Craig Daigle. Diplomatic History. Volume 42, Issue 5. November 2018.
This article explains the Carter administration’s retreat from supporting self-determination as a human right for Palestinians. It therefore moves beyond the focus by many scholars on the “heroic diplomacy” employed by Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat, and Menachem Begin leading up to and during the Camp David Summit, and instead examines Carter’s Arab-Israeli diplomacy in a broader international context that takes into account his larger policies towards the Palestinians and his emphasis on human rights in the conduct of American foreign relations. By looking beyond the Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt—the agreement that led to the Egyptian-Israeli Peace treaty in 1979 and the return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egyptian sovereignty—and focusing instead on Carter’s policy toward the Palestinians during his presidency, a more complex picture about Carter’s support for Palestinian self-determination begins to emerge that raises questions about his commitment to human rights abroad.
In the thirty-five years since he left office, President Jimmy Carter has emerged as a vocal critic of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories in Gaza and the West Bank, and for continued American support of Israel’s policies there. For too many years, he has argued, pro-Israel lobbyists have stifled debate in the United States over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; Israelis are guilty of human rights abuses against the Palestinians living in the occupied territories; and the editorial pages of American newspapers rarely present anything but a pro-Israeli viewpoint. In the summer of 2014, he criticized the United States government in the pages of Foreign Policy magazine for failing to recognize Hamas as a legitimate political actor, suggesting that there would be no Israeli-Palestinian solution until Hamas was brought into the discussions and treated as an equal partner in any future negotiations. And the following year, during an interview with Prospect magazine, he blamed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for ending the chances for a two-state solution and lamented that the United States, under President Barack Obama, had “withdrawn” from working for a solution to the Palestinian problem.
Carter’s latest criticisms of U.S. and Israeli policies in the Middle East are nothing new. In his highly controversial 2006 book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, the former president accused Israeli leaders of imposing “a system of apartheid” in the occupied territories that had deprived Palestinians Arabs of their “basic human rights” by forcing them to live as “prisoners” within the small portion of land left in Gaza and the West Bank. He further implied that the conflict would be much different today had Arab and Israeli leaders simply followed his advice during his presidency to grant full autonomy to the Palestinians. The “dream” of “a comprehensive and lasting peace” between Arabs and Israelis could have been achieved long ago, Carter asserted, if Israel had simply “refrained from colonizing the West Bank” and “complied” with the 1978 Camp David Accords.
Carter’s blistering attacks against Israel are particularly noteworthy given his record through the years of tirelessly (and fairly) striving for Arab-Israeli peace. As president, he spent more time working on the “riddle” of Middle East peace than any other international issue, often to the detriment of his own political career, and certainly to the neglect of other international issues that deserved his attention. Both Arabs and Israelis, moreover, praised Carter for helping to bring about the Camp David Accords and the subsequent Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, believing that without his “indefatigable” efforts to bridge the psychological differences between the two sides, Egypt and Israel would not have been able to reach a successful conclusion to a long negotiating process. The Norwegian Nobel Committee noted these many efforts by awarding its 2002 Peace Prize to Carter for his decades of work to resolve conflicts through mediation, international cooperation, and respect for human rights, citing Carter’s diplomacy at Camp David as chief among the reasons he deserved such recognition. Indeed, what Carter accomplished for Egyptians and Israelis continues to be recognized by historians as his most significant foreign policy accomplishment, matched by only President Theodore Roosevelt’s mediation that successfully ended the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, and is not in question here. By removing Egypt from the Arab military coalition, he successfully reduced the likelihood of another regional Arab-Israeli war and the potential for a superpower confrontation in the region.
But if we look beyond the Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt—the agreement that led to the Egyptian-Israeli Peace treaty in 1979 and the return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egyptian sovereignty—and examine Carter’s policy toward the Palestinians during his presidency, a more complex picture about Carter’s support for Palestinian self-determination begins to emerge. That the Carter administration openly opposed the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank has been known for decades. Such a state, officials argued at the time, would be used by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as a base from which to continue its struggle to destroy Israel and could open the door to further Soviet penetration of the region. But the full extent that Carter backed away from a commitment to support political self-determination for the Palestinians is only beginning to emerge from documents recently declassified in U.S. diplomatic and presidential archives.
What is clear from these records is that Carter adopted a restricted view of self-determination for the Palestinians. Instead of allowing the Palestinians to determine freely their own future, as called for by several human rights covenants, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Social and Political Rights, agreements that Carter would put his name to during his first year in office, Carter routinely compromised his position on supporting Palestinian self-determination in order to achieve concessions from Israel in making peace with Egypt. His concept of self-determination for Palestinians was also limited in nature. He never envisioned the Palestinians having complete freedom to choose their form of government or the borders in which they would reside. Instead, he settled for offering Palestinians a set of options for self-government that were selected not by the Palestinians’ chosen representatives but leaders acceptable to foreign powers, including the United States, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt.
Carter also failed during his presidency to define what he actually meant by Palestinian “self-determination,” seeing the concept as more of an evolving principle that could be molded into a peace agreement to accommodate U.S. Egyptian, and Israeli interests, rather than as the Palestinians’ “first right,” enshrined in Article 1 of the United Nations Charter, which could not be compromised. What emerged instead during the Carter years were a loose set of terms and concepts that at times moved closer to Palestinian self-determination, but remained far from the sovereignty Palestinians desired. The words “homeland,” “entity,” “federation,” “confederation,” “association,” “autonomy,” “trusteeship,” and “self-rule,” were routinely discussed by Carter-era officials as possible solutions for Palestinian self-government in the occupied territories—words and concepts that were no doubt progress over what previous U.S. administrations had supported for the Palestinians and, if accepted, would have moved them closer to achieving autonomy in the occupied territories. But they were also words and concepts that were intentionally ill-defined and did not fulfill the Palestinians’ quest for a sovereign state.
This article seeks to explain the Carter administration’s retreat from supporting Palestinian self-determination as a fundamental human right. It therefore moves beyond the focus by many scholars on the “heroic diplomacy” employed by Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat, and Menachem Begin leading up to and during the Camp David Summit and instead examines Carter’s Arab-Israeli diplomacy in a broader international context that takes into account his larger policies towards the Palestinians and his emphasis on human rights in the conduct of American foreign relations. By taking this approach, I also reach different conclusions from two recent studies examining the Carter administration’s policies toward the Palestinians. Whereas Victor Nemchenok contends that Carter eventually abandoned his “sincere dedication toward safeguarding Palestinian rights” due to wider strategic imperatives in the final two years of his administration, I argue that Carter’s commitment to Palestinian rights, particularly self-determination, was not so absolute. Because Carter’s vision of Palestinian self-determination was limited in scope, it was easy for his administration to rather quickly withdraw from pursuing this right and instead focus on a separate Egyptian-Israeli agreement.
