How and to what extent do domestic political considerations influence U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East? This article addresses that question by drawing on declassified records that enable scholars to reevaluate the Carter administration's search for an Arab-Israeli settlement. Politics at home greatly affected U.S. policy. Moreover, the way such factors affected Carter's Middle East diplomacy was largely a function of the type of domestic political strategy the president chose to rely on. Had Carter and his advisers been more skilled as political operatives, the outcome of the peace negotiations might have been fundamentally different, especially on the issue of Israeli settlements policy. Thus, this article highlights the crucial importance of playing the “two-level game” for effective statecraft, a concept that has not been given adequate attention in the scholarly literature on the subject.

How and to what extent do domestic political factors influence U.S. foreign policy? Are U.S. decision-makers more or less free to operate as they please, or does the political context at home impose real constraints on their freedom of action? How limiting is public opinion as a check on presidential authority in the realm of international affairs? How important are the views of other domestic political elites, such as influential members of Congress, the media, issue-specific experts, and special interest groups? What role do these various influences play in shaping the manner in which the White House approaches policy choices in the particular case of the Arab-Israeli conflict?

According to John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, the answer is straightforward. In their view, the existence of a powerful pro-Israel lobby in the United States, which they define as “a loose coalition of individuals and organizations that actively works to move U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction,” is what explains U.S. policy toward the Middle East dispute. “Were it not for the lobby's efforts,” they write, “the strategic and moral arguments that are commonly invoked to justify unconditional American support [for Israel] would be called into question more frequently and U.S. policy in the Middle East would be significantly different than it is today.” Mearsheimer and Walt insist that, in the absence of the lobby, the United States would be much more willing to exert pressure on Israel to reach a peace settlement with its Arab neighbors. “But,” they conclude, “this will not happen as long as the lobby makes it impossible for U.S. leaders to use the leverage at their disposal to pressure Israel into ending the occupation and creating a viable Palestinian state.”1

Unsurprisingly, these claims sparked a major debate. “Although neither John Mearsheimer nor Stephen Walt speaks much Gaelic,” Douglas Little wrote in a review of their book, “they touched off the academic equivalent of an Irish bar brawl.”2 “Seldom,” L. Carl Brown similarly observed, “have just over 40 pages of text … kicked up such a storm.”3 The two scholars’ work, Gideon Rose commented, “produced the foreign-policy equivalent of a cable TV shout fest.”4

The controversy over this issue carries with it implications that are of fundamental importance for debates among scholars of international relations theory and U.S. foreign policy. The extent to which domestic political constraints influence strategic decision-making bears directly on the question of whether international politics is to be understood mainly in structural realist terms. Structural realism's most basic assumption is that the anarchic structure of the international system generates strong pressures on leaders to make choices based on power politics. Politics at home, in this perspective, is usually of minimal importance.5

Of perhaps even greater importance, the Israel lobby debate profoundly affects arguments over how domestic political factors shape U.S. foreign policy. If correct, the idea that the actions of small, well-organized groups—rather than the contours of mass public opinion—determine outcomes suggests consequences of a far-reaching nature both for democratic theory and for the way in which the United States conducts its foreign relations.6 More broadly, such a finding would imply that domestic political structure affects, to an almost deterministic degree, the way democracies behave in international politics.7

This issue, however, has not been adequately addressed in the political science literature. On the one hand, prominent American politics scholars like John Zaller assert that one cannot study this question effectively using case studies. There is little to be gleaned, he claims, from testimonial evidence because leaders are unlikely to admit that their foreign policy decisions are “politically motivated.” If politicians do talk about such factors, they will be sure to limit the discussion to their “closest aides, who would then remain loyally silent.” Social scientists are, he thus concludes, “properly skeptical” of studies that attempt to infer, via process tracing, that domestic political considerations affect statecraft, for they “rely on unsystematic data. It is too easy for someone with an active imagination and any talent for writing to spin out alluring stories.”8 Because it is so difficult to operationalize the “policy impact” of special interest group influence, Robert Trice similarly argues, any attempt to study this question “is likely to be a difficult if not impossible task given current social science methods.” The degree to which such organizations affect decision-making, he claims, “is very often impossible to measure.”9

At the same time, Zaller has significantly qualified his initial beliefs about the viability of large-N observational approaches to the study of this issue. Scholars of public opinion, he points out, must pay more attention to the idea of “latent opinion” than he had at first acknowledged in his influential book The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion.10 By this concept, Zaller means “opinion that might exist at some point in the future in response to the decision makers’ actions and may perhaps result in political damage or even defeat at the polls.”11 Scholars who ignore this possibility, he wrote in a 2012 retrospective on his own book, confront a glaring—and more or less insoluble—endogeneity problem. If political elites anticipate how their messages will affect their chances in the next election, “observational studies of the effects of [elite] cues in Nature and Origins, as well as [Adam] Berinsky's more convincing In Time of War, might get systematically incorrect estimates of their effect.” He continues:

Observational studies can examine only the effects of cues actually given, but these cues are unlikely to be a random sample of all cues that politicians might like to give. If politicians selectively take positions they believe can win over fairly large numbers of voters, but refrain when they expect to be ineffective, observational studies will systematically overestimate the power of partisan cues to shape opinion.12

What, then, are those interested in the question of how political elites and public opinion affect foreign policy to do? Has the time come for scholars simply to throw up their hands? Has the study of this issue reached an intellectual dead end?

One argument that has been invoked to dismiss case studies, it turns out, is unwarranted. It is a quite commonly held belief—even among international relations scholars who employ qualitative methods and some historians—that one is unlikely to find references to domestic political considerations in primary sources. “Certain types of theories,” Elizabeth Saunders asserts, “may be difficult to test because the evidence required is not often found in textual or other records. Domestic political explanations, for example, are notoriously difficult to trace because politicians do not like to admit, even in private, that such calculations enter into national security decisions.”13 Sustained, careful research with primary documents, however, makes clear that this objection cannot be sustained. U.S. Middle East strategists, in fact, privately discuss the domestic political aspect of the Arab-Israeli dispute with tremendous frequency, often in great detail.

In this article I show how much insight into this issue one can get by examining the key case of President Jimmy Carter's policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. The basic point that emerges is that politics at home critically affected the way the Carter administration's diplomacy in the Middle East ran its course, a fact that other scholars have highlighted previously, though usually not on the basis of primary source evidence.14 The more important finding, however—one that differs somewhat from standard accounts of this case—is that the way domestic politics influenced U.S. policy was in large part a function of the political strategy the administration employed at home. If Carter and his advisers had adopted a different political approach to the issue domestically, the outcome of the peace negotiations might have been altered significantly.

The remainder of the article is organized into three parts. In the first empirical section, I describe Carter's preference for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement, one that would have resolved the Palestinian aspect of the dispute, and I highlight a series of key errors the White House committed as it tried to manage its political position at home vis-à-vis the Middle East. I then shift to an analysis of the process by which the Carter administration decided to convene the Camp David Conference in September 1978 and explain why such an approach, in light of Carter's handling of the issue domestically, resulted in a separate Egyptian-Israeli agreement rather than in a more substantial settlement. Finally, I summarize my findings and discuss their theoretical and methodological implications in a brief conclusion.

Stumbling Out of the Gate

Carter and his principal advisers took office committed to bringing about a comprehensive solution to the Arab-Israeli dispute. Several members of the new administration had taken part in the Brookings Institution's 1975 study group that advocated for such an approach, and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski had argued in favor of this type of policy in his published writings.15 On an early draft of a White House plan for resolving the conflict, Carter wrote in the margin that the basic elements of a solution were an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines with only insubstantial modifications, real peace from the Arabs, and a viable homeland for the Palestinians. The document added that the best solution to the Palestinian aspect of the dispute would be for the West Bank and Gaza Strip to be joined with Jordan in a loose confederation. Such an entity, the president added, ought to resemble “[a] little more than one of [the] United States.” In short, the administration felt that an overall settlement would require close to a full Israeli withdrawal and need to address directly the Palestinian question.16

As a result, the administration from the outset expressed its disagreement with Israeli representatives over the terms of a settlement. It was simply “illusory,” Brzezinski wrote in a memorandum to Carter on 7 March 1977, to think that peace would be possible if Israel demanded it be able to keep any significant portion of the territories it had taken during the June 1967 Six-Day War, and insistence on such acquisitions “would be tantamount to precluding a peace settlement.”17 Brzezinski's chief adviser on the Middle East on the National Security Council (NSC) staff, William B. Quandt, noted that Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin liked to argue that United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 242 did not obligate Israel to withdraw fully from the lands it had taken in 1967, whereas the United States took precisely the opposite view. Begin, Quandt claimed, was “technically right, but the negotiating history preceding 242 makes it clear that major withdrawals on all fronts were understood as the counterpart to peace.”18

The administration's disagreement with Begin created a dilemma for the White House. Carter and his advisers were intent on forging a comprehensive settlement, deeming it a major national security objective. Even before the new president had taken office, U.S. officials had prepared a detailed report on the problem that highlighted the U.S. requirement for diplomatic progress. Without at least some movement, they feared, another war in the Middle East was likely by the end of 1977.19 To temporize or fail to deliver would potentially lead the Arabs to try to break the stalemate militarily and to exert economic pressure on the United States, as well as allow the Soviet Union to reestablish itself in the region.20 Having witnessed these dangers during and after the October 1973 war, U.S. policymakers put a premium on achieving Arab-Israeli peace.

The U.S. government, the evidence indicates, tended to blame Jerusalem for the negotiating impasse. Israel's moderate neighbors, the report claimed, were “probably prepared to sign a formal agreement accepting the reality of [its] presence and to allow the Jewish State to continue as a fact, so long as they get back substantially all the territories they lost in 1967 and if the Palestinians receive at least minimum satisfaction of their ‘rights.’”21 Whereas Israel, Carter believed, was “the most difficult government now,” and the president had been “disappointed with [its] intransigence,” he was, by contrast, “happy with the cooperation of the Arabs.”22 “The present Arab leadership,” Brzezinski similarly told a group of American Jewish leaders on 16 May, “is the most moderate that has existed since 1947.”23

What this fundamental divergence of views meant was that at some point the White House would have to issue its own peace plan to break the deadlock. At an NSC meeting on 23 February, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance maintained that the United States would need to press Jerusalem to make concessions. “There is no question,” he said, “that it will require nudging from us for a solution to be reached. The Israelis will not make decisions otherwise.”24 Likewise, when the Policy Review Committee (PRC) met on 19 April, Vance highlighted the necessity of establishing a negotiating framework. Brzezinski agreed: “I'm very much in favor of that approach. The parties will not reach agreement by themselves.” “In the end,” Secretary of Defense Harold Brown concurred, “we will have to say what we think.” How hard the United States could press Israel, Brzezinski and Undersecretary of State Philip Habib concluded, was “an essential question.”25

Nonetheless, administration officials had little doubt, especially after Begin's election in May, that if they chose to pursue this sort of policy, a major confrontation between Washington and Jerusalem would be inevitable. State Department analyst Harold Saunders wrote in a memorandum on 16 July that if the administration put forth a peace plan calling for a restoration of essentially the 1967 lines and a viable solution to the Palestinian question, most Israelis would rally to Begin's side. The Israeli public and mass media, Saunders argued, would back the new prime minister completely, and the decision to announce a U.S. plan “would be perceived as the beginning of the long feared confrontation with the US.”26

