Worried about the possibilities of Soviet-American confrontation and a new embargo on Middle Eastern oil, Carter sought a "comprehensive" settlement in the Middle East but again ran into tough problems. Apparently seeing Israel's behavior as the key, he pressed Israel to participate in multinational negotiations that would include the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), to agree to withdraw to "defensible borders" close to those it had had before the 1967 war, and to accept a homeland for the Palestinian Arabs in exchange for Arab recognition of Israel's right to exist and conduct normal relations. Carter, Vance, and others met frequently with Middle Eastern leaders, and the president also attempted to draw the Soviet Union into the negotiating process.
Although Arab leaders welcomed Carter's efforts, they alarmed Israel and its friends in the United States. The Arabs hoped that American pressures would succeed, but Menachem Begin, the new Israeli prime minister, was a Polish Jew haunted by memories of the Holocaust, influenced by visions of the boundaries of biblical times, and the leader of a hard-line party. Thus, he tried to persuade American leaders that few concessions could be made. Israel's friends in the United States, and they were numerous and influential, were convinced of the strategic importance of Israel, as well as its moral significance. They believed that Carter did not support it as firmly as his predecessors had and reminded him that the PLO was committed to the destruction of the country. They also expressed alarm about the proposals on boundaries and pointed to dangers in efforts to draw the Soviet Union into the negotiating process. Some charged that oil explained the direction that American policies were taking. These pressures forced Carter to insist that he supported Israel, would not harm it, and would not impose a settlement, but he did regard Begin as too inflexible.
A surprise move by Anwar as-Sadat, the president of Egypt, changed the Middle East situation. In November 1977 he visited Israel to initiate face-to-face negotiations between the Egyptians and the Israelis. His country's severe economic problems, the need for peace, and concern about some features of the American peace efforts, including encouragement of Soviet participation, influenced the move. It divided the Arabs, since most refused to talk with a nation whose right to exist they denied, and produced fresh conflict between Egypt and the Soviet Union. But, coupled with Begin's refusal to make major concessions and an Israeli raid into Lebanon, the move gained new admirers for Sadat in the United States and somewhat greater sympathy for the Arab cause.
Carter did what he could to assist the Egyptian president, but after a promising beginning, negotiations ground to a halt as the two sides learned how far apart they were on key issues. Carter then persuaded the two leaders to meet with him at Camp David, Maryland. There, the three men talked for thirteen days in September 1978 and the president achieved a great success: a "framework for peace" in the Middle East and a draft of a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. To promote the signing of the treaty, Carter traveled to the Middle East. The treaty was soon approved and then signed in Washington on 26 March 1979, and the old enemies established full diplomatic relations. Israel had agreed to withdraw from the Sinai, but big issues continued to divide the Middle East and generate violence there and problems for the American president.
Earlier in 1978, the Carter administration had announced an arms deal, hoping that it would strengthen Arab moderates and American influence. The deal would send the nation's best fighter plane, the F-15, not only to Israel, as had been expected, but also to Saudi Arabia, an oil-rich country controlled by antiradical and anti-Soviet leaders, and to Egypt. Israel and many of its American friends opposed the deal, doubting that the Saudis could be counted on to restrain Israel's enemies and avoid hostile acts against Israel. To critics, the deal indicated that Carter and his top adviser on foreign affairs, Brzezinski, were insensitive to Israel's security needs and were tilting toward Saudi Arabia. The debate was hot, but the president won when Congress agreed to the arrangement.