Jeremy Pressman shares the view that Carter eventually reached the pragmatic decision not to “foreclose a possible Egyptian-Israeli treaty by holding out for greater Israeli concessions on the Palestinian front.” He argues that Carter remained strongly committed to Palestinian rights, but those rights did not “trump” Israeli concerns in American eyes. “What Carter did not do,” Pressman writes, “was pressure or coerce Israel in an effort to compel Israel to implement the U.S. approach.” Pressman is certainly correct that Carter failed to achieve the necessary concessions from Israeli leaders regarding Palestinians rights and that the Camp David Accords “precluded Palestinian self-determination, sovereignty, or the establishment of a Palestinian state.” But his study does not fully examine Carter’s concept of Palestinian self-determination, nor does it address how Carter’s failure to support this right contributed to U.S. and Israeli efforts to forestall the establishment of a Palestinian state.
By centering the discussion on the Carter administration’s retreat from supporting self-determination for Arab residents in the West Bank and Gaza, rather than the Camp David agreements and the subsequent autonomy negotiations, this article also expands on the growing body of literature that argues that Carter’s accomplishments on human rights did not match his rhetoric. In the words of William Bowdler, the Director of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research and Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs under Carter, the Carter administration repeatedly “waffled” when it came to supporting self-determination for liberation groups and independence movements across the globe. From East Timor to Belize and South Africa to Palestine, Carter refused to “join the world” in supporting political self-determination for these nationalist movements, leaving a dubious record on human rights.
The Curious Case of Self-Determination
When Jimmy Carter assumed the presidency in January 1977 there was little doubt of his commitment to introduce a new morality into U.S. foreign relations. As president, he believed that “the expansion of human rights might be the wave of the future throughout the world,” and he wanted the United States to be in the vanguard of this movement. Rejecting the policies of his predecessors in the White House, who often subordinated human rights and humanitarian concerns to larger geostrategic and political interests during the Cold War, Carter and his advisers sought concrete ways to inject human rights into foreign policy and, as he declared in his inaugural address, to demonstrate that the American commitment to human rights was “absolute.” The United States, he argued, could no longer look away when a government tortured people or jailed them for their beliefs or denied minorities fair treatment or the right to emigrate. He pledged that as president he would affirm America’s commitment to human rights as a “fundamental tenet of our foreign policy,” and he called on other countries to recognize the human rights of “all citizens” who live within their boundaries.
Carter’s deep commitment to human rights was grounded in a religious and moral worldview that recognized the importance of freedom and democratic principles. He later wrote that the ending of legal segregation in the South while he was a state senator and governor of Georgia served as a “powerful demonstration of how moral principles should and could be applied effectively to the legal structure of our society,” and a lesson that needed to be applied abroad. The United States, he maintained, was “strongest and most effective when morality and a commitment to freedom and democracy have been most clearly emphasized in our foreign policy” and when it took the lead in supporting democratic and peaceful constitutional governments. “Because we know that democracy works, we can reject the arguments of those rulers who deny human rights to their people,” he declared in a 1977 commencement address to the University of Notre Dame. “We are confident that democracy’s example will be compelling, and so we seek to bring that example closer to those from whom in the past few years we have been separated and who are not yet convinced about the advantages of our kind of life. We are confident that the democratic methods are the most effective, and so we are not tempted to employ improper tactics here at home or abroad.”
As part of his support for democracy and human rights abroad, Carter seemed genuinely committed to accepting political “self-determination” as a human right, not simply a living principle embodied in the UN Charter. This was no small matter. As historian Brad Simpson documented in his 2012 Bernath Lecture to the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, self-determination occupied “an uneasy place” in the history of U.S. foreign policy during the past century. Presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama have claimed self-determination as a “peculiarly American idea, embodied in the United States’ anticolonial heritage and democratic politics,” but every presidential administration until Carter’s had refused to endorse self-determination in international human rights covenants and expressed a “deep ambivalence toward its potentially disruptive power.” U.S. officials deliberately sought to exclude self-determination from the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in 1952 the United States voted against a landmark United Nations (UN) General Assembly resolution claiming self-determination as a human right.
Part of the reluctance of U.S. leaders to endorse self-determination as a human right was that it placed the United States in a difficult position with many of its European allies who were struggling to maintain their colonial empires in Africa and Asia. Cooperation with Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands was vital to U.S. policy in Europe after World War II, but supporting self-determination in international human rights covenants provided the legal weight for nationalist movements to challenge the legitimacy of colonial rule. At home, moreover, calls for self-determination highlighted the lack of the civil and political rights of African-Americans, many of whom were prevented from participating in self-government by deeply racist Jim Crow laws. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Secretary Walter White maintained that African-Americans had “a sense of kinship” with other oppressed peoples of the world who were fighting for their independence and political self-determination. “The struggle of the Negro in the United States,” he said, “is part and parcel of the struggle against imperialism and exploitation in India, China, Burma, Africa, the Philippines, Malaya, the Western Indies, and South America.”
Reluctant to embrace the post-war anti-colonial movement, both Republican and Democrat administrations failed to endorse international covenants that supported political self-determination. President Dwight Eisenhower, for example, refused to back the 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, which made self-determination “the legal foundation for the establishment of the sovereign state from the colonial territory.” And President Lyndon Johnson, in 1966, refused to lend U.S. support to the Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, each of which declared that “all peoples have the right to self-determination,” and by virtue of that right, to “freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development.” Presidents Nixon and Ford offered support to self-determination for South Vietnam and for Native Americans, but both administrations rejected armed struggle as a legitimate means to claim their self-determination and refused to make the United States signatories to the international covenants that embraced self-determination.
Carter, however, wanted to change this. “Our principal goal,” he told an audience at the Naval Academy, is to “help shape a world which is more responsive to the desire of people everywhere for economic well-being, social justice, political self-determination, and basic human rights.” He echoed these themes in speeches and statements throughout his presidency, believing that supporting self-determination and free choice constituted the “moral heart of our international appeal,” and represented the cornerstone of the values on which the United States was founded. Carter was “particularly dedicated” to genuine self-determination and majority rule in those areas of the world where these goals had not yet been attained. He made it clear to leaders in Southern Africa that he would oppose arrangements in Rhodesia or Namibia that would deny the peoples of these territories their “inherent right to self-determination.” And in Nicaragua, where the United States had long supported the authoritarian regime of Anastasio Somoza, Carter’s calls for human rights and the exercise of political self-determination opened the door for Somoza’s removal from power in 1979.
True, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance failed to include self-determination when he defined the administration’s human rights policy to the University of Georgia Law School in April 1977. And self-determination is nowhere to be found in the administration’s most authoritative report defining its human rights policies. Still, Carter did openly embrace the 1975 Helsinki Accords, which called on all signatories of the agreement to “respect the equal rights of peoples and their right to self-determination,” and, most important, he signed the Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which established universal standards for the protection of basic civil and political liberties and constituted two of the three documents that comprise the International Bill of Rights. Carter believed the covenant was “surely one of the most important international human rights documents of our time,” and helped pave the way for many countries and to achieve their self-determination. The Senate refused to ratify the covenants while Carter was in the White House, but by embracing them, Carter had gone further than any other president in supporting self-determination as a human right and publicly opened the door for him to make dramatic changes on the U.S. position regarding the Palestinians.
Carter and the Palestinians
Carter’s efforts to embrace self-determination as a human right was welcome news for Palestinians, who had also been using the language of human rights to draw attention to Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem, areas that had been controlled by Israel’s military forces since the end of the 1967 war. As historian Paul Chamberlin has shown, during the late 1960s and 1970s Palestinian leaders used the UN and other international organizations to fight for rights such as “self-determination” and resistance to “colonialism,” as well as rights articulated most prominently in the UN Charter and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights—rights that had been accorded to Israelis, Jews, and Westerners for decades. The United Nations’ adoption of Resolution 3236, in November 1974, was perhaps the most prominent example of the Palestinian efforts to receive international recognition of their human rights. The resolution, which passed by an overwhelming vote of 89 to 8, with Israel and the United States as its chief detractors, reaffirmed the Palestinians’ “right to self-determination without external interference, the right to national independence and sovereignty … [and] the inalienable right … to return to their homes and property from which they have been displaced and uprooted.”
Although Carter recognized Israel’s “legitimate needs” for secure boundaries and the protections against terrorism, he was highly sympathetic to these international efforts and believed that the Palestinian issue remained “the central, unresolved, human rights issue of the Middle East.” Like African Americans in the South during the era of Jim Crow, he viewed the Palestinians as “victims of injustice” and he wanted his administration to adopt “a more ambitious American approach” to the region to ensure that Palestinian rights were recognized as part of any final solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. “Since I had made our nation’s commitment to human rights a central tenet of our foreign policy,” he later wrote, “it was impossible for me to ignore the very serious problems on the West Bank. The continued deprivation of Palestinian rights was not only used as the primary lever against Israel, but was contrary to the basic moral and ethical principles of both our countries.”
Of course, there were certainly larger strategic reasons that impelled Carter’s involvement in the region beyond bringing human rights to the Palestinians. Both the Ford and Carter administrations agreed that the Middle East was “inherently unstable” and in danger of sliding toward confrontation, which would draw further Soviet involvement in the region. Sadat’s position had also “seriously deteriorated” as a result of Egypt’s deep economic problems, according to the Central Intelligence Agency, and the United States needed to make some move on a peace settlement in order to ensure that more radical elements did not come to power in Egypt. Still, Carter felt strongly that strategic interests could not outweigh concerns for Palestinian human rights, as they had in the past, and argued that it was “imperative” for the United States to help obtain for Palestinians the right to vote, the right to assemble and debate issues that affected their lives, the right to own property, and the right to be free of military rule. “To deny these rights was an indefensible position for a free and democratic society,” he wrote, “and I had promised to do my best to seek resolution of problems like these, no matter where they might be found.”
Carter found the blueprint for his plan to achieve Palestinian self-determination in the 1975 Brookings Institution report “Toward Peace in the Middle East.” Drafted largely by Zbigniew Brzezinski, a political science professor at Columbia University who would become Carter’s National Security Adviser, the report firmly rejected the “step-by-step” diplomacy of the Nixon-Ford years, which focused heavily on sovereign Arab states and ignored the Palestinians, and instead called for a “comprehensive settlement” in the Middle East that provided a path to “Palestinian self-determination subject to Palestinian acceptance of the sovereignty and integrity of Israel within agreed boundaries.” Self-determination, as defined by the Brookings report, would take the form “either of an independent Palestine state” or “a Palestine entity voluntarily federated with Jordan but exercising extensive political autonomy.” The report offered no specific solution as to the final status of Jerusalem, but did recommend that each national group within the city should have “substantial political autonomy” within the area where it predominates, leaving “unimpeded access” to all of the holy places, which would be under the “custodianship” of its own faith.
Brzezinski first presented the study to Carter during the presidential campaign and found him sympathetic to the ideas even though it was clear that pursuing this framework would lead to strains in relations with Israel. Since the end of the 1967 war, Israeli leaders had been resolute in opposing the creation of a Palestinian state between Israel and Jordan and firmly resisted any agreement that called for Palestinian self-determination, believing it would quickly lead to Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza. They also refused to recognize the PLO and secured a commitment from the United States, as part of the 1975 Sinai II disengagement agreement, affirming that Washington would not recognize or negotiate with the PLO so long as it did not recognize Israel’s right to exist and failed to accept UN Security Council Resolution 242, which recognized that “every State in the area” has the “right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries.”
Despite these challenges, the Carter administration moved quickly to adopt many of the recommendations suggested by the Brookings Institution report. During a series of policy reviews examining “alternative strategies” to Arab-Israeli peace in January and February 1977, the administration determined that “no lasting solution to the Middle East would be possible until … a just answer to the Palestinian question could be found, one almost certainly leading to a Palestinian homeland and some form of self-determination.” The president strongly agreed with these conclusions. The following month, at a town hall meeting in Clinton, Massachusetts, he came out publicly in favor of a “homeland” for Palestinian refugees as a “prerequisite” to any Arab-Israeli peace settlement, something no other U.S. president had ever done. The word “homeland” was intentionally ambiguous and hardly an endorsement of Palestinian self-determination or sovereignty, but Carter later argued that he clearly meant this statement to be the “first move toward supporting a Palestinian state” and would no doubt signal to Palestinians that his administration firmly supported their right to self-determination.
Having firmly established during his first weeks in office his determination not to leave the Palestinians with an indefinite future, the president then met with leaders from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia to sound out their views on a peace settlement that would protect Palestinian rights. From these many conversations, it quickly became clear that the Arab leaders shared Carter’s view that no comprehensive settlement could be accomplished that did not provide self-determination for the Palestinian people. How these leaders defined self-determination, though, was less clear. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Jordan’s King Hussein believed that self-determination could come in the form of a Palestinian “entity” or “homeland” that had a “direct link” or “declared relationship” to Jordan, presumably in the form of a federation or confederation that would be chosen by the Palestinians in a plebiscite. Saudi leaders, who largely financed the PLO, had a different view, insisting that self-determination equated to sovereignty and that Palestinians should have an independent state based on the 1967 borders.
