H-Diplo Article Review 1176: Jackson on Pressman, "Egypt, Israel, and the United States at the Autonomy Talks, 1979"

christopher ball Discussion

H-Diplo Article Review 1176

18 April 2023

Jeremy Pressman, “Egypt, Israel, and the United States at the Autonomy Talks, 1979,” Diplomacy & Statecraft 33:3 (September 2022): 543-565. https://doi.org/10.1080/09592296.2022.2113259

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Thomas Maddux | Production Editor: Christopher Ball

Review by Galen Jackson, Williams College

By any standard, Jeremy Pressman is among the top scholars whose work focuses on the Arab-Israeli conflict.[1] More specifically, his past research about the road to the March 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, and especially about the role that President Jimmy Carter’s administration played in getting to that outcome, is notable for its in-depth analysis and extensive use of archival evidence.[2] It is unsurprising, then, that his article on the 1979 trilateral talks on Palestinian autonomy between Egypt, Israel, and the United States helps illuminate a number of the key negotiating dynamics that explain how and why the diplomacy of this whole set of issues ultimately ran its course the way that it did. In particular, Pressman’s article highlights two important aspects of the Arab-Israeli peace process during this period: the nature of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s policy toward the Palestinian question, and the political considerations that drove US policy during the second half of Carter’s term in office.

Pressman’s argument is straightforward. The talks on Palestinian autonomy, he writes, have generally been treated in the literature as “a mere historical after-thought” (546). In his view, the negotiations deserve greater scholarly attention, for they shed light on important aspects of both Egyptian and US policy. Archival documents from this period, Pressman argues, show that Sadat was by no means uninterested in the Palestinian question—even after he had signed the peace treaty with Israel in March—and continued to instruct Egyptian officials to press for genuine political concessions on that issue. As for the American approach to the negotiations, Pressman demonstrates that the Carter administration did not give the talks a particularly high priority, which more or less guaranteed that no progress would be made. Indeed, Pressman’s summary of the basic dynamic that drove the talks is apt. Although US officials professed to be interested in playing an effective mediating role, in practice the White House’s approach favored Israel, which, of course, did not want the negotiations to involve fundamental political issues. “A disconnect,” Pressman writes,

existed between what the United States officials said and the power distribution between Egypt, Israel, and the United States. Israel was more powerful than Egypt, and Israel held all the Palestinian territory in question. Having already signed a peace treaty with Israel prior to the autonomy talks, Egypt had little leverage left. The United States was the only one in a position to press Israel… but it did not do so (545).

Pressman’s analysis is important for what it reveals about Egyptian policy, and especially about what Sadat had hoped to deliver for the Palestinians by going, respectively, to Jerusalem to address the Israeli Knesset in November 1977 and, at Carter’s invitation, to the Camp David summit in September 1978. As Pressman notes, many writers take it for granted that Sadat was basically unconcerned with achieving anything meaningful for the other Arabs—and especially for the Palestinians—in the negotiations. In their view, Sadat was far more concerned with Egyptian domestic priorities, the threat posed by Egypt’s neighbors in North Africa, and establishing a closer relationship with the United States. His only real priority at the Camp David summit, then, was getting a bilateral deal with Israel that would allow him to remove Egypt from the Middle East conflict. “Sadat,” Michael Doran writes, “played along with the ‘comprehensive settlement’ game so long as he needed the Americans to pressure Israel to return the Sinai to Egypt, but once he got that, he displayed little interest in the Palestinian issue.”[3]

Some analysts go even further, arguing that by going to Jerusalem, Sadat’s main goal was to undercut the Carter administration’s efforts to get a comprehensive agreement. The Egyptian leader’s bold decision, Craig Daigle believes, “was the most overt signal he could send to Washington that, while he was committed to resolving his dispute with Israel, he had no intention of getting entangled in a comprehensive process that was bound to take years and would most likely fail due to longstanding disagreements among the Arab states.”[4] Carter’s vision for a deal that would resolve the Palestinian element of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Martin Indyk agrees, was “idealistic,” and Sadat therefore “headed off the American president, with his trip to Jerusalem in November 1977.”[5]

