INTERVIEW: US backstage negotiator William B. Quandt recalls The Camp David Accords 41 years later

Ibrahim El Sakhawi, Saturday 7 Sep 2019


The majority of world observers believe that the Camp David Accords, signed 41 years ago, led to political change that favoured peace to war. The Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty was then celebrated for putting an end to a conflict that raged in the Middle East and debilitated its human and natural resources.

Actively involved in the negotiations that led to the Camp David Accords and the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty was William B. Quandt, who served as a staff member on the US National Security Council from 1972 to 1974 and from 1977 to 1979. 

Quandt has written numerous books on the Middle East including “Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict Since 1967,” and “Camp David: Peacemaking and Politics.” He co-authored “Peace Puzzle: America’s Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace, 1989-2011.”

He talks to Ahram Online about a host of subjects ranging from the backstage negotiations on the Camp David Accords, to developments on the Palestinian-Israeli front and the US-China trade war, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Trump’s chance at winning another term in office, among others.

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This year marks the 41st anniversary of Egypt and Israel’s signing of the Camp David Peace Treaty. Having been one of the participants backstage, what do you remember the most on the negotiations leading up to signing the accords?
The Camp David Accords were a significant achievement, made possible by strong leaders in Egypt and Israel, and active and sustained mediation by the US. We had hoped to achieve a framework for a comprehensive agreement, but Begin’s hardline stance regarding Palestinian issues made that impossible, so we all had to settle for the Egypt-Israel bilateral deal.

In your opinion, does the peace treaty still hold a solid position as a reference for peace-keeping in the Middle East?
Yes, it is solid, but not perfect. However, it has lasted because it serves the core interests of both parties.

To what extent has the peace treaty signed following the October War strategically influenced the region to this day?
It left a huge impact. The Soviet Union ceased to be a major factor in the Arab-Israeli conflict after 1973; Kissinger's diplomacy and Sadat's determination to forge a new relationship with the US brought the latter to play a central role.

Given that Tel Aviv rejected discussions relevant to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on the margins of the proceedings of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, did the US avoid placing pressure on Israel? Do you consider the Palestinian issue one of the victims of the Camp David treaty as a result?
We tried to pressure Israel to accept UN Resolution 242 as applied to the West Bank and to halt settlement construction, but Begin refused and Carter did not have the domestic backing to put real pressure on him. It was also clear that Sadat's priority was to regain all of Sinai and to start a new relationship with the US.

If the issues of the conflict over Jerusalem and the Golan Heights were up for negotiations during these proceedings, would it have been a hindrance to the materialisation of the peace treaty?
It would have made the agreement impossible at that time.

The Egyptian delegates presented a comprehensive, rounded off plan for the withdrawal of the Israelis from all the occupied lands. How did you think of this plan at the time? Was such plan viable under the political circumstances back then?
It was unrealistic -- Begin would not accept it -- so we didn't take it all that seriously.

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Did you expect another war between Egypt and Israel to have taken place if the Camp David treaty had not been in effect? And to what extent do you qualify the decision to have been an act of courage and/or sacrifice on the part of both Sadat and Begin?
We did not expect another war in the near future, but by late 1978 the Middle East was in a precarious situation with the ongoing turmoil in Iran and the growing suspicion of Sadat in the Arab world. If nothing had been achieved at Camp David, it would have been a real setback for both Carter and Sadat. Begin would have been the only one to be happy.
Of the three leaders, each had to make several hard decisions. For Begin, it was the return of all Sinai in exchange for peace; for Sadat, it was agreeing to a bilateral deal with Israel that would be rejected by most other Arabs; and for Carter it was a major commitment of political capital for an uncertain outcome.

How did the US administration receive Sadat’s decision to visit Jerusalem and speak his mind about peace between Egypt and Israel before the Knesset?
We realised it was a major turning point, but we were not sure that Sadat had thought through the following steps.

Can any of the parties involved in the treaty withdraw the endorsement of, modify on, or add to the provisions set forth in the treaty today?

Changes to the treaty can only be made by agreement. Of course, either party could renounce the treaty, but the costs would be high.

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In your opinion, what is the truth behind Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s rejection of the Rogers Plan? On which justifications did he establish this rejection? And was Israel to accept its terms had Egypt agreed?
Nasser rejected the Rogers Plan because it was not tied to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli agreement. And, Israel would never have accepted it.

How do you view Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem and declaring the Golan Heights Israeli land? Should we consider such acts a cause for aggravating and/or prolonging the long-standing conflict?
These decisions had no strategic purpose -- merely catering to Trump's political base in the US and appearing like Israel's best friend. He has no real understanding of the issues or commitment to the peace process.

How does the Palestinian issue influence the realisation of lasting and comprehensive peace in the region from the perspective of the American administration?
The current administration doesn't think it matters much, and other Americans have come to the conclusion that the two-state solution is no longer possible, so there is a lot of concern about what comes next.

In your influential book, “Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict since 1967”, you stated the US could possibly play a significant role in achieving lasting peace in the region if it adopted a more efficient stand as a mediator. However, six American presidents from Johnson down to George W Bush have misread the realities posed on the ground and contributed to creating misguided policies that aggravated the conflict. Do you expect any prospect for a different handling of the situation in the near future?
I think we now see the limits of the US’ role more clearly than when I wrote the book. Even presidents like Clinton and Obama, who did care about the issue, were unable to exert much influence over Israel. And Trump won't even try. In the recent debates among 20 democratic candidates for president, not one question was raised about the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinians.

How does the Palestinian issue influence the realisation of achieving lasting and comprehensive peace in the region from the perspective of the US administration?
The current administration only cares about oil (Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran), and israel. With the defeat of the Islamic State, the US’ interest in counter-terrorism has even waned.