Syrian leader Hafiz Asad was perhaps the most radical in his interpretation, believing that Palestinian self-determination would only be accomplished in the form of an independent Palestinian state along the lines of 1947 UN Partition Plan. This was clearly a departure from the 1967 borders that Asad had repeatedly told Henry Kissinger he would accept for the Palestinians. But, as he explained to Carter during a meeting in Geneva on May 9, only the 1947 lines could provide enough land to accommodate the return of the Palestinian refugees. Carter seemed taken aback by the suggestion, but Asad did not back down. “Any solution of the Palestinian problem, without settling the refugee part, would be incomplete,” he said. Just as bad, in Asad’s opinion, would be a solution for Palestinian self-determination that left King Hussein with hegemony over the West Bank and Gaza or denied the participation of the PLO as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. “These propositions would divest the Palestinians of anything allowing themselves to demonstrate their own personality,” he insisted. “What is in it for the Palestinians?”
Caught between Israel’s firm opposition to an independent Palestinian state, and the Arabs’ insistence on some form of self-determination as part of any comprehensive agreement, the Carter administration settled for a lukewarm middle-ground. In a largely forgotten proposal presented to both Arabs and Israelis in July-August 1977, the administration called for the establishment of a demilitarized “Palestinian entity” in the West Bank and Gaza that would “permit self-determination by the Palestinians in deciding on their future status.” Secretary of State Vance believed this to be a “major new element” in the American position that could lead to Palestinian self-government, but he heavily qualified the language in his private conversations with Arab leaders by insisting that this would only come about after several years of a “transitional arrangement.” The United States took a similarly murky position in September when they joined the Soviet Union in calling to reconvene the Geneva peace conference, established in the aftermath of the 1973 October War. Both superpowers supported the return to Geneva to ensure “the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people” as part of a comprehensive settlement, yet both Washington and Moscow agreed to exclude the PLO, recognized by the Arabs as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, from participation in the conference.”
Carter’s commitment to Palestinians having a voice in their future seemed entirely genuine. But the failure of his administration to engage with the PLO or define what it meant by self-determination raised serious doubts about whether the President was prepared to match his rhetoric with action. By self-determination, did he mean an extension of democratic self-government? Was it simply giving the Palestinians the choice to participate in a plebiscite? If so, which Palestinians would participate? Only those in the occupied territories, or would the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees around the world be permitted to participate? And how much self-government would be enough? Would Palestinians have control over their own security? Or did he truly intend that his calls for self-determination for the Palestinians would eventually lead to an independent Palestinian state? In a statement to Jordanian leaders, Carter acknowledged that providing self-determination to the Palestinian people was the “key” to any final settlement and he was committed to protecting Palestinian rights. Yet, at the same time he pledged his support for the Palestinians, his administration continued to support Indonesia’s invasion and occupation of East Timor, which denied the East Timorese their right to self-determination. Would it be any different for the Palestinians?
These inconsistencies and the refusal of his administration to define what it meant by Palestinian self-determination lead many Arab leaders to question Carter’s efforts. In September 1977, after nearly nine months of waiting for clarification on how Carter defined self-determination, PLO Chairman Yassir Arafat finally demanded some answers. During a meeting with Landrum Bolling, Chief Executive Officer of the Council of Foundations who served as an informal channel between the PLO and the White House, Arafat said the United States should “make up its mind” by what it meant when referring to “homeland,” “entity,” “national rights,” and “self-determination.” “We wish the United States would stop worrying about what the different Arab states feel on this issue,” he said. “The Arab governments have different thoughts on the subject, depending on their self-interests…. If the United States would simply follow its own self-interests, and disregard what either the Israelis or the Arab governments say, we believe the United States would join in support of a Palestinian state.”
After failing to get clarification from Bolling, Arafat and several Fatah leaders asked Walid Khalidi, a Palestinian professor at the American University in Beirut, to press his contacts inside the White House for answers. Khalidi later reported to William Quandt on the NSC staff that Arafat wanted to know what status the Carter administration accorded the PLO as it had direct implications for the administration’s alleged support for Palestinians’ self-determination. If the United States refused to deal officially with the PLO, and the Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza were unable to have the PLO represent them in negotiations, than how could Carter truly be committed to Palestinian self-determination? For Arafat, self-determination was very clear: Palestinians should have their own state, with their own flag, and the ability to carry their own passports. He made it clear to Khalidi that the PLO would go “all the way” in accepting UN Resolution 242—recognition of Israel, demilitarization, and limits on external relations—provided that it received a sovereign Palestinian state in return. But, as Quandt told Khalidi, this was not going to happen. Carter’s endorsement of a Palestinian homeland or entity was a “major step” and the PLO should not expect more.
Indeed, the more Carter’s concept of Palestinian self-determination is examined, the more limited it appears. Rather than a liberal concept of self-determination, largely defined by United Nations human rights covenants as the very basic right of people to freely determine, with no compulsion or coercion, their own future, political status, and independence, what emerged instead was a very narrow concept that could hardly be described as fulfilling these objectives. Of course, there is no one document in the Carter records that explicitly states what Carter had envisioned when he spoke of the need for Palestinian self-determination, and the concept was often fluid and evolving. But by examining the texts of the various peace proposals that were put forward by the administration, as well as the records of the countless conversations Carter had with his advisers and Arab and Israeli leaders, his definition of self-determination comes into focus.
First, self-determination did not mean Palestinian sovereignty. Although Carter would later claim that his calls for a Palestinian homeland and self-determination were the “first steps toward a Palestinian state,” at no time did his administration move forward with such a proposal or even convey his support for a separate Palestinian state to Arab leaders. To the contrary, Carter and his aides made it clear that an independent Palestinian state was not an option. In part, this was simply a reflection of what was obtainable at the time. No Israeli government—Labor or Likud—would have supported an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and to press for that at the outset of the administration would have ensured the failure of any comprehensive negotiating process. It was also true that King Hussein and Anwar Sadat, two leaders who would have to sign on to a comprehensive agreement with Israel, did not support an independent Palestinian state. Both leaders repeatedly told the president that while they wanted the people in the West Bank-Gaza areas to have self-determination, they did not support their right to claim independence because they feared it could lead to a radicalized state under the leadership of the PLO and the reintroduction of Soviet troops to the region.
Carter could have pressed both Hussein and Sadat to accept a more liberal concept of self-determination that would have offered the Palestinians an opportunity at statehood. But as he demonstrated in East Timor and later Belize, the right of self-determination was simply not absolute and, for Carter, fell far short of sovereignty. He affirmed the Ford administration’s support for Indonesia’s incorporation of East Timor rather than support East Timor’s independence. In Belize, moreover, the Carter administration abstained from annual United Nations resolutions supporting Belize’s independence from Great Britain. Although London strongly supported granting independence to their Caribbean colony by 1981, the Carter administration felt that this would hurt their efforts to improve human rights conditions in neighboring Guatemala, which sought territorial concessions from Belize. If the Carter administration would not support sovereignty for Belize, which had minimal geostrategic implications, what chances did the Palestinians have at getting Carter to support their independence?
