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Commentary: Understanding the Camp David Accords and Muslim Brotherhood's threat

The Muslim Brotherhood Party in Egypt has stated that if it is elected to power it will 're-examine' the Camp David Accords.

The Camp David Accords between Egypt President's Sadat and Israel's Prime Minister Begin were brokered by American President Jimmy Carter in 1978 and led directly to the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty of 1979. Egypt and Israel, which had fought five wars in the proceeding 30 years, have been at peace for the 34 years since signing the Accords.

Understanding four critical historical patterns sheds light on the future of the Camp David Accords and the Brotherhood's threat.

First, campaigning political parties frequently threaten to abrogate established treaties as a way of demonstrating their divergence from the status quo. Sometimes they do indeed follow through on their threats when elected. For example, in 2001 George W. Bush withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with Russia in order to pursue his campaign promise of developing ABM systems.

Many elected leaders find upon taking office that campaign promises to terminate treaties make better rhetoric than foreign policy. Ronald Reagan campaigned strongly against the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty II (SALT II), but actually honored the treaty despite the fact that Congress had not ratified it. Reagan deactivated and dismantled a Poseidon ballistic missile submarine prior to the deployment of a new American Trident submarine – thus adhering to the numerical constraints of SALIT II.

In short, history suggests that we should neither discount the Brotherhood’s threats to Camp David nor should we assume they will be implemented automatically.

Second, putting the Egyptian-Israel Peace Treaty into context, its duration of 34 years far exceeds that of the average peace treaty. Many interstate peace treaties fail fast, with almost ten percent not even lasting their first week and 25% not making it to 8 weeks. The likelihood of failure is even higher for partial agreements (the Camp David negotiations discussed contentious topics like the future of Jerusalem but decided to leave them out of the Accords) and agreements reached through mediation (such as that provided by President Carter) – 40% of these types of treaties fail to survive eight weeks. Clearly 34 years is an astonishing outcome.

Third, while those desiring peace in the Middle East might look askance at the Muslim Brotherhood's threat to "re-examine Camp David," it is important to recognize what this statement really means. The immediate threat is to the Treaty, and not to Israel. If the party’s position was to attack Israel, they could certainly say that, but they didn’t. Second, by stating that an accord needs to be reexamined, the Brotherhood is implicitly validating the legitimacy of such international treaties. That is, if international treaties were not worth the paper they were written on, as is often stated, then why bother to reevaluate and possibly revise the treaty versus just ignore it? The answer is that international treaties dealing with conflict matter; historically, international treaties are honored about 75% of the time. Regimes as scurrilous as North Korea, which withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty prior to detonating a nuclear device, want to avoid being seen as treaty violators.

Fourth, factors beyond the Camp David Accords and Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty encourage peace between the two countries. They both are – or will be soon, democratic. Depending on the definition of democracy, two democracies never, or at best rarely, fight one another, although there is some evidence that rapid democratization can facilitate conflict involvement. The two countries have trade relations which also promotes peace (although the status of natural gas, their major trade commodity, is currently in dispute). Perhaps most critically as a result of Camp David, both countries are recipients of massive amounts of U.S. aid — creating a strong incentive for abiding by the Accords.

In Egypt today there are domestic forces pulling political parties to the right and against the U.S. and Israel, and ignoring these political undercurrents completely would clearly lead to electoral defeat. On the other hand there are factors, such as economics and the status of the treaty that promote peace. Navigating these contradictory historical patterns requires nuanced views in Egypt, Israel and the US. It will be important for Egyptian candidates to differentiate between the two Camp David Accords. The first Accord addresses the resolution of the Palestinian-Israel dispute. Egyptian candidates will run against this agreement, which was recently described by Egyptian candidate Amr. Moussa as “dead and buried.” Moussa however was careful to make clear that he was not referring to the second Camp David Accord that created a security agreement between Israel and Egypt and led to the 1979 Peace Treaty.

The key will be the fledgling Egyptian democracy’s first years.

If Egypt can avoid war with Israel through its nascent regime change, peace is likely to become much more durable. Thus it is incumbent upon Israel and the U.S. to work to deescalate Egyptian provocations over the next few years and to recognize that Egyptian politicians face contradictory policy pulls. In particular, it is vital that Israel and the U.S. not take issue when Egyptian candidates dispute the first set of Camp David Accords that deals with the Israel and Palestinian conflict and recognize that these challenges do not contest the more fundamental second set of Accords that led to the historic 1979 Peace Treaty. This flexible Israeli and American perspective will allow Egyptian leaders to run against the Camp David Accords while maintaining the peace agreement with Israel.


Scott Sigmund Gartner is a Professor of International Affairs and Affiliate Professor of Law at Penn State. He can be reached by email at More information about Dr. Gartner is available at>

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.