and Sadat had secretly agreed on

a joint strategy (that Carter apparently decided to ignore later) that would manipulate

Israel into accepting a settlement they considered acceptable.6 Israeli Prime Minister

Menahem Begin complained on the fourth day of the Camp David negotiations that “the

United States negotiators were all agreeing with the Egyptian demand that the Sinai

settlements be removed, and that this was no way for a mediating team to act.”7 He had

told Carter, upon arriving at Camp David, that the most important agreement he sought at

Camp David was with the United States, and that an Egyptian-Israeli agreement was of

“secondary” importance, although also crucial. “He wanted the whole world to know that

there were no differences between Israel and the United States.”8

Similarly, Sadat arrived at Camp David with the primary aim of building US-

Egyptian relations. He could afford failure of the negotiations with Israel as long as the

2. Jimmy Carter, “The Sadat Lecture for Peace,” University of Maryland, College Park, 25 October 1998.
3. Personal interview with the author, Cairo, 28 August 1983.
4. Ezer Weizman, The Battle for Peace (Toronto and New York: Bantam Books, 1981), p. 18.
5. Ibid, pp. 115-16.
6. William Quandt, Camp David: Peacemaking and Politics (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution,

1986), p. 171.
7. Jimmy Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President (Toronto and New York: Bantam Books,

1982), p. 365.
8. Ibid, p. 366.

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failure would be blamed on Israel and would lead to closer US-Egyptian relations.

Apparently expecting failure at Camp David, he prepared his ambassadors on the eve of

his departure to Camp David for a post-failure offensive to place the blame squarely on


Carter and members of the US delegation fully understood that improved relations

with the United States was the big prize for which both Israel and Egypt were vying. Early

in the Camp David negotiations, when Carter believed that Menahem Begin was not

sufficiently compromising, he considered going to the American people with a speech that

blamed Israel for the failure. But on the eleventh day of the negotiations, when

Sadat-apparently expecting that Carter would blame Begin for the failure-packed his

bags to leave Camp David to protest Begin’s position, Carter warned him that “it will

mean first of all an end to the relationship between the United States and Egypt.”‘0 Sadat

quickly reversed his plans, and agreement was reached within two days.

In short, the role of the United States was indispensable in the Egyptian-Israeli

negotiations, not only because both sides believed that relations with the United States

were central for their foreign policies, but also because each believed that there was

serious room for competition for the prized relationship. This cannot be said for other

rounds of Arab-Israeli negotiations, beginning with the Madrid Conference in 1991.

Changing Perceptions of the US Role Since Madrid

As the United States organized the Madrid Conference between Israel, on the one

hand, and Lebanon, Syria, and a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation on the other, both Arabs

and Israelis held similar views of the American role in Middle East politics. Both sides

came to the table with minimal immediate expectations, and mostly because neither could

ignore the only remaining superpower, which had just won the 1991 Gulf War against

Iraq. And unlike Egypt in the 1970s, no Arab party believed it was in a position to

compete with Israel for a special relationship with the United States.

On the Arab side, there was a common interpretation of the consequences of the end

of the Cold War for Middle East politics. In general, most Arabs believed that the loss of

the Soviet Union as an ally and as a global counterweight to the United States was

detrimental to Arab interests. There was also a sense that the United States would continue

to pursue a policy that favored Israel because of the increasing dominance of domestic

American politics in the shaping of American foreign policy.” But for many Arab parties,

9. Author’s interview with a former aide to Sadat, Tahseen Bashir, Princeton, New Jersey, March 1984.
10. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Power and Principle (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux), p. 272.
11. To many Arabs, the end of the Cold War, which signaled the decline of the Soviet Union as a

superpower, ushered in an era of American hegemony that also entailed Israel’s regional hegemony. A common
Arab view was summarized by Iraqi President Saddam Husayn in a speech to the Arab Cooperation Council in
February 1990: “Given the relative erosion of the role of the Soviet Union as the key champion of the Arabs in
the context of the Arab-Zionist conflict and globally, and given that the influence of the Zionist lobby on US
policies is as powerful as ever, the Arabs must take into account that there is a real possibility that Israel might
embark on new stupidities within the five-year span I have mentioned. This might take place as a result of direct
or tacit US encouragement.” Quoted in Foreign Broadcast Information Service – Near East and South Asia (FBIS
-NES)-90, 27 February 1990. By the end of June 1990, following the suspension of the dialogue between the