But Pressman’s article suggests that the story on the Egyptian side was somewhat more complicated.[6] To be sure, scholars like Daigle correctly emphasize that Sadat placed his personal political objectives and Egypt’s national interests at the top of his hierarchy of goals, ahead of the aim of delivering a favorable deal for the Palestinians. Pressman’s analysis of the autonomy talks, however, reveals that Sadat very much wanted to get significant concessions for the Palestinians. The Egyptian position during the negotiations, which was outlined in Egypt’s proposal of June 25, was, Pressman observes, largely in line with the Palestinians’ own political objectives (544-545, 553-554). The bargaining over the Palestinian question, in other words, did not simply end with the Camp David Accords and the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. That is perhaps unsurprising, given that Sadat had probably hoped that the Camp David summit would lead to a US-Israeli confrontation and, in turn, a better deal than he ultimately got.[7] Indeed, William Quandt, who served on Carter’s National Security Council staff and was at Camp David, later wrote that the members of the Egyptian delegation, including Sadat, had been disappointed with the conference’s outcome.[8] Thus, Pressman’s claim that the Egyptians were genuinely interested in seeing the autonomy talks lead to something significant for the Palestinians, at least eventually, is persuasive.

But as Pressman observes, Sadat was unwilling to jeopardize his highest priorities for the sake of the Palestinians—especially once he had signed the peace treaty in March—which put Egypt in a relatively weak position in the autonomy negotiations (551-552). Consequently, Cairo was more or less totally dependent on the United States to deliver Israeli concessions in this area, but Washington repeatedly refused to press Jerusalem in the talks. As Pressman summarizes the basic dynamic of the negotiations: “Israel will not concede ground—or barely—Egypt does not confront Israel, and the United States is wary of paying the costs of a serious United States-Israeli confrontation so the American negotiator or team refrain as well” (557).

This relates to the other contribution that Pressman makes in his article, which has to do with the fact that the Americans were not prepared to give high-level attention to the autonomy talks. Although Pressman does not attempt to explain why Washington pursued a passive approach once the peace treaty had been signed, my own view is that Carter’s domestic political concerns played a very key role.[9] Indeed, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski subsequently wrote that the president had appointed Robert Strauss to lead the US delegation at the negotiations to give himself “a political shield at home.”[10] Similarly, Quandt believes that Carter, once it became clear that Sadat would settle for a bilateral agreement with Israel that did not resolve the Palestinian question, ultimately decided to give up on trying to settle that element of the conflict largely for political reasons. “At the end of the day,” he writes, “politics does matter in diplomacy…. [W]e academics and policy advisers are not politicians and do not have to worry about being reelected. So I am not so sure that there was much more that Carter realistically could have done to secure more than the Egyptian-Israeli peace.”[11]

Whatever the Carter administration’s reasoning, Pressman’s findings help explain both why—despite the fact that Carter’s initial aim had been to achieve a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement and a political solution to the Palestinian question—the ultimate result was a purely bilateral Egyptian-Israeli agreement, as well as why US efforts since 1979 to get an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal have been largely ineffectual. The Israelis, he points out, were basically content with the status quo that existed after the peace treaty with Egypt was concluded (560). The Egyptians certainly would have preferred to move matters toward a settlement of the Palestinian issue, but they were in no position to achieve that outcome. And because the Americans were unwilling to confront Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s government over the Palestinian question, the end result was a separate Egyptian-Israeli peace.

Indeed, that outcome was more or less foreseeable well before the peace treaty was signed. Prior to the Camp David summit, Brzezinski had noted that the Israelis would not budge on the Palestinian issue—unless they faced intense American pressure—and that political realities gave Begin a major negotiating advantage. “Sadat,” he wrote to Carter, “cannot afford a failure and he knows it; both Sadat and Begin believe that you cannot afford a failure; but Begin probably believes that a failure at Camp David will hurt you and Sadat, but not him.” Accordingly, Carter would have to convince Begin that a “failure at Camp David will have directly adverse consequences for our bilateral relations.”[12] Likewise, when it became clear that Begin intended to continue to expand Israeli settlements in the West Bank—which basically guaranteed that neither Jordan nor the Palestine Liberation Organization would join the Camp David process, and thereby doomed any chance that the autonomy talks might succeed—the US ambassador in Israel, Samuel Lewis, noted that getting the prime minister to reverse course would “require that [he] be convinced that such [a] cessation is essential to avoid grave damage to the U.S.-Israeli relationship.” He added, “Israelis, of course, have many examples in the history of our relationship which lead them to conclude that the U.S. will eventually back down in order to avoid a bilateral crisis.”[13]

In short, Pressman’s article helps highlight the fundamental dynamics that shaped the ultimate outcome—a bilateral Egyptian-Israeli settlement—in the negotiations. Once it became clear that Carter was not prepared to press Begin, it also became clear that, however much the Egyptians and Americans might have wanted to make progress on the Palestinian issue, the autonomy talks would not go anywhere. Perhaps if Carter had won reelection in 1980, he might have again given Middle East peacemaking a high priority, but he lost overwhelmingly to his Republican opponent, Ronald Reagan.

