7. Jimmy Carter
Making a Difference
Jimmy Carter changed the vocabulary of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the United States and to a great extent changed the frame of reference for the Palestinian issue. By broaching the notion of giving the Palestinians a homeland, by trying to deal with the PLO, by recognizing the Palestinians as a critical factor in any peace settlement and attempting to involve them in the peace process, Carter overturned assumptions and misconceptions that had been current for decades about the Palestinians’ unimportance and in a real sense took U.S. policy out of the old constricting framework around thinking on the Palestinian problem. Carter was a rarity among U.S. presidents dealing with the Arab-Israeli problem. More than any president before or since, he made an imaginative, good-faith effort to involve the Palestinians in negotiations throughout 1977, confronting Israel’s objections, trying to face down opposition from within the United States, attempting different alternatives and new ideas when initial proposals were rejected, and persisting even when obstacles loomed.
He was ultimately defeated, however, by the persistence of a frame of reference that continued, despite his serious efforts to alter it, to center on Israel and Israel’s concerns and to ignore or consciously discard the Palestinian perspective. Although he successfully negotiated an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, electoral politics ultimately undermined Carter’s attempts to bring the Palestinians into the process. No U.S. president except Eisenhower has won an election while putting heavy pressure on Israel, and Carter, already in political trouble and losing popularity for a variety of other reasons, simply did not in the second half of his term have the political capital to expend on a serious effort to oppose Israel’s desire to keep the Palestinians out of peace talks. In the end, Carter’s efforts to begin a serious peace process that would involve the Palestinians fell victim to an enduring frame
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of reference that held Israel’s concerns to be paramount and the Palestinian perspective to be unimportant or even pernicious.
Carter knew little about the Middle East when he was elected in 1976, and what he did know came from an Israeli perspective. He had been to Israel once on an extensive tour provided by the Israeli government while he was governor of Georgia but had never visited an Arab country or met an Arab leader. A devout Southern Baptist, Carter was steeped in the Bible and appreciated the idea of Jewish restoration in Palestine. He also believed that the Holocaust had given Jews the right to a homeland, something he considered “compatible with the teachings of the Bible, hence ordained by God.” For moral and religious reasons, as well as from what he calls a sense of responsibility for ensuring Israel’s ability to defend itself, he regarded his commitment to Israeli security as unshakable. Yet Carter was quite different from his predecessors in his desire, from the beginning, to explore new ideas and venture into new diplomatic territory and in his perception that a secure and stable Middle East peace would require what he called a “broader perspective.” That expanded perspective encompassed the Arab and the Palestinian viewpoint. As one of his principal foreign-policy aides, former Assistant Secretary of State Harold Saunders, has noted, Carter came to office, almost alone among presidents, knowing there were two sides to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Multiple factors account for Carter’s new approach. He was highly intellectual, a quick study, and a voracious reader—described by some aides as probably the smartest president ever in terms of sheer brain power—and in the months of transition between his election and the inauguration and into the first months of his presidency, he read extensively about the Middle East, learning what he knew in this early period from books rather than from dealing with people. He was a problem solver, taking special pleasure, according to his aides, in tackling and doggedly pursuing problems others had been unable to solve. He often approached a problem, in fact, simply because it was a challenge and acted, sometimes with a trace of righteousness, as though others would have no choice but to follow him because he was doing what was right.
Although not an evangelical Christian, Carter was and is an idealist, and in his public life both during and since his presidency he has demonstrated a missionary zeal about trying to make a difference in the world. In the mid 1990s, following a series of private interventions in Bosnia, North Korea,
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and Haiti, Carter told an interviewer that he had “one life and one chance to make it count for something.” His faith, he said, “demands—and this is not optional—my faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I can, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.” Carter’s sense of mission took him in to areas of diplomacy that others might have shunned as too risky.
He was not a politician in the usual sense, not inclined toward the kind of deal making and maneuvering that is usually the stuff of politics in Washington, and, in the early months of his presidency and during his personal diplomacy in the 1990s, he was essentially oblivious to the criticism his policies and actions generated. Carter was genuinely impatient with diplomatic formulas, and more than once in the first few months of his presidency he broke the bonds of the old frame of reference on the Palestinian issue, almost without realizing the consternation and dismay his statements and actions caused Israel and Israeli supporters in the United States. This style led some to regard him as politically naïve and a loose cannon, but in fact his actions, if not specifically planned, were the deliberate acts of a man who knew his mind and was irritated with the limitations of diplomatic language. Carter was as unsympathetic toward the Arabs’ rigidity, particularly their refusal to make peace with Israel, as he was toward Israeli and U.S. blinders, especially the refusal to accept the existence of the Palestinians and the PLO. He consistently trampled on the diplomatic conventions by using the words Palestinians and PLO interchangeably, and he spoke openly of the need to guarantee Palestinian “rights” in any peace settlement.
Carter’s statement on the Palestinians’ need for a homeland, made at a town meeting in Clinton, Massachusetts, on March 16, 1977, indicated a break with the conventional wisdom that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict arose from nothing more than Palestinian hostility to the notion of having Jews in their midst. Noting that the need to deal with the Palestinian problem should be one of the basic principles of U.S. Middle East policy, Carter observed that the Palestinians “claim up ’til this moment that Israel has no right to be there, that the land belongs to the Palestinians, and they’ve never yet given up their publicly professed commitment to destroy Israel. This has to be overcome. There has to be a homeland provided for the Palestinian refugees who have suffered for many, many years.” Carter’s statement, which had not been suggested by or cleared with his aides and on his explicit instructions was never disavowed or clarified, indicated that he was able to go beyond the conventional wisdom to an understanding
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that the reason for the Palestinians’ hostility lay with the fact that they had been displaced and no longer had a homeland. In 1977, this depth of insight was rare.
With regard to Middle East negotiations in the 1970s as with other diplomatic interventions in the 1990s, Carter took the attitude that a solution to any problem can be found only by negotiating with all concerned, however much they may be regarded as outside the pale. In much of his freelance diplomacy after leaving office, Carter dealt with leaders and rebels whom much of the world regarded as odious because he believed these were the leaders whose cooperation was necessary to achieve a solution. He never shared the widespread U.S. abhorrence for negotiating with the PLO because it had committed terrorist acts. He deplored terrorism but believed that because the Palestinians had to be involved in negotiations and the PLO was the only organization representing them, negotiations with the PLO were absolutely necessary. “I’ll talk with anybody who wants to talk about peace,” Carter has said.
Human rights was a major theme of Carter’s administration and a strong factor in his interest in the Palestinian issue. Harold Saunders observes that Carter had a keen sense that the rest of the world saw the United States as a bastion of freedom and cared far less about U.S. nuclear strength than it did about its dedication to human rights and to the values embodied in the Bill of Rights. Carter employed this commitment to individual freedom and human rights in the South, where, heavily influenced by his mother, he was a strong opponent of segregation. He was able, Saunders says, to see the “human root” of people, and in office he tended to compare Palestinians to blacks, seeing them as another disenfranchised people. William Quandt, who was the director of Middle East affairs on the National Security Council staff under Carter, recalls that when people told Carter that the Palestinian-Israeli situation was hopeless and that it was a kind of primordial conflict that had been going on for centuries and would never be resolved, Carter responded by likening it to the situation of blacks in the South and the rise of integration; you did not necessarily have to change people’s hearts, Carter seemed to think, but it was possible to change their behavior, which could be done in the Middle East as well as in the United States.
Although Carter never defined, either at the time or later, exactly what he meant when he called for a homeland for the Palestinians, he was concerned primarily to ensure that Palestinians had the kind of universal rights that peoples everywhere were entitled to: the right to vote, the right to meet and debate issues, the right to own property free of the fear of confiscation,
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and the right to be free of military rule. He seems not to have cared about precisely how these rights would be guaranteed and never favored creation of an independent Palestinian state, but he generally favored a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation of some sort and an end to Israeli occupation. He speaks frankly in his memoirs of Israel’s “continued deprivation of Palestinian rights” as “indefensible” and in violation of basic Israeli and U.S. moral and ethical principles.
Carter’s interest in the Middle East was in all respects intellectual rather than emotional or personal. He was not a warm person and felt no particular warmth toward either Israelis or Palestinians. He has been described as a man who only rarely revealed himself, with a cold demeanor and little sense of humor. Samuel Lewis, who was U.S. ambassador to Israel from 1977 to 1985, has noted that although Carter could debate the legal interpretation of treaties with Israeli lawyers and biblical history with Israeli religious scholars, he had little “understanding” of Jews, especially of “the Holocaust-scarred generation” that still led Israel during Carter’s presidency. Lewis’s observation is revealing for the indication it gives of the general public’s expectations of policymakers in the framework within which they had to operate. One gathers from his remarks that “understanding” for Jews and empathy for Jewish feelings about the Holocaust were expected in a president dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict. A similar empathy for Palestinian feelings about their own plight and their view of the origins of the conflict was, however, not expected and not part of the frame of reference.
Lewis’s observations also aptly describe Carter’s cerebral nature and approach to problem solving. All Carter’s aides comment on his easy absorption of massive amounts of written material and his quick grasp of a situation, although some believe that in his concentration on detail he sometimes lost sight of the larger picture. Carter knew the Middle East reasonably well from an academic standpoint by the time he began dealing with it officially and meeting personally with Middle East leaders. Even Carter’s interest in human rights was more intellectual than emotional—the idealist’s commitment to fair play, at least on the books, without the crusader’s sense of involvement. He certainly never had an emotional connection with the Palestinians or the Palestinian cause, and, despite his belief that they deserved a fair deal, his concern seems to have had little human content. He never met a Palestinian until after he had left office. Saunders recalls that after Carter made a trip to the Middle East as a private citizen in 1983 and met with Palestinians for the first time, he told Saunders that he had always previously dismissed what Saunders and Quandt told him about the Palestinians
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as the “experts’ view”—the advocacy of Arabists for the Arab viewpoint—but that after meeting with Palestinians he had discovered that they were right.