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especially Syria, it was better to be on the side of the only superpower, at least until the

global picture improved. There was also a general sense among Arab members of the

coalition against Iraq that President George Bush himself was more inclined than his

predecessors to be “fair” personally on Arab-Israeli issues, domestic politics notwith-


On the Israeli side, the strategic calculations of the government of Prime Minister

Yitzhak Shamir were not substantially different from those in the Arab world. The

consensus in Israel was that the end of the Cold War and the end of the Gulf War put Israel

in a very advantageous position. American foreign policy would be dominant in regional

politics, while domestic American politics would be increasingly dominant in shaping

American foreign policy. But the immediate problem for the Shamir government, which

came to Madrid reluctantly, was that the Bush Administration came out of the Gulf War

with great popularity, with President Bush enjoying 90 percent approval ratings in opinion

polls. Members of Shamir’s government further believed that Bush himself was “anti-

Israel.”1 2 In the end, both sides came to the negotiations as a way of deflecting pressure

at a moment of weakness as they perceived it: The Shamir government was concerned

about an undesirable US presidency and the Arab states were concerned about an

unfavorable distribution of power.

In the period between the Madrid Conference in 1991 and the Oslo Accord between

Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1993, Israeli and Arab views of

the United States changed somewhat. Part of this change was a result of the 1992 election

of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Israel and President Bill Clinton in the United States,

each more closely sharing the strategic view of the other than their predecessors had:

Clinton with a more Israel-friendly agenda and the Rabin government with more

willingness to compromise in the negotiations. In contrast, the Arab side saw the early

days of the first Clinton Administration in negative terms. Indeed, the PLO, which in the

past saw Washington as the key to a deal with Israel, ultimately decided to negotiate

directly with Israel in Oslo without the United States, partly because it did not believe it

could get much out of the Clinton Administration.

The ascendance to power of the government of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin

Netanyahu in 1996 resulted in yet another shift in the perceptions of both Arabs and

Israelis of the American role in the negotiations. Netanyahu, who had opposed the Oslo

agreements, came to power believing that the United States was not in a strong position

to pressure Israel. He certainly did not believe that the Clinton Administration was a friend

of his government, since it had allied itself with his Labor Party opponent in the elections,

Shimon Peres, and it was seen to have meddled in domestic Israeli politics. But Netanyahu
believed that the Clinton Administration had little incentive to press Israel, especially

United States and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), even Kuwaiti newspapers were calling on the
Arabs “to adopt serious and objective stands against the US which persists in a position hostile to the Arab
causes.” FBIS-NES-90-122, 25 June 1990. For a full discussion of this issue, see Shibley Telhami, “Arab Public
Opinion and the Gulf War,” Political Science Quarterly 108, no. 3 (Fall 1993).

12. For example, Rehav’am Ze’evi, a minister in the Israeli government, was quoted by Israel Radio
(Qol Yisrael) as having said: “Bush is hostile to Israel, his policy smacks of anti-Semitism. . .” FBIS-NES-91-
184, 23 September 1991, p. 46.

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since he was confident about his ability to mobilize Congressional support for his

government. He had labored to build strong relations with Congressional Republicans and

had much personal experience in American politics.’3 His conclusion was probably this:

given the American dominance in the Gulf after the Gulf War, and the absence of the

Soviet alternative for the Arabs, an American president would certainly be more

responsive to members of Congress than to Arab leaders.

In this regard, the Netanyahu government believed not only that Arab leverage with

the United States diminished after the Gulf War in 1991, but also that Arab governments

now cared much less about the Palestinian issue. In his first year, he was confident that

lack of progress on the Palestinian-Israeli track would not jeopardize even Israel’s own

relations with other Arab states. Behind this conclusion lay not only the difficult relations

between the PLO and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)’4 soon after the

Gulf War, because of the PLO’s position in support of Iraq during that war, but also a

general sense that American interests in the Gulf region were no longer linked to

American interests in the Arab-Israeli arena.

This issue of “linkage” had been at the heart of the American incentive to seek

actively a settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Besides containment of the Soviet Union

during the Cold War, US regional interests primarily pertained to oil and Israel. That the

two issues were linked was forcefully demonstrated in the Arab oil embargo that followed

the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. This linkage provided added incentive for American

diplomacy, not only by fueling the shuttle diplomacy of former Secretary of State Henry

Kissinger in 1974, but also by providing a sense that resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict

was a strategic interest for the United States, justifying the kind of presidential effort that

President Carter later employed to mediate between Israel and Egypt in the Camp David


But Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait propelled a different assessment, not only in Israel, but

also in the United States. In mobilizing support for its effort to oust Iraq from Kuwait, the

United States had every incentive to separate the war with Iraq from the continuing crisis

on the Israeli-Palestinian front, in order to prevent Iraq from exploiting any linkage.