The ability of the United States to prevail in such circumstances, therefore, would be a function of the “intensity, duration, and firmness of US opposition to Israel's position.” Without a clear demonstration of steadfastness, Saunders emphasized, the Israelis would not budge:

Crucial will be the Israeli perception of the extent of US determination and whether it has affected domestic US support for the Begin government's position. Most Israelis, including the pragmatic Right … would have to be convinced that the US had the resolve and the staying power to maintain its position through long disagreement with Israel.27

Washington would need to make a credible threat of “grave damage to the special relationship,” a process that would require “heavy pressures” for perhaps as long as two years. Even then, the United States would need to sweeten the deal by offering Israel a security guarantee and normalized relations with its Arab neighbors. “Nevertheless,” Saunders cautioned, “even the most efficacious combination of pressures, compensation, and Arab concessions may well not lead Israel to return to something like the 1967 lines; indeed, the effort might at some point be used by some as justification for a pre-emptive strike.”28

Given the history of how the United States had dealt with the Arab-Israeli dispute since June 1967, one would think that Carter would have understood that his administration could not hope to sustain such a policy without a solid foundation of support at home. Indeed, the record of earlier U.S. attempts to achieve a settlement in the Middle East should have made clear that the domestic political aspect would be crucially important to the administration's chances.29

Carter, however, essentially ignored domestic politics when formulating policy toward the Middle East. In part, this was because his advisers felt it would be preferable to work on the matter early in the president's term, when he would be strongest politically. Brzezinski argued that the inevitable clash with Israel ought to be “the first major issue rather than the second or third or the fourth (with some of your capital in the meantime expended).”30

Thus, without adequately preparing the ground for a dramatic shift in U.S. declaratory policy, and at a time when his personal involvement was probably premature, Carter spoke publicly about the necessity for a Palestinian “homeland” and a full Israeli withdrawal with only minor modifications to the 1967 boundaries. Given how sensitive the Palestinian aspect of the Middle East dispute was in the United States at the time, as well as the fact that previous administrations had been extremely careful not to take a public position on the territorial question, instituting such a major change was bound to become controversial unless it was preceded by a significant effort to alter U.S. public attitudes and to reassure Israel's supporters in the United States that the administration's strategy would not jeopardize Jerusalem's security.31 In any case, if Carter was determined to make this sort of policy adjustment, it would have been less risky in political terms to have had an official of lesser rank first pave the way for his involvement. It did not help matters that the president heaped praise on Arab heads of state and failed to afford Israel's leaders similar treatment, while also referring to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian people more or less interchangeably.32 As Steven Spiegel writes, the president was “an unguided missile in public.”33

Brzezinski ultimately acknowledged that part of the fault for the “very intense domestic reaction” to the White House's approach “was of our own making.” The Palestinian question had been “introduced too early and without adequate care to keep it in perspective. This resulted in a loss of domestic support for our policy, which came at a particularly unfortunate time in terms of the peacemaking efforts.” The charge that the administration had failed in its “tactical execution,” Brzezinski acknowledged, was somewhat “justified.”34 Thus, the White House's initial approach expended a great deal of Carter's political capital, which, in turn, damaged the administration's peacemaking prospects significantly by eroding its ability to sustain support for its policy at home.

Eventually, the administration came to realize that it could not possibly achieve its objectives in the Middle East without taking into account the domestic side of the problem. Representative Stephen Solarz, who maintained close ties to many of Israel's supporters in the United States, informed members of the NSC staff at the end of June that Begin would not moderate his policies voluntarily, “particularly since he believes that the Administration will not suspend arms shipments and that he has solid support in Congress and in the American Jewish community.”35 It was important, Senator Charles Mathias, Jr., told Quandt at one point, “for the Israelis to know that they cannot appeal over the President's head to the Congress.” Quandt concurred, writing in a memorandum to Brzezinski's deputy, David Aaron, “These strike me as sound points.”36

As a result of the White House's early domestic failures, Carter's chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, sent the president a closely held memorandum in early June warning that the administration would face an uphill battle unless Carter improved his performance in selling his policies to the Jewish community in the United States and to key members of Congress.37 American Jews, the document claimed, wielded considerable political influence, especially in the Democratic Party, through their “extraordinary voting habits” and political contributions. In addition, the memorandum argued that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was a formidable advocate of Israeli interests, as its “collective mobilizing ability is unsurpassed in terms of the quality and quantity of political communications that can be triggered on specific issues perceived to be critical to Israel.” When coupled with the fact that in the United States no “political counterforce … opposes the specific goals of the Jewish lobby,” it was “even questionable whether a major shift in American public opinion on the issue of Israel would be sufficient to effectively counter the political clout of AIPAC.”38

Jordan's memorandum also noted the strong support for Israel in Congress. On issues of importance to Jerusalem, AIPAC typically could rely on 65–75 votes in the Senate, and, of those, 31 were considered major backers and seven served on the Foreign Relations Committee. The administration, Jordan informed Carter, had greatly compounded the problem through its clumsiness. The American Jewish community had grown “extremely nervous” as a result of some of the president's statements. Unless the administration was careful, Jordan believed, it could put itself in an untenable position: “If the American Jewish community openly opposed your approach and policy toward a Middle East settlement, you would lack the flexibility and credibility you will need to play a constructive role in bringing the Israelis and the Arabs together.” He elaborated:

It would be a great mistake to spend most of our time and energies persuading the Israelis to accept a certain plan for peace and neglect a similar effort with the American Jewish community since lack of support for such a plan from the American Jewish community could undermine our efforts with the Israelis… . It is difficult for me to envision a meaningful peace settlement without the support of the American Jewish community.

Jordan, in conclusion, recommended that the White House launch a comprehensive consultation program with Israel's supporters, journalists, and key members of Congress.39

Because the administration was aware of the problem, one would think that Carter and his advisers would have tried to work closely with key elites who tended to support their policy objectives. White House strategists, after all, seemed to think that Begin's election had created certain opportunities to shift the debate in the United States in their favor. “Let me make a ‘perverse’ observation,” Brzezinski wrote shortly after the Likud Party's victory at the polls. “The electoral outcome may not be actually all that bad.” A confrontation with Israel had long been coming, he said, and therefore Begin's “extremism” could perhaps be beneficial to the United States. If a confrontation had to occur, it was best to have it with someone like Begin, who was “likely to split both Israeli public opinion and the American Jewish community.” Over time, opposition in Israel and from “responsible” American Jewish leaders could rally to Carter's side. Ultimately, Brzezinski surmised, Begin would be blamed “for unnecessarily straining the U.S.-Israeli relationship,” a development that would make it easier for the president to defend an independent U.S. peace plan in both the United States and in Israel.40

Brzezinski might have been on to something with this analysis. On 25 May, Vance informed Carter that Senators Clifford Case, Jacob Javits, Howard Metzenbaum, Henry Jackson, Abraham Ribicoff, Daniel Inouye, and Hubert Humphrey had met to advise Senator Richard Stone on how to approach Begin during his upcoming visit to Israel. Ribicoff, Javits, and Jackson—all legislators with strong records of support for Israel—had characterized the new prime minister as “too right wing and inflexible” and advised Stone to tell him “in very strong terms” that “an inflexible posture will not sell with the Congress or the Executive Branch.” The group had also asked that Begin be encouraged to compromise on the territorial question, “especially on the West Bank,” and Javits had specifically requested that Stone “warn Begin that an uncompromising position will tear the American Jewish community apart because it is basically a moderate group.”41

The administration thus appeared to have important opportunities to build support for its position in Congress. The speaker of the House of Representatives, Tip O'Neill, told Brzezinski that if the administration clearly posed the choice between supporting Carter's policy or backing “the pro-Israel lobby, the country would clearly choose the President.” Ribicoff similarly had urged Vice President Walter Mondale in late June to be “very, very tough” with the Israelis and had called for the president to “assert himself.”42 “A number of senators,” the administration had reason to believe, now felt “the time has come to stand with the President on the Middle East.” It would be critical, therefore, for Carter and Mondale to maintain frequent contact with Humphrey, Jackson, Ribicoff, Case, Javits, Stone, and Senators Edmund Muskie and Frank Church.43

Administration officials appeared to recognize that getting assistance from these individuals would be crucially important to the attainment of their goals. Brzezinski told Carter on 3 June that the White House would need help from key lawmakers because it was “coming to a point at which a massive effort will have to be made domestically to garner support for the position that you have articulated.”44

The administration thus might have tried to coordinate its political strategy with members of Congress who were sympathetic to its policy and whose views on the Arab-Israeli issue enjoyed credibility.45 Although Javits tended to be “very supportive” of Begin in his public remarks, he was privately “critical” of the prime minister and therefore, Quandt believed, was “important and can be helpful.”46 Likewise, precisely because Ribicoff was known as a staunch supporter of Israel yet seemed to favor the administration's position, his help would have been particularly useful.47 Carter, Brzezinski later wrote, ought to have taken advantage of former Ambassador to the United Nations Arthur Goldberg's offer “to do anything the President asked.” Goldberg, after all, was the self-proclaimed “father of UN 242,” which would have made him a valuable political ally. Because Goldberg “basically agreed with the President on the question of borders,” Brzezinski “always regretted that we did not involve him more actively in our Middle East venture.”48 Similarly, the president of the World Jewish Congress, Nahum Goldmann, who had helped found the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, had grown highly critical of Begin's policies and was urging administration officials in strong terms to take a firmer line with the Israelis.49

The administration had the option of taking its case to the U.S. public, something Carter's advisers recognized. Jewish Americans who supported the White House's policy, Brzezinski argued, were less organized than “the more hawkish groups” and had “been reluctant to speak out.” Until greater progress had been made, he reasoned, it was “unlikely that the policy issue can be won within the Jewish Community alone.” The administration, therefore, would need to expand the scope of its audience:

It follows that the case must be carried to the American people as a whole, including the Jewish Community. This means stressing that a settlement is good for Israel, but also emphasizing explicitly that the national interests of the United States require a settlement.

