INTERVIEW: ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI DISCUSSES HIS PARTICIPATION IN AND REFLECTIONS ON THE 1978 CAMP DAVID ACCORDS REACHED BY EGYPT AND ISRAEL
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Twenty-five years ago, President Jimmy Carter persuaded Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to meet at Camp David in an ambitious and risky effort to bridge decades of enmity and war. After 13 days in the Maryland mountains, they emerged with an agreement that changed the political landscape of the Middle East, and endures as the diplomatic triumph of the Carter administration. Here's what President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin said at the end of the talks.
SOUNDBITE OF 1978 PRESS CONFERENCE
President ANWAR SADAT (Egypt): In the weeks ahead, important decisions have to be made if we are to proceed on the road to peace. We have reaffirmed the faith of the Palestinian people and the idea of peace.
Prime Minister MENACHEM BEGIN (Israel): And, indeed, we shall go on working in understanding and in friendship and with goodwill. We will still have problems to solve. Camp David proved that any problem can be solved if there is goodwill and understanding and some--some--wisdom.
CONAN: President Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, joins us now to give us an insider's look at what happened and to tell us about the long-term effects of Camp David. If you have questions about what happened, why and what it means today, join us. Our phone number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
And, Zbigniew Brzezinski, it's always good to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.
Professor ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI (Johns Hopkins University; Former National Security Adviser, Carter Administration): It's nice to be with you.
CONAN: Remind us. 1978--this was a huge step--Was it not?--for Begin and Sadat to come to Camp David in the first place.
Prof. BRZEZINSKI: It was a huge step for them. It was a huge step for the president of the United States, because at stake was not only peace in the Middle East, but the credibility of American leadership.
CONAN: We have had similar experiences since then where American presidents have tried to broker similar kinds of agreements, you know, bring the protagonists together and see if we can just bang their heads together, and they've not always worked. What made this one work, do you think?
Prof. BRZEZINSKI: I think it worked because there were two aspects to it that, in many respects, were unique, and the first was genuine presidential leadership. The president was really very, very actively engaged, and he played the critical role, the essential role. He was genuinely the mediator. And secondly, he established his credibility by being fair and balanced; not by being an advocate of one side against the other, but of really trying to find a formula that would accommodate in some fashion the conflicting interests of the two parties.
Now to some extent, efforts along these lines took place subsequently, but with the exception of Clinton's involvement in Camp David II, which failed, nothing really matched the degree to which the president was involved in the details. President Clinton wasn't to the same extent, and there were never any exchanges of documents, of formal proposals, of maps the way President Carter was able to generate at Camp David I. And also since then, the United States, with some occasional deviations, has tended increasingly to be a spokesman of one party towards the other, or of being somewhat partial, and that has diminished American effectiveness.
CONAN: Take us back there, if you will. What was the mood as you all `de-camped,' if you will, for the Catoctin Mountains and Camp David? And was there a moment when you were there where you thought, `Oh, my heavens, this is not going to work out'?
Prof. BRZEZINSKI: Oh, yes, and not only just once. On a number of occasions, it looked as if the whole thing would blow up, either because Sadat and the Egyptians were intransigent--at one point, Sadat was even quite literally packing his bags and was getting ready unilaterally to pull out--and there were times when Begin was totally obdurate and unwilling to make any compromises whatsoever. So there were a great many number of times at which we all felt that the whole thing was going to come to naught.
Also initially, there was a great deal of wariness between the two sides, the Egyptians and the Israelis. Each was extremely suspicious of the other and to some extent hostile. The hostility somewhat faded gradually and towards the end, at least outwardly, the impression was generated both by Sadat and by Begin that they were accommodating, that they were being friendly towards each other. But even then, each side was extremely suspicious of the other.
CONAN: Well, they had, as we all remember, fought several war against each other. You talked about the presidential leadership and the roles of Begin and Sadat. What were the staffs doing at that time?
Prof. BRZEZINSKI: Well, the staffs, of course, were supporting each principal. And I would put it this way. On the Israeli side, the strategic brain and the most intransigent position was Begin's, whereas Dayan and Weizman--Dayan, a former hero...
CONAN: Moshe Dayan, of course.
Prof. BRZEZINSKI: Moshe Dayan--of the '67 war and Weizman, subsequently the president of Israel...
CONAN: Ezer Weizman, yes.
Prof. BRZEZINSKI: ...and air force commander--they tended to be more accommodating, more willing to reach out for a compromise, or at least that's the impression they gave.
On the Egyptian side, you had almost the opposite; that is to say, Sadat, by and large, in spite of occasionally very tough language, intransigent language, obviously was searching for a compromise, whereas much of the Egyptian delegation clearly conveyed the impression that they felt genuinely and very strongly that he was going too far to compromise. On the US side, clearly the role of the mediator was played by Carter. Vance was the principal negotiator...
CONAN: Cyrus Vance, the secretary of State.
Prof. BRZEZINSKI: That's right. And my role was that of supporting the president, helping him formulate the US strategic approach and sometimes indicating to him my own view that we ought to be tougher on some issues, that we ought to be more compromising on some issues; in effect, playing the role of a personal strategic adviser, but it was the president who was really carrying the ball and providing leadership and, in a sense, defining the US position.