Second, self-determination for Carter meant that Palestinians would have a choice on how they would be governed, so long as Israel, Egypt, and Jordan had a veto over which Palestinian leaders could be elected. Language was artfully crafted in most proposals that focused on Palestinian representatives being elected from “residents” or “inhabitants” of the West Bank or Gaza. Using these words was an artful way of saying that PLO officials, who largely resided outside of these areas, would not be eligible to participate in future elections. In fact, during a highly revealing conversation with the President, Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan admitted that it was critical for his country that the White House agree that Palestinian leaders be selected from inside the occupied territories even if they sympathized with the PLO. “If someone comes from Lebanon, he will be PLO, and we just can’t accept that,” Dayan maintained. But “those in the West Bank we control. If they are not in jail, we are now dealing with them and we can deal with them in the future.”
Lest there be any doubt that the United States fully endorsed the Israeli position, the word “inhabitants” was used no less than nine times in the Camp David Accords when referring to the Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza. The agreement made clear that Israeli military forces and its civilian administration would only be withdrawn from these areas as soon as a self-governing authority had been “freely elected by the inhabitants of these areas,” and that further elections, negotiations, and a Palestinian security force would only be composed of “inhabitants” from the West Bank and Gaza. The agreement did leave room for “other Palestinians as mutually agreed” to partake in the modalities for establishing an elected self-governing authority in the Palestinian occupied territories, but given that Israeli leaders would never agree to PLO participation, they essentially had final verdict over who could represent the Palestinian people. By taking this approach, and leaving Israel, Egypt, and Jordan a veto over who would represent the Palestinians, the Carter administration had essentially denied the Palestinians their “first right”—the right to self-determination.
These restrictions alone would have been enough to ensure that Palestinian self-determination would not have been achieved under a Carter presidency. But the administration put up further barriers to this purported goal by supporting the Egyptian and Jordanian positions that a future Palestinian entity or homeland must be “linked” with Jordan, either as a federation or confederation. Such an arrangement, in the president’s view, would leave King Hussein with final authority over Palestinian borders, citizenship, and security arrangements, and it would allow the King to determine which Palestinians living outside of the occupied territories would be eligible to return, thereby preventing a radicalized Palestinian in the West Bank to challenge his regime.
When these concepts were presented to Arab and Palestinian leaders across the region, it did not take them long to see that Carter’s concept of self-determination came nowhere close to meeting the legitimate rights of the Palestinians that he pledged the United States to support. Saudi Arabian and Syrian leaders not only rejected proposals that did not include the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, but they firmly objected to Carter’s efforts place Gaza and the West Bank under a UN trusteeship for a “transitional period.” Syrian Foreign Minister Abdul Halim Khaddam was particularly aghast at the Carter administration’s concept of self-determination as it emerged during the first months of the administration. During a lengthy meeting in Damascus with Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, Khaddam explained that by removing the PLO from the discussion and insisting on a link with Jordan, Americans had “pre-determined” the Palestinians’ fate by choosing their leaders in advance. “What would be left for self-determination?” he asked. Khaddam, in fact, wisely encouraged Vance to tie the principle of self-determination in any future agreement for the Palestinians to existing United Nations resolutions and covenants, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Even though Carter would sign this very agreement, Vance would not agree to this suggestion, leaving Khaddam to conclude “the Palestinians are being given nothing by Israel or the United States. The only thing left for them is to be skinned alive, having already lost their clothes.”
From Self-Determination to “Self-Rule”
If Carter was so committed to defending Palestinian human rights, why did he agree to so many restrictions on the Palestinians’ right to self-determination? Why did the administration refuse to agree to Khaddam’s reasonable request to tie the language in a comprehensive Arab-Israeli agreement to other human rights covenants that the Carter administration supported? One answer to these questions can be found in the election of Menachem Begin as Israel’s prime minister in May 1977. The one-time leader of the anti-British, militant Zionist group known as Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organization), Begin was largely known for having ordered the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel, the British headquarters in Jerusalem during the mandate, as well as the 1948 massacre of the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin. Although he had shed much of his demagogic image by the mid-1970s, he still envisioned an “undivided land of Israel” and supported the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. When asked after the election what his plans were for the West Bank and Gaza, Begin left no doubt that he intended to fulfill his campaign pledge of “Israeli sovereignty between the Mediterranean and the Jordan.” “What occupied territories?” Begin retorted. “If you mean Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, they are liberated territories, part of the land of Israel.”
Begin’s rigid belief that the West Bank and Gaza were integral parts of the land of Israel reluctantly forced Carter to compromise his positions on the protection of Palestinian human rights in these areas. Indeed, the administration’s strategy for a comprehensive settlement had been largely predicated on the assumption that a strong and moderate Israeli government would at some point be able to make difficult decisions on territory and on the Palestinians, but now U.S. and Arab leaders were compelled to deal with a leader who refused to accept that Resolution 242 required Israel to withdraw from the West Bank. True, Begin was not the first Israeli leader to maintain that his nation’s security would be unacceptably jeopardized by withdrawal to the 1967 lines. Both Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin believed that Israel would need to retain substantial parts of the West Bank as part of any peace agreement, and they firmly opposed the creation of a Palestinian state in the occupied territories. But in claiming that Israel would retain the military occupation of the West Bank, Begin was inherently denying the fundamental human rights of the Palestinians, including their right to self-determination.
Although the new Israeli prime minister demonstrated remarkable flexibility when it came to withdrawing Israeli forces from the Sinai Peninsula, and appeared genuinely committed to working with the Carter administration to provide some form of limited autonomy for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, he drew a line when asked to include the principle of self-determination as part of any agreement. Like many Arab leaders, he shared the belief that self-determination equated to sovereignty and, if accepted, would lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state under the leadership of the PLO. During his first meeting with Carter in July 1977, he made it clear that “Israel will not transfer Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza District to any foreign sovereign authority” and would only agree to negotiate with Arab leaders from “accredited delegations of sovereign states.” The following month, he conveyed a similar message to Secretary Vance, insisting that Israel would “forever” exclude the PLO so long as it maintained its “genocidal” covenant, which called for Israel’s destruction. “It would be a complete contradiction for Israel to talk to the PLO,” said Begin. “There must be no doubt in Israel’s position.”