He added that the administration would need to begin working on the “consolidation and education of the public.”50

Although administration officials felt that getting help from the American Jewish community might prove difficult, Carter seemed to hold certain advantages with broad public opinion. In mid-July an administration survey of attitudes on the Mideast had revealed large and systematic differences between Jewish voters and overall opinion. On almost every question, the document stated, “the Jewish respondents in our study respond differently from the whole of the American public. They are always more definite in their opinions and as expected more likely to be ‘hawkish’ on territorial questions.” On all issues—the West Bank, Jerusalem, and the Palestinians—the survey similarly revealed “severe differences between Jewish respondents and other Americans.” Furthermore, although most U.S. citizens favored “some imposing of a ‘reasonable’ settlement by the U.S.,” Jewish voters “almost unanimously” supported the continuation of aid to Jerusalem “regardless of Israeli reaction to peace terms.”51

Administration officials thus viewed public opinion as a potential tool to help sustain a firm policy toward Jerusalem. An informed observer, Brzezinski's aides on the NSC staff reported at one point, had suggested that “public opinion was far ahead of the Congress on the Middle East issue.”52 The U.S. public, Quandt wrote to Brzezinski on 18 May, was less likely to support a Likud-led government. The White House, as a result, might have “some room for maneuver.” At the appropriate time, he concluded, “we may be able to act without fear of a serious domestic backlash.”53

Given the importance of the domestic side of the problem, U.S. officials knew they would have to undertake a major effort to mobilize support for their policy at home. A State Department memorandum, written in preparation for the Camp David summit, argued that, if Carter was to have any chance of prevailing in a confrontation with Begin, the administration would have “to develop Congressional and media support for our position.”54 “We cannot,” the document stated, “hope to sustain an international effort of this magnitude without building domestic support.” The administration would have to make an “early and intensive effort with key members of the Senate and House,” specifically Javits, Stone, O'Neill, Representative Lee Hamilton, Church, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Clement Zablocki, and Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd. In addition, senior officials would need to consult with certain leaders in the American Jewish community. A major television address by Carter would be the decisive capstone of this campaign. The document warned that “anything short of an effort of some magnitude would be unlikely to muster the support needed. Such a speech might be the only way to place the issue in a context which could contain special interest counterpressure.”55

The State Department document anticipated a good chance of success if the administration launched such a campaign. The “shrillness and frequency” of the charges that Carter was jeopardizing Israel's security were “becoming a self-inflicted weakness of the pro-Israeli lobby; they have risked debasing their currency by turning up the volume too loud and too often for too many lesser issues.” The president would also have the upper hand when it came to the issues of Israeli settlement expansion and the Israelis’ interpretation of Resolution 242. Although the mobilization effort “would require careful planning, sustained commitment in the face of counterpressure, and perhaps above all, a nuanced sense of timing,” the White House nevertheless stood a chance. “The prospects for success in such an endeavor can never be clearly assessed,” the paper concluded, “but certain factors indicate that an effective effort is both possible and necessary.” In particular, “the U.S. domestic picture has changed: many American Jews are troubled by Israel's policies and could support our effort; the Congress is feeling the new weight of pro-Arab interests and is increasingly impatient with the Israeli government's position; and within Israel itself there recently have been signs of those who welcome our policy.” Perhaps most significantly, if the Begin government proved the intransigent party, Israel might come to be seen internationally as a “pariah” state.56

U.S. officials knew that if a confrontation with Israel proved unavoidable, they would need to hold the moral high ground domestically. In this regard, Begin's commitment to settlement construction and his interpretation of Resolution 242 gave the administration an opening, a point Carter and his colleagues well understood.57 “Israel,” Carter told Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at one point, “is most vulnerable to pressure from American Jews, from Congress, from the people, and from you and me, on [the issue of settlements].” The Likud government, Mondale added, had refused to acknowledge publicly that its interpretation of Resolution 242 did not obligate it to withdraw from the West Bank because it “would be seen as ridiculous. If that point were made, plus the settlements, Israel would not be in a popular position.” Begin, Carter concurred, was “quite vulnerable on this issue… . Israel can't reject 242 and retain the support of the American people. This is also true on settlements. They will respond to pressure if we don't get in a position of being seen as the obstacle to peace, and if we don't threaten the security of Israel.”58

Nonetheless, what stands out from an analysis of the administration's efforts during its first year is the absence of any significant attempt to mobilize backing for its policy at home. Carter and his advisers were aware that key members of Congress seemed to approve of their substantive views, and they believed that trends in U.S. public opinion were quite favorable and that their views on the issues of settlements and Resolution 242 commanded widespread support. Even so, they did little to capitalize on such opportunities. The president, in fact, appeared to shy away from a public showdown with Begin. Brzezinski in his memoirs claimed that Carter had “felt that it would be too divisive and that it was not necessary at this stage.”59 Instead, the White House directed its attention to the goal of convening a major peace conference in Geneva. Administration officials were hopeful that such a conference would pave the way for the injection of Carter's substantive ideas for a settlement. The existence of a negotiating framework, they believed, would neutralize the charge that the United States had attempted to impose a solution to the conflict.60

The administration took great pains to avoid a premature showdown with Begin. In a memorandum on 15 September, Aaron argued that the administration needed to stay patient “on some of the issues in which the Israelis are living in a ‘dream world, but only so we don't make that dream a reality by virtue of domestic backlash.” The United States, he felt, needed to focus its energies on convening Geneva and pressing Israel to halt its policy of settlement expansion, while taking care to “avoid confrontation with [the] Israelis on other differences.” Aaron warned that the president must “not hand [the] Israelis issues or plans which they can use to attack or divert us.” Once the two sides met at the conference, however, Carter would be better positioned to address the Palestinian issue.61

It is not at all clear, however, why an international conference would have enabled the United States to interject its proposals for a settlement. The idea of exerting pressure on Israel had already been ruled out precisely because Carter lacked the domestic political support necessary to pursue such a course. Under favorable circumstances, issuing a U.S. peace plan during the conference might have shielded the administration from the accusation that it was attempting to impose a settlement at Israel's expense, but getting it approved would still have required the exertion of intense U.S. pressure on Israel. Assembling the parties in Geneva would not have solved this dilemma.

Furthermore, the administration stumbled badly even as it sought to implement this approach. Carter had failed to improve his standing among Israel's supporters in the United States. On 19 September, former AIPAC President Edward Sanders had warned the administration of a “growing crisis over Israel policy which is boiling just below the political surface” and could result in “a political explosion.” “A general and serious malaise,” Sanders wrote, “has spread like wildfire throughout the Jewish community based on the fear that the Administration's Middle East policy is a failure and Israel will be faulted for perceived impatience.” He noted that many American Jews believed that Carter was insensitive to Israel's concerns and had violated his campaign pledges on the issue, posing a major “credibility problem.’62

Moreover, the Carter administration's decision on 1 October to issue a joint statement with the Soviet Union promising to convene an international conference in Geneva undermined the administration's own political strategy.63 Although the text of the U.S.-USSR declaration was, in Quandt's view, “innocuous,” Carter ought to have recognized that Israel's supporters in the United States would see it as presaging a major White House effort to exert pressure on the Begin government.64 According to White House aide Mark Siegel, the joint statement had “had a devastating effect in the American Jewish community.” Carter's standing with the group had been driven “substantially below any U.S. president since the creation of the State of Israel, and I'm including in that statement Eisenhower's stock after he forced Israel to withdraw from Sinai in 1956.” “The talk in the American Jewish community is getting very ugly,” Siegel added. “The word ‘betrayal’ is being used more and more.”65 At a crucial moment, the White House had left itself vulnerable to criticism at home.

As a result, Carter beat a hasty retreat. In a testy meeting on the night of 4–5 October, Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, according to Brzezinski's account, “in effect blackmailed the President” by threatening to start a public campaign against the administration unless it met certain of the Begin government's demands.66 When Carter agreed to back away from the substance of the joint statement, the Geneva scenario collapsed, as the key Arab leaders lost confidence in Carter's ability to deliver acceptable peace terms.

The latter point is of crucial significance, for it relates directly to the question of whether the Carter administration could have done anything to salvage its strategy once Sadat had chosen to pursue an independent course by suddenly announcing that he would go to Jerusalem to negotiate with the Israelis bilaterally.67 It is certainly true that the Egyptian leader's actions ultimately led to the derailing of the Geneva formula, but it seems unlikely that Sadat's decision resulted from his principled opposition to this approach. His initial reaction had been to dub the U.S.-Soviet statement a “brilliant maneuver.”68 He had considered the declaration “‘marvelous,’ because he believed that it opened the framework for peace negotiations.”69

This implies that Sadat's behavior was largely the consequence of his perception that Carter lacked the political will to maintain his stance on the Middle East dispute. “It was not the U.S.-Soviet communiqué that disillusioned him,” Quandt later wrote; “it was Carter's apparent inability to stand up to Israeli pressure, coupled with evidence that Carter was tired of spending so much time on an apparently intractable problem.”70 Sadat apparently surmised that Carter's decision to distance himself from the joint statement indicated that he lacked the domestic support needed to deliver a settlement. Sadat later explained: “I took the [Jerusalem] initiative because Carter was under attack from the Jewish lobby and also in the Arab world.”71 The Egyptian leader's perception of the administration's domestic political weakness was thus an important factor influencing his bold decision.

Carter had, from the time he took office, failed to devise a domestic political strategy to build support for an assertive Arab-Israeli policy. Taking a firm line with Israel and pursuing a policy of self-determination for the Palestinians would likely have been politically controversial in any case, but Carter had compounded the problem through his mishandling of the issue. By the fall of 1977 he had little to show for his efforts, despite his tremendous expenditure of political capital. It was only Sadat's decision to journey to Jerusalem in November that pulled Carter back from the brink of failure and gave the administration a second chance.

The Road to Camp David

Sadat's dramatic visit to Jerusalem presented the White House with new opportunities. To be sure, the administration initially was not especially enthusiastic about the Egyptian leader's move.72 Senior U.S. officials soon realized, however, that Sadat's initiative could assist them in their efforts to mobilize domestic support by putting the Israelis on the defensive. The Syrian authorities, Brzezinski told Damascus's ambassador in Washington, Sabah Kabbani, needed to “show the same political imagination that President Sadat has shown.” Brzezinski stressed that Begin now appeared as the intransigent party and that Sadat had been “the first Arab leader to recognize the importance of public opinion in both the United States and Israel… . It is important to learn to play a political psychology game. Begin himself is a master of this art. But Sadat has now put him on the defensive.”73

In the aftermath of the Egyptian president's move, administration officials seemed to think the domestic debate was trending in their direction. Brzezinski reported to Carter on 8 December that several American Jewish organizations might now publicly back the White House's Arab-Israeli policy, including its stance on the Palestinian issue. “I sense,” he wrote, “that we are now in a position to gain broad domestic support for our approach to the Middle East, provided, of course, that the Egyptian-Israeli dialogue moves in the direction of a peace agreement.”74 Likewise, after speaking with a congressional delegation headed by Zablocki on 17 January, Vance informed Carter of what he had learned:

[I]t was clear that this important cross section of the House strongly supports the active role you have directed that we play in the current negotiations. They are overwhelmingly impressed by the mood for peace they found in the Arab countries they visited and with a few exceptions believe that Israel must do more to help keep the momentum alive.

Of even greater significance, Vance observed, the group had felt that “a way must be found through an interim process to return the West Bank and Gaza to Arab authority and create a Palestinian entity linked to Jordan.”75

The Carter administration thus appeared well situated to capitalize on what Sadat had done by focusing attention on Begin's settlements policy and conception of Resolution 242. With public and congressional opinion moving in their favor, and with some of Israel's supporters expressing sympathy for the administration's policy, the time appeared ripe to undertake a major effort domestically.