CONAN: The outcome of Camp David, the strategic benefit, if you will: a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, the two principal opponents in, as we've mentioned, several Middle East wars. Did that subsequently make it extremely difficult, as long as Israel and Egypt would abide by this, extremely difficult for another large-scale conflict on the scale of '67 or '72 to break out?
Prof. BRZEZINSKI: Oh, absolutely, and that from the Israeli point of view was the strategic significance of the agreement. It really meant that the Arab coalition against Israel was broken, and that was the great service to Israel of Camp David, one of the initiatives that the president pursued.
For the Egyptians, of course, the significance was the full recovery of every inch of Egyptian soil, because the Israelis at first had the notion that they could strike a deal with the Egyptians, but retain some significant portions of the Sinai Peninsula, either retain it directly or retain it through some prolonged lease arrangement, etc., etc.
So if you will, for the Israelis, the benefit was strategic; for the Egyptians, the benefit was national, territorial; for the United States, it created an opening wedge for a continued effort to promote peace, but an effort which, as we all know unfortunately, over the last 20 years, 25 years, hasn't really paid off, hasn't really been successful, in part because, as I said earlier, presidential leadership has not been present and the United States has not continued to play the role of a balanced and fair mediator.
CONAN: We're speaking with Zbigniew Brzezinski, who 25 years ago was a participant in the Camp David talks.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get a listener involved, and Frank joins us on the line, and Frank is in Overland Park, Kansas.
FRANK (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.
FRANK: Do you think that there's a possibility out there for a similar type agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians today whereby there would be a withdrawal, I guess, to the '67 borders and a complete agreement for peace?
Prof. BRZEZINSKI: I think you're right in indicating what that agreement ought to involve in substance because unlike the past, I think at this stage, it's unlikely that the parties to the conflict themselves can move step by step towards a definition of a final outcome. There are just too many suspicions, too many conflicting interests, too many passions involved. So the final outcome has to be outlined in advance.
Prof. BRZEZINSKI: And that has to be done by someone from the outside. So I am very much of the view that, for example, the road map is not going to be successful unless we're prepared to say publicly, in advance, exactly what you implied, namely that the agreement has to be based largely on the '67 lines, no right of return, no continuation of settlements except those immediately in the proximity of Jerusalem, two states, a shared capital. That has to be stated publicly because only then the majority of the Israelis and the Palestinians, who according to public opinion polls, actually would be prepared to accept such a settlement, can really speak up and impose themselves on the leadership of the Israelis and the Palestinians, leadership that currently seems to be mired in mutual hostility.
FRANK: Was that the same flaw with the Oslo agreement, that there was no clear, defined endgame?
Prof. BRZEZINSKI: Exactly.
CONAN: Frank, thanks very much.
FRANK: Thank you.
CONAN: Zbigniew Brzezinski, as we all know, President Sadat eventually was assassinated for his part in reaching an accord with Israel, at least in part for that reason. And the agreement has been--well, it envisioned a much warmer relationship between Israel and Egypt than what's often been described since then as the cold peace which now exists between the two states. How do you evaluate Camp David 25 years on?
Prof. BRZEZINSKI: Well, I evaluate it as a very significant success on the painful road to peace. But unfortunately, that painful road towards peace requires continued effort, and I don't think that effort has been forthcoming to the same degree particularly from the United States. Now the fact that it hasn't been forthcoming from the Israelis or from the Palestinians is less surprising because they are parties to the conflict, so each tends to take a very hostile view of the other, and as a consequence neither is really prepared to take the initiative that is needed to promote peace. That has to come from the outside.
CONAN: Will any subsequent or future agreement, do you think, build on the experience of Camp David and build on this as a framework of what we now see as political reality in the Middle East?
Prof. BRZEZINSKI: Well, I keep stressing the same two points. If there is going to be an agreement, it will only come if there is effective outside leadership, and at this juncture of history that means the United States...
Prof. BRZEZINSKI: ...and if that leadership is perceived by both sides as genuinely seeking a fair settlement and not simply promoting the interests of one party. And that, unfortunately, is not so self-evident anymore.
CONAN: Do you see the leadership in the region and, for that matter, in the United States that's going to be willing to take the risks and make the jumps, the chances that you saw 25 years ago?
Prof. BRZEZINSKI: At the moment, I'm not too optimistic, but in the longer run, I continue to believe that this might happen, largely for very, if you will, perverse reasons. My perverse reason is that if there isn't such leadership forthcoming, the situation's going to get worse. And as it gets worse, it will complicate not only the specific peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but it's going to complicate the overall condition of the Middle East and, therefore, it will become necessary for the United States, out of self-interest eventually, to play a more constructive role.
CONAN: Zbigniew Brzezinski, thanks, as always, very much.
Prof. BRZEZINSKI: Thank you.
CONAN: Zbigniew Brzezinski was President Carter's national security adviser. He's currently a professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins and a counselor at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. He joined us from his office here in Washington, DC.
In Washington, I'm Neal Conan, NPR News.
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