Questions and Answers / A conversation with Yisrael Medad
Co-editor of a collection of the Begin-Sadat correspondence that led up to the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty
One wall of the large booth belonging to Gefen Publishing, at last month’s Jerusalem International Book Fair, was draped with a large banner reading “Is peace with Egypt history?”
Next to it was a display for a new title from the English-language publisher, “Peace in the Making: The Menachem Begin-Anwar El-Sadat Personal Correspondence,” edited by Harry Hurwitz and Yisrael Medad (349 pages, $24.95 / NIS 100). Indeed, the recent overthrow of the regime in Cairo brought the question of the durability of the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt into people’s minds, giving the collection of letters and speeches from that monumental period a new poignancy, if not relevance.
Anyone who was sentient at the time cannot have forgotten the drama of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s Saturday night, November 19, 1977, arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport, and his subsequent promise of “No more war” between his country and Israel. Yet it took another year and a half for the countries, shepherded by U.S. President Jimmy Carter, to arrive at the signing of a peace in March 1979.
From Sadat’s point of view, an Israeli withdrawal from Sinai, occupied during the 1967 Six-Day War, was a non-negotiable prerequisite, whereas Begin’s red line was any discussion of an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank or Gaza, or of the establishment of a Palestinian state there. Even so, Begin faced significant opposition to the pullout from Sinai, which required the plowing under of several Israeli communities that had been established there, including Yamit. Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by members of his own army. (His successor was his vice president, Hosni Mubarak, whose reign ended only last month.)
After Begin’s resignation, in 1983, he retreated into seclusion, which he maintained until his death in 1992. One person he did meet with regularly during his retirement was Harry Hurwitz, the South African-born aide who had made aliyah shortly after Begin’s election in 1977, and served him in a number of positions. Hurwitz had gathered all the correspondence he could find between Begin and Sadat, and suggested publishing it in book form.
Nearly 20 years later, and more than two years after the death of Hurwitz himself, that book is now available, and although one could argue that the general reader does not require every single document presented in it in unabridged form, it certainly provides a fascinating window into the relationship between these two very different statesmen.
The project of compiling and annotating the book was undertaken by the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, which was founded by Hurwitz, and the editing completed and overseen by Yisrael Medad, 63, the American-born journalist and former Knesset aide who is director of information resources at the center. Haaretz spoke with him at the book fair.
How did this book come into being?
Harry Hurwitz presented Begin with the letters that he had exchanged with Sadat, and suggested publishing them. I don’t know if it was entirely legal for him to possess them, actually. We thought we had an obligation to publish this. In addition to the letters, we included speeches, transcriptions of broadcasts by Walter Cronkite, things like that. But it’s not a diplomatic history - for one, we don’t have any of the Arabic documents. All the correspondence between the men was in English. We were told that up to 15 people would work on one of Sadat’s letters. Begin’s letters to Sadat, on the other hand, were written by Begin, polished by one or two people and then sent back to Begin for approval. Elyakim Rubinstein [today a Supreme Court justice, at the time an aide to Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan] has said that he had the toughest job at Camp David: He had the task, in that pre-email era, of sending everything from the Camp David discussions back to Jerusalem each night, after translating it into Hebrew.
What do you think is the value of this collection? What does it teach us?
We wanted to show the development of an interpersonal relationship. Both men managed to gain confidence in the other. We tried to say: In this peace process, you can’t escape the personal element. You have to wonder: Why did Sadat and Begin keep proceeding? The letters reveal the disagreements, which were quite fundamental on many core issues. Begin, for example, complained, even harshly, about the United Nations being used as a platform to circumvent the ongoing negotiations. Clearly, for Sadat, getting back Sinai was preeminent. His foreign minister, Ismail Fahmi, resigned immediately after Sadat’s Jerusalem journey. The rejectionists in the Arab world boycotted him. Nevertheless, Sadat proceeded to make peace, clearly viewing himself as above the rest of the inadequate Arab leadership.
Sadat described being at Mt. Sinai in a letter to Begin: It was a mystical, spiritual, esoteric letter, describing a vision. Yehuda Avner, whom Begin referred to as charged with “Shakespearing” his English said: We just didn’t know how to respond to it. In editing the collection, Harry and I tried to give the background to each document so the reader would understand it ... and we tried to include everything. Yehiel Kadishai, Begin’s longtime personal political assistant, told us he thought there was another letter from Begin to Jehan Sadat, written after her husband’s assassination. The Israel State Archives wasn’t much help in looking for things like that, but later, after we finished, an archives employee who was doing her doctorate on the subject, and knew the archives well, told us that she thought we had found everything. From Begin’s side, we see how the premier defended Jerusalem, just how he was opposed to a Palestinian state, and how he defended the Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. He seems to have seen Sinai, though, as separate from Mandatory Palestine.