The administration centered its efforts on a strategy of close coordination with Sadat, who now enjoyed great prestige in the United States. U.S. officials repeatedly stressed to the Egyptian president that it was imperative for his image to remain untarnished in the United States in order to facilitate their efforts to portray more effectively the Begin government as the intransigent party and to shift the nature of the public debate at home. In a memorandum to Brzezinski titled “The Approaching Moment of Truth,” Quandt recommended that the administration pursue a “Machiavellian” approach to the matter. The United States, he argued, needed to urge Sadat to make a public statement that was “perhaps even a bit tougher than his real position, at which point we could intervene with an initiative to break the deadlock, which he would then accept.” The idea, he emphasized, would be to try to highlight to the greatest extent possible the contrast between Sadat's efforts for a peaceful solution and Begin's reluctance to make concessions. At that point, Quandt concluded, Carter would have a “fireside chat” with the American people, aimed at altering public attitudes in the United States.76

Carter and Brzezinski, at least initially, were impressed by this logic.77 When the president and his advisers met with Sadat at Camp David in early February, they laid great stress on the need for the Egyptians to maintain a moderate line. “I won't mislead you,” Carter told Sadat, “but without you and your support in American public opinion, I can't force Israel to change. With your support, I can put pressure on Israel to change.” Carter acknowledged that it would be difficult for American Jews not to back Begin in a “showdown,” but he expressed hope “that some key Congressional leaders and American Jewish leaders could join me to press Begin on a settlement.” Without a clear demonstration of moderation from Sadat, however, this would be impossible. Maintenance of Sadat's “image as a courageous leader” was therefore crucial. “I don't object to pressure,” Carter continued, “and I'm not afraid of a confrontation or a showdown when the right time comes. But it should be clear to the world that the breakdown of progress is not due to Washington, but to Begin.”78

The two sides eventually reached agreement on the sort of Machiavellian scheme that Quandt had devised. Carter declared that the United States would eventually put out its own plan to break the impasse, but he insisted that this could not be done in a straightforward way. The president would first have to meet with Begin to avoid the appearance of U.S.-Egyptian “collusion” against Israel. Later in the spring, however, Carter was confident that the issuance of a U.S. peace plan would command “worldwide support.” Moreover, Brzezinski argued that Sadat would first have to put out “an Arab plan. Israel will probably reject it, and then we can come up with a plan to break the deadlock… . Your plan should even go further than our view.”79

The approach Quandt had recommended, and which Carter initially elected to pursue, had a persuasive political logic to it. Sadat, after all, was by far the most popular Arab leader, both in the United States and internationally, and it therefore was logical to make him the focus of the White House's domestic political strategy. Because the PLO had not yet accepted Resolution 242 or even recognized Israel's right to exist, the Palestinian question was bound to be far more controversial domestically than would be focusing attention on the Egyptian leader.80

In addition, portraying Sadat as a bold and moderate leader was not incompatible with a political strategy designed to focus attention on Begin's settlements policy and conception of Resolution 242. This was precisely the line that U.S. and Egyptian officials had agreed to adopt. In conjunction with the Machiavellian scheme and Sadat's pledge to exhibit moderation in his public statements, the U.S. administration would underscore Begin's refusal to recognize that Resolution 242 applied to the West Bank and Gaza, as well as focus greater attention on Israeli settlement expansion. The administration would be fighting its battle for domestic support on the ground where it was strongest.

By the early spring, the White House's new approach seemed to be enjoying some success. On 24 March, the NSC staff reported that a group of Jewish leaders would be meeting with Louis Harris to discuss his public opinion data on the Middle East and would “get the cold bath of their lives.” Recent surveys had indicated “a massive falling off of American public opinion with respect to Prime Minister Begin and a very substantial shift of opinion away from Israel towards Egypt and toward a policy of even-handedness.”81 Brzezinski received a report on 12 April that some Jewish leaders were on the verge of publicly backing the White House's interpretation of Resolution 242 and that several intended to inform Begin that his West Bank and settlements policies were “costing Israel support.”82 Thus, after the prime minister's visit to Washington in March, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Hermann Eilts, was directed to tell the Egyptians that “things are going according to the plan we outlined to President Sadat.” Carter, the message stated, felt “there is increasingly clear public and Congressional understanding of where we now stand. He has been gratified by the expressions of support from key members of Congress whom he has briefed.”83

Direct intervention by the United States in the negotiations at this point would have been counterproductive. The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Samuel Lewis, wrote to Vance in April that sentiment had not yet emerged among Israelis that a U.S. plan was needed to break the deadlock, and he warned that it would be ill advised to “throw all our dice on the table now.” Doing so, Lewis asserted, would create “a situation in which the Israelis and their American supporters will credibly be able to accuse the administration of gross unfairness.” The Begin government, Lewis believed, could then attack the president for trying to develop an “American-imposed solution.”84

Nevertheless, the administration was using the positive domestic trend it observed to pave the way for an eventual confrontation with the Israelis, the climax of which would be a major address by Carter. The president, Brzezinski had written Quandt and Aaron on 27 March, wanted a draft of a “fireside chat” composed that would explain the administration's policy to the public. The “basic theme” of the speech, he indicated, would be that Israel was entitled to complete security and acceptance in the Middle East. “However,” Brzezinski continued, “permanent security cannot be based on the retention of territory and the forcible control of a hostile minority.” The United States, Carter would say, was “not committed to the incorporation of the West Bank within Israel nor to permanent Israeli control over Palestinian Arabs.”85 Sometime in mid-May, Vance advised the president in another memorandum, the White House would need to come forth with its own plan, which would require administration officials to “think carefully through the implications of [a] protracted standoff between ourselves and the Israelis if they refuse our offering.” Vance stressed that Begin “will not accept our proposal until he tests the measure of our determination, if then, and we can of course expect him to take the matter directly into the public arena. With this in mind we have agreed upon a major speech by you to set forth the proposal and rationale for our action.”86

By early May, the White House appeared ready to move soon. In a memorandum to Brzezinski, Quandt referred the national security adviser to a report by State Department Policy Planning Staff analyst David Korn, whose comments Quandt considered “thoughtful, and I think, quite close to the mark.” Although Korn was “generally believed to be quite sympathetic to Israel,” he thought the Begin government was “not interested in security arrangements and guarantees for the West Bank if given in the context of the return of Arab control (sovereignty) over the area.” Begin's plan for the territory was at best “an impossibly utopian dream” and at worst “a cynical scheme for perpetuating Israeli control,” which meant the time had come “to make decisions.” The United States, he added, now faced a “very crucial, even historic” choice, and in his view Carter's only option was to propose in the near future a plan that Sadat and the other Arab moderates would find minimally acceptable.87

The administration, however, then made a critical misstep. To overcome opposition to the proposed sale of F-15 aircraft to Saudi Arabia, Carter decided to link the transaction to the sale of planes to Israel and Egypt, a move that was deeply unpopular with Israel's supporters in the United States. The president had adopted the decision even though he had previously been warned that moving forward with the sale would shift the nature of the domestic debate over Mideast policy.88 Carter's Arab-Israeli diplomacy, Sanders had written the president on 6 March, had already “resulted in the most widespread Jewish disenchantment that I can recall,” and there was “a widespread conviction that the Administration is deliberately provoking an open conflict with the U.S. Jewish community.” Sanders was “deeply disturbed” by the proposed triple arms package and cautioned that it would only impede the peace process by precipitating “a heated debate at home.” Consequently, he had recommended that Carter delay presenting the legislation to Congress:

A failure of action will be materially harmful to the chances for peace and for success of the administration domestically. We feel that unless the situation is defused, the Administration may become involved in a potentially irreversible confrontation with the Jewish community (which, among other things, may hurt Democratic candidates in the November Congressional elections).89

Although the White House ultimately succeeded in pushing the legislation through Congress, an unintended consequence of the deal was the substantial erosion of Carter's leverage in the peace negotiations.90 The administration's mistake could not have come at a worse time. At precisely the moment that Carter was supposed to be bringing matters to a head with the Israelis, the president was, as a result of the aircraft controversy, increasingly bereft of political capital. A strategy paper dated 30 May emphasized that a U.S. proposal was still required to break the deadlock, one that had to “appear as reasonable as possible to Israel's supporters in the U.S., and more broadly to U.S. public opinion generally, so as to sustain support for the Administration's position and maintain the pressure on Begin's policies from this quarter as well.” In the wake of the aircraft sale, however, the perception in Congress was that something now needed to be done “for Israel … rather than asking more from Israel. There will therefore be a reluctance to back the Administration in yet another showdown with the Israelis.” Whereas in the spring “the Begin Government carried the burden not only of appearing to endanger the peace process but of damaging U.S.-Israeli relations as well,” the triple arms package had distracted “attention from the core issues on which the Begin Government was heavily on the defensive.”91 Perhaps even more problematic was the fact that members of Congress from Carter's own party were now beginning to urge the president to take a less confrontational line with the Israelis in order to repair the political damage they believed he had done to the Democrats.92

Carter, however, was nearly out of time. The White House, Quandt wrote on 5 July, would soon reach the “very crucial moment” at which it would have to decide whether to make an all-out effort for a settlement, “with due consideration given to political factors.”93 Brzezinski was even blunter in his assessment of the situation. The issue was “coming to a head,” he wrote Carter on 18 July, and “basic choices” would now have to be made. “How,” he asked, “are we prepared to deal with an Israeli rejection of our proposal? Do we have the political strength to manage a prolonged strain in U.S.-Israeli relations? What kind of forces can we marshal and in what manner in order to prevail?” Calling these “the central questions,” Brzezinski argued that Carter needed to determine whether he was “prepared to see this matter through to the very end,” adding: “This will mean not only major domestic efforts, but some advance decisions regarding our international reactions if Israel decides to reject or stall our proposals.”94

Carter's decision to invite Sadat and Begin to Camp David must be viewed in this context. In principle, the conference would help set up the White House for a confrontation with the Israeli prime minister. Because the administration could not afford a failure, Brzezinski wrote the president, Carter would need to “be really ready for a showdown.”95 If Begin rejected the U.S. proposal, Vance told Egyptian Foreign Minister Muhammad Ibrahim Kamel on 18 July, Carter would then give a major address and provide a full briefing to Congress. “The objective,” he said, “will be to get congressional and American public support, including from leading members of the American Jewish community.” The immediate Israeli reaction was bound to be “negative,” Vance observed. “But if there is a strong body of support in the United States for the US proposal, he hoped that the Israelis will eventually come around.”96

Thus, in preparation for the summit, White House strategists began devising ways in which the United States could exert pressure on the Israelis in the likely event that the negotiations deadlocked. Begin, Brzezinski wrote Carter on 31 August, would have to be warned that the administration would be willing to “go to the American public with a full explanation of US national interests in the Middle East.” The Israelis, the president would say, had received roughly $10 billion in U.S. aid since 1973 but were nevertheless “unwilling to reciprocate by showing flexibility in negotiations.” To avoid the perception that Carter and Sadat had colluded, which would make the situation “politically awkward” for the president, “the timing and circumstances [in which Sadat accepted the administration's proposals] should be very carefully coordinated.”97

This sort of approach clearly stood little chance of succeeding outside the Egyptian-Israeli bilateral negotiating context. The White House had done little to rectify its domestic problem on Middle East policy—in many ways it had exacerbated matters—and even if the Egyptians agreed to meet for face-to-face negotiations with the Israelis, it was far from obvious why Carter would then be able to defend at home the injection of U.S. ideas for a viable Palestinian solution.

