“Basic truths persisted: for all its military conquests, Israel was still incapable of imposing the peace it craved. Though roundly defeated, the Arabs could still mount a formidable military campaign. The status of territories could be negotiated but the essential issues — Israel's right to exist, the demand for Palestinian state(hood) — remained.”
During the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel with a surprise strike. Taking back much of the Sinai Peninsula unopposed, the Egyptians and their partners looked as though they might succeed in destroying Israel once and for all. Eventually, the Israelis were able to stabilize their positions and strike back, though they gladly welcomed a U.N. cease-fire later that month.
The Yom Kippur War left an important impression upon Israelis and Egyptians alike. Israel's brilliant military track record was shattered, and the desire for a peace treaty became even more urgent. For Egypt and its president, Anwar Sadat, the prospect of a victory over Israel seemed more unattainable than ever. Both sides were ready to talk.
The United States also began to see opportunities in the Middle East. Egypt had been a firm Soviet ally, and now it looked like the Arab state could be lured away with the promise of peace and military subsidies by the U.S. When Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, he took an active interest in the idea of Middle East peace, and his administration began working with both governments.
After some initial reluctance and mistrust on both sides, Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin met at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Md., in September 1978. Carter and his diplomatic team, including Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, began the arduous process of negotiating peace between nations that had been at each other's throat for 30 years. For 13 grueling days each side played a reluctant game of give and take that often caused tempers to flare.
On Sept. 17, the two sides finally reached an agreement and signed the Camp David Accords. For their efforts to foster peace, Sadat and Begin would share the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize. With the groundwork in place, Egypt and Israel were finally ready for a formal peace treaty.
In his book “The Land of Blood and Honey: The Rise of Modern Israel,” historian Martin van Creveld wrote: “In the end, the Camp David Accords agreement that was formed at Camp David and signed in a public ceremony at the White House on March 26, 1979, left both sides fairly content with their achievements. The Egyptians got what they wanted most, i.e., the whole of the Sinai. ... The Israelis, on their part, got most of what they wanted, i.e., peace, recognition, demilitarization, early warning posts in the Sinai ... and freedom of navigation.”
With the formal signing of the treaty, Egypt became the first Arab state to formally recognize the existence of Israel, and it was indeed coaxed out of the Soviet sphere. Despite the great achievement of a formal peace treaty, it is possible that current events in Egypt could undermine the peace and initiate a new round of wars between the two nations. Hopefully, cooler heads will continue to prevail.
For a wonderful, fictionalized version of Israel's military history in the wars mentioned above, I highly recommend Herman Wouk's insightful novels, “The Hope” and “The Glory.”
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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