Pressman, moreover, underscores an important point in his article about path dependence. The Camp David Accords, he notes, “shaped the parameters of the autonomy talks. The Camp David agreement was not a straitjacket, but it did make certain pathways more likely and others more difficult” (549). And here I might quibble somewhat with Pressman’s conclusion, for my view is that one can take the argument somewhat further in this respect than he does. At one point in the article, he cites Seth Anziska, who writes in his book that the Camp David agreement “actually enabled the triumph of an Israeli vision intent on suppressing the demand for [Palestinian] self-determination” (547).[14] To be sure, Pressman is correct in saying that “‘enabled’ is not interchangeable with ‘determined,’” and his article demonstrates that the bargaining over the Palestinian question continued after March 1979 (547). But in my view, the degree to which the Camp David agreement narrowed the path to a Palestinian solution should not be underestimated, particularly because the United States subsequently proved unwilling to press Israel on the issue. After all, because—as Carter himself later acknowledged—Egyptian-Israeli peace took the most powerful of the frontline Arab states out of the Middle East conflict, it gave Israeli leaders “renewed freedom to pursue their goals of fortifying and settling the occupied territories.”[15] Thus, Daigle concludes that even though Carter very much wanted to get a settlement for the Palestinians, his policies “only facilitated Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian land.”[16]

It is relatively unsurprising, then, that the United States has made very little progress in Arab-Israeli peacemaking since 1979, given that nothing has fundamentally changed about this basic set of dynamics since that year. Israel, one could argue, is as secure as it has ever been, particularly since it has succeeded in normalizing relations with a number of key Arab states. For its part, Egypt has long since moved on from prioritizing a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And with the possible exception of a brief period that followed the 1991 Persian Gulf War, during which President George H.W. Bush showed a willingness to take a relatively hard line with Israel, the United States has had only a very limited appetite for pressing Jerusalem in the peace process. When combined with the fact that many other factors shaping the negotiations—such as the rise of groups like Hamas, the continued growth of Israeli settlements, and the legacy of the failure of the Oslo peace process in the 1990s, to name a few—have dramatically worsened, one can understand why many analysts now wonder whether a two-state solution is still possible.[17]

I always learn something new whenever I read Jeremy Pressman’s work about the Arab-Israeli conflict, and his article about the 1979 Palestinian autonomy talks is no exception. Not every gap in the literature deserves to be filled, but this one certainly does. Indeed, Pressman’s research provides key insights about Egyptian policy, American policy, and the fundamental dynamics that drove the diplomacy during this period. Perhaps most importantly, Pressman’s article sheds light on why, unfortunately, there have been so few breakthroughs in Arab-Israeli peacemaking since the March 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.


Galen Jackson is an assistant professor of political science at Williams College, where he teaches courses in international relations theory, international security, nuclear weapons, American foreign policy, the international relations of the Middle East, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and cybersecurity. His work has appeared in International Security, Security Studies, the Journal of Cold War Studies, Middle East Journal, Diplomacy & Statecraft, and War on the Rocks. He is the editor of The October 1973 Arab-Israeli War, which is scheduled for publication in 2023. His book, A Lost Peace: Great Power Politics and the Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1967-1979, will be released by Cornell University Press in April 2023.


[1] For a sampling of Pressman’s work in this area, see, for example, Jeremy Pressman, Warring Friends: Alliance Restraint in International Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008), 78-119; Pressman, The Sword Is Not Enough: Arabs, Israelis, and the Limits of Military Force (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2020); Pressman, “Visions in Collision: What Happened at Camp David and Taba?” International Security 28, no. 2 (Fall 2002): 5-43.

[2] For example, see Pressman, “Explaining the Carter Administration’s Israeli-Palestinian Solution,” Diplomatic History 37, no. 5 (November 2013): 1117-1147; Pressman, “What If? Missed Opportunities in the Carter Administration,” Texas National Security Review Book Roundtable, December 19, 2019, https://tnsr.org/roundtable/book-review-roundtable-arab-israeli-diplomacy-under-carter/, 26-31.

