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Rethinking Jimmy Carter

A new book sheds light on the president who facilitated Israeli-Egyptian peace, and how he almost scuttled the deal
US president Jimmy Carter, left, addresses the Knesset plenary, Jerusalem, March 1979 (Yaacov Saar/GPO)
US president Jimmy Carter, left, addresses the Knesset plenary, Jerusalem, March 1979 (Yaacov Saar/GPO)

Stuart (Stu) Eizenstat is well known and highly respected in Washington, the Jewish world and Israel. Currently a partner in a major Washington law firm, he served as US ambassador to the EU and as Under Secretary of the Treasury. He played a major and admirable role in restoring Jewish property and money and in obtaining restitution for Holocaust survivors. He held leadership positions in several Israeli institutions and has served as a channel and a bridge between Israeli governments and diplomats and US administrations. A native of Atlanta, he began his public career as a young White House Chief Advisor on Domestic Policy during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Eizenstat is not a starry eyed admirer of the former president but he is a loyal former aide,, a confidant and a friend and he set out to repair the negative image that continues to haunt this one-term administration.

The project was a long time in the offing. Eizenstat kept thousands of pages of notes and diary entries, he held numerous interviews, researched Carter’s presidential library and read the available primary and secondary sources. The result is a heavy tome, nearly a thousand pages, offering a comprehensive view and record of the Carter presidency, full of insights, vivid anecdotes, perceptive portraits of the major characters and a more balanced picture of an oft maligned tenure.

Carter is a complex figure. He probably would not have been elected president of the US but for the Watergate affair that paved the way for a former Southern governor, a peanut farmer, who portrayed himself successfully as an anti-Washington, anti-corrupt-establishment candidate. A deeply religious and highly intelligent man, Carter was an awkward politician, a micromanager who failed to find the key to make Washington work once he captured it. He was full of paradox and contradictions: devout, naive, cunning, manipulative and stubborn.

One of these paradoxes is his negative image in and bad relationship with Israel and the American Jewish community. This is a relic, to a large extent, of the decades of his activity as a former president. He has been a bitter critic of Israeli policy on the Palestinian issue. His book “Palestine: Peace or Apartheid” is an anti-Israel invective and he did say in interviews that Israeli policy in the West Bank is worse than South Africa’s original apartheid policies. Yet this is the president who deserves a great deal of credit for one of the most important developments in Israel’s history, the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. How did this role end in a bad relationship with his partner Menachem Begin and more broadly with the state of Israel?

The absorbing pages devoted by Eizenstat to this tale take us through the twists and turns that led Carter to play this role. As devout Southern Christians, Carter and his wife were enthusiastic supporters of Israel. But as Carter was preparing for a role on the national stage and came to be mentored by such foreign policy luminaries as Cyrus Vance and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who taught him that the US should force Israel to make major concessions to the Arabs in order to achieve a diplomatic settlement crucial for US interests. Once elected, Carter adopted the Brookings Report as his roadmap for his Arab-Israeli diplomacy. That report recommended full Israeli withdrawal from the territories captured in 1967 and the establishment of a Palestinian
state in return for Arab peacemaking with Israel. To that end an international conference was to be convened in geneva in cooperation with The Soviet Union to which all parties, including Syria and the PLO would be invited.

This policy led Carter to head on collisions with Yitzhak Rabin during his March 1977 visit to Washington and with Menachem Begin, who was elected Israel’s first right-wing Prime Minister a few weeks later. But the net effect of Carter’s policy was not a Geneva Conference, it was Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. Mutual exasperation with the Carter Administration’s policies served to push Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin into each other’s arms. Sadat was horrified by Washington’s decision to bring back the Russians he had expelled in 1972 and by Carter’s courting of Syria and the PLO. Begin was willing to return the Sinai to Egypt in return for an essentially separate peace. When Carter received the news of Sadat’s decision to go to Jerusalem he was upset. Eizenstat offers us a vivid, telling description:

“As I was heading down the narrow hallway toward the Oval Office, with the president going the other way, he pointedly addressed me: Stu, I think I am going to oppose Sadat’s visit. It will be the end of any hope of a comprehensive peace and will result only at best in a bilateral between Israel and Egypt. I was astonished and said Mr. President, you can’t do that. Sadat’s visit will be historic and it will be catastrophic if you will be seen as opposing the first visit of an Arab combatant to Israel. He grumbled and kept walking.”

Eizenstat was Carter’s advisor on domestic affairs and the president did have a formal liaison with the Jewish community (another Atlanta lawyer, Bob Lipshutz), but his real channel to the Israeli government (through Ambassador Simcha Dinitz) was Stuart Eizenstat. As a byproduct of that role, Eizenstat has provided us with a lengthy, detailed and probably best account to date of the long, difficult road from Carter’s initial response to Sadat’s visit to the signing of the Camp David Accords in September 1978 and the full fledged peace treaty in
March 1979. To Carter’s credit, once he comprehended that he could not stand in the way of an Egyptian president and an Israeli leader who wanted to end their dispute he abandoned his original scheme and dedicated an enormous effort to make the Israeli Egyptian negotiation work. His host of qualities — tenacity, toughness and manipulative skills — were indispensable for the ultimate success of the Camp David summit.

Eizenstat offers us vivid portraits of the three main protagonists and the interplay between their personalities and styles. Carter got along well with the extroverted Sadat, a man of grand decisions and gestures and little patience for details and never took to Begin, a tough negotiator, pedantic and given to long lectures on legal issues. He describes the post signing days when trust broke down completely between the two. The principal issue was settlement freeze. Begin thought he agreed to three months, Carter insisted that he heard and wrote down five years. Eizenstat and others tried in vain to move him. He felt and kept the feeling that Begin misled him. To Eizenstat’s credit he does not side with his boss.

The Israeli and Israel focused reader will find in the book numerous other details and issues of great interest, from Carter’s Iranian debacle to his bizarre fascination with Bashar al-Assad. We are indebted to Stuart Eizenstat for this important, fascinating book. Carter’s presidency emerges from it in a better light but for us Israelis, Carter’s great contribution to our history is still marred by his current hostility.

Stuart E. Eizenstat, President Carter, The White House Years, NY, 2018

About the Author
Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former ambassador in Washington, is president of The Israel Institute in Washington DC; He is affiliated with Tel Aviv University, New York University and The Brookings Institution
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