Mideast peace requires presidential leadership

September 17, 2003

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Camp David Accords, the agreement that effectively ended the conflict between Egypt and Israel.

In the years since, we have witnessed the seemingly endless cycle of violence between the Israelis and Palestinians and the failure of efforts to resolve Israeli's relations with other neighbors such as Lebanon and Syria. Only the peace agreement with Jordan in 1994 is an exception to this sad record. It may be instructive to consider whether the lessons learned there apply to the situation we find ourselves in today.

A key lesson is this: U.S. presidential leadership is indispensable. The United States can send envoys; it has in the past and still has one today. But sending envoys is not the same as leading from the top.

In 1977 and 1978, preceding and during the Camp David process, President Carter, Vice President Walter Mondale and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance personally met repeatedly with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Israeli Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin, the foreign ministers and other senior officials to create and sustain momentum.

It was the consistent, personal involvement of Carter that served to keep that peace process alive. His persistence was matched by a tenacious respect for the need to identify objective middle ground to address key interests of the parties.

Notwithstanding the difficulties we observe today, an historical view suggests that the situation is better prepared for a final settlement now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. It has taken years to reach the point where the substantive issues dividing the Israelis and Palestinians have crystallized as they have today. Security, sovereignty, the future of Jerusalem and the status of Palestinian refugees represent the commonly accepted agenda for any serious discussion of long-term peace between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors.

Interestingly enough, the U.S. government identified these issues even as far back as the Camp David process in 1978. Unfortunately, the Israelis and the Egyptians found that discussing a resolution to the Palestinian issue was too difficult and the negotiations moved away from that topic.

The setbacks in this peace process are not unusual, and there will be more. It's normal for peace processes to move forward in phases and deliver incrementally. Gains are not lost; they accumulate. In addition, violence should be used not as an excuse to back away from negotiations, but instead to accelerate them.

Direct engagement by the president is the clearest reflection possible of American will. Recall most recently the imagery of President Bush in Aqaba and the hope that visit engendered.

The terrain is replete with efforts that fell short despite presidential leadership. But no successes, or near successes, have been reached without it.

Bush has called on all parties to "stay the course" and lamented that the road may be "bumpy." Staying the course is not enough.

Perceived irresoluteness and diffidence on the part of the international community, most particularly from the United States and its president, will endanger this fragile peace process. As we saw at Camp David, presidential leadership makes all the difference.

Matthew Hodes is director of the Carter Center's Conflict Resolution Program.