[3] Michael S. Doran, “The Dream Palace of the Americans: Why Ceding Land Will Not Bring Peace,” Foreign Affairs 98, no. 6 (November/December 2019): 26-27. For other examples of this sort of argument, see Craig Daigle, review of Salim Yaqub, Imperfect Strangers:  Americans, Arabs, and U.S.-Middle East Relations in the 1970s in Diane Labrosse, ed., H-Diplo Roundtable Review 19, no. 2 (September 2017): 14, https://networks.h-net.org/node/28443/discussions/194098/h-diplo-roundtable-xix-2-imperfect-strangers-americans-arabs-and; Daigle, “Sadat’s African Dilemma: Libya, Ethiopia, and the Making of the Camp David Accords,” Cold War History 19, no. 2 (February 2019): 295-313; Shahin Berenji, “Sadat and the Road to Jerusalem: Bold Gestures and Risk Acceptance in the Search for Peace,” International Security 45, no. 1 (Summer 2020): 127-163.

[4] Daigle, “How Jimmy Carter Failed the Palestinians,” Texas National Security Review Book Roundtable, December 19, 2019, https://tnsr.org/roundtable/book-review-roundtable-arab-israeli-diplomacy-under-carter/, 18.

[5] Martin Indyk, “Order Before Peace: Kissinger’s Middle East Diplomacy and Its Lessons for Today,” Foreign Affairs 100, no. 6 (November/December 2021): 160-161.

[6] My discussion of this portion of Pressman’s article draws from my analysis of this aspect of the negotiations in my forthcoming book. See Galen Jackson, A Lost Peace: Great Power Politics and the Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1967-1979 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, forthcoming). See also Jackson, “Jimmy Carter and the Arab-Israeli Dispute,” Texas National Security Review Book Roundtable, December 19, 2019, https://tnsr.org/roundtable/book-review-roundtable-arab-israeli-diplomacy-under-carter/, 6-9.

[7] Prior to the summit, Sadat had told a number of people, including both Jordan’s King Hussein and the American ambassador to Egypt, Hermann Eilts, that he believed the conference would provide a means for putting pressure on Israel and lead to some sort of confrontation. See Nigel Ashton, “Taking Friends for Granted: The Carter Administration, Jordan, and the Camp David Accords, 1977-1980,” Diplomatic History 41, no. 3 (June 2017): 636; Ambassador Hermann Frederick Eilts Oral History Interview, August 12, 1988, by William D. Brewer, Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project, https://adst.org/OH%20TOCs/Eilts,%20Herman.toc.pdf, 46.

[8] William B. Quandt, Camp David: Peacemaking and Politics (Washington, DC: Brookings, 1986), 253, 255.

[9] Jackson, A Lost Peace; Jackson, “Strategy and Two-Level Games: U.S. Domestic Politics and the Road to a Separate Peace,” Journal of Cold War Studies 19, no. 3 (Summer 2017): 160-195.

[10] Zbigniew Brzezinski, Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser, 1977-1981 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983), 438.

[11] William B. Quandt, review of Jørgen Jensehaugen, Arab-Israeli Diplomacy under Carter:  The US, Israel and the Palestinians, in Labrosse, ed., H-Diplo Roundtable Review 20, no. 36 (May 2019): 16, https://issforum.org/roundtables/PDF/Roundtable-XX-36.pdf.

[12] Memorandum from Brzezinski to Carter, “Subject: Strategy for Camp David,” August 31, 1978, in United States Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), 1977-1980, Vol. 9: Arab-Israeli Dispute, August 1978-December 1980, Second, Revised Edition (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office [GPO], 2018), 60 (emphasis in original).

[13] Telegram from the Embassy in Israel to the Department of State, October 30, 1978, in FRUS, 1977-1980, Vol. 9, 402, 403.

[14] For the original quotation, see Seth Anziska, Preventing Palestine: A Political History from Camp David to Oslo (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018), 301.

[15] Jimmy Carter, The Blood of Abraham: Insights into the Middle East, Third Edition (Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 2007), 44.

[16] Daigle, “How Jimmy Carter Failed the Palestinians,” 14.

[17] See, for example, Ian Lustick, Paradigm Lost: From Two-State Solution to One-State Reality (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).