Begin’s determination to hold on to the Palestinian occupied territories was articulated most prominently in his “self-rule” proposal for Arab residents in the West Bank and Gaza. First presented to Carter in December 1977, in the wake of Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem, the plan was a clever way to ensure that Israel would retain sovereignty over these areas in perpetuity, offering the Palestinians enough autonomy over their daily lives but not full control over their borders. Under Begin’s plan, Arab “residents” in the West Bank and Gaza district would elect an eleven-member Administrative Council that would govern the daily affairs of Palestinians in terms of education, transportation, religion, finance, agriculture, and health and welfare, while leaving Israel in charge of security in these areas. This offered the Palestinians the mirage of self-determination by allowing the Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza to participate in self-government, but the plan said nothing about Israel’s withdrawal from these areas, nor did it deal with the Palestinians living outside of the territories.
If accepted in combination with Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula, Begin could claim that Israel had fulfilled the terms of Resolution 242 by withdrawing “from territories occupied in the recent conflict,” while leaving Israel with full responsibility for security and public order in the occupied territories and control of the access to and from the West Bank and Gaza. The prime minister’s plan, moreover, would leave Israel with veto power over immigration policy, thereby preventing the right to return by Palestinians living outside the West Bank and Gaza, and Israeli citizens would be “entitled” to acquire land and settle in the West Bank and Gaza, ensuring the expansion of settlements with the full endorsement of the Palestinians.
Begin tried to sell Sadat on “self-rule” during a visit to Ismailia on December 25, but the Egyptian leader saw the plan as another Israeli attempt to acquire as much land as possible, and a demonstration that the Israelis were not prepared to treat him seriously in the aftermath of his visit to Jerusalem. As the leader of the Arab world, Sadat knew that accepting an agreement that left the Israeli military presence in place and did not provide Palestinian self-determination would leave him in a terrible position with his fellow Arab leaders. He asked Begin to modify the wording in his plan to include the key phrase, “Based on the self-determination of the Palestinian people,” in place of any explicit mention of a Palestinian state. Although Begin was clearly surprised and struck by the fact that Sadat shared Israel’s view on the threat of Palestinian independence, he was simply unwilling to meet Sadat’s demands. “We cannot use the word ‘self-determination’ if it means a state, and that is what it means,” he replied. “This is the mortal danger of which I speak. We can use the word ‘self-rule.'”
Carter would later admit that Begin’s plan was a “subterfuge,” designed to maintain Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza in perpetuity, but for the remaining years of his presidency, his administration moved much closer to accepting “self-rule” for the Palestinians than it did towards endorsing Palestinian self-determination. After a year of negotiations, the president recognized that he had lost considerable domestic support for his policies by calling for a Palestinian “homeland” and for pushing the Israelis to accept self-determination as part of an agreement. Brzezinski admitted as much by writing to Carter early in the new year that “it seems fair to conclude that the Palestinian issue was introduced too early and without adequate care to keep it in perspective.” Quandt fully agreed. However well-intentioned Carter’s emphasis on Palestinian self-determination and human rights may have been, it had distracted from larger issues of a land-for-peace deal as outlined in Resolution 242. “I would rather see us argue hard for the principle of withdrawal, which has some tangible meaning, than for the vague notion of self-determination,” he told Brzezinski. “Self-determination without withdrawal means nothing; the reverse is not the case.”
Recognizing the myriad problems involved in continuing to press the Palestinian issue, Carter, in early 1978, withdrew his support for Palestinian self-determination in the West Bank and Gaza. During a joint press conference with Anwar Sadat in Aswan, Egypt, on January 3, the president announced that the United States would now accept a peace agreement so long as it protected “the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people” and enabled the Palestinians to “participate in the determination of their own future.” On the surface, the language in Carter’s “Aswan Declaration” appeared little different than his earlier statements in favor of Palestinian self-determination. But both Vance and Brzezinski admitted that it was a “carefully crafted formula” designed to show the Palestinians that while the United States heeded their desire for “political self-definition” it was also mindful of Israel’s interest in “making certain that Palestinian self-determination did not endanger Israel’s security.” By calling for the Palestinians to only participate in the determination of their own future, instead of self-determination, Carter accepted that a solution to the Palestinian problem could be found in a joint Israel-Jordan administration, so long as some Palestinian “inhabitants” from the West Bank or Gaza “participated” in setting up that administration.
Brzezinski clarified the formula in a new U.S. proposal on February 3, on the eve a visit to the United States by Anwar Sadat. Largely adopting the language of the Begin autonomy proposal, he spelled out a nine-point plan for a “self-rule arrangement” in the West Bank and Gaza, whereby the “inhabitants” of these areas would “freely elect” an authority for a transitional five-year period. Brzezinski did not say what would happen after the transition period, but it was clear that he did not intend for the Palestinians to be able to set up their own state and that he viewed the Begin plan as a “viable transitional arrangement.” By adopting the language of self-rule instead of self-determination, the Carter administration had sent a clear message to both Arabs and Israelis that they were now focused on making Begin’s autonomy proposals more palatable to the Palestinians, not to make self-determination more acceptable to Israelis.
At the same time that he withdrew his support for Palestinian self-determination, Carter also retreated from his commitment to pursue a comprehensive agreement involving all parties. Recognizing that such a settlement was “years away at best,” the Carter administration instead quietly returned to Kissinger’s step-by-step approach by focusing on a separate Egyptian-Israeli agreement. When the president met with Sadat at Camp David on February 4, the discussions centered almost exclusively on keeping Sadat from withdrawing from the negotiations by solving Egypt’s problems in the Sinai, not on finding solutions to the Palestinian issue. This was a pattern that would continue throughout the spring. True, Carter continued to press Begin to modify his positions on the West Bank, even chastising him at the White House on March 22 for failing to accept that Resolution 242 applied to all fronts, including the principal of withdrawal. But it was done less to deliver self-determination for the Palestinian people than to keep the prospect of a separate agreement on the Sinai withdrawal alive. “The whole concept of Middle East peace had been scaled back to the idea of supporting a first step between Egypt and Israel, with a vaguely defined transitional period for the West Bank and Gaza,” Quandt conceded. “The Palestinian issue was on the agenda … [but] everyone on the American side agreed that the West Bank and Gaza had to be dealt with on a different time scale than Sinai.”
As the Camp David summit approached, Arab leaders throughout the Middle East pleaded with the Carter administration to abandon the Begin plan and return to its initial pledge to support a Palestinian homeland and self-determination. Leaders in the West Bank and Gaza made it known that they were willing to live for a generation or more under Israeli occupation rather than accept the Begin plan or some other arrangement that fell short of providing self-determination. King Hussein similarly told the president that only a “clear and unambiguous” indication that Israel will end West Bank occupation and permit Palestinian self-determination would allow Jordan to participate in negotiations.” And Saudi Crown Prince Saud echoed these sentiments, telling Assistant Secretary of State Roy Atherton in August that the Arab world would not support a Camp David agreement that did not mention the right of self-determination for the Palestinians. But as Atherton explained to Saud, this was simply no longer in cards. “What we want is a workable set of principles not a ringing declaration that will not advance the cause of peace in practical ways,” said Atherton. “On the Palestinian question, we believe the Aswan formulation was a practical one.”