Where did you fit into the picture? You didn’t work with Begin, did you?
In 1978, I was working for the Tehiya party as MK Geula Cohen’s aide, and in 1981 moved to Shiloh in the Binyamin region, north of Jerusalem. I was demonstrating against Mr. Begin. I ended up in the town of Yamit, the largest community in northern Sinai, which Israel evacuated as part of the peace agreement, in April 1982, and was almost there for the last stand. After Purim 1982, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon closed off Sinai. I walked 12 to 13 kilometers through the sand to get there. We were a large group from Shiloh. Then I had army reserve duty and I had to leave, about a month before the end.
You said you grew up in the Betar movement. Shiloh is an Orthodox settlement. When did you become a religious Zionist?
I became religious in the 9th grade. It was because of my very Jewish mother. She wanted me to become a doctor, and she decided I should go to Albert Einstein medical school, which was part of Yeshiva University. To get into Einstein, she was convinced it would be easier if I also went to Yeshiva U. for college, and to get into Yeshiva University, I had to go to a yeshiva high school, which led to my entering Yeshivat Chofetz Chaim. But by the 11th grade, Zionism was my next progression and from Mizrachi Hatzair I joined Betar in early 1964, and in 1970 came on aliyah with my wife. Later, I participated in the first attempt at settling Sebastia. I lectured at Geula Cohen’s Midrasha Leumit educational program on Zionist history, and for more than 10 years I was her Knesset aide.
So, even though you had pedigree Revisionist credentials, you weren’t exactly a supporter of Begin’s peace process with Egypt.
No, I wasn’t. But I think that they saw me as the black sheep that would eventually come back.
And today, what do you think? Was peace with Egypt a positive thing?
It was positive in many aspects. But much more could have been done to normalize the relationship between the two countries. We could have encouraged Egyptian tourism to Israel, cultural and intellectual exchanges, things like that. Or made an issue of the Bedouin in Sinai who, ignored, have become involved in terrorism and arms smuggling or the anti-Semitism too prevalent in Egypt. But it can’t be denied that the treaty removed Egypt from the war cycle and established the best physical border to prevent a surprise attack on Israel. The peace treaty held through the first Lebanon war, and that was the most difficult test at the time.
Is Israel really to blame if Egyptians don’t visit Israel, and their media disseminate anti-Semitic libels?
That’s true, but we accepted the situation as it was. We in Israel said: We accept the cold shoulder as long as the military aspects are in place, as long as we get gas. That personal relationship [between Begin and Sadat] didn’t trickle down to the people.
Sadat and Begin had very different characters and personalities. Are you convinced that they really became friends?
Again, Eli Rubinstein, who spoke at the book launch last month, said that at the last meeting between the two, at Sharm el-Sheikh, the two men sat there talking by themselves for almost three hours. People who don’t like each other don’t do that. They had their children meet, and their grandchildren met, too.
Are you saying that leaders need to like each other to advance their countries’ relations?
I think the book says that without interpersonal relationships, you will find it very hard to move beyond suspicion.
What about Carter? Could it have happened without him?
That’s a hard question. It certainly started without him. Sadat had made a strategic decision to leave Russian sponsorship, and he almost didn’t want Carter to mix it up. Again, Rubinstein says it’s a great myth that Sadat didn’t want to meet Begin at Camp David. It was Carter who kept the two men separate. There was also a misunderstanding over the matter of a three-month freeze on settlement construction. After December 1977, following Begin’s second Washington visit, when he presented his autonomy proposals, Carter asked Begin to freeze settlements for three months. Shiloh, where I live, was established in January and Carter blew a gasket. But Begin explained that any freeze was intended as a goodwill gesture for three months, to jump-start negotiations. Carter had understood that it was for the entire period of negotiation. William Quandt [a National Security Council staffer under Carter] says that Carter felt he was betrayed. We had a question about how much of Carter to put in the book. In Carter’s most recent memoir, he called Begin “an ass.” We could have taken revenge for that, but we didn’t. It is our hope that the book will be in reference libraries.
Do you think peace with Egypt is history?
It’s almost a lost history. During the three decades that have gone by, all who were involved in that peace process lost an opportunity to build a good civil society in Egypt. You can’t have a genuine peace with non-democratic societies. History was lost when Mubarak wouldn’t come to Israel, other than once, for Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral. The book deals with the creation of the peace treaty and ends in 1982. Peace itself comes only after a peace treaty.