U.S. officials were pessimistic about Carter's prospects for building domestic support at Camp David for a comprehensive settlement. If the administration were to enunciate proposals minimally acceptable to the moderate Arabs, a State Department paper drafted by Korn observed, “the Israelis will be unhappy and the Administration will be attacked by Israel's supporters in Congress and various Jewish organizations.”98 Ambassador Alfred Atherton expressed confidence that the White House's proposals would “be seen as reasonable to a broad spectrum of US public opinion, and ultimately to a significant body of Israeli opinion as well,” but he felt that Carter, even if he made an all-out effort, would have only an “outside chance” and would confront “difficult decisions.”99 “‘Very few’ members of the American Jewish community would understand,” NSC officials were informed in the midst of the conference, “if President Carter should take a tough line with respect to Israel after a summit failure. Instead, they would rally to Begin's side and leave him feeling that he had won.” The “real bellweather [sic]” of this group would, therefore, be the Congress, and it had “not been by accident” that Solarz had begun taking a harder line in recent days.100 “If you fail we're done,” Mondale reportedly warned Carter warily. “We will sap our stature as national leaders. We've got to find some less risky way of trying to find peace [in the Middle East].”101 The president, Brzezinski later wrote, also had serious doubts and confided to his national security adviser on the eve of the conference his “sense of uneasiness about the prospects for success.”102

What this meant was that Carter went into the conference primarily focused on achieving a bilateral Egyptian-Israeli agreement.103 Begin, after all, came to Camp David far stronger politically than either Carter or Sadat. The Israeli prime minister knew, Brzezinski observed, that Carter could not recover from the political consequences of a breakdown. Begin, he wrote, “probably believes that a failure at Camp David will hurt [Carter] and Sadat, but not him.” Brzezinski further surmised: “He may even want to see Sadat discredited and you weakened, thus leaving him with the tolerable status quo instead of pressures to change his life-long beliefs concerning ‘Judea and Samaria.’”104

Consequently, Carter chose to play it safe by pursuing a separate Egyptian-Israeli deal instead of a more ambitious program. Whereas a Palestinian solution would have required a massive effort at home that would have hurt politically—and might or might not have succeeded—peace between Cairo and Jerusalem was certain to be popular in the United States and could potentially help Carter revive his troubled presidency.105 As the president reportedly admitted to Sadat on 15 September, he simply did not have the political capital to attempt a comprehensive solution. Only after being reelected in November 1980, Carter told the Egyptian leader, would he be able to deliver on the Palestinian issue. Being more specific about the West Bank and Gaza before that would be infeasible, he said, because it would “cost me my job.” Or as Vance put it, the Camp David accords were certainly flawed, but the president still felt “a strong obligation to do something for the Palestinian people and believes he will be in a position to do so once he is re-elected.”106

Had the administration pursued a different political strategy, it might have significantly enlarged the scope of its success at the summit, for it would have had a better chance to hold the line at home on the issue of Israeli settlements. Carter's inability to get Begin to agree to a freeze on this issue was, in Spiegel's words, “his greatest error of the conference.”107 Without an Israeli commitment to halt settlement expansion, there was little chance that the Jordanians, Saudis, or moderate Palestinian elements could be drawn into the Camp David process. But because the White House had not done enough to exploit its advantages on this issue, its message was less potent in the aftermath of the conference than it otherwise might have been.108

The Carter administration's inability to achieve progress outside the Egyptian-Israeli bilateral context was in no small part a result of its suboptimal handling of domestic political strategy. After Sadat's bold initiative and the U.S.-Egyptian consultations in early February, the White House appeared to give much higher priority to the management of its political base at home, and it even enjoyed some success in mobilizing backing for its policy. Carter's decision to proceed with the triple arms sale in May, however, reversed these gains and left the president with little remaining political capital. Although convening Sadat and Begin at Camp David led to a significant breakthrough on the Egyptian-Israeli front, Carter's failure to achieve a settlements freeze eliminated the possibility that the other Arab moderates would join the negotiations. The result, thus, was a separate peace.


What are the implications of these findings for debates over the influence of domestic political considerations on U.S. foreign policy, particularly policy toward the Middle East? They show, among other things, that international relations cannot be understood exclusively in purely power-political terms. The U.S. domestic context constrained the Carter administration in its efforts to achieve an Arab-Israeli settlement. Thus, although the structure of the international system generated powerful pressures on the administration to behave in realist terms, politics at home was still of fundamental importance to the diplomatic outcome.

But if it cannot be said that systemic forces at the international level were the sole factor influencing Carter's Middle East policy, neither would it be accurate to claim that U.S. domestic politics made the administration's inability to achieve any of its objectives apart from the Egyptian-Israeli agreement a foregone conclusion. Contrary to the claim by Mearsheimer and Walt that the combination of the U.S. political system and the influence of Israel's supporters in Washington has essentially locked the United States into a policy of unyielding backing for Jerusalem regardless of its actions, the conclusions presented here suggest that the degree to which such factors affect the White House's freedom of maneuver is intimately related to the type of domestic political strategy and tactics the president chooses to employ. To be sure, the Carter administration's quest for a comprehensive settlement—particularly, its aim of settling the Palestinian aspect of the Arab-Israeli dispute—would have required U.S. strategists to confront opposition at home in any case. What is also clear, however, is that the White House compounded its difficulties through a series of critical errors, each of which siphoned off the president's store of political capital. Had Carter and his colleagues been more skilled as political operatives, the result might have been different.

What this analysis highlights above all, then, is the crucial importance of domestic political strategy and tactics for effective statecraft. Although vastly underestimated in the scholarly literature on the subject, which tends to emphasize to a much greater degree the significance of structural and institutional factors at the state level, the way in which the White House deals with Congress, handles interest group pressure, manages the media, and works to shape public opinion can critically affect foreign policy. Carter's disregard for domestic political considerations at the outset of his term and consequent quick alienation of Israel's supporters; his failure to use Begin's unpopular settlements policy and interpretation of Resolution 242 to his advantage more effectively; and his decision to submit the triple arms bill to Congress at an important juncture in the peace process all detracted from his ability to sustain support at home for his conception of Middle East peace.

It is worth asking, however, whether Carter's domestic performance really made any difference in the end. If the president had handled the issue with greater political deftness, could his administration have achieved more than it did? Some well-informed and perceptive analysts claim that Carter's mistakes mattered only marginally and that forces largely beyond his control were primarily responsible for the outcome. Moreover, the agreement reached at Camp David represented a substantial achievement in its own right.109

The White House had confronted several major challenges that were not tied to its handling of the matter domestically. Most important in this regard, Carter could not possibly have justified putting significant pressure on the Begin government to withdraw at a time when the PLO was still refusing to accept Resolution 242 or to recognize Israel's right to exist. The Arabs, except for Sadat, had not done enough to assist the White House in its peacemaking efforts.

Nevertheless, Carter might have succeeded in keeping the path to a broader settlement open if he had put greater pressure on Israel to suspend its settlements policy. As the president and his advisers recognized, this was the issue on which Israel's support in Congress, from the U.S. public, and from pro-Israel lobbying groups was strongest. The administration's failure to make progress in this area was what ultimately closed any chance that the other moderate Arabs would accept the Camp David accords and, consequently, meant that peacemaking would be confined to a strictly bilateral Egyptian-Israeli agreement. In this area, then, a different political strategy at home might have made a real difference.

In methodological terms, these findings underscore the widespread misperception that one cannot effectively study the interaction between domestic politics and foreign policy decision-making using documentary evidence. To be sure, Zaller is correct to assume that government officials will not disclose publicly or in personal accounts that political considerations influence national security strategy. Carter, for instance, denied in a 2006 interview that politics at home had affected his policy toward the Middle East: “I understood that [there would be adverse political consequences], and I just finally said to hell with it. I did what I think was best.”110

Even so, the potential unreliability of memoirs and testimonials does not mean that systematic study of this topic is impractical. Leaders will, on occasion, attempt to cover their tracks, as some might have done during the Camp David negotiations.111 Yet, contrary to some scholars’ pessimism about the likelihood that top officials talk about domestic political considerations in private, this article demonstrates that U.S. strategists discuss such factors regularly and in great depth. Rather than lament the impossibility of investigating these issues directly, therefore, a more productive course might be to examine these matters through careful, sustained research in the archives.


The author wishes to thank Matthew Gottfried, Deborah Larson, Stephen Palley, Michael Reese, Steven Spiegel, Arthur Stein, Robert Trager, and especially Brendan Rittenhouse Green, Marc Trachtenberg, the editors of this journal, and three anonymous reviewers for their extremely helpful feedback on earlier drafts of the article. He also would like to express his gratitude to Adam Berinksy, Tim Groeling, Elizabeth Saunders, and John Zaller for generously taking time to discuss with him several issues raised in the article. Earlier versions of the article were presented to the UCLA International Relations Reading Group and at the University of Chicago's Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security working group in May 2015.



John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2007), pp. 5, 112, 346. For the authors’ original publication on the topic, see John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, “The Israel Lobby,” The London Review of Books, 23 March 2006, pp. 3–12.


Douglas Little, “David or Goliath? The Israel Lobby and Its Critics,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 123, No. 1 (Spring 2008), p. 151.


L. Carl Brown, Review of “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2006, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/capsule-review/2006-09-01/israel-lobby-and-us-foreign-policy.


Deborah Amos, “Paper on Israel Lobby Sparks Heated Debate,” Morning Edition (National Public Radio), 21 April 2006, available online at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5353855.


Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1979). For this reason, the argument by Mearsheimer and Walt about the Israel lobby is somewhat surprising. Both scholars are prominent proponents of structural realist theory. See John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001); and Stephen M. Walt, The Origins of Alliances (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987).


For the Mearsheimer-Walt discussion of this point, see Mearsheimer and Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, pp. 111, 140; and “Conversations with History: John Mearsheimer and Steve Walt,” YouTube video, 1:01:02, posted by “UC Berkeley Events,” 21 September 2007, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FSXZNm2jGVE, at 6:16–10:03. Mearsheimer and Walt derive this conclusion from the literature on collective action, particularly Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965).


On the interaction between domestic political structure and international bargaining outcomes, see Robert D. Putnam, “Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games,” International Organization, Vol. 42, No. 3 (Summer 1988), pp. 427–460. The issue also has important implications for debates pertaining to the literatures on audience costs and regime type. On this point, see Elizabeth N. Saunders, “War and the Inner Circle: Democratic Elites and the Politics of Using Force,” Security Studies, Vol. 24, No. 3 (July/September 2015), pp. 469–473, 497–500. On audience costs, see James D. Fearon, “Domestic Political Audiences and the Escalation of International Disputes,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 88, No. 3 (September 1994), pp. 577–592; and Marc Trachtenberg, “Audience Costs: An Historical Analysis,” Security Studies, Vol. 21, No. 1 (January/March 2012), pp. 3–42.