Carter himself has given an interesting account of his first encounter with Palestinians, describing how much his eyes were opened during the 1983 trip by seeing how Palestinians lived and were treated in the West Bank and Gaza under Israel’s occupation and by hearing the Palestinian perspective on the conflict directly from Palestinians. The allegiance to the PLO among Palestinians from all walks of life apparently surprised Carter, as did the national content of what he heard from and about the PLO. He recalls startling a group of PLO officials by having to ask them what the PLO’s purposes were and, when handed a leaflet describing the PLO as the national liberation movement of the Palestinians, he was struck by how many times the word national appeared in a short statement.
Carter’s surprise at learning, years after leaving office, that the Palestinians had strong national aspirations is an indication of how little he knew about the Palestinians, despite his advocacy of their rights. Although he undoubtedly did not feel strongly one way or the other about the merits of establishing an independent Palestinian state, he had always publicly opposed it, most likely for political reasons. This position may have obscured the Palestinians’ national aspirations from his field of vision; clearly, trying to assure Palestinian civil and human rights was his primary concern. Whatever the case, it is clear that even Carter, unfettered though he generally was by the constraints of the usual mind-set about Palestinian-Israeli issues, did not completely overcome a frame of reference in which Palestinians had always played no part.
If Carter himself was unusual for the attention he paid to the Palestinian issue, the foreign-policy team he assembled was itself unique in its innovative approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict and its desire to move beyond the strictures that had always bound Middle East policymaking. Carter’s collegial approach to the decision process gave these policymakers a degree of input that was highly unusual. Although he kept tight hold on the reins of policymaking, he enjoyed, and he learned from, frequent freewheeling discussions on policy issues with a wide circle of advisers. He held weekly breakfast meetings with Vice President Walter Mondale, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, and, in later years, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown. There were also frequent ad hoc meetings to discuss particular issues and occasionally more formal National
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Security Council meetings with a broader attendance—altogether constituting one of the most centralized but also wide-ranging decision-making processes of any presidential administration. On the Middle East, Carter’s policy team, which has been called more cohesive and coherent than any other in recent history, included not only top-level policymakers but senior members of the bureaucracy who had worked on the region for years and career ambassadors in the key Middle East capitals, all of whom worked well together and were given real input.
As national security adviser, Brzezinski had the most frequent contact with Carter on foreign-policy issues, meeting with him alone each morning for a national security briefing. Brzezinski’s access gave him a unique opportunity to tutor Carter, the foreign-policy neophyte. The two men had known each other for several years, and Brzezinski had advised Carter on foreign policy during the campaign. Although Carter was so quick to grasp the intricacies of a situation and so much inclined to listen to a variety of viewpoints that no one person had a deep influence on his thinking, Brzezinski had a considerable impact on policy by virtue of his ability to direct Carter’s attention to an issue or suggest a policy emphasis. Carter always maintained a personal distance from Brzezinski, but he apparently enjoyed holding broad conceptual and strategic discussions with this key aide early in his presidency.
On Middle East issues, Secretary of State Vance took the lead to a greater extent than Brzezinski, whose primary expertise was in Soviet affairs, but Brzezinski came to office with a known viewpoint on many Middle East issues, including the Palestinians, that was more clearly formulated and more progressive than either Carter’s or Vance’s. An early admirer of the Irgun, the pre-state Zionist underground and terrorist organization run by Menachem Begin, Brzezinski had visited Israel in 1976 and specifically sought out Begin, then an opposition leader, for what Brzezinski regarded as a meaningful meeting with a fabled hero. Brzezinski was able, however, to put aside hero worship—his later prickly dealings with Begin when Begin became prime minister made doing so easier—and came to the unusual conclusion during his travels through Israel that acquiring land could not give Israel total security, especially if by so doing Israel increased Arab hostility. In office, Brzezinski unsuccessfully pushed the idea that security and sovereignty should be decoupled, attempting to ensure Israel’s security not by extending sovereignty but by extending its security lines beyond formal sovereign borders.
The interesting aspect of Brzezinski’s idea was less its actual merits than the innovativeness it demonstrated and the willingness he showed to move
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beyond the limits of the conventional wisdom on the sacrosanct issue of Israel’s security. Brzezinski was taken with the similarity between the Palestinian-Israeli situation and the French-Algerian situation. He had read extensively on the independence struggle in Algeria, in policy meetings frequently citing British historian Alistair Horne’s 1977 book A Savage War of Peace as an object lesson for Middle East policymakers. He saw the PLO and Algeria’s FLN as similar organizations.
Brzezinski had also left a paper trail that clearly indicates his innovative views on the Palestinian issue. In 1975, he coauthored an article in Foreign Policy concluding that the central problem in the conflict, the Palestinian issue, could no longer reasonably be avoided and advocating establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Assuming that such a state would almost certainly be PLO-dominated, the authors predicted that it would be so “inextricably bound” to Israel geographically and economically that it would have to cooperate and live peacefully.
Brzezinski had also been among the drafters of a report advocating that any administration elected in 1976 should pursue a comprehensive approach to achieving a Middle East peace. Published by the Brookings Institution in Washington in December 1975 and authored by a study group made up of several foreign-policy and Middle East experts who had met over the previous year, the report urged that the negotiating process move beyond the step-by-step approach that had so far been the norm to a comprehensive approach that would attempt to resolve all issues at a multilateral peace conference. Among the elements the report considered essential to a stable peace were Israeli withdrawal in agreed stages to the borders existing before the June 1967 war, with no more than minor modifications, and Palestinian self-determination in the form either of an independent Palestinian state or of an entity federated with Jordan, provided the Palestinians accepted the sovereignty and integrity of Israel.
William Quandt, a University of Pennsylvania professor and Middle East expert who had been among the authors of the report and was appointed by Brzezinski to direct Middle East affairs on the National Security Council staff, believes it would be an exaggeration to say that the Brookings report served as a blueprint for early Carter-administration policies. But the report certainly played some part in shaping administration thinking. The appointment of two of its authors, Brzezinski and Quandt, to the National Security Council staff was a clear indication at least that Carter was open to the policies it espoused. The report also found a receptive audience within the government among those involved in the peace process. Saunders, who had been deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern
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affairs in the Ford administration and stayed on in the Carter administration, eventually becoming assistant secretary, has described the Brookings report as stating openly what those in government could not say about the need for a comprehensive solution that would involve the Palestinians.
The Carter team quickly aroused the concern of Israeli supporters in the United States. Even before the inauguration, Brzezinski, who had himself come under attack as an anti-Semite for his earlier writings and his association with the Brookings report, began to receive complaints from pro-Israeli lobbyists and congressmen about his appointment of Quandt. Florida Senator Richard Stone, one of Israel’s most vocal supporters in the Senate, came to Brzezinski the day after the inauguration with a list, topped by Quandt’s name, of allegedly anti-Israeli personnel whom he wanted dismissed. Brzezinski rejected the complaints, but they persisted throughout Quandt’s two years on the National Security Council staff.
Vance has been characterized as a legalist, less theoretical and innovative than Brzezinski, but also as an idealist who shared Carter’s interest in human rights and was highly respected for his own honesty and integrity. According to those who worked with him, he was extremely fair-minded, and he more than anyone else who dealt with both Arabs and Israelis during the Carter years was able to retain the confidence of both sides. Vance had a clear foreign-policy viewpoint and knew the Middle East well from the beginning. According to Saunders, when Vance was preparing for his first trip to the Middle East only weeks after he took office, he needed none of the in-depth tutorials usually given to officials in a new administration. Operating from the perspective of a regionalist who believed that U.S. policy in the 1960s and 1970s had been too much oriented toward the Cold War at the expense of Third World problems and having had extensive experience as a negotiator and mediator working on the Cyprus conflict and the Vietnam peace talks, he was convinced that even the most intractable problems had to be dealt with in some fashion.
Accordingly, he believed that a serious effort should be made to resolve the Palestinian issue. Like others on the Carter team, Vance had no qualms about dealing with the PLO, recognizing it as a representative organization that would have to be accepted if the Palestinian issue was to be tackled. He chafed under the pledge Kissinger had made to Israel in 1975 not to negotiate with the PLO until it accepted UN Resolution 242—a commitment he felt restricted U.S. flexibility at a time when the Palestinian question had become pivotal. Because he believed that the Palestinians had been “ejected from their homes” in 1948, as he put it in his memoirs, he agreed with Carter that the Palestinian issue was the central human-rights issue of the
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Middle East and believed that peace could be achieved only if the Palestinians gained some form of self-determination.
Carter’s White House team was not universally with him on his Middle East and Palestinian policy. Vice President Mondale and his long-time aide David Aaron, who became Brzezinski’s deputy on the National Security Council staff, had long been vocal friends of Israel and generally opposed efforts to exert pressure on the Israelis. During the first year or more, when there was no direct political risk, Mondale was supportive of Carter’s initiatives, even to the point of being willing to use aid to Israel as a lever against Prime Minister Begin’s hard-line stance. By the middle of 1978, however, with congressional elections nearing and the presidential campaign soon to begin, Mondale began to advocate what Brzezinski has called a passive posture “tilted in favor of the Israelis.” Apparently believing that Carter’s confrontational relationship with Begin would seriously damage Carter’s and the Democratic Party’s political prospects, Mondale had sharp disagreements with Vance, Brzezinski, and Quandt over policies and language he deemed too critical of Israel. Brzezinski has observed that whereas Carter almost never thought of the impact of foreign policy on domestic politics, Mondale rarely considered foreign policy in any other terms.