Aiding the United States in making its case was the fact that Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was

obviously not linked to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and that Arab members of the US-led

coalition also had incentives in minimizing the links between these issues, in order to
minimize domestic opposition to their policies.

The relative success in separating Gulf issues from Arab-Israeli issues during the

Gulf crisis created a sense that these issues were not, in fact, linked. But the difficulty the

United States ultimately faced in mobilizing support among GCC states for its policy

toward Iraq, and the growing hesitation in the Arab world in general to continue the trend

of normalization with Israel that followed the Oslo Accords, were increasingly seen to be

13. Netanyahu had served in the Israeli embassy in Washington from 1982-84 and as Israel’s
ambassador to the United Nations from 1984-88, during which time he built strong political ties in the United

14. The membership of the GCC includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudia Arabia, and the United
Arab Emirates.

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tied to the lack of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. By 1997, President Clinton

himself declared that the setbacks in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were complicating

US policy toward Iraq.15

The revived sense of linkage partly explains why neither Netanyahu nor Arab

analysts fully predicted American policy in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations by simply

assessing the global configurations of forces or by reducing US domestic politics simply

to interest group politics. On the one hand, the predictions were broadly correct: the

strategic and economic American support for Israel continued and grew following the end

of the Cold War, seemingly unaffected by the ups and downs of the Arab-Israeli

negotiations. On the other hand, the United States did not always take Israel’s side in the

negotiations, and increasingly took public positions that were critical of Israel’s policies.

A gap, sometimes a large one, existed between Congressional positions, which were

predictably more supportive of the Netanyahu government, and the position of the


Behind these tensions between the Clinton Administration and the Israeli government

were a number of factors. First, despite clear support for Israel in the United States,

presidents retain a certain leeway in foreign policy, and both President Bush and President

Clinton demonstrated this in their policies toward Israel. Second, although US interests in

the Gulf were theoretically easier to manage in the absence of a perceived Soviet threat

and with the presence of dominant American forces in the region, the very presence of

these forces in the Gulf, and the occasional need to employ them, became a new interest

for the United States that required the cooperation of Arab states. Given the revival of

“linkage,” weakened as this may have been, no US president could ignore these external

issues. Third, a second-term president is always more sensitive to intemational issues than

a first-term president, not only because of the relative absence of electoral pressures, but

also because of increased familiarity with the issues, as well as the need to keep

commitments that a president will have made to foreign leaders. The fact that Clinton was

the US president to host the signing of the Oslo Accords, for example, is relevant as an

explanation of the degree to which he would work to implement these Accords. Finally,

the domestic context of US policy toward the Middle East has changed since the Oslo

Accords. The American Jewish community, never a monolith, became even more divided

on US policy toward the peace process, with many Clinton supporters urging him to be

tough with the Netanyahu government, even as others advised him in the opposite


One might ask if such “leeway” available to a president matters at all in the big

picture, given that the strategic, political, and economic relationship with Israel remains

15. Speaking at the White House on 21 November 1997, President Clinton put it this way: “In recent
weeks, as Iraq has challenged the United Nations, we have been reminded again of how vital it is to continue
forging a community of shared values throughout the region to strengthen the bonds among all people who
oppose intimidation and terror, and how we will never, ever do that until there is peace between Israel and her
neighbors; and that the absence of that peace makes the other difficulties, tensions and frustrations all the more
troubling because it compounds them and undermines our ability to seek a unified solution.” White House,
“Remarks by the President at the Rabin-Peres Award Luncheon.”

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unaltered. Do nice words toward Palestinian leader Yasir ‘Arafat, or criticism of Israel’s

settlement policy matter if they lead to no further action?

Evidence suggests that this “leeway” matters. It is conventional wisdom, for

example, that the Bush Administration’s linkage of loan-guarantees to Israel with the

settlement policy of the government of Yitzhak Shamir contributed to the downfall of that

government in the 1992 Israeli elections. And Netanyahu’s forced decision to hold early

elections in 1999 was in large part driven by tensions within the government coalition over

the US-mediated Wye River agreements. In the end, the degree of American-Palestinian

cooperation will be an important factor in the outcome of the final status negotiations

between Israel and the Palestinians, not because the Palestinians could ever compete with

Israel in terms of close relations with the United …

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