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Absent friends: King Hussein and the Camp David peace accords


Camp David will forever be associated with the 1978 peace accords between Israel and Egypt, regarded as one of the great successes of international diplomacy. But a new paper from Professor Nigel Ashton argues that the exclusion of Jordan from the negotiations was a grave error that meant a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East has proved to be elusive. 

At the Camp David summit of September 1978, President Jimmy Carter invited leaders from Israel and Egypt to Maryland’s famous log cabins to negotiate two framework documents. The first, between Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, paved the way to the signing of a bilateral peace treaty between the two nations. But the second, for a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East, proved to be stillborn.

In his article, Professor Nigel Ashton of the International History Department, argues that this was due to the exclusion King Hussein of Jordan, who was not present at or invited to the summit, despite his country being assigned key responsibilities. He says: “What is most striking about the framework for peace in the Middle East agreed at Camp David is the extent of the responsibilities it assigned to a country which had not even been party to its negotiation.”

According to Professor Ashton, the roots of Hussein’s marginalisation lay in Sadat’s historic 1977 visit to meet Israeli leaders in Jerusalem, which led to the Camp David summit. He says: “From King Hussein’s perspective, the visit was a fundamental transgression against the Muslim faith and Arab nationalism.”

Israel's army had taken East Jerusalem from Jordan a decade earlier in the June 1967 War, after 19 years of Jordanian rule. From Israel's perspective, they had brought "reunification" to the holy city; but international consensus has never recognised Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem. The city and its surroundings were designated a corpus separatum by the UN, and were given special international status in 1947 pending a final, negotiated settlement.

Professor Ashton says: “By making a symbolic gesture in Jerusalem, Sadat was unilaterally breaking ranks with the other Arab leaders in the Middle East, without actually having conducted any negotiations over its status.”

Another failing of the Camp David accords was the lack of clarity over the longer-term future of other territories occupied by Israel in June 1967. Professor Ashton says: “Part of the framework for peace in the Middle East mandated a five year transitional period in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip; but these areas’ status after this period was left open for negotiation. Carter was saying to King Hussein: ‘Join in this process, but we can’t say where it is going.’”

President Carter’s expectations towards Jordan also reflected the strength of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States. Professor Ashton says: “Carter didn’t apply significant pressure on Israel because he didn’t want to expend the political capital or make the sacrifices involved.”

Although the Camp David accord is still viewed as a triumph, the achievement was overshadowed by its aftermath. Anwar Sadat was murdered by domestic opponents in 1981. Begin reneged on the promises he had made and later withdrew from public life. And President Carter lost the 1980 election in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, with his Republican opponents, led by Ronald Reagan, portraying his foreign policy record as one of compromise and weakness.

But according to Professor Ashton, Carter deserves credit for bringing together Sadat and Begin, particularly Begin, who was very reluctant to make the concessions needed during the summit. He says: “Carter took a decision to prioritise the Egyptian- Israeli agreement, and worked hard to bring Begin to an agreement. But the framework document that was reached didn’t resolve any of the wider issues that would have brought peace to the region.”

Professor Ashton adds: “The problems that came to light in this peace process are still with us and haven’t gone away. Unless they are resolved, they will continue to be the cause of much tension and strife in the future.”

Posted August 2016

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Taking friends for granted: the carter administration, Jordan and the Camp David Accords, 1977-80 by Professor Nigel Ashton was published in Diplomatic History.

Professor Ashton joined the Department of International History in 1998. His main fields of interest are contemporary Anglo-American relations and the modern history of the Middle East. He has written three books: Eisenhower, Macmillan and the Problem of Nasser: Anglo-American Relations and Arab Nationalism, 1955-59, Kennedy, Macmillan and the Cold War: the Irony of Interdependence , and his most recent book King Hussein of Jordan: A Political Life

Image: Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin, Camp David, 1978 CC-PD-Mark