Other White House officials, particularly domestic adviser Stuart Eizenstat, were also highly politically attuned and used their positions to press for policies that were friendlier to Israel and therefore safer politically. Eizenstat frequently acted as a conduit for passing policy suggestions and requests for increased aid from the Israeli embassy and from AIPAC to the White House. In 1978, for example, at AIPAC’s suggestion, Eizenstat proposed that the United States supply Israel with technical data on the F-18 aircraft in order to “help break the ice” with Israel. The information was released to the Israelis.
There were other domestic advisers of a pro-Israeli bent in Carter’s White House. These included White House counsel Robert Lipshutz; Edward Sanders, a pro-Israeli activist appointed in mid-1978 as an adviser on Middle East affairs; and Alfred Moses, a Washington attorney who succeeded Sanders in 1980. These advisers lobbied throughout Carter’s term for increased aid to Israel, against pressure on Israel and any position that would promote Palestinian interests, and in general for a lower diplomatic profile for Carter and the United States in the negotiating process. After the Camp David agreement and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, when Carter pulled back from activism in Middle East affairs, he appointed two special Middle East envoys, Democratic Party leader Robert Strauss and later negotiator Sol Linowitz, who were both supporters of Israel. Strauss in
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particular, who as a party politician performed his duties with a close eye to their impact on domestic politics and Carter’s reelection chances, made it clear to Carter that any pressure exerted on Israel would be damaging politically.
Quandt observed in Camp David, his thoughtful study of the political and diplomatic process involved in negotiating the Camp David accords, that there are always serious political limits on any president’s power to make Middle East policy, and all presidents must function within boundaries set by the electoral cycle. No presidential experience with the Middle East better illustrates this theory than Carter’s. Carter surprised everyone with his willingness to flout the conventions on the Palestinian issue. He said things about Palestinians, about the relevance of their history and the legitimacy of their grievances, that no policymaker had said publicly before. But Carter met a stone wall—a wall erected by Israeli supporters in the United States and by Israel itself under the leadership of Begin, who took office only months after Carter himself did. Begin was to this point the Israeli prime minister most determined not simply to ignore the Palestinians but actively to thwart Palestinian aspirations and pursue the extension of Israeli sovereignty over the remaining parts of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza. The sound defeat of all Carter’s efforts for the Palestinians, from the vision of a homeland to the plans for autonomy framed by the Camp David accords, provides striking evidence of the extent to which conventional wisdom can dictate policy.
Guardians of the frame of reference began to go after Carter almost immediately. In the belief that Carter enjoyed maximum leverage during his first year and that rapid movement was vital, the new administration made the Middle East a priority. The new national security team had met informally before the inauguration and decided then to send Vance to the area for preliminary talks with Arab and Israeli leaders in February. The need to address the Palestinian issue was at the top of Vance’s agenda in each of the countries he visited. He took the position that the Palestinian problem was the essence of the Arab-Israeli conflict and that, without its resolution, there could be no peace and ultimately no security for Israel.
This approach unnerved Israel and its U.S. supporters. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin immediately bristled at the notion of taking the Palestinian issue into account. He made it clear to Vance that Israel would never accept an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza because, he believed, the real Arab aim continued to be the destruction of Israel. The following
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month, during a visit by Rabin to the United States, which went badly and which Carter termed “a particularly unpleasant surprise,” Rabin made it clear that Israel would not attend a reconvened Geneva conference if the PLO or other representative of the Palestinians was there, and he was unreceptive to Carter’s desire to explore new ideas and new approaches to the peace-making process.
Inside the United States, Israel’s supporters immediately began to put intensive pressure on Carter. In the zero-sum context in which Palestinian-Israeli issues were usually viewed, any attempt to recognize the existence of a separate Palestinian people, much less take them into account in the negotiating process, appeared directly hostile to Israel. As a result, pressure from the pro-Israel lobby went beyond simply supporting Israel and took on an anti-Palestinian tone. AIPAC and other pro-Israeli groups and individuals sent Carter and White House aides a steady stream of anti-Palestinian letters and literature. After Carter’s March 1977 statement calling for a Palestinian homeland, AIPAC mobilized a heavy lobbying effort with Congress and the White House opposing any such thought. Congressional pressure against Carter’s gestures toward the Palestinians was intense.
It did not ease Carter’s relationship with Israel or the U.S. Jewish community that, quite by happenstance, he got along well with most of the Arab leaders he dealt with but took an instant dislike to Rabin and, following his election in May 1977, to Begin. Carter’s liking for Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was immediate and intense. Carter himself said that on the day he first met Sadat in April 1977 “a shining light burst on the Middle East scene for me.” According to Carter’s aides, the two men formed a deep rapport, and Carter identified closely with Sadat, regarding him as “family” in the southern sense. The president also got along well with and respected Jordan’s King Hussein and Syria’s President Hafiz al-Asad, both of whom he met within the first few months of his presidency. By contrast, his first meetings with the Israeli leadership went badly. Carter and Rabin rubbed each other the wrong way personally and substantively, and although Carter’s first meeting with Begin in July 1977 was congenial, the two were soon at loggerheads over U.S. interest in the Palestinians and Begin’s large-scale construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Carter’s personal reactions to the two Israelis were undoubtedly influenced by the contrast between their opposition to his search for a new approach to the peace process and the Arabs’ support. Carter and his team found the Arabs to be ready at this point to discuss conciliatory moves, which put Carter in direct confrontation with Israel’s leaders. Vance recalls
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in his memoirs that in the early days the administration put the burden for stalling movement in the peace process on Israel. “The hope for a just and durable peace,” he wrote, “ultimately rested on the capacity of the Israeli political leadership to resolve its internal divisions and atavistic fears and mistrust of the Arabs.” This approach, with its demand for a fundamental change of outlook by Israel, was so far outside the prevailing frame of reference that conflict on a deeply personal level between Israeli and U.S. leaders was inevitable.
Begin’s determination to build Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza became a particular point of contention between the Carter administration and Israel. Conflict began only days after Begin’s return home from his first trip to Washington, when the Israeli government gave formal approval to three existing West Bank settlements. Carter and his foreign-policy team regarded the construction of settlements as a kind of “creeping annexation,” in the words of Vance, and Carter made clear to Begin during his initial visit the U.S. belief that settlements violated international law. Continued settlement activity, he told Begin, sent the message that Israel intended a permanent military occupation and virtually foreclosed the possibility even of convening a peace conference. The United States publicly reacted to Begin’s move by formally terming the settlements illegal under international law, which was to be the consistent U.S. position throughout Carter’s administration.
In retrospect, it was clear quite early on that the interpretation Begin and his Likud Party put on UN Resolution 242 would also put Israel and the Carter administration at odds, although Begin dodged and weaved around the issue enough that it was some time before Carter was clear on the Israeli leader’s position and clear that he had no intention of moderating it. From 1967, when Resolution 242 was adopted, the United States and the international community had interpreted its withdrawal clause, calling for “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict,” to mean virtually complete withdrawal from all fronts on which Israel had captured territory—the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. Begin and the Likud, however, interpreted the resolution as not applicable to all fronts, and as became clear later, they specifically excluded the West Bank and Gaza. During his initial meeting with Carter, even though he said he would accept no “foreign sovereignty” over the West Bank, Begin misled Carter by expressing his acceptance of 242. The U.S. team, hearing what it wanted to hear from Begin and unaccustomed to men of his strong ideological convictions, concluded that it had secured the Israeli’s agreement to the principle of withdrawal on
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all fronts and glossed over his remark about no foreign sovereignty, putting it down to maximalist rhetoric without realizing how serious he was.
This would not be the last time U.S. policymakers were misled by their hopes and expectations into underestimating the deep resolve and ideological commitment of Israel’s Likud leaders. In the concurrent ascendancy of Carter in the United States and Begin in Israel, the first U.S. president to recognize the Palestinian stake in the conflict over Palestine confronted the first Israeli prime minister, although not the last, absolutely determined never to cede an inch of territory in what remained of old Palestine or make concessions to the Palestinians in any way. Such Israeli determination did not fit with U.S. assumptions about Israel. Most U.S. policymakers could not conceive that Israel’s hard-line right wing had different goals in the Middle East than the United States did and that it saw peace differently. It was some time—well into and past the Camp David process—before Carter absorbed the fact that Begin’s hard stand was not negotiable, that he never had any intention of accommodating the United States by willingly ceasing construction of Israeli settlements, relinquishing territory in the West Bank or Gaza, or recognizing the existence of a Palestinian people or the legitimacy of their claims. Begin, however, had a clear view from the beginning of what he could get away with. The story is told that after Carter emphasized the U.S. objection to Israeli settlement activity during Begin’s first visit, Israeli embassy officials asked Begin what he intended to do. He would build the settlements anyway, he responded, predicting that the Americans would be irked for six months and then would revert to normal.
Begin’s electoral victory, against all predictions, in May 1977 had sent shock waves through the United States. He was completely unlike the usual images of Israel and Israelis. Editorial writers called him an extremist; the New York Times editorialized that Israeli politics were dangerously “out of sync.” U.S. Jews were uneasy about Begin’s past as leader of the pre-state Irgun and uncomfortable with his vision of a “Greater Israel,” which saw the West Bank as irrevocably a Jewish land divinely bestowed. Charges that Israel was colonialist for ruling over another people in the occupied territories, as well as comparisons of Israel to South Africa, began to be heard. Many in the U.S. Jewish community and many political leaders who had always been strong supporters of Israel were initially disconcerted by Begin’s hard line and urged Carter to stand firm in his intention to pursue a comprehensive peace settlement. Vice President Mondale, former Supreme Court Justice and UN Ambassador Arthur Goldberg, Senator Hubert
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Humphrey, and other Democratic congressional leaders supported Carter at this point and urged him to confront Begin aggressively.