John Zaller, “Strategic Politicians, Public Opinion, and the Gulf Crisis,” in Lance Bennett and David Paletz, eds., Taken by Storm: The News Media, U.S. Foreign Policy, and the Gulf War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), pp. 254, 270. See also John Zaller, “Coming to Grips with V. O. Key's Concept of Latent Opinion,” in Michael B. MacKuen and George Rabinowtiz, eds., Electoral Democracy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998), p. 320.


Robert H. Trice, Interest Groups and the Foreign Policy Process: U.S. Policy in the Middle East (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1976), pp. 51, 72. Note also James Lindsay's pessimism regarding the ability of researchers to investigate how presidents’ consideration of the “anticipated reaction” from Congress to their foreign policy proposals influences U.S. diplomacy. James Lindsay, “Congress and Foreign Policy: Why the Hill Matters,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 107, No. 4 (Winter 1992–1993), p. 615. On “anticipated reaction” and U.S. policy toward the Middle East, see William B. Quandt, Decade of Decisions: American Policy toward the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1967–1976 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), p. 20; and Dan Fleshler, Transforming America's Israel Lobby: The Limits of Its Power and the Potential for Change (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2009), pp. 43–45, 97–100.


John Zaller, The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).


Zaller, “Coming to Grips,” p. 311. For the original formulation of the concept of latent opinion, see V. O. Key, Jr., Public Opinion and American Democracy (New York: Knopf, 1961).


John Zaller, “What Nature and Origins Leaves Out,” Critical Review, Vol. 24, No. 4 (2012), p. 588; and Adam J. Berinsky, In Time of War: Understanding American Public Opinion from World War II to Iraq (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).


Elizabeth N. Saunders, “Transparency without Tears: A Pragmatic Approach to Transparent Security Studies Research,” Security Studies, Vol. 23, No. 4 (October/December 2014), p. 693. See also Saunders, “War and the Inner Circle,” p. 484; Melvin Small, Democracy and Diplomacy: The Impact of Domestic Politics on U.S. Foreign Policy, 1789–1994 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), p. 165; Jerome Slater, “The Two Books of Mearsheimer and Walt,” Security Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1 (January/March 2009), p. 13; and Fredrik Logevall, “Domestic Politics,” in Frank Costigliola and Michael J. Hogan, eds., Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations, 3rd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), pp. 154, 163.


An exception is William B. Quandt, Camp David: Peacemaking and Politics (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1986). This book remains the seminal work on the topic.


Zbigniew Brzezinski, François Duchêne, and Kiichi Saeki, “Peace in an International Framework,” Foreign Policy, No. 19 (Summer 1975), pp. 3–17. For the Brookings report, see “The Brookings Report on the Middle East,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Winter 1977), pp. 195–205. See also David Ignatius, “Solving the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” in Charles Gati, ed., Zbig: The Strategy and Statecraft of Zbigniew Brzezinski (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), pp. 179–182; and Memorandum of Conversation, 1 May 1975, in Zbigniew Brzezinski Folder, Box 1, Peter Rodman Files, 1974–1977, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, Ann Arbor, Michigan.


National Security Council (NSC) Report for Carter, n.d., in Middle East—Possible Elements of a Solution (Proposal, ca. 2/77) Folder, Box 14, Geographic File, Zbigniew Brzezinski Donated Papers (BDP), Jimmy Carter Library, Atlanta, Georgia (JCL, or NLC if the document was located using the library's Remote Archive Capture system).


“Subject: What Should Rabin Go Back With?” Memorandum from Brzezinski to Carter, 7 March 1977, in U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1977–1980, Vol. VIII, pp. 146–147 (hereinafter referred to as FRUS, with appropriate year and volume numbers).


“Subject: Briefing Memorandum for Prime Minister Begin's Visit,” Memorandum from Quandt to Brzezinski, 14 July 1977, in NLC-25-132-7-1-0. See also Summary Report, 2 February 1978, in NLC-25-55-1-4-8; and “Outline History of U.S.-Israeli Relations,” n.d., in NLC-133-132-9-21-5.


On the shape that such a conflict was expected to take, see Stephen J. Rosen, “What the Next Arab-Israeli War Might Look Like,” International Security, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Spring 1978), pp. 149–173.


“Arab-Israeli Dispute,” 14 January 1977, in NLC-17-111-6-2-2.




“Subject: Summary of President's Meeting with French Prime Minister Raymond Barre,” Memorandum of Conversation, 15 September 1977, in NLC-7-35-5-10-0.


Memorandum of Conversation, Brzezinski and Leaders of the American Jewish Community, 16 May 1977, in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. VIII, p. 263.


“Subject: Middle East,” Minutes of an NSC Meeting, 23 February 1977, in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. VIII, p. 129.


“Subject: Middle East,” Minutes of a PRC Meeting, 19 April 1977, in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. VIII, pp. 195, 204.


“Subject: How Will Geneva Decisions Affect the Begin Government?” Department of State Briefing Memorandum from Saunders to Vance, 16 July 1977, in NLC-15-21-8-34-7.






Some high-ranking administration officials seemed to recognize this requirement. See Minutes of a PRC Meeting, “Subject: Middle East,” 4 February 1977, in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. VIII, p. 14. On the domestic politics of Middle East diplomacy during the Ford presidency, see Galen Jackson, “The Showdown That Wasn't: U.S.-Israeli Relations and American Domestic Politics, 1973–75,” International Security, Vol. 39, No. 4 (Spring 2015), pp. 130–169.


“Subject: NSC Weekly Report #16,” Memorandum from Brzezinski to Carter, 10 June 1977, in NLC-15-125-8-1-8. See also Edward Tivnan, The Lobby: Jewish Political Power and American Foreign Policy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), p. 100. Note also Quandt's scholarship on the U.S. electoral calendar. See William B. Quandt, “The Electoral Cycle and the Conduct of Foreign Policy,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 101, No. 5 (Fall 1986), pp. 825–837; and Quandt, Camp David, pp. 6–29.


When considering a major shift in policy toward the Middle East in the spring of 1975, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had been greatly concerned about the probable domestic reaction to involving Palestinian representatives in the negotiations. Taking such a step, Kissinger had said, could “start a revolution in the United States.” See Edward R. F. Sheehan, The Arabs, Israelis, and Kissinger: A Secret History of American Diplomacy in the Middle East (New York: Reader's Digest, 1976), p. 167. For precisely this reason, Brzezinski considered the issue “very explosive,” and Vance was reluctant to discuss it even in private. See Minutes of a PRC Meeting, 19 April 1977, pp. 199, 206. Note also the observation made by one U.S. official that Carter's positions on the Middle East and other foreign policy issues “represent major changes and a new way of thinking for most Americans.” See Foreign Policy Issues, Work Plan, Memorandum from Landon Butler to Hamilton Jordan, in “Subject: Foreign Policy Work Plans,” 25 June 1977, in 6/77 Folder, Box 34A, Hamilton Jordan Files, JCL; emphasis in original. Secretary of State William Rogers had issued a detailed U.S. peace plan in December 1969, but President Richard Nixon had refused to back him politically, in great part because the proposal had resulted in serious domestic opposition.


On Carter's domestic handling of the issue, see Aaron David Miller, The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace (New York: Bantam, 2008), pp. 160, 185–187; Kenneth W. Stein, Heroic Diplomacy: Sadat, Kissinger, Carter, Begin, and the Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace (New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 35–44, 194–195; Quandt, Camp David, pp. 43, 49, 59–62, 77, 94–95, 167, 322, 336; and Tivnan, The Lobby, pp. 101–104.


Steven L. Spiegel, The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict: Making America's Middle East Policy, from Truman to Reagan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), p. 334.


NSC Annual Report, n.d., in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. VIII, p. 802; and “Subject: NSC Report for 1977: A Critical Self-Appraisal,” Memorandum from Brzezinski to Carter, 12 January 1978, in NLC-128-9-14-2-3. Vance also acknowledged later that Carter had disregarded the domestic side of Middle East policy at the beginning of his presidency, though his acknowledgment is made in seemingly admiring terms. See Cyrus R. Vance, Hard Choices: Critical Years in America's Foreign Policy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983), p. 163.


“Subject: Evening Report,” Memorandum from Middle East Staff to Brzezinski, 29 June 1977, in NLC-10-3-5-17-4. Solarz later noted that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee had given him “a near-perfect voting record.” See Stephen Solarz, Journeys to War and Peace: A Congressional Memoir (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2011), p. 36.


“Subject: Meeting with Senator Mathias,” Memorandum from Quandt to Aaron, 27 March 1978, in NLC-15-22-1-9-1. This view also prevailed in the Israeli press. See Untitled Report, “Other Developments,” n.d., in NLC-SAFE 17B-7-38-11-4. Mathias, Jr., subsequently authored an article in which he highlighted what he considered the deleterious influence of the Israel lobby in Congress. See Charles Mathias, Jr., “Ethnic Groups and Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 59, No. 5 (Summer 1981), pp. 975–998.


Because Jordan considered the issue “highly sensitive subject matter,” he personally typed the document and made only two copies, one of which he kept in his office safe. See Memorandum from Jordan to Carter, June 1977, in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. VIII, p. 279.


Ibid., pp. 284–288; emphasis in original.


Ibid., pp. 288–295. For additional evidence of the administration's belief that it would need to gain greater support in Congress and from Israel's supporters in the United States, see Minutes of a PRC Meeting, 19 April 1977, p. 196; Memorandum of Conversation, 24 May 1977, in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. VIII, pp. 270, 275; “Subject: Middle East,” Minutes of a PRC Meeting, 10 June 1977, in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. VIII, pp. 298, 300; “Subject: President's Meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ismail Fahmy,” Memorandum of Conversation, 21 September 1977, in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. VIII, pp. 548, 554; Zbigniew Brzezinski, Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser, 1977–1981 (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1983), p. 96; and Ismail Fahmy, Negotiating for Peace in the Middle East (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), pp. 195–196, 198, 205, 209.


“Subject: NSC Weekly Report #13,” Memorandum from Brzezinski to Carter, 20 May 1977, in NLC-15-125-8-1-8. See also “Subject: Israeli Election and Related Matter,” Memorandum from Robert Lipshutz to Carter, 23 May 1977, in Israel, 4–6/77 Folder, Box 34, BDP, Country File, JCL; Memorandum from Jordan to Carter, June 1977, pp. 284, 291–292; “Subject: Urgent Political-Diplomatic Considerations after the Israeli Elections,” Memorandum from Robert G. Neumann through Quandt to Brzezinski, 16 June 1977, in CO 1-7 Executive, 6/1/77–6/30/77 Folder, Box CO-6, White House Central Files (WHCF), Country Files, JCL; and “Subject: Letters from Ambassador Robert Neumann,” Memorandum from Quandt to Brzezinski, 20 June 1977, in CO 1-7 Executive, 6/1/77–6/30/77 Folder, Box CO-6, WHCF, Country Files, JCL.


Memorandum from Vance to Carter, 25 May 1977, in NLC-128-12-8-17-0. Note also Javits's comments during his own meeting with Begin on 4 July. See “Subject: Visitors to Israel,” Memorandum from Brzezinski to Carter, n.d., in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. VIII, p. 327.


Brzezinski, Power and Principle, p. 97.


“Work Plan—Middle East,” 25 June 1977, in Foreign Policy Issues—Work Plans, 6/77 Folder, Box 34A, Jordan Files, JCL.


