Kai Bird’s very positive new biography of Jimmy Carter devotes significant space – at least 40 pages – to the 1978 negotiations Carter led at Camp David between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, which culminated in the Camp David Accords, an enduring peace agreement between Israel and Egypt that survived the assassination of Sadat and more recently a short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt.
Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, in large part thanks to his Camp David success, and there is no question that he deserves great credit for managing the difficult negotiations and seeing them through to a peace treaty.
At the same time, Bird’s Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter makes clear Carter’s outright disdain for Begin, and perpetuates a blatant and knowing lie the former president has been telling for more than 40 years – that Begin broke a promise he made during the Camp David negotiations that Israel would impose an open-ended settlement freeze. In fact Begin had promised, and delivered, a three month freeze.
Perhaps reflecting Carter’s own obsessions, Bird returns again and again to Begin’s supposed broken promise:
• Begin agreed, in the presence of his two key aides, Dayan and Barak, to a freeze on West Bank settlements: “On the West Bank settlements, we finally agreed worked out language that was satisfactory, that no new Israeli settlements would be established after the signing of this framework [emphasis added]. (p 349)
• A greatly annoyed president told Barak, “Go back and get the right letter. I want you to write that as long as the negotiations go on with the Palestinians there will not be settlements.” Barak did not argue with Carter – who later wrote in his memoirs, “Barak confirmed that my language was accurate.” (p 351)
• “My notes are clear,” Carter wrote in his memoir, “that the settlement freeze would continue until all negotiations were completed – and Cy Vance confirms my interpretation of what we decided.” (p 351)
• When he got back to civilization, [Begin] began to lie. He began to say that he only meant that they would stop settlement building during the time of negotiation.” On the other hand, Aharon Barak, one of the three Israelis in the room at the time, told Wright many decades later, that after reviewing his own notes, he believed that Begin “didn’t agree to more than three months.” Barak’s version, of course, is completely contradicted by Carter and Vance and their own contemporaneous notes – and the president’s very categorical description of what Begin agreed to in his September 20, 1978, note, a copy of which was sent to Begin. (p 356)
In fact, Bird gets this exactly wrong because he ignores or is unaware of the key evidence regarding Begin, Carter and settlements.
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Camp David Accords, the Carter Center on Sept.17, 2003 held a symposium in Washington, DC. Participants included Mr. Carter, Samuel Lewis, who had been the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, William Quandt, who had been a staffer on the National Security Council, and Aharon Barak, who had been Israel’s Attorney General. Ambassador Lewis brought up the question of the settlement freeze, and Barak stated that he was in the relevant meeting, had been the only one taking notes, and that his notes showed that Begin had agreed only to a three month freeze. Off camera Carter is heard to state, “I don’t dispute that.” William Quandt then added that while he had not been in the meeting, Cyrus Vance, who had been, told him immediately afterwards that Begin had agreed to a three month freeze, but they hoped to get it lengthened the next day. Neither Carter, nor Barak, nor Quandt indicated that Begin had ever agreed to extend the freeze. Here’s the sequence from the symposium:
So, confronted with the evidence in 2003 Jimmy Carter admitted that Begin had agreed to only a three month settlement freeze – “I don’t dispute that” – but numerous times before and after, and now for Kai Bird’s book, Carter revives his false charge that Begin violated a promise to impose an open-ended settlement freeze.
Why would Carter keep lying about this? While there can be no question about Carter’s anti-Israel animus, his hostility towards Begin borders on the pathological. As Bird recounts, this included telling a senior aide that he had “coldness in my heart towards” the Israeli leader (p 326), telling his wife Roslyn that Begin was a “psycho,” (p 343) and accusing Begin of “trying to welsh on the deal.” (p 355).