But if U.S. Jews were chagrined at first by Begin and his hard-line stance, they quickly adapted, and the little support Carter initially enjoyed dissipated, proving no match for the intensive lobbying campaign launched against him. The story of the U.S. Jewish community’s rallying around Begin is, in fact, the story of the frame of reference, of the enduring nature of the mind-set that essentially approved of almost any Israeli policy and Israeli leader because the United States could not not support Israel. And because support for Israel had always been a zero-sum equation in regard to the Palestinian issue, there was ultimately no way to accommodate both Begin and the Palestinians in the frame of reference.
Within a brief time, U.S. public opinion was able to embrace Begin. The support of Reform Jewish leader Rabbi Alexander Schindler, a relative “dove” on Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza then serving as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, was decisive. Schindler was initially concerned about Begin’s rightist politics and says he hoped at the time that being in office would move Begin away from the extreme end of the political spectrum. As the leader of the U.S. Jewish community, Schindler saw his alternatives as either openly supporting Begin despite his misgivings or criticizing him and thereby encouraging the “pro-Arab Carterites” to “abandon” Israel. Ultimately, Schindler swallowed his objections to Begin’s hawkish position and openly endorsed him. Likud party leaders considered Schindler’s support a “big break” in maintaining U.S. support.
With Schindler’s endorsement, the battle was engaged between Carter and his foreign-policy team on one side, perceived to be a hotbed of pro-Arab sympathy, and, on the other side, those who saw virtually any criticism of any aspect of Israel as a danger to its existence. The battle was often intense. In one week in June 1977, just after Begin’s election, the White House received a thousand letters concerning the Middle East, 90 percent of which were critical of Carter’s policy. Brzezinski came under particular attack for allegedly being anti-Israeli.
Many Jewish community leaders remained uneasy about Begin’s “Greater Israel” policies, including particularly his settlements policy, but the general decision to circle the wagons around the Israeli leader had the effect of silencing criticism. One survey of U.S. Jewish leaders in early 1978 revealed that by three to one they wanted Israel to be more moderate, but the results were never published because they were thought to be too embarrassing
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for Begin. The 1977 annual report of Schindler’s Conference of Presidents stated clearly its belief that public dissent gave aid and comfort to the enemy and weakened Jewish unity, which was essential for Israeli security.
Two forces were working against each other at this point. On the one hand, Carter’s belief that the Palestinian problem had to be dealt with as part of the peace process, as well as his interest in human rights, called increased attention both to the Palestinians themselves and to Israel’s policy toward the West Bank and Gaza and its treatment of Palestinians in these territories. On the other hand, Israel’s U.S. supporters, determined to maintain solidarity with Israel and seeing increased attention to the Palestinians as a direct threat to Israel’s interests as enunciated by Begin, made a concerted effort to undermine the Palestinian role in the peace process and to deflect criticism of Israel’s occupation practices. The conscious decision to rally around Begin and mute criticism of his policies effectively tightened the parameters around acceptable public discussion. The frame of reference for public discourse remained Israel-centered, and a kind of pall was cast on serious discourse about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Some topics were placed off limits altogether, much as the Palestinian situation had always been. One example of a subject not discussed was Begin’s past. Immediately after his election, CBS News referred to Begin as an ex-terrorist because of his leadership of the Irgun, the organization responsible for the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel, the 1948 massacre at the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, and other bombings of civilian targets in the years before Israel’s establishment. In the early years neither Begin himself nor Israel’s U.S. friends had hesitated to use the term, but Begin objected to it from CBS News and demanded an apology, which was immediately issued. From that time forward, it became generally unacceptable to use the word with respect to either Begin or his successor Yitzhak Shamir, whose pre-state underground organization, the Stern Gang, had also committed acts of terrorism.
Another issue raised and quickly quieted was Israel’s human-rights record in the occupied territories. After the London Times issued a report in 1977, not repeated in the United States, citing what it called a “widespread and systematic” pattern of torture of Palestinian prisoners in the occupied territories by Israeli police and military, the U.S. State Department touched on the issue in its 1978 annual report on human rights around the world. Noting cautiously that it saw no evidence of a systematic policy of torture, the State Department concluded that there had been documented reports of the use of “extreme physical and psychological pressures” during interrogation.
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The following year, State noted, again circumspectly, that reports of torture and brutality by Israelis were so numerous that they could not be ignored. Information obtained and publicized by the Washington Post in early 1979 indicated that the U.S. consulate general in Jerusalem believed the evidence of physical mistreatment of prisoners was strong enough to indicate that a systematic pattern of torture existed.
Israel denied any use of torture and denounced the Post for “dishonest, libelous and utterly false” reporting. The outcry within the United States was intense. Jewish organizations dismissed the charges of torture and accused the Post of joining a left-wing extremist campaign against Israel. Public commentary shifted from the accuracy of the charges to the propriety of raising them. The New York Times editorialized that the State Department had in its 1979 report engaged in “clumsy public relations” by “attracting unfair attention to some alleged lapses.” The Times wondered, “Why rile the Israelis again?” This question could have been asked only in a context where the focus was on the perspective of one side. Although evidence of Israeli use of torture against Palestinian prisoners continued to be reported for years by human-rights groups such as Amnesty International and Middle East Watch, the reports were generally ignored until an Israeli commission, the Landau Commission, found in November 1987 that Israel’s internal security service, Shin Bet, had been conducting systematic torture to gain confessions from Palestinian prisoners and had, as a matter of policy, been lying in court about how the confessions were obtained.
By the late 1970s, the U.S. public had adjusted—adjusted to Israel under a hard-line leader, ignored what was most difficult to swallow such as the evidence of torture, and continued to support Israel because it had always done so before. Public opinion polls showed little decrease in 1977 or 1978 from the consistent sympathy levels of 45 to 50 percent that they had shown for Israel throughout most of the previous decade. There was some increased sympathy for the Arabs, thanks primarily to the increased popularity of Egyptian President Sadat and perhaps in small measure to Carter’s attention to the Palestinians, but sympathy levels for Israel remained higher than those for the Arabs by four to one.
Support for Israel in Congress also did not slacken; nor did interest in the Palestinians pick up. The story is told by two Israeli journalists that when Moshe Arens, then chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs Committee, came to Washington in late 1977, the pro-Israeli staffers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee were deeply worried that because he was a rightist he would “blow it” when he met with senators on the committee, most of whom, although pro-Israeli, were accustomed to Labor’s
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more flexible position. Arens began with an uncompromising defense of why Israel had to retain control over the occupied territories and within minutes, to the pleasant surprise of anxious staffers, had won over the senators. At the end of the presentation, committee Chairman John Sparkman said to Arens, who was raised in the United States and speaks unaccented English, “Son, you’re wonderful! You speak American!” The inescapable conclusion is that the senators cared more about Arens’s style than about the substance of his remarks. The new reality of Israel’s hard-line policy, which was directly opposed to the notion of the centrality of the Palestinian issue and came just when the importance of the Palestinians was beginning to be recognized, clearly did not significantly alter the basic outlines of the frame of reference.
During the first year of the Carter administration Israel introduced and began seriously to press the notion that it was a strategic asset to the United States and a vital ally on whom Washington had to rely in the Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union. Although not a wholly new concept, the notion as now promoted was designed specifically to strengthen U.S. sympathy for and attachment to Israel. Begin raised the issue of Israel’s strategic importance during his first meeting with Carter in July 1977. When Begin presented Carter with a lengthy document enumerating the strategic benefits of alliance with Israel—from masses of captured Soviet equipment turned over to the United States for analysis, to Israel’s key geographic location, to its position as a check on a flare-up of Arab radicalism—he was making the point that aid to Israel was not charity but a sound investment that ultimately returned strategic value to the United States. Begin, a proud and suspicious man, fundamentally distrusted the moral commitment of the United States to Israel. Fearing that changing views might eventually cause the United States to abandon Israel as it had Taiwan, he believed that by demonstrating its strategic indispensability Israel would not have to rely on U.S. good will but would put the United States in Israel’s debt.
Carter did not pay more than lip service to the notion of strategic cooperation with Israel, but Israel and its supporters latched onto and continually promoted the idea. It slowly became part of the body of U.S. assumptions about Israel—a basic tenet of the U.S. mind-set and one more factor in tilting the frame of reference toward the Israeli perspective. In a framework in which Israel was vital to U.S. strategic interests, any moral demands being newly placed on the conscience of Americans by the increasing awareness of the Palestinians’ situation and of Israel’s occupation practices had to take second place. In purely pragmatic terms, the Palestinians
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could not compete for attention with an Israel that helped protect U.S. national security.
In August 1977, just before Secretary of State Vance was to leave on another trip through the Middle East to attempt towork out a formula for Palestinian participation in the peace process, Carter received a private message from Arafat indicating that the PLO was prepared to live in peace with Israel and would make public and private commitments to that effect if the United States would commit itself to establishment of an independent Palestinian state, which could be linked to Jordan. Carter responded to Arafat’s overture by promising that his administration would open a dialogue with the PLO if it would meet the minimum requirements of the Kissinger Sinai II pledge—acceptance of UN Resolution 242 and recognition of Israel’s right to exist. This overture began a two-month effort, unsuccessful in the end, to devise some formula to facilitate U.S.-PLO negotiations.
The PLO had been moving toward a more moderate stance over the previous few months. In March 1977, presumably in response to Carter’s “homeland” statement, the PLO’s legislative arm, the Palestine National Council (PNC), had adopted a resolution pledging to accept independence in a territory limited to the West Bank and Gaza. A new PLO Executive Committee excluding representatives of the “rejection front,” which rejected coexistence with Israel, was also elected at this PNC session. The PNC resolution moved well beyond previous positions and represented a victory for elements within the PLO—Arafat, his Fatah organization, and the nationalist mainstream in the West Bank and Gaza—who advocated pursuing Palestinian goals by political means rather than through military action. According to some analysts, the new stance indicated that for these mainstream elements the longstanding goal of establishing a democratic, secular state in all of Palestine had begun to be viewed as a distant and probably unrealizable goal.