“Subject: NSC Weekly Report #15,” Memorandum from Brzezinski to Carter, 3 June 1977, in NLC-15-125-8-1-8.


According to the political communication literature, statements from Israel's supporters in Congress endorsing the administration's Middle East policy would have been especially helpful. Conversely, because Israel at this time was primarily an issue in Democratic Party politics, the White House ought to have known that working with Democratic legislators would be crucial and that opposition expressed by fellow Democrats would be particularly damaging. See Matthew A. Baum and Tim J. Groeling, War Stories: The Causes and Consequences of Public Views of War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), pp. 17–45; and Robert F. Trager and Lynn Vavreck, “The Political Costs of Crisis Bargaining: Presidential Rhetoric and the Role of Party,” American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 55, No. 3 (July 2011), pp. 526–545.


“Subject: Letter to Senator Javits,” Memorandum from Quandt to Brzezinski through Madeleine Albright, 18 April 1978, in CO 1-7 Confidential, 1/20/77–12/31/77 Folder, Box CO-6, WHCF, Country Files, JCL.


Note Brzezinski's later characterization of Ribicoff as “a tower of strength” during one major battle in Congress over policy toward the Middle East. See Brzezinski, Power and Principle, p. 248.


Ibid., p. 96. According to the Ford administration's internal deliberations, Goldberg had previously told the Israelis “they should get peace for the [19]67 borders.” See “Subject: Middle East,” Memorandum of Conversation, 3 April 1975, in FRUS, 1969–1976, Vol. XXVI, p. 616.


“Subject: Soviet Jewry; Jewish-Arab Contacts; Middle East Peace,” Memorandum of Conversation, 27 October 1977, in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. VIII, pp. 730–732; and Tivnan, The Lobby, pp. 120–121. See also Nahum Goldmann, “Zionist Ideology and the Reality of Israel,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Fall 1978), pp. 80–82.


Memorandum from Brzezinski to Carter, 10 June 1977; emphasis in original. On the difficulties the administration faced in trying to get more vocal support from Jewish leaders who sympathized with its basic views, see Tivnan, The Lobby, pp. 128–130, 133.


“American Attitudes toward Israel: Jewish Attitudes toward Carter,” Memorandum from Patrick H. Caddell to Carter, 15 July 1977, in Middle East (5/77–12/77) Folder, Box 12, BDP, Geographic File, JCL.


“Subject: Weekly Report,” Memorandum from Quandt and Gary Sick to Brzezinski, 16 February 1978, in NLC-10-9-1-17-2.


“Subject: Israeli Elections,” Memorandum from Quandt to Brzezinski, 18 May 1977, in Israel, 4–6/77 Folder, Box 34, BDP, Country File, JCL.


On the media's role in shaping the public's views on foreign policy, see Matthew A. Baum and Philip B. K. Potter, “The Relationships between Mass Media, Public Opinion, and Foreign Policy: Toward a Theoretical Synthesis,” Annual Review of Political Science, Vol. 11, No. 3 (June 2008), pp. 39–65. Note also Jerome Slater's argument that media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the United States is skewed in Israel's favor and that this reportage affects U.S. policy in profound ways. See Slater, “Muting the Alarm over the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The New York Times versus Haaretz, 2000–2006,” International Security, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Fall 2007), pp. 84–120.


“Possible Courses of Action in the Event of Stalemate in the Egyptian-Israeli Negotiations,” Paper Prepared by the Department of State, n.d., in NLC-6-52-5-9-4; emphasis in original. Note also some observers’ belief that Javits would be “absolutely crucial to determining the line which will be taken in response to Camp David.” See “Subject: Incidental Notes on Israeli Politics,” Memorandum from Sick to Brzezinski, 7 September 1978, in NLC-25-112-6-2-1.


“Possible Courses of Action,” Paper Prepared by the Department of State, n.d.; emphasis in original.


On the tension between settlement expansion and the moral basis of U.S. backing for Israel, see Dana H. Allin and Steven Simon, “The Moral Psychology of US Support for Israel,” Survival, Vol. 45, No. 3 (Fall 2003), pp. 136–137.


“Subject: President's Meeting with President Anwar Sadat,” Memorandum of Conversation, 4 February 1978, in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. VIII, pp. 994, 998–999. See also Tivnan, The Lobby, pp. 118–119, 123–124.


Brzezinski, Power and Principle, p. 97. One must consider the possibility that Carter feared an anti-Semitic reaction if the debate in the United States over policy toward the Middle East became highly contentious. According to one account, the president later thought about giving a major televised address on the issue but was dissuaded by a group of Jewish leaders, who argued that such a speech risked “opening the gates of anti-Semitism in America.” Likewise, Vance later claimed in an interview that he had feared that attempting to “break” the Israel lobby might risk an anti-Semitic backlash. See Tivnan, The Lobby, pp. 121, 131. On this issue, see also Jackson, “The Showdown That Wasn't,” pp. 166–168.


Attempting to impose a settlement would have resulted in significant opposition from Congress. See Nine Senators to Carter, 28 June 1977, in CO-1 Executive, 7/1/77–7/31/77 Folder, Box CO-6, WHCF, Country Files, JCL; and Representative Benjamin Rosenthal to Carter, 22 June 1977, in CO 1–7 Executive, 6/1/77–6/30/77 Folder, Box CO-6, WHCF, Country Files, JCL.


“Strategic Scenario for Middle East,” Memorandum from Aaron to Brzezinski, 15 September 1977, in NLC-133-214-8-14-3; emphasis in original. On the issues of reconvening the conference and settlements, Aaron added that the administration enjoyed “broad U.S. support.” See also Report, “Alternative Strategies for Middle East Foreign Ministers Talks and Beyond,” n.d., in NLC-133-159-5-3-0; and Memorandum of Conversation, 21 September 1977, pp. 552–554, 558.


“Subject: Reasons Why the Jewish Community and Other Israeli Supporters Are Disturbed by Administration Actions and Inactions Since the July 6 Meeting,” Memorandum from Sanders and Roger Lewis to Jordan and Lipshutz, 19 September 1977, in Middle East, 1977 (2) Folder, Box 35, Jordan Files, JCL. See also Memorandum from Jordan to Carter, “UN Resolution on Illegal Settlements,” 26 October 1977, in Middle East—Israeli Settlements Folder, Box 35, Jordan Files, JCL. Carter had made statements supportive of Israel during his campaign for the presidency. See Patrick Tyler, A World of Trouble: The White House and the Middle East—from the Cold War to the War on Terror (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009), p. 183; and Tivnan, The Lobby, p. 98.


For the text of the joint statement, see Quandt, Camp David, pp. 343–344.


William B. Quandt, Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict since 1967 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), p. 189. Brzezinski later admitted that the White House had erred in not consulting its domestic advisers about the likely reaction to the declaration, and Quandt acknowledged that the move had probably been the “least carefully thought out, part of the U.S. strategy.” See Brzezinski, Power and Principle, p. 110; and Quandt, Peace Process, p. 187. See also Tivnan, The Lobby, pp. 119–120. My own view of the joint statement is somewhat at odds with Quandt's. Although the actual text of the agreement was uncontroversial, it signaled that the administration would soon be exerting pressure on Israel.


“Subject: Middle East,” Memorandum from Siegel to Jordan, 3 October 1977, in Middle East, 1977 (1) Folder, Box 35, Jordan Files, JCL. See also Memorandum from Jordan to Brzezinski and Aaron, “AIPAC's Critique of US-Soviet Statement,” October 1977, in Middle East, 1977 (1) Folder, Box 35, Jordan Files, JCL; Tyler, A World of Trouble, p. 191; and Abraham Ben-Zvi, The United States and Israel: The Limits of the Special Relationship (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), pp. 117–120.


Brzezinski, Power and Principle, p. 108. For the minutes of the meeting, see “Subject: Summary of the President's Meeting with Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan of Israel,” Memorandum of Conversation, 4 October 1977, in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. VIII, pp. 652–676. Carter admitted to Dayan during the meeting that his plan was to attempt to mobilize public opinion to build support for a policy of pressuring Israel. The U.S.-Soviet statement, however, had put the administration on the defensive and, as a result, Dayan succeeded in persuading the president to accept a joint U.S.-Israeli “working paper” on how to convene the Geneva Conference.


I thank Arthur Stein and an anonymous reviewer for highlighting the importance of this point.


Quandt, Peace Process, p. 189.


Memorandum of Conversation, 4 February 1978, p. 989.


Quandt, Peace Process, p. 189.


Memorandum of Conversation, 9 April 1980, in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. IX, p. 1141. For additional evidence that supports this interpretation, see Quandt, Camp David, pp. 123–125; Stein, Heroic Diplomacy, pp. 220–221; Miller, The Much Too Promised Land, p. 171; Benny Morris, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881–2001 (New York: Vintage, 2001), p. 448; Vance, Hard Choices, pp. 190–193; Brzezinski, Power and Principle, pp. 109–110; Fahmy, Negotiating for Peace in the Middle East, pp. 235, 240; Telegram from the Embassy in Egypt to the Department of State, 28 October 1977, in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. VIII, p. 741 n. 2; “Subject: Sadat's November 9 Speech: Geneva or Bust,” Telegram from the Embassy in Egypt to the Department of State, 10 November 1977, in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. VIII, p. 753; “Subject: Sadat Visit to Israel and Message for Sadat,” Telegram from Vance to the White House, 12 January 1978, in NLC-16-41-4-28-5; “Subject: Information Items,” Memorandum from Situation Room to Brzezinski, 10 December 1977, in NLC-1-4-7-6-3; “Subject: Sadat on Ismailia Summit,” Telegram from the Embassy in Egypt to the Department of State, 27 December 1977, in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. VIII, p. 902; and Memorandum of Conversation, 4 February 1978, p. 992. Other Arab leaders drew similar conclusions from Carter's decision to back away from the U.S.-USSR communiqué. See “Subject: President's Meeting with Prince Saud ibn Faisal al-Sa'ud, Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs,” Memorandum of Conversation, 25 October 1977, in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. VIII, p. 721; “Subject: Briefing Material,” Memorandum from Quandt to Aaron, 7 October 1977, in CO 1–7 Confidential 1/20/77–12/31/77 Folder, Box CO-6, WHCF, Country Files, JCL; “Subject: Syrian Perceptions Threaten Settlement Process,” Telegram from the Embassy in Syria to Brzezinski, 18 November 1977, in NLC-16-40-6-9-5; “Subject: Mid-East Peace Process,” Telegram from Warren Christopher to Brzezinski, 18 November 1977, in NLC-16-41-1-17-0; and “Subject: Zaid Rifai-Asad Visit,” Telegram from the Embassy in Jordan to Brzezinski, 23 November 1977, in NLC-16-41-3-21-3. There is also evidence to suggest that Sadat made his decision based on the mistaken belief that the Israelis were willing to withdraw to the 1967 boundaries, which would imply that the Egyptian president had not initially set out to reach a separate agreement with Begin. See Lawrence Wright, Thirteen Days in September: The Dramatic Story of the Struggle for Peace (New York: Vintage, 2014), pp. 49, 77.


