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Former President Jimmy Carter Hosts Forum on Mideast Peace Accords - 2003-09-19

Former President Jimmy Carter hosted a day-long symposium September 17 in Washington to mark the 25th anniversary of the Camp David peace accords that led to the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, the first between the Jewish state and an Arab neighbor. The forum's participants summed up lessons that could help the current peace process.

"We had not much hope for progress," said Mr. Carter. "There was a deep embedded animosity, hatred and fear that permeated that region. And it had been on going without much cessation almost since Israel was founded as a nation."

He remembers the prevailing mood in 1978 when then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat arrived at the presidential retreat near Washington to talk about peace between their warring nations.

Mr. Carter's top aides say their best hope was to make enough progress to keep talking about an eventual peace after the Camp David session ended.

What they got after 13 days of intense dialogue and negotiation was a full-fledged peace agreement.

Mr. Carter attributes their success to thorough planning, a commitment to stick with the talks even through disputes and disagreements, and an understanding of the limitations, the so-called red lines, of both sides.

Israel's Supreme Court president Aharon Barak was Mr. Begin's top aide at Camp David. He says creativity and the courage to take risks also helped.

"The key I think of success of Camp David, was imagination," he said. "Whenever we would reach the wall, we immediately turned around and tried another technique. We tried always to create new constructions, new ideas."

Egyptian presidential advisor Osama el Baz, who also participated in Camp David, says the U.S. role remains essential. He joined the Washington conference by telephone from Cairo.

"Without the active and continuous involvement of a third party who could be trusted by both sides, it would be very difficult to resolve problems existing between two parties whose positions are too much apart," he said.

An American presidential advisor at the time, William Quandt, says one mistake of Camp David was not to extend Israel's commitment to freeze its settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza for more than three months. Another, he says, was not quickly pursing a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The current effort to do that is at a standstill, with Israel and the Palestinian leadership criticizing each other for breaching the spirit of the so-called "road map" that calls for establishing a Palestinian state by 2005.

A shaky truce has fallen apart. Palestinian suicide attacks against Israelis have resumed and so have Israel's targeted killings of Islamic radical leaders.

Jordan's King Abdullah has met with President George W. Bush [this week] to talk about ways to get the talks back on track. In a television interview he appeared to echo one of the lessons of Camp David.

"There are some outstanding issues I know and part of the reason for my visit here is to really think outside the box and see what we can do with our friends in the United to get people back to dialogue and try to break the cycle of violence," he said.

King Abdullah's father signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, 15 years after Egypt.

Former President Carter says a big disappointment for him back in 1978 was his failure to persuade King Hussein to endorse the Camp David talks and pursue his own peace with Israel at that time.