The Sinai II commitment would prove to be a major impediment to progress on Arafat’s initiative. Although there is some question whether Carter was bound by the pledge, he and Vance took it as a binding commitment, in part for domestic political reasons, in part in the hope of pressuring the PLO into accepting Resolution 242 in modified form. Vance, in fact, interpreted the commitment so strictly that he would not permit any direct U.S. contacts with the PLO at all, even though the addendum to Sinai II had deliberately been written so as not to prohibit informal, exploratory exchanges,
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only formal negotiations. Whatever the Carter administration’s legal obligations, in the end U.S. adherence to the letter of the commitment curtailed what might have been fruitful contacts with the PLO. One scholar has noted that Arafat and other PLO leaders came close to reciting the precise words that the United States demanded, saying them by euphemism, by indirection, and explicitly through intermediaries. But at the time they were politically unable to pronounce the exact formula demanded by the United States explicitly and publicly without obtaining reciprocal Israeli concessions. The PLO regarded recognition of Israel’s “right” to exist—and thus of Israel’s right to sovereignty in Palestine—as its last bargaining card, which the Palestinians could not relinquish without receiving recognition of their own right to self-determination and independent statehood in Palestine. From the Palestinian perspective, what the United States was offering—a promise to open a formal U.S.-PLO dialogue, but no promise of Israeli-PLO dialogue and no commitment to Israeli concessions—was inadequate in return for such a major Palestinian concession.
During his Middle East trip, at stops in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, Vance carried on a running negotiation with the PLO, conducted indirectly through the various Arab leaders, over the kind of statement the Palestinians would be willing to make with regard to Resolution 242. At one point, Vance proposed, through Saudi King Khalid, that the PLO issue a statement accepting Resolution 242 “with the reservation that it considers that the resolution does not make adequate reference to the question of the Palestinians since it fails to make any reference to a homeland for the Palestinian people.” An additional sentence—”It is recognized that the language of Resolution 242 relates to the right of all states in the Middle East to live in peace”—would satisfy the U.S. demand for PLO recognition of Israel’s right to exist. Asked by King Khalid if the United States would assure that the Palestinians would obtain a homeland in the West Bank if the PLO accepted this language, Vance replied that while this was the U.S. goal, it could not be guaranteed.
Because the PLO could not talk directly with the United States, it received mixed signals from the various Arab intermediaries. The Egyptians first conveyed the impression that the United States had promised to recognize the PLO and invite it to a Geneva peace conference in return for accepting the statement, but the Saudis, conveying accurately the more limited intentions, reported that Washington would agree only to open a dialogue with the PLO, not necessarily invite it to a peace conference, in exchange for PLO acceptance of Resolution 242. The Saudis thus gave the impression that the United States had hardened its position.
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The Arab leaders also conveyed to Arafat a tentative plan suggested by Vance to establish a trusteeship, administered jointly by Israel and Jordan, for the West Bank and Gaza—the purpose being, in Vance’s words, to allow the Palestinians to “demonstrate whether they were prepared to govern themselves and live peacefully with Israel.” Strenuously objecting to the paternalistic aspect of this proposal and angered that all they could expect in return for their concession was a dialogue with the United States, not necessarily inclusion in the peace process, the PLO Executive Committee voted to reject Vance’s proposed language.
The concept embodied in Vance’s trusteeship proposal of a transitional arrangement for the West Bank and Gaza was later incorporated into the Camp David accords and thereafter became part of the conventional wisdom on how to deal with these territories and with the Palestinian problem as a whole. Future administrations always included some sort of transitional arrangement in their peace proposals. Although Vance’s principal intent was to devise a compromise formula that might be acceptable to both Israelis and Palestinians, the notion of trusteeship or some other transitional arrangement was in fact a holdover from the old days, incorporating the nineteenth-century assumption that Arabs were not ready for self-government, as well as the modern, post-1948 assumption that any independent Palestinian state would, almost by definition, be radical. The idea was that because Israel feared Palestinian radicalism—a fear both Carter and Vance said they shared with regard to permitting establishment of an independent Palestinian state—the Palestinians had to pass through a transitional phase in which they would prove themselves before any thought could be given to self-determination or independence. Despite the genuinely evenhanded approach that Vance and the Carter team were taking in this period, there was an element of the Israel-centric to the proposal, for similar proof of its desire to live in peace with Palestinians was not demanded of Israel.
Shortly after the August contacts on Resolution 242 floundered, Arafat again approached the United States through an intermediary, indicating that the PLO would accept the resolution if the United States made certain private commitments about the PLO’s role in future negotiations. The United States sent educator Landrum Bolling to meet with Arafat and convey the message that if the PLO accepted Resolution 242 with a statement of reservation about its failure to address the Palestinian question, the United States would talk to the PLO but could not make additional promises.
At this point, the political problems of both Carter and Arafat collided
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with each other. Carter was under intense domestic pressure for even attempting to deal with the Palestinian issue, and although he probably need not in fact have been so rigid in requiring the PLO’s exact compliance with the Sinai II pledge, he clearly felt at a minimum that the political pressures on him were such that he could not flout it. Arafat was under heavy pressure as well, both from within the PLO and from some Arab states. He was as rigid in his own way as Carter was; the language proposed by the United States on accepting “the rights of all states in the Middle East to live in peace,” for instance, skirted the issue of directly recognizing Israel’s “right” to exist and might therefore have been acceptable to the Palestinians. But many PLO members were still fearful of giving up the Palestinians’ ultimate concession without assurance of statehood. In addition, some Arab states, particularly Syria, saw their ability to speak for the Palestinians as a point of leverage and were unwilling to have the United States deal with the PLO. As a result, under Arab pressure to reject the compromise conveyed by Bolling, the PLO Central Committee met in September and again rebuffed the United States.
Carter and others in the administration, particularly Brzezinski, grew increasingly impatient with the PLO following this unsuccessful round. The administration continued efforts in the fall of 1977, through a series of intricate and complex negotiations with both Arabs and Israelis, to organize a comprehensive peace conference and resolve the question of Palestinian representation at Geneva without attempting to obtain PLO acceptance of Resolution 242. Vance pursued a proposal for a unified Arab delegation as a way to include the Palestinians. But obstacles arose at every turn from both Israel and the Arab states. Finally, Egyptian President Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem in November, undertaken without prior consultation with the United States, took control of events out of Carter’s hands for the time being and changed the direction of the peace process. From this point on, as negotiations between Egypt and Israel continued into 1978, leading to the Camp David accords in September and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in March 1979, Carter always considered efforts to resolve the Palestinian problem as subordinate to bilateral Egyptian-Israeli issues.
When the PLO joined with other Arabs in denouncing Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem and, along with the Arab states, rejected an invitation by Sadat to attend a preliminary peace conference in Cairo, Carter lashed out, angrily charging at a press conference that the PLO had been “completely negative” and “had not been cooperative at all” despite his and Sadat’s efforts to include the organization in the negotiating process. During an
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interview with Paris Match shortly afterward, Brzezinski, contending that the United States had done everything it could to draw the PLO into the peace process, made his well known “bye-bye PLO” statement. The disagreement between the United States and the PLO fundamentally came down to a difference over self-determination for the Palestinians. As noted, Carter, like all presidents and policymakers before him, had grown up politically with the notion that a Palestinian state would be radical and unstable, and, despite his understanding of the Palestinians, his frame of reference did not extend to placing the solution to the problem in a national context. For the Palestinians, however, there could be no other solution. Having altered the original maximum goal of pushing Israel out of Palestine and establishing a “democratic, secular” state in which Jews and Palestinians would live together and having repeatedly communicated to the United States the PLO’s readiness to live peacefully alongside an Israeli state, the PLO felt it could not now explicitly concede Israel’s moral legitimacy without a U.S. guarantee of self-determination in the West Bank and Gaza. Realistically, no matter what concessions the PLO made, there was no hope of obtaining independence without such a U.S. guarantee. No government in Israel, Labor or Likud, would agree to it. Carter did not truly understand this Palestinian thinking.
He also did not fully understand inter-Arab political rivalries, particularly that for their own reasons Egypt, Syria, and Jordan all found it to be against their interests to permit the PLO a prominent role in peace negotiations and that each one therefore was attempting to undercut the Palestinian push for self-determination and U.S. sponsorship in the peace process. Sadat jealously guarded Egypt’s preeminent place in the Arab world and did not want competition from the PLO; Syria’s Asad viewed his ability to speak for the Palestinians as one of his few points of leverage, which he did not want to forfeit to the U.S.; Jordan’s King Hussein, still feeling that his throne was threatened by the PLO and still desirous of reasserting Jordanian control over the West Bank, was completely opposed to Palestinian independence.
Carter mistook this inter-Arab political maneuvering for agreement with his own reasoning on the undesirability of a Palestinian state. He writes in his memoirs that, with the sole exception of Saudi Arabia—the only Arab state that in private conversations with him had supported Palestinian independence—all Arabs “could see that an independent nation in the heart of the Middle East might be a serious point of friction and a focus for radicalizing influence.” By thus projecting his own views
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onto the Arab states, Carter found an easy way out of the political difficulties he would have faced at home and with Israel had he supported selfdetermination for the Palestinians.
