The Seventies

How Jimmy Carter did something no one has done since

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. “The Seventies” airs at 9 p.m. ET/PT Thursdays on CNN.

Story highlights

Julian Zelizer: Accord between Israel, Egypt an enduring achievement for Jimmy Carter

Zelizer: Officials grappling with other countries in region should study how he pulled it off

CNN  — 

I was 9 and sitting in my grade school classroom when our teachers stopped the class so that we could all watch a special event.

They rolled in a wobbly plastic cart with a color television on top, and for the next hour, we watched as President Jimmy Carter stood side by side with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to sign a historic peace accord, the first real diplomatic breakthrough in the Middle East.

Julian Zelizer

It was March 26, 1979. I can recall that tears were flowing from my teacher’s eyes. All the students clapped. It was one of my first vivid political memories.

What is remarkable is that more than 30 years later that Camp David peace accord has held. The popular memory of Carter may be of his failures to do almost anything successfully, but this diplomatic achievement remains a remarkable moment of presidential leadership in international relations – a model for future presidents as they try to pursue peace in the turbulent region.

How did it come about?

Sadat had made a bold move to shake the war-torn status quo of the region. In November 1977, the Egyptian President made a historic visit to the Israeli legislative branch, the Knesset. The reasons for his surprise visit were complicated, ranging from a genuine desire to achieve peace, to his own struggles with the Muslim Brotherhood, to the state of the Egyptian economy, languishing as support from the Soviet Union diminished.

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Sadat called for peace. “If you want to live with us in this part of the world,” he told the Knesset in Arabic, “in sincerity I tell you that we welcome you among us with all security and safety.” Begin, the hard-line Likud Party leader who had only recently become Prime Minister of Israel, was impressed and decided he was open to negotiations. “We, the Jews, know how to appreciate such courage,” Begin said.

Carter seized the opportunity. The intervening months were not easy. In March 1978, the Palestine Liberation Organization conducted a horrible attack – entering the country through the beaches near Tel Aviv, and traveling on Zodiac boats – that resulted in the death of 38 Israelis, including 13 children. “Gone forever are the days when Jewish blood could be shed with impunity,” Begin declared angrily to the Knesset. Israel responded with a bombing campaign of PLO outposts in Lebanon that killed thousands.

Trying to make progress, Carter invited Begin and Sadat to meet at Camp David from September 5 to September 17; Rosalynn Carter had suggested that this would be an “ideal place,” Carter writes in his new memoir.

As Lawrence Wright brilliantly recounts in his recent book, each leader brought considerable psychological baggage to the table. Some would argue that Carter’s ability to advance negotiations represented one of his finest moments. He began the meetings by telling the participants that if the discussions failed, “I would make public my final proposal and let each of them explain why he accepted or rejected it.”