By the time the parties arrived at Camp David presidential retreat in September 1978, U.S. officials remained determined to avoid discussion of Palestinian self-determination during the deliberations. In preparation for the summit, Brzezinski told Carter that for the talks to succeed the president would have to convince Sadat to “settle for less than an explicit Israeli commitment to full withdrawal and Palestinian self-determination” as well as “acceptance of a long-term Israeli security presence in the West Bank [and] Gaza.” At best, Carter and his advisers hoped that at Camp David the parties would agree to a watered-down version of Begin’s self-rule plan in order to make it “sufficiently attractive to moderate Palestinians” and bring them in later as participants in a future negotiation. But the likelihood of this happening without the presence of a single Palestinian representative at the summit seemed impossible: “All West Bankers, moderates and PLO supporters alike oppose the Begin plan lock, stock and barrel for, among other reasons, it is the plan of the occupier,” U.S. officials in Israel wrote to Carter’s senior Middle East advisers on the eve of the summit. “Its objective,” they added, “is perceived as continued occupation with Palestinian participation.”
Despite these warnings, Carter simply saw no alternative to self-rule and had no intention of revisiting the issue of Palestinian self-determination. In his personal notes written upon his arrival at Camp David, the president acknowledged that his plan was to get the parties to accept a “common definition of peace” that would ensure “no independent Palestinian State” and provide the participation of only “West Bank Arabs” in a future Palestinian government, a clear indication the PLO would be excluded from any involvement and Palestinians would not be able to exercise fully their right to self-determination. Even the “homeland” that Carter pledged to support at the outset of his administration would have significant restrictions. According to his notes, the president intended to accept a settlement that would leave Israel with a security presence on the West Bank and that the question of sovereignty would be discussed—not guaranteed—after a five-year transitional period in which the Palestinians would have to prove that they were capable of governing themselves.
Throughout the fortnight at Camp David, the Egyptians repeatedly pressed U.S. and Israeli officials to modify their positions and to agree to language that would allow the Palestinian people to “exercise their fundamental right to self-determination” and adhere to the letter and spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Charter. Carter noted in his diary on September 7, the third day of the summit, that a “heated discussion” developed between Egyptian and Israeli leaders, with Sadat claiming “self-determination by the residents of the West Bank/Gaza was the only measure of sovereignty.” He reiterated the pledge made to Begin at Ismailia that Egypt would not support an independent Palestinian state and that he would agree to Israel’s demands that representatives for the Palestinians should only come from the “inhabitants” of the West Bank and Gaza. Yet even with these concessions, Begin would not budge. “Self-determination applies to nations and not parts of nations,” he insisted.
Carter shared Sadat’s frustrations with Begin’s intransigence and his refusal to offer the Palestinians a better deal. He told Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan during a private conversation on September 11 that Begin was “unreasonable” and the “obstacle to peace” and that he had serious doubts about his commitment to making an agreement. But the president had pushed Begin so hard on dismantling Israeli settlements in the Sinai, a critical component for Sadat to agree to a separate peace deal with Israel, that he simply refused to ask Begin to make the same concessions for the Palestinians. Instead, the Carter team grudgingly agreed to Israel’s “incremental, largely symbolic adjustments” in their position on the West Bank and Gaza, while asking Sadat for major concessions that would leave the Israelis with firm control over the occupied territories and deny Palestinians their right to self-determination. “The goal of all this maneuvering,” Quandt later admitted, “was, of course, a separate Egyptian-Israeli agreement, only thinly disguised as part of a broader framework.” Begin, Dayan, and Defense Minister Ezer Weizman had all openly acknowledged that such an agreement was their aim during the summit, and Carter increasingly moved in that direction.
Many observers at the time hailed the Camp David Accords as a “giant step” in the direction of lasting peace between Arabs and Israelis and the product of “bold and visionary men.” The agreements established a framework that returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egyptian sovereignty, and committed Egypt to sign a separate peace treaty and establish full diplomatic relations with Israel. But for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, the accords failed to live up to Carter’s commitments on human rights by denying their right to self-determination. The “Framework for Peace in the Middle East,” which focused on future arrangements in the West Bank and Gaza, and is often overshadowed by the separate Egyptian-Israeli agreement, contains no mention of “self-determination.” Instead, the signatories agreed to discuss “full autonomy” for the Palestinians under a “self-governing authority” that would be “freely elected” by the inhabitants of these areas, and a temporary embargo of future Israeli settlements.
More important was the absence in the Framework of the elements of United Nations Resolution 242, which fundamentally altered the Carter administration’s position that Israel should withdraw to the 1967 lines subject to minor border adjustments. The language of the Framework was altered at Israel’s behest on September 16, the penultimate day of the summit, to make it clear that negotiations, but not necessarily the results of the negotiations, would be based on the principles of Resolution 242. This change meant that a final agreement did not have to reflect the principles of the Resolution, including Israel’s withdrawal from the Palestinian occupied territories. The negotiations about the West Bank and Gaza, moreover, were “artfully obfuscated” by creating two tracks, one involving peace-treaty negotiations between Israel and Jordan and the other involving Israel and representatives of the Palestinians about the West Bank and Gaza. This was no small concession. As everyone involved in the negotiations understood, autonomy did not apply to a sovereign state. Therefore, by creating a separate track of autonomy negotiations, there could be no mention of boundaries or of Resolution 242.
Carter’s decision to back down over the Palestinians should not have come as a surprise. The participants at the Camp David summit were naturally determined to see the summit succeed. If concessions had to be made to ensure Israel’s participation in any agreement, it was far more likely that they would be made over the Framework agreement, which focused on Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, because Palestinians were not represented at the summit. But in accepting the ambiguity over Israel’s need to withdraw from the West Bank, the Carter administration had completely withdrawn from its early support of self-determination for the Palestinians living in the occupied territories. If the United States was no longer willing to accept that Israel had to withdraw from the West Bank, how could Carter claim that he supported the Palestinians’ right to self-determination?