Carter’s opposition to real self-determination led to the enunciation of an equivocal formulation that was to become a staple of administration policy on the issue. At a meeting with Sadat at Aswan, Egypt, in January 1978, using wording fashioned by his foreign-policy advisers, Carter spelled out his views on the requirements for a peace settlement. Among other things, he said, a solution must “enable the Palestinians to participate in the determination of their own future.” The statement, which became known as the Aswan formula and was later incorporated into the Camp David accords, was one of those diplomatic ambiguities that are so highly interpretable that they satisfy virtually everyone—except in this instance the Palestinians themselves. The Carter team was attempting to come as near to advocating Palestinian self-determination as was possible without using the term. The Egyptians reacted with pleasure at having obtained what one journalist called the concept of self-determination without the actual term; Begin, seeing exactly the reverse, was pleased to note that Carter had avoided granting the Palestinians self-determination. Only the Palestinians—on whom the anomaly of being accorded the right to “participate in” but not to “make” the determination of their own future was not lost—were displeased.
Throughout this period, Carter was under intense domestic political pressure. He was deeply frustrated, from the earliest months of his presidency, by the heavy pressures exerted against him whenever he even referred to Palestinian rights; as Quandt has observed, Carter found that the “constraints of the American political system came into play whenever he tried to deal with the Palestinian question.” As early as the fall of 1977, Quandt says, Carter tired of “the role of public advocate of controversial ideas” and began simply to say less in public, leaving the diplomatic moves to the State Department.
This chapter in Carter’s Middle East policymaking, showing the tension between his own inclinations and the demands of the guardians of the conventional wisdom, is one of the most intriguing in Carter-era diplomacy. It demonstrates how powerful the conventional wisdom on Israel and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was as a determiner of policy, for it ultimately caused Carter to drop his efforts on behalf of the Palestinians. Although he was angered and frustrated as much or more by Israel’s refusal to deal with the Palestinian issue as by the Palestinians’ failure to make the concessions
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he felt were necessary for a dialogue with the United States, it was simpler and more politically expedient in the end to vent his frustration on the Palestinians.
The irony is that Carter of all presidents wanted to move ahead with the Palestinians, and it might be speculated that had he better understood the Palestinian position and the root of Palestinian grievances, he would probably have been able to. But his personal frame of reference, although remarkably open to the Palestinian perspective, remained limited. Because even he did not see the Palestinians as equal partners in any negotiation and did not focus on the need for some reciprocity if any peace process was to be successful, neither he nor virtually anyone else in the country recognized the futility of demanding concessions of the Palestinians that were not also demanded of Israel. As a result, the conventional wisdom throughout the country came increasingly to center on the PLO as unremittingly radical and inflexible and as bent blindly on Israel’s destruction.
The contrast with the latest hero, Sadat, and his willingness to recognize and make peace with Israel made the Palestinians appear all the more radical and unbending, although in fact Egypt’s conflict with Israel involved a different set of issues altogether. Sadat was as uncompromising on Egypt’s basic issues as the Palestinians were on theirs, but because recognition of Israel’s right to exist was not a fundamental issue for Egypt as it was for the Palestinians—because it was not an issue that went to the core of Egypt’s own existence—this was a relatively easy concession for Sadat. Few in the United States focused on this distinction, and so, because Sadat had recognized Israel, the Palestinians’ refusal to do the same came across as stubborn intransigence. Furthermore, because the issues were different and precisely because they did not involve existential questions, Egypt could reasonably demand true reciprocity from Israel and ultimately obtained it, which, in the circumstances, was beyond the realm of possibility for the Palestinians.
As 1978 proceeded, with round after round of U.S.-mediated Egyptian-Israeli talks, leading finally to the Camp David accords in September, prospects for a meaningful resolution of the Palestinian problem grew increasingly dim. During a meeting with Carter in Washington in December 1977, Begin had presented a plan for “home rule” for West Bank and Gaza Palestinians that was ultimately to become the basis for the autonomy proposed for the Palestinians in the Camp David accords. Carter and Vance recognized
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Begin’s presentation of the plan, which did not provide for Israeli withdrawal or sovereignty for the Palestinians, for what it was—a tactic to avoid withdrawing and reaching an equitable solution to the Palestinian problem. But others in the administration, particularly Brzezinski, saw in the plan aspects of the transitional arrangement first proposed by Vance, and it was ultimately incorporated in the Camp David accords.
Thus, by early 1978, the administration’s original concept of working toward a comprehensive peace settlement that included resolution of the Palestinian problem had been markedly scaled back to achieving an agreement only between Egypt and Israel along with an as yet undefined transitional arrangement for the West Bank and Gaza. Talks with the PLO were no longer on the agenda, nor was the notion of having the Palestinians present at peace negotiations. As Carter and his foreign-policy team worked on bringing Egypt and Israel together on bilateral issues, they attempted to ensure that any accord would be linked to future progress on an agreement regarding the Palestinians, but virtually all the original game plan had been given up.
The National Security Council Middle East director, Quandt, sent Brzezinski a memorandum in May 1978 noting that in response to Israel’s demands the United States had already adjusted its position downward to such an extent that the only hope for obtaining any agreement on the West Bank and Gaza lay in the forlorn possibility that Begin would commit Israel at least conditionally to eventual withdrawal from the West Bank. Quandt bluntly detailed U.S. concessions:
Two events in early 1978 solidified public support for Israel and further thwarted Carter’s efforts to press Israel for movement in the peace process. In February, the administration announced plans to sell Saudi Arabia sixty F-15 aircraft. The sale finally passed Congress in May, but the administration’s fight with pro-Israeli forces was hard and politically costly. Vice President Mondale, whose reputation as a friend of Israel made him Carter’s bellwether of U.S. Jewish sentiment, had been prepared before announcement of the proposed sale to support the notion of exerting pressure on Begin, believing that U.S. Jews did not support his no-withdrawal interpretation of Resolution 242 or his determination to build Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. The outcry in the Jewish community, however, against selling arms to Saudi Arabia, which was portrayed as directly threatening Israel’s security, was so great that Mondale backed away from association with the idea of leaning on Israel.
The second event that undermined Carter’s efforts was a PLO terrorist attack against Israel in March that killed thirty-seven Israelis. A seaborne force launched from Lebanon seized an Israeli passenger bus on the coastal road. The attack was a serious setback for the Palestinian image in the United States. When in retaliation Israel launched a full-scale invasion of southern Lebanon designed to push PLO forces away from the border, Carter took a strong stance and supported a UN resolution calling for Israel’s withdrawal and the establishment of a UN monitoring force. But the PLO attack, because it coincided with the debate over arms for Saudi Arabia, renewed sympathy for an imperiled Israel, again galvanized Israel’s U.S. supporters against Carter’s perceived pro-Arab tilt, and in general, as Vance noted to Carter at the time, refocused the attention of Israel’s supporters from the peace process to concern for Israel’s security.
Carter had been worn down, reined in by the frame of reference, by the time of the Camp David summit so that, as Quandt has observed, the “temptation arose to aim for the attainable, not necessarily the preferred.” Already looking toward the next presidential election campaign and under heavy domestic criticism for other policies as well as his Middle East policy, Carter decided to avoid further conflict with Begin and settle for whatever
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he could obtain from the Israeli leader without a confrontation. An Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement would win back some popular support. The U.S. public, he knew, would support anything he could get Begin and Sadat to agree to; he would be hailed for mediating, and the public, unconcerned about the details if Israel and Egypt agreed, would not lament if the Palestinians were left out. At this point, Carter himself, in desperate need of a success, was prepared to move ahead without the Palestinians and without linking an Egyptian-Israeli agreement to a broader resolution of the West Bank issue if that proved the only way to bring Begin along.
The Camp David accords of September 1978 and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of March 1979, which codified the accords, called for the establishment of autonomy for the Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza, enshrining the concepts of a transitional period and of giving Palestinians the right to “participate in” the determination of their future but not to decide it themselves. A period of autonomy would begin after a socalled self-governing authority or administrative council had been elected for the West Bank and Gaza; procedures for the elections were to be established by representatives of Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, with Palestinians participating as part of the Egyptian and Jordanian delegations. The period of autonomy would last for up to five years, during which Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the elected Palestinian representatives would hold negotiations on the final status of the West Bank and Gaza.
The Israeli position prevailed on all critical issues regarding the West Bank and Gaza: withdrawal, the applicability of Resolution 242 to these territories, and Israeli settlements. The issues of withdrawal and the interpretation of 242 were left deliberately ambiguous; Begin agreed to “a withdrawal of Israeli armed forces” of unspecified size, during the interim period, but he made no commitment to eventual withdrawal from the occupied territories. To accommodate Begin’s refusal to agree that Resolution 242 applied to the West Bank and Gaza, Carter and Sadat agreed to avoid linking any final-status issues to the resolution, so that the accords stipulated, pointlessly, that negotiations would be based on 242 but said nothing about basing a final agreement on the resolution. Begin won the day on settlements as well. Although the United States understood him to have agreed during the Camp David talks to freezing settlement construction throughout the autonomy negotiations and to ratifying this agreement through a letter to Carter separate from the accords, Begin contended that he agreed only to a three-month freeze, which is all he referred to in the letter to Carter. A month after Camp David he announced that West Bank settlements would be “thickened.” The agreement was silent on such other
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key issues as future sovereignty of the territories, the status of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees and other Palestinian exiles.
