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This is one in a series of 13 Yahoo News interviews with historians about defining moments in presidential leadership. The interviews were conducted by Andrew Romano, Lisa Belkin and Sam Matthews, and the videos were produced by Sam Matthews.
Journalist and historian Jonathan Alter, author of a forthcoming biography of Jimmy Carter, spoke to Yahoo News about Carter’s defining moment of presidential leadership: his decision to risk his reputation and personally broker a peace deal between Egypt and Israel.
At the time Jimmy Carter takes office, the Israelis and the Egyptians had fought four wars in the previous 25 years.
Egypt and the other Arab countries don’t even recognize that Israel has the right to exist. So the stakes were immensely high.
The only army that could actually destroy Israel was the Egyptian army, and Carter took the Egyptian army off the table.
Not a shot has been fired in the 40 years since.
Carter believed that what you did in an election campaign was separate from what you did when you actually became president. You could say all kinds of things in the campaign to get there.
But then, once Carter became president, every day he got up and thought, “What do I do that is right — right for the country, not right for me politically.”
From the time that Zionists arrived in what was then called Palestine, around the turn of the century, there had been violence between Jewish settlers and Arabs. They fought at the time of Israeli independence in 1948. They fought again in 1956.
But the Egyptians were not really direct parties to that until 1967.
The ’67 war, which only lasted six days, was a total rout by Israel. They conquered a huge amount of territory: the Sinai Peninsula, which was much larger than Israel proper. This was an enormous blow to Egyptian sovereignty.
Egypt vowed revenge. And so on Yom Kippur in 1973, the highest holy day in the Jewish tradition, they launched a sneak attack on Israel to try to get back some of what they had lost.
But it was basically a stalemate.
Henry Kissinger, he had something called shuttle diplomacy, where he would go from Damascus to Cairo to Jerusalem. They did get tentative accords — but without a president, a full peace treaty wasn’t going to happen.
And Carter recognized this — that either he got personally involved or it was unlikely that Israel and Egypt would go to the next stage and actually sign a peace treaty.
Now, [in] Egypt they have a president, Anwar Sadat, who decides to do something very bold. In 1977, the first year of the Carter presidency, he announced that he would go to Jerusalem, the Israeli capital, if he was invited.
The Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, can’t really say no to this gesture of peace. But once this happens, once Sadat takes this step, then Carter becomes fully engaged.
There was all this talk after Sadat visits Jerusalem — “How do we build on this? What do we do?” — and quite a number of months pass, and nothing’s happening.
And so it’s Rosalynn Carter, who is very, very involved in everything that her husband does, who says, “Why don’t you invite them to Camp David? Get out of Washington, go someplace away from all of the noise and see whether you can make some progress.”
And so that’s what Carter did.
Sadat and Begin were like oil and water. Sadat was a larger than life character, really charismatic. Begin was very legalistic and very, very focused on a lot of the details.
Carter discovered this on the first day of the Camp David conference because they were going at each other. So he realized he had to separate them: deal with one, then deal with the other, and so on.
The deal almost falls apart several times; back and forth over 13 days. At the very end, Begin can’t sign — he’s not going to do it — and they’re preparing to leave.
Carter’s secretary had arranged to have Carter sign photographs to Begin’s grandchildren. Carter brings the photographs to Begin, and when Begin looks at what Carter had written to his grandchildren, he breaks down and says, “All right, one last try.” And then they get to an agreement for further negotiations on what exactly the deal is going to be.
They go back to Washington. They have an announcement; it’s very, very dramatic. And Begin says, “This should be called the Jimmy Carter conference — without Carter it never would’ve happened.”
But then, between November and March, the whole deal falls apart. And finally, Jimmy Carter goes to the region.
At this point, Carter’s adviser says, “Well, you know it’s one thing to go a few miles out to Maryland at Camp David. You’re going to go to the region. Talk about a risk!”
But Carter says, “I’m going.” He goes first to Jerusalem and then to Cairo. And they actually get to the final treaty — the most successful peace treaty since World War II.
With that, Jimmy Carter showed that presidential leadership is indispensable for the country — and for the world.
Click below to view the rest of the 13-part series.
Cover thumbnail photo: President Jimmy Carter speaks during the Middle East peace process between Egypt and Israel in 1978. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Bob Daugherty/AP)