As one observer writes, Sadat's initiative was, in Carter's eyes, an “inconvenient miracle.” Tyler, A World of Trouble, p. 176.


“Subject: Summary of Dr. Brzezinski's Meeting with Syrian Ambassador Sabah Kabbani,” Memorandum of Conversation, 5 December 1977, in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. VIII, pp. 792–793.


“Subject: Information Items,” Memorandum from Brzezinski to Carter, 8 December 1977, in NLC-SAFE 17B-6-31-9-5.


“Subject: Jerusalem Political Committee Talks—The First Day,” Telegram from Vance to the White House and the Department of State, 17 January 1978, in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. VIII, p. 950.


“Subject: The Approaching Moment of Truth,” Memorandum from Quandt to Brzezinski, 12 January 1978, in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. VIII, p. 928.


Carter and Vance were probably less committed to this strategy than were Brzezinski and Quandt, which perhaps contributed to the president's later decision to jettison the approach. The evidence suggests, however, that when Quandt first recommended the idea in early 1978, Carter accepted and pursued it. Not until the White House suffered a further erosion of political capital in the spring after several missteps did he reverse course. I thank an anonymous reviewer for a detailed explication of this issue.


Memorandum of Conversation, 4 February 1978, pp. 994–998.


Ibid., pp. 1000–1001.


For precisely this reason the administration had expended a great deal of time and energy throughout 1977 attempting to convince PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat to make these critical concessions.


“Subject: Evening Report,” Memorandum from Middle East Staff to Brzezinski, 24 March 1978, in NLC-10-10-2-1-6.


“Subject: Evening Report,” Memorandum from Middle East Staff to Brzezinski, 12 April 1978, in NLC-10-10-6-6-7.


“Subject: Report to Sadat on President's Talks with Begin,” Telegram from the Department of State to the Embassy in Egypt, 24 March 1978, in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. VIII, p. 1098. See also Brzezinski, Power and Principle, pp. 246–247. Note also Carter's comments on his dinner on 8 February with Jewish leaders. See Jimmy Carter, White House Diary (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010), p. 171. The strategy that U.S. and Egyptian officials had agreed on in February would perhaps have worked to an even greater degree if Sadat had played his part more effectively. On this point, see Quandt, Camp David, pp. 175–176, 182, 203–204; Quandt, Peace Process, p. 196; Brzezinski, Power and Principle, p. 252; and Mohamed Ibrahim Kamel, The Camp David Accords: A Testimony (London: KPI Limited, 1986), pp. 158, 161, 178, 383–384.


“Subject: Next Steps in the Middle East Peace Process,” Telegram from the Embassy in Israel to the Department of State, April 1978, in 4/78 Folder, Box 35, BDP, Country File, JCL.


“Subject: Fireside Chat on the Middle East,” Memorandum from Brzezinski to Quandt and Aaron, 27 March 1978, in Middle East, 1–3/78 Folder, Box 50, BDP, Country File, JCL.


“Subject: Middle East Strategy Over the Next 4–6 Weeks,” Memorandum from Vance to Carter, undated, in NLC-6-50-6-29-3. See also “Subject: The Begin Visit and Beyond,” Memorandum from Vance to Carter, 9 March 1978, in Israel, 1–3/78 Folder, Box 35, BDP, Country File, JCL.


“Subject: Assessment of Dayan Talks,” Memorandum from Quandt to Brzezinski, 2 May 1978, in Israel, 5–6/78 Folder, Box 35, BDP, Country File, JCL; and “Subject: Some Thoughts on the Talks with Dayan,” Memorandum from Korn to Atherton and Saunders, 28 April 1978, in Israel, 5–6/78 Folder, Box 35, BDP, Country File, JCL. See also Quandt's lengthy memorandum of 17 May to Brzezinski, in Quandt, Camp David, pp. 191–194.


To be fair, the administration might have suffered unfavorable consequences in the Arab world if Carter had not approved the sale. The planes had been promised during Gerald Ford's administration, and U.S. policymakers believed it would be difficult to ask the Saudis to be patient much longer. Administration officials, moreover, felt that they could not justify proceeding with the transaction without also doing something for the Israelis and believed the easiest way to get the legislation through Congress was to link the three transactions. Carter and his aides also believed that their ability to prevail on this matter might prove crucial, for it had become a “major test of our resolve and our consistency.” See Memorandum from Middle East Staff to Brzezinski, 12 April 1978. In addition, U.S. intelligence estimates suggested that, if anything, the sale would probably shift the military balance in the Middle East further in Israel's favor. See “Subject: US Aircraft and the Middle East Military Balance,” Memorandum Prepared by the Office of Strategic Research and Coordinated with the Defense Intelligence Agency, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, National Security Agency, and Air Force Intelligence, 7 March 1978, in NLC-25-1-7-3-3. The decision to move forward with the sale, in other words, was a difficult one. I thank an anonymous reviewer for explaining how carefully administration officials considered this issue. At the same time, one must acknowledge that, in light of Carter's priorities in the Middle East, making the sale was a questionable decision. The White House, after all, had received indications that if it delayed proceeding with the transaction until after the Egyptian-Israeli negotiations had met with success, it could avoid a messy fight over the issue in Congress and receive assistance in pressing Begin on his interpretation of Resolution 242. See “Subject: Middle East Arms Sale,” Memorandum from Stuart Eizenstat to Carter, 13 April 1978, in Middle East (1/78–9/78) Folder, Box 12, BDP, Geographic File, JCL; and Quandt, Camp David, p. 188.


Memorandum from Sanders to Carter and Mondale, 6 March 1978, in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. VIII, pp. 1031–1035. Siegel decided to resign in early March, in part because he felt his advice warning that the sale would undermine Carter's peacemaking efforts was being ignored.


Spiegel, The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict, pp. 346–353; Brzezinski, Power and Principle, pp. 247–249; Quandt, Camp David, pp. 191, 195, 204, 325–326; and Tivnan, The Lobby, pp. 124–126. Note also Quandt's claim that the administration wasted precious time in April and May trying to clarify further Begin's views on the issue of Palestinian autonomy. See Quandt, Peace Process, p. 196. One could argue that the administration's ultimate success in getting the sale approved by Congress demonstrates the impotence of the White House's domestic opponents on Middle East policy. However, Carter was forced to expend far more political capital to get the legislation passed than he otherwise would have if the proposed sale had not been met with such great resistance. As it was, the administration prevailed by only the narrowest of margins, and, more importantly, the debate over the aircraft package significantly undercut the momentum of the peacemaking efforts. I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for raising this point.


“Middle East Strategy,” Discussion Paper, 30 May 1978, in NLC-6-50-7-14-8; emphasis in original.


Jimmy Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President (New York: Bantam, 1982), pp. 315–316.


“Subject: Middle East Group Meeting, July 6, 1978, 9:00 a.m., Situation Room,” Memorandum from Quandt to Brzezinski, 5 July 1978, in NLC-6-51-2-3-4.


Brzezinski, Power and Principle, p. 250; emphasis in original.


Ibid., p. 251.


Memorandum of Conversation, 18 July 1978, in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. VIII, p. 1223.


“Subject: Strategy for Camp David,” Memorandum from Brzezinski to Carter, 31 August 1978, in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. IX, pp. 62–63; emphasis in original. Quandt discusses this “speech that never was” in his book and notes that it was only to be used as “a last resort,” in great part because giving it would have been “politically painful” for Carter. See Quandt, Camp David, pp. 240–241. “Subject: Camp David,” Memorandum from Brzezinski to Carter, 17 August 1978, in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. IX, p. 32; and “Possible Courses of Action,” Paper Prepared by Department of State, n.d.


“Planning for Camp David,” Paper Prepared in the Department of State, n.d., in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. IX, pp. 14–15.


“Subject: Where Do We Go From Here in Light of Sadat's Decision,” Telegram from the Embassy in Egypt to the Department of State, 31 July 1978, in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. VIII, pp. 1272–1273. Note also Atherton's later comments on the domestic aspect of policy toward the Middle East in Alfred Atherton and Harry Kreisler, “A Conversation with History: The Peace Process in the Middle East,” 28 February 1986, Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley, http://www.uctv.tv/shows/The-Peace-Process-in-the-Middle-East-with-Alfred-L-Atherton-Conversations-with-History-9148, at 12:12–14:09.


Memorandum from Sick to Brzezinski, 7 September 1978.


Wright, Thirteen Days in September, p. 59.


Brzezinski, Power and Principle, p. 254. Note also the admission by both Vance and Saunders to the Egyptians one month prior to the conference of the administration's hesitance to precipitate a showdown with Israel. See “Subject: Summary of Meeting with Secretary Vance and Foreign Minister Kamel,” Memorandum of Conversation, 7 August 1978, in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. VIII, pp. 1298–1299. See also Lewis's message after Camp David, “Subject: U.S. Strategy Options on Settlements Problem,” Telegram from the Embassy in Israel to the Department of State, 30 October 1978, in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. IX, pp. 389–394.


This was clearly Carter's priority at the conference. See Quandt, Camp David, p. 228. It is worth noting that some U.S. officials, particularly Brzezinski and Quandt, believed that a bilateral Egyptian-Israeli deal might ultimately complicate the task of achieving an overall settlement. See Quandt, Camp David, pp. 187–188 n. 16; Brzezinski, Power and Principle, pp. 112, 276; and Ignatius, “Solving the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” pp. 185–186.


Memorandum from Brzezinski to Carter, 31 August 1978, p. 60; emphasis in original. See also Ignatius, “Solving the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” pp. 186–187.


Miller, The Much Too Promised Land, p. 181.


Kamel, The Camp David Accords, pp. 366, 371, 377. See also Ezer Weizman, The Battle for Peace (New York: Bantam, 1981), p. 372; and Quandt, Camp David, pp. 239–240 n. 4. U.S. documents from the post–Camp David phase of the diplomacy strongly support the conclusion that Carter's concerns about his reelection prospects led him to put off a more ambitious effort for Arab-Israeli peace until after the 1980 presidential campaign.


Spiegel, The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict, p. 362.


Carter believed he had succeeded at Camp David in gaining Begin's agreement to a settlements freeze. See “Settlements in West Bank and Gaza,” Note Prepared by President Carter, n.d., in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. IX, pp. 192–193. The key point, however, is that when Begin denied having made such a commitment and later continued to approve the construction of additional settlements, Carter was unable to take concrete steps to oppose him effectively.


This is the view held by one anonymous reviewer of this article, whose comments I found both extremely helpful and interesting.


Miller, The Much Too Promised Land, p. 184. See also Brzezinski's dubious claims on this point in Power and Principle, pp. 35, 521.


The editors of the Foreign Relations of the United States volume on Camp David note that there is a “dearth of official documentation” from the Camp David summit, with “significant gaps in the official record.” This may have been intentional. In the file of working papers from the conference, an unsigned note reads, “These papers need to be classified (or destroyed). Susan Clough says the President wants them ‘sealed’ for a very long time.” In addition, Carter's personal notes of these meetings, to which he refers in his memoirs, have not yet been made public. See the Preface and Editorial Note, in FRUS, 1977–1980, Vol. IX, pp. viii, 79–81.