Despite U.S. and Egyptian efforts, in the end there was no linkage in the Camp David accords, or in the later peace treaty, between the agreement over the Sinai and resolution of the Palestinian issue. Indeed, nothing in the agreement precluded permanent Israeli control over the West Bank and Gaza. The Carter team had hoped that Israel, made vastly more secure by the peace treaty with Egypt, would feel confident enough to move forward on other fronts toward a comprehensive peace settlement and particularly toward an end of the West Bank/Gaza occupation and resolution of the Palestinian issue. But Carter had not bargained on the depth of Israeli hostility, from the left as well as the right of Israel’s political spectrum, to making territorial concessions to the Palestinians. Despite more than a year of close contact with Begin and repeated evidence of Begin’s determination to retain and in fact to consolidate control over the West Bank and Gaza, Carter also did not fully grasp Begin’s deep, spiritual commitment to a land he regarded as the sacred essence of the Jews’ biblical heritage. Indeed, Carter did not fully comprehend that with the Palestinian question he had raised an issue that separated him altogether from Israel and its supporters. If he was unprepared for the depth of feeling on the Palestinian issue in Israel, he was perhaps even more unprepared for the similar intensity of feeling demonstrated by U.S. public opinion. Carter could not combat the solidarity shown for Begin’s hard-line position, could not stand up to the fact that Americans rallied around Begin despite widespread misgivings among the public, in the press, and even in the U.S. Jewish community about his inflexibility on withdrawal and settlements. This solidarity shows the powerful constraints and the remarkable staying power of a mind-set.
Few Americans, including many policymakers, understood why Palestinians considered Camp David a humiliation. Although it is widely believed in the United States even today that Arafat and the PLO rejected the Camp David process because they remained bent on Israel’s destruction, in fact the PLO let the United States know through indirect channels immediately after the accord was signed that it was seriously interested in exploring the meaning and implications of the agreement. Few clarifications could be made, however, for the agreement did not commit Israel to any of the steps that would have brought an end to the occupation.
The Palestinians rejected Camp David not because they were intent on destroying Israel but because they believed the agreement gave them nothing.
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During an interview in October 1978, a month after Camp David, Arafat and other PLO leaders told Seth Tillman, a former staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that the PLO was willing to accept a state limited to the West Bank and Gaza, existing alongside Israel, and had been trying since 1973 to establish a dialogue with the United States, but considered Camp David a betrayal. A month later, Representative Paul Findley, senior Republican on the House Middle East Subcommittee, met with Arafat and secured a commitment from the PLO leader to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and, having obtained that, to grant Israel de facto recognition and renounce “any and all violent means to enlarge the territory of the [Palestinian] state.” Although Findley believed that Arafat’s pledgesmet the requirements of the Kissinger Sinai II commitment, the Carter administration did not react to either of these pledges or the earlier statements made to Tillman.
Palestinians said they regarded Camp David’s provision for self-rule as a “disgraceful” euphemism for continued occupation, and the Israelis gave them no reason to think otherwise. Israel never, for instance, stated which powers and responsibilities, if any, it would allow a self-governing authority to exercise. Political scientist Ann Lesch interviewed numerous Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in the months before and after Camp David and found them to be strongly of the view that the autonomy plan, rather than benefiting the Palestinians, would ultimately legitimize the occupation and make the achievement of self-determination impossible. Palestinians did not believe that the administrative council envisioned in the autonomy plan could function as more than a figurehead and considered this part of the plan a humiliation. Many of Israel’s own statements and actions, including continued settlement construction and assertions by cabinet members about future plans for the territories, made autonomy look to the Palestinians like “a trap that would lead to the incorporation of the territories into ‘greater Israel.’”
Palestinians questioned whether the United States would be able to enforce Israeli compliance with the agreement. Nicholas Veliotes, who was U.S. ambassador to Jordan during the Carter administration and tried to persuade King Hussein to accept the Camp David accords, believes the Palestinians backed away from the accords largely because of the U.S. inability to impose a meaningful freeze on Israeli settlement construction. The Palestinians regarded the accords as badly flawed in any case, Veliotes notes, and Begin’s violation of the long-term freeze Carter thought he had achieved created the perception that Israel was “sticking it to the president”—a perception that undermined Veliotes’s own and other diplomats’
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efforts to persuade the Arabs that Carter seriously intended to resolve the Palestinian problem.
Quandt, who was closely involved in negotiating the agreement, has concluded that it might have been possible to attract Palestinians to the negotiating process if the United States had secured a real freeze on Israeli settlement construction; if the Palestinian self-governing body had been given control over land and water resources; if there had been hope that elections for the self-governing authority would be genuinely free and not encumbered by Israeli-imposed restrictions on who could and could not vote; or if Israel’s military occupation authority had been abolished. The absence of any of these provisions tended to devalue the concept of autonomy in Palestinian eyes. The Palestinians were also disturbed that there was no provision in the accords for refugee or exile return. With approximately twice as many Palestinians living outside the occupied territories as inside at the time, a self-governing authority elected only from the West Bank and Gaza could not represent true autonomy for all the Palestinian people. Few people understood the importance to the Palestinians of securing the right of all Palestinians to be represented in any peace negotiation and in any interim or final arrangement.
The most serious consequence of the Camp David accords from the Palestinian perspective was the absence of a link between the Sinai agreement and the West Bank issue. Despite the rhetoric and promises to the contrary, Egypt had made a separate peace with Israel, which relieved the pressure on Israel to move forward on the Palestinian issue. Because Egypt was the strongest Arab country and the only one able to pose a significant military threat to Israel, its removal as a factor in the Arab-Israeli conflict seriously reduced the military and diplomatic leverage of all the other Arab parties and removed virtually all incentive for Israel to make concessions in the West Bank and Gaza or on any other front. Most analysts agree, moreover, that if Egypt had still been in a state of war with Israel and mobilized for combat in 1982, Israel would not have launched its invasion of Lebanon or at least would not have carried the attack to such lengths, moving as far north as Beirut and laying siege to the capital. Nor, most likely, would the United States have allowed the invasion to progress had there been the threat of general Arab-Israeli warfare and superpower involvement.
The Palestinians’ negative reaction to the Camp David agreement seemed to confirm for the U.S. public and even some policymakers one of the essential ingredients of the conventional wisdom—that Palestinians were unalterably radical. The question inevitably asked, even now, has always been why the Palestinians could not have done something differently
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—made more concessions, spoken in more conciliatory tones, agreed to go along with the Camp David process even though it proposed to decide their fate without their participation as equal negotiating partners.
The answer is that the PLO could certainly have made itself look more reasonable to Americans if it had agreed to accept Resolution 242 and recognize Israel’s right to exist; at a minimum, the Palestinians could have made a better effort to explain their position to the public and to policymakers. But the next question has to be whether even the most conciliatory Palestinian position would have altered Israel’s hard-line stance under Begin or enhanced Carter’s ability to induce Israel to begin relinquishing control of the occupied territories—and the answer to that question is no. Palestinian conciliation would not have turned Begin into a dove, and, given the U.S. mind-set on Arab-Israeli issues, even the ultimate Palestinian concession would most likely not have brought about the public support Carter needed to confront Israel seriously.
Former Assistant Secretary of State Saunders has written that policymakers involved in the peace process found it difficult at the time to understand why Palestinians seemed to prefer to “drift” along while Israel steadily expanded its control over the West Bank rather than become involved in a process to halt that expansion. By U.S. logic, Saunders observes, it appeared preferable by far to accept the Camp David process, negotiate a selfgoverning authority for the West Bank and Gaza, and then negotiate a permanent relationship between Israel and a Palestinian political entity of some sort. This alternative, which would have given the Palestinians some form of elected self-government for the first time, seemed much better to many U.S. policymakers than continuing to live under Israeli military occupation.
Palestinian logic led elsewhere however. The Palestinian perspective on the U.S. logic, as Saunders explained, was that by agreeing to negotiate on U.S. terms the Palestinians would have been being asked “to legitimize and perpetuate Israeli possession of land that they feel was once legitimately theirs, … an act of generosity that is virtually without historical example,” and they would still be denied the recognition of their identity that would have come with U.S. and Israeli acceptance of the Palestinian right to selfdetermination. Saunders’s observations speak directly to the way in which a relatively closed frame of reference obscures vision and hinders policy innovation. Many U.S. policymakers at the time, despite their openness to the Palestinian viewpoint, were still so accustomed to viewing the conflict through an Israeli prism, as well as from a practical U.S. vantage point, that few appreciated the Palestinian perspective.
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Whatever the official U.S. perception or understanding of the Palestinians, by the time the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was signed in March 1979 and the autonomy negotiations began between representatives of Egypt and Israel, Carter had had enough and was eager to back away. With a presidential reelection campaign approaching, he was no longer interested in trying to understand the Palestinians or confront Israel’s solid bloc of support. During a difficult stage in the negotiations in February, before the treaty was signed, he had almost backed out of involvement in the peace process. Brzezinski and Carter’s close friend and adviser Hamilton Jordan were telling Carter that they believed the Israelis were attempting, by being obstinate in the negotiations, to ensure that Carter was not reelected; Vice President Mondale was urging him to take a totally passive position and not press Begin at all, for fear of the political consequences if he did; and Carter was deeply discouraged that, as he told Brzezinski, much of the U.S. press portrayed him as anti-Israeli whenever he tried to move the parties toward concluding an agreement.
Carter came out of his discouragement long enough to launch a strong initiative to conclude the treaty, but he pulled back immediately after the signing. Telling his aides that he needed a political shield at home, he appointed Democratic Party official Robert Strauss as special Middle East negotiator. Brzezinski recalls that at the first meeting Strauss attended with Carter and his aides to review Middle East policy in May 1979 Carter conveyed as clearly as he could a total disinterest in any further discussion of Middle East strategy. Strauss did act as a shield for Carter, continually warning the president about the negative political consequences of exerting any pressure on Israel, and he soon became discouraged himself with the difficult politics of the job and resigned within six months to head Carter’s reelection effort. He was replaced by another political shield. Attorney Sol Linowitz, who had negotiated the Panama Canal treaty, had no experience with Middle East issues but was a strong supporter of Israel.