You earlier said that the very nature of the US political system weakens the potential of reaching a resolution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at the hands of any given US president. Does this imply that achieving peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis will never materialise?
Never is a long time. But the US’ role, as I mentioned, will not be the main factor determining what happens to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What do you think about the so-called deal of the century?
A fraud. The Palestinians will reject it and the majority of Arab countries will not be able to support it.

Shalom Goldman, professor of religious studies at Duke University, wrote that many American churches had included the word “Zion” in their dictionaries as a concept inseparable from their understanding of the American national identity. Should this action indicate the US’ unshakable support for Israel?
Christian Evangelicals are very supportive of Israel. But there are many Americans who are no longer very supportive of the hardline Israeli government, including many young American Jews. But at the political level, the support remains solid -- politics and money count for a lot.

Can you name a positive American stand in the form of any executive measures that were taken against countries that finance and support terrorism? Why does the US Congress remain indecisive towards declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group?
As far as I understand, the reason is that the Brotherhood has several different manifestations -- in Tunisia, the Nahda Party is essentially a Brotherhood organisation, but it is not a terrorist group; in Jordan, the Islamist tendency is pro-regime; in Morocco, it has members in the government. So a blanket denunciation of the Brotherhood would offend a lot of governments that have found ways of cooperation with their local Brotherhood groups -- as did Egypt before 2011.

As a strategic expert on the region, what do you think could the extent of Iran’s influence be on precipitating any given regional change, had the assumption of its possession of nuclear weapons been verified?
I do not think that Iran was on the verge of getting nuclear weapons, and I think its regional influence is overrated. Yes, it gained influence in Iraq when we overthrew Saddam, and it has natural allies among the Shia of Lebanon and elsewhere, but in the Middle East as a whole it is not overwhelmingly powerful.

And within the same frame, what are your expectations for maintaining stability in the Gulf region?
I really can't predict. Saudi Arabia is going through some major changes and a lot depends on oil and on how the conflict with Iran plays out.

Are you with or against planning for a military strike against Iran? And how do you asses the possibilities of reaching an American-Iranian nuclear agreement?
Against. So far US diplomacy on Iran has been very amateurish. I don't see a breakthrough in sight.

What’s your assessment of the political situations in Libya and Syria? Do you envisage any breakthrough that could lead to solutions?
Both countries are in bad shape and I doubt if any breakthrough can be expected. But Syria is slowly returning to normal, but it will take years to recover from the conflict.

How do you envisage the influence Russia and China can precipitate to change the structure of the world order? Could the world possibly be on the verge of the formation of an alternative to the single-pole world order?
There is no single pole -- China is gaining influence, especially as a regional and economic power. Russia has managed to regain some influence in the Middle East by playing its card intelligently, but it faces long-term problems. We are already in a very complex multi-power world.

Does Cuba still constitute a national security threat for the US, or do you see the resumption of diplomatic representation between Cuba and the US at the end of the Obama years as a concluding episode for the Cold War between the two nations?
Cuba is not a problem for the US. Trump just wants to cater to voters in Florida who still want to see a new regime in Cuba.

In your opinion, what are the repercussions of the trade and commerce struggle between the US and China? And how does it affect US national security?
Not my area of expertise, but it is clearly the biggest challenge now facing the US.

To what extent does the industrial military complex influence the US foreign policy decision-making?
It has some influence, but is rarely decisive. You need to examine its influence case by case.

Is the US expected to take a particular stand in dealing with North Korea in case the latter retracts pledges relevant to developing nuclear weapons, and the bilateral relations with South Korea?
Not my area of expertise. Trump seems to want to continue dealing with Kim, despite little real progress.

What are your thoughts regarding the spread of far-right supporters?
It's worrisome, but there is already a backlash in the US. Much depends on the next election.

Do you think of the drift towards populism as a passing phase in US history? Could the near future see the demise of this tendency?
It could. As I said, much depends on the next election. Trump has at most a solid 40 percent support in the US, so he could be defeated.

Do you believe Trump is capable of winning a second term in office?
Yes, but it is not inevitable. Current polls suggest that several of the democrats might beat him.

In light of the fact that major world powers show some reluctance in taking decisive steps towards eradicating the evils of terrorism and extremist groups, how do you assess the efforts exerted by the Egyptian state to take on this role instead?
Terrorism cannot easily be eliminated, but it can be contained. I assume Egypt is doing the best it can to limit the impact of extremist groups, but no society is entirely free of the danger. But we should not overreact to the phenomenon. The defeat of the Islamic State showed it is not invulnerable.

Do you believe the world will succeed in getting rid of the alarming phenomenon of the Islamic State, or will it reinvent itself to be able to survive?
As a territorial state, I think it is finished, but as an underground movement it can probably continue to attract some supporters. But the big wave of support for Islamist terrorists seems to have passed.

Do you read the Mexico-US border barrier (the Trump Wall) as an American attempt to cast the rest of the world aside or as an honest protective measure for the benefit of US national security?
Neither. There is an immigration problem, but the wall will not solve it -- so far it is not even being built. Trump is something of an isolationist, but most Americans are still open to a fairly large amount of immigration if it can be done in a legal and effective way. After all, nearly all Americans are descended from people who came here as immigrants.

Do you think the Democrats hold the moral high-ground over Republicans when it comes to foreign policy? What principles should guide our thinking when we try to formulate a truly progressive approach to foreign affairs?
I'm not sure about the moral high ground, but I do think the Democrats take diplomacy, international institutions and alliances more seriously than Trump.

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