Palestinians, naturally, rejected the Camp David Accords out of hand. Meeting with Assistant Secretary State Hal Saunders in Jerusalem following the summit, a group of nine Palestinian notables, including the Mayors of Gaza and Bethlehem, as well as Abu Zalaf, publisher of Al Quds, argued that the Camp David agreement must be changed to include a role for the PLO, an end to settlements, and a firm guarantee of self-determination for the Palestinians. It seemed absurd in their mind that the United States would ask Palestinians to accept an agreement that ignored basic democratic principles of majority rule and to trust the U.S. position that “the Palestinians’ bargaining would improve with the maturing of a self-governing authority.” Most people in the occupied territories, the group explained, supported the PLO, and they could not make any agreement that did not account for this fact. “We in West Bank have no power to negotiate,” Elias Freij, the Mayor of Bethlehem stated. “We can’t move an inch without the PLO, Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.”
But it was Jordan’s King Hussein who, perhaps more than any other Arab leader, best understood the many flaws the Framework for Peace in the Middle East and the far-reaching consequences it would have for the Palestinians and for Jordan if implemented. When Secretary Vance visited Amman following the summit, the King made it clear that the Camp David agreements had placed his government in an untenable position. He wanted to maintain a strong relationship with the United States but there was simply no way that his kingdom, which had a majority Palestinian population, could support an agreement that did so little for Palestinian rights. “How can Palestinians determine their own future or organize the way to self-government under even a partial Israeli occupation?” he asked Vance. And what “freedoms” and “rights” would Palestinians enjoy during the five-year transition period? “Is the West Bank/Gaza formulation supposed to be a total solution to the Palestinian problem? Who are the Palestinians who have the right to join in the negotiations?”
Apart from some insubstantial changes in the Israeli position, Hussein knew the Camp David framework did little to address these questions, nor did it assure Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders, self-determination for the Palestinians, a resolution of the refugee problem or the future role of Jordan. Indeed, the more the Jordanian leadership studied the agreement the clearer it became that it was a “radical change” from Carter’s positions early in his administration. “In the past, the whole discussion was on self-determination and withdrawal,” Abdu Sharaf, the King’s Chief of Royal Court, told Vance. But now the administration wanted the Jordanian government to participate in negotiations for three years in order to reach a result that was by no means guaranteed. Adopting this approach while Israel’s leaders promised to continue building settlements in the West Bank would effectively amount to a “Jordanian endorsement” of the Begin plan. The King was not about to make that mistake.
Recognizing many of the deficiencies in the Camp David agreements as it pertained to the rights of the residents in the West Bank and Gaza, many Arab and African nations the following year put forward a draft resolution in the United Nations affirming that the Palestinian people should be “enabled to exercise [their] inalienable rights to self-determination, national independence, and sovereignty in Palestine in accordance with the United Nations charter.” Carter, however, was not about to revisit this issue. The United States, he said, would veto the resolution if it won majority approval in the Security Council. But it did not matter. Self-determination and Carter’s promise to veto the resolution only confirmed that there was little chance for the Palestinians achieving this right under his administration.
During the final two years of his presidency, Egyptians and Israelis continued to discuss plans for Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza, but Carter personally withdrew from the discussions, choosing instead to appoint a special negotiator to represent his administration. Faced with eroding domestic support in the wake of rising unemployment, inflation, and oil prices, and with his re-election prospects in question, he simply could no longer invest the time and energy into the Palestinian question. The president also became highly impatient with the slow pace of the Arab-Israeli negotiations. “He had a hard time accepting the fact that some issues could not be accepted through reason and compromise,” Quandt later admitted. “He had seen massive social change take place in the American south in his lifetime, and he was unwilling to believe that comparable change could not take place in the Middle East.”
After he left the presidency, Carter reemerged as a champion of Palestinian human rights and would remain for years a constant thorn in the side of Israeli leaders for their refusal to withdraw from the occupied territories and for rejecting the PLO. But Palestinians would not forget Carter’s support for these policies while he was in the White House. When he made his first visit to East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza as a private citizen in March 1983, angry demonstrators greeted him and his wife, Rosyln, wherever they traveled. A mob of teenagers around the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem threw bottles and smashed cars, while chants of “Carter is a Zionist” and “Carter Go Home” rang throughout the streets. After a visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, one member of a local village held a placard calling on him to speak to the “true representatives of the Palestinian people.” David K. Shipler’s story in the New York Times the following day aptly captured the Palestinian frustration. “The demonstrators were protesting the Camp David accords,” he wrote, “because they contain what many Palestinians believe is a prescription for unending Israeli sovereignty in the occupied territories.”
Carter sympathized with the disillusioned Arab residents in the occupied territories, as even he conceded that his policies as president had significantly weakened their cause. Writing in his 1985 book The Blood of Abraham, he admitted that the Framework for Peace in the Middle East had hurt Palestinian efforts to achieve their right to self-determination. “With the bilateral treaty,” he stated, “[Begin] removed Egypt’s considerable strength from the military equation of the Middle East and thus gave the Israelis renewed freedom to pursue their goals of fortifying and settling the occupied territories and removing perceived threats by preemptive military strikes against some of their neighbors.” It certainly did not help that the Palestinians persistently refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of Israel’s statehood. This alone made it nearly impossible for Carter to continue to press the Palestinian issue. But the fact that neither the Jordanians nor any Palestinians agreed to participate in the subsequent peace talks concerning Palestinian self-government in the West Bank and Gaza was a clear sign that they rejected the decision by leaders in Egypt, Israel, and the United States to predetermine their future.
Beyond hurting the Palestinian cause, the decision by his administration to withdraw its support for Palestinian self-determination left a stain on his larger human rights record. In this regard, Carter was not all that different from some of his predecessors in the White House who at times spoke eloquently of the need for the United States to support the principle of self-determination, but when pressed backed away from the right of self-determination to achieve larger foreign policy objectives. At the Paris Peace conference in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson had agreed to hand over the former German concessions in Shandong to Japan, leaving many Chinese bitterly disappointed that Wilson had not lived up to his pledges of self-determination. Franklin Roosevelt also came under similar criticism at the end of World War II for conceding too much to the Soviets when it came to Poland’s independence.
This is not to say that his efforts for the Palestinians were entirely in vain. When Israeli and Palestinian leaders, in September 1993, signed a Declaration of Principles on Palestinian self-government in Israeli-occupied Gaza and the West Bank, popularly known as the Oslo Accords, the Carter administration’s imprint was all over the agreement. Before the signing ceremony, Arafat met privately with Carter to praise his efforts through the years of working for Palestinian rights, and President Clinton, during the signing ceremony, publicly saluted Carter’s “wise leadership” during his decades of attention to the Palestinians that had started the process for Palestinian self-government. But just as the Oslo agreements proved to be a short-lived solution for Israeli-Palestinian peace, Carter’s policies toward the Palestinians came up well short in protecting their human rights. Nearly forty years since Carter pledged his support for Palestinian self-determination, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza still wait for that right.