When Religion Brought Peace to the Middle East

For Jimmy Carter, the Camp David Accords were an answer to prayer. But little about the negotiations felt divine.

Editor’s note: The following piece was inspired in part by Lawrence Wright’s forthcoming play, Camp David, which tells the story of the 1978 peace treaty forged between Israel and Egypt. Directed by Molly Smith and produced by Gerald Rafshoon, Camp David runs March 21-May 4 at the Kreeger Theater in Washington, D.C.

Religion has certainly started more wars than it has stopped, and this is nowhere more evident than in the Middle East, the venue for religious conflict since prehistory. The Old Testament and the Qu’ran are the testaments of different tribes with different gods, and those differences continue to divide peoples who are otherwise very much alike.

In one case, however, religion had a hand in bringing peace to the Middle East. That was when President Jimmy Carter invited Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt, and Menachem Begin, the Israeli prime minister, to meet at Camp David in the fall of 1978.

As we consider once again the difficulty of finalizing a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, it’s worth recalling that the men who went to Camp David were just as flawed and handicapped by their histories as anyone who is in office today. Carter’s presidency was flailing, overwhelmed by a rotten economy and eventually sabotaged by a failed attempt to rescue the American hostages held in Iran after the overthrow of the Shah. The men he invited to Camp David were unlikely partners for peace. Sadat was a former assassin who had spent five years in prison for various crimes, including his attempt to collaborate with the Nazis. Begin was a terrorist who had been responsible for blowing up Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, under the British Mandate, and committing the 1948 massacre of the village of Deir Yassin, which spurred the Palestinian diaspora.

Each of these men was religious, in his own tradition. Carter had grown up in a Southern Baptist congregation in Plains, Georgia. He began memorizing Bible verses at the age of three and started teaching Sunday School when he was an eighteen-year-old midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy. (He recently completed his 555th lesson.) In 1973, while still Governor of Georgia, he and his wife, Rosalynn, took a trip to the Holy Land. They walked in the streets where Jesus walked, they bathed in the River Jordan, and they returned to the U.S. deeply committed to helping Israel. The idea was planted in Carter’s mind that God might find a use for him in bringing peace to this eternally conflicted region.

In some respects, Sadat’s background was similar to Carter’s. They had both grown up in isolated, rural communities. He memorized the Qu’ran as a young child, and as an adult, he sported the “zabeeba”—the dark callus on his forehead that testified to many hours with his head pressed to the prayer mat. He called himself “the first man of Islam,” although of course it would be the Islamists who would one day kill him, in part because of the peace he made with Israel. But he knew what the stakes were when he came to Camp David.Camp_David,_Menachem_Begin,_Anwar_Sadat,_1978 (1)

Begin was not as pious as Carter or Sadat, but he was schooled in the Bible and Jewish scholarship and fiercely committed to the salvation of the Jewish people. He looked upon the Old Testament as both history and prophecy. He believed that God had chosen the Jewish people and given them the Land of Israel. In his mind, that included not only the West Bank (which he always referred to, in biblical terms, as Judea and Samaria) and Gaza, but also what is present-day Jordan. Begin, who lost his parents and brother in the Holocaust, believed that Israel was the only refuge for the Jewish people. He had to weigh any compromise against an existential balance sheet that allowed no margin for error. The price for making peace with Egypt was surrendering the Sinai Peninsula, the concourse for four previous wars between the two nations, which provided Israel with strategic depth and what it believed was a more defensible border. In exchange, Israel would be given a piece of paper and a promise that the wars would end.

What these flawed men had in common was faith, but it is also what separated them.

Of the three, only Carter really believed that peace might be attainable at Camp David. Perhaps it was because he was convinced that God wanted to use him in this fashion. If so, there was little effort of divine assistance. The thirteen days were marked by continual setbacks. Carter had hoped and expected that he could simply put Begin and Sadat together in the same room, and in the peace and isolation of the mountaintop encampment they would come to trust each other and sort out the issues that kept them from making peace.

He was disabused of that notion within hours of their first meeting. Soon the Israeli and the Egyptian were screaming at each other. Carter finally had to separate them for the remainder of the summit while he shuttled back and forth. When Sadat had threatened to walk out, Carter had prayed to find a way to make him stay. In that case, Sadat finally agreed, but it probably had more to do with the fact that Carter threatened to blame the failure of the talks on him. Even on the final day, with the signing of the agreement already scheduled at the White House and television broadcasters ready to interrupt their programming, a last-minute flare up over Jerusalem nearly torpedoed everything that had been achieved in forging peace between Israel and Egypt.

The very first issue on the table was a prayer that Rosalynn Carter had prepared. She had met with several interfaith groups in Washington, and the idea had arisen that the three men would release a statement in the form of a prayer for the success of the summit. Sadat immediately agreed, but Begin—as would prove characteristic of the entire negotiation—insisted on editing and making small word changes. He apparently had learned to be careful of what he prayed for.

The prayer was: “After four wars, despite vast human effort, the Holy Land does not yet enjoy the blessings of peace. Conscious of the grave issues which face us, we place our trust in the God of our fathers, from whom we seek wisdom and guidance. As we meet here at Camp David, we ask people of all faiths to pray with us that peace and justice may result from these deliberations.”

On September 17, 1978, an exhausted Jimmy Carter told the world that their prayers had been answered.

Lawrence Wright
Written by