The Iranian hostage crisis, which arose when the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November 1979 and held diplomats hostage, obviated any expectation that Carter would turn his energies back to the Arab-Israeli situation during the last year of his presidency. Vance continued a lonely effort to involve the Palestinians in the peace process, but he too was ultimately defeated by domestic politics. He gradually lost influence to more politically attuned aides and finally lost Carter’s ear altogether when in March 1980 he approved a U.S. vote in favor of a UN Security Council resolution on the Palestinians that Washington later disavowed. The administration had decided to vote for
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the resolution if wording on Jerusalem that was deemed objectionable was removed, and after the resolution was modified, Vance instructed the UN ambassador to vote for it. In the event, the resolution contained several politically sensitive references to Jerusalem and called for dismantling Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. Under pressure from Mondale and Carter’s political aides, Vance was forced to issue a public retraction. The incident, occurring in an election year, came at a particularly sensitive time. Mondale was urging Carter to repudiate his opposition to Israeli settlements in time for the New York primary, in which Carter was being opposed for the Democratic Party nomination by Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. The primary occurred shortly after Vance’s retraction, and Carter lost, the Jewish vote going heavily to Kennedy. White House political aides blamed Vance. Already deeply discouraged, Vance resigned shortly thereafter after unsuccessfully recommending against a mission, which ultimately failed, to rescue the hostages in Iran.
Vance was not the only U.S. official to run afoul of Israel’s supporters in the United States over the Palestinian issue. In July 1979, during discussions at the UN about a possible resolution to amend Resolution 242 to make it more palatable to the Palestinians, UN Ambassad or Andrew Young, then serving as head of the Security Council, met with the PLO’s UN delegate to see if wording could be found to satisfy the PLO. Although in fact Kissinger’s 1975 Sinai II pledge had not forbidden exploratory talks with the PLO, Young’s meeting caused such an outcry from the U.S. Jewish community at an already politically sensitive time, and he had so angered Carter and Vance by not informing them of the meeting, that he was forced to resign. Not for the first or the last time, the constraints that the Sinai II commitment had imposed on policymaking thwarted what might have been a promising initiative. Both the Young incident and the UN vote in 1980, by making Carter appear fumbling and inept, greatly diminished his credibility as a leader and policy innovator.
Autonomy negotiations between Egypt and Israel—Jordan having refused to participate—continued throughout the remainder of the Carter administration with the mediation efforts of Linowitz. By the end of Carter’s term, Linowitz felt he had made substantial progress in negotiating the terms of autonomy, but in fact agreement had not been reached, and was not near, on the most critical issues. There was no agreement on halting construction of Israeli settlements, none on whether the approximately one hundred thousand Palestinians resident in East Jerusalem could participate in elections for the self-governing authority—which Israel wanted to prevent—and none on future control of water and land resources. The fundamental
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objectives of Israel and of Egypt, acting on behalf of the Palestinians, were widely divergent. Israel, concerned to prevent the self-governing authority from ultimately becoming a state, worked to limit the authority’s jurisdiction to administrative matters, handled under the continued control of the Israeli military government, and to restrict autonomy to the inhabitants of the occupied territories rather than to the land. Egypt, however, wanted legislative and executive authority for the self-governing body and autonomy for the land as well as the inhabitants. Despite Linowitz’s optimism, the negotiations accomplished little on the issues of greatest importance to the Palestinians.
Samuel Lewis, who served throughout Carter’s term as U.S. ambassador to Israel, has said that despite the great tension in the U.S.-Israeli relationship over Israel’s West Bank policy during the Carter years, the interests of the two countries basically coincided. “We were trying to help Israel make peace,” he says; the only argument was over tactics. Lewis’s observation goes to the heart of the issue of making policy within the constraints of a frame of reference focused on one side in an international dispute. Despite Carter’s efforts on behalf of the Palestinians, in the end most Americans viewed the issue as one of helping Israel make peace, not helping the Palestinians or the Arabs, or even Israel and the Arabs, make peace. In the end, the United States did not act as an impartial mediator between two equal parties in a negotiation. In negotiating the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, the United States was able to act as a neutral intermediary, but it was incapable of being neutral when the conflict involved questions more fundamental to Israel’s existence. The basic issue arising out of the Carter administration’s effort to forge a Palestinian-Israeli peace is whether U.S. policymakers could have acted more independently and forcefully to move Israel toward concessions or whether the conventional frame of reference of Americans, built up over many decades, bound Carter so completely that he would have been unable to move ahead under any circumstances.
The conclusion must be that the old frame of reference had become so automatic as a bracket for U.S. thinking and so widespread—encompassing the entire public, not just Jews or pro-Israeli lobbyists—that Carter could not have altered policy significantly no matter what his own inclinations. His efforts on behalf of the Palestinians certainly loosened the constraints of the conventional wisdom to a great extent, ever afterward making Palestinians a legitimate subject for discussion when matters of peace and negotiations arose. But his political freedom was so constricted
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that significant change in the frame of reference was not yet possible. A Carter acting in the mid-or late 1980s or in the 1990s—after the changes in the American mind-set about Israel and the Palestinians had taken better hold—might have been able to accomplish more. Had Carter been reelected in 1980, he might with a new mandate have renewed his efforts with some greater hope of success. But in the late 1970s, the idea of Palestinians as partners in a negotiating process and as legitimate claimants to some part of the land of Palestine was still too new to overcome the emotional U.S. identity with Israel.
Carter was part of a process of change that had been going on for several years. After decades of quiescence, the Palestinians had brought themselves and their grievances to world attention in the late 1960s and 1970s—not favorably but in any case as more than refugees. Then Sadat had improved Americans’ image of all Arabs—in the words of Andrew Young, “almost single-handedly” balancing “an irrevocable 30-year commitment to Israel” with a new interest in the Arab world. Carter built on this changing image with his efforts to bring the Palestinians into the negotiating process, but he could not completely alter the mind-set himself.
Although a few journalists had shown an interest in the Palestinians as early as 1969 and 1970, the level of attention paid by the serious media to the Palestinians had not significantly increased. Carter was still complaining in the late 1970s that the press criticized him for being anti-Israeli every time he raised the Palestinian issue, and the media were for the most part extremely slow to recognize the Palestinians as a factor in the peace process. News coverage continued almost always to present the Israeli perspective but not the Palestinian. TV Guide came to this conclusion after reviewing ten months of television news coverage of the Palestinians and Israel between July 1980 and April 1981. Of twenty-four network news reports about Israeli raids on Palestinian targets in southern Lebanon, the study revealed that only three showed the effects of the raids on the Palestinians and none pictured Palestinian victims. Of the fourteen reports on Palestinian raids against Israel, however, eleven showed Israeli victims. The three reports on the impact on Palestinians of Israeli attacks averaged under twenty-five seconds each, whereas the reports showing Israeli victims averaged over a minute and a half each.
A principal agent for changing, or for conveying changes in, a conventional wisdom or frame of reference, the media clung persistently to their own assumptions about Israelis and Palestinians and, with a few notable exceptions, began to focus attention on the Palestinian question only after Carter himself had given up in frustration. When the press did begin to deal
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with the Palestinian issue seriously, its treatment was often interesting primarily for revealing media ignorance of the Palestinians and what the media knew to be the public’s ignorance. Time magazine, for instance, ran a cover story on the Palestinians in April 1980 that was unabashedly wide-eyed at having discovered what Palestinians were actually like. The article, headlined “Key to a Wider Peace: The Palestinian Demand for Self-Determination Is Gaining Acceptance,” emphasized what U.S. policymakers had been saying for almost five years about the significance of the Palestinian question, but handled the issue as though Time had only just learned anything about the Palestinians beyond the common stereotypes. The article opened on a note of surprise: “Their popular image in the West is that of a throng of terrorists and refugees. Some of them indeed are that, … but this community also includes artists and poets, builders and bureaucrats, doctors and teachers. Their industry and zeal for learning … have earned them the sobriquet ‘the Jews of the Arab world.’” Scattering words like “surprising,” “remarkably,” and “uncommonly” throughout, the article expressed open wonderment about Palestinians.
Noting that Palestinians were “something of a mystery” to most Americans, the article cited a Time-Yankelovich poll taken the week before showing that two-thirds of respondents viewed the Palestinians as either terrorists or refugees. This overwhelmingly skewed perspective would not be overcome by a few cover stories and television features. Three decades in which Israel and Israelis had become a part of the “being” of the United States, in which Americans so automatically viewed events in the Middle East from an Israeli perspective that even a diplomat like Samuel Lewis spoke of trying to help Israel but not the Arabs make peace, could not be over come in one presidential term. A start had been made; enough of a crack had appeared in the framework that bound thinking on the Middle East to permit a view of the Palestinians. But it remained a small crack at this point and one the Reagan administration would make little effort to expand further.
Even as the Palestinian situation was becoming somewhat better known and understood, Israel was taking concrete steps on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza, through confiscation of Palestinian land and construction of Israeli settlements, to foreclose virtually all Palestinian negotiating options. In the first three years of Begin’s tenure, the number of Israeli settlements on the West Bank more than doubled and the number of Israeli settlers reached fourteen thousand. By 1980, Israel had expropriated more than 30 percent of the West Bank’s land area for settlements and military bases and had begun to lay the foundation for permanent control of the occupied
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territories by applying Israeli law to Jewish settlers in these areas. Knowing that in the end the United States could not stop it, the Likud government made no effort to hide its actions or its long-range intentions. As political scientist Mark Tessler has noted, “The Begin government worried little about whether its arguments were judged to be persuasive. From its point of view and that of its supporters, Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza derived all the legitimacy they needed from considerations of history, religion, and Jewish nationalism.” And most Americans went along.
Despite Carter’s most strenuous verbal efforts to halt the process and despite increased attention to Palestinian concerns, at the end of Carter’s term the frame of reference had become so accepting of Begin’s policies that only a concerted effort by the United States, involving strong pressure on Israel, could have reversed the trend toward the Israelization of the occupied territories. Carter had been unable himself to exert such pressure, and the Reagan administration, which was not bothered by Israeli settlements or land confiscations, would exert no pressure at all.