Behind the Scenes of Anwar Sadat's Historic Visit to Jerusalem

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

“I will now disclose things that cannot be made public,” said Prime Minister Menachem Begin at a September 4, 1977 government meeting. "[Romanian] President [Nicolae] Ceausescu has told me that [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat is prepared to hold a meeting between representatives of Israel and Egypt. I asked him if that meant a meeting between the president of Egypt and me, and he replied that at this stage it meant a meeting between Israeli representatives and Egyptian representatives. Obviously, it is not possible to make this public and we will see how it develops.”

Begin’s remarks appear in the transcript of the meeting, the contents of which were defined as “Top Secret,” which was held two months before the Egyptian president’s historic visit to Israel. The transcript was released on Tuesday for the first time, 35 years after the November 20 visit which led, within two years, to the Camp David Agreements and the peace treaty with Egypt.

The Israel State Archives has released about 40 additional documents connected to the event, covering secret contacts with Egypt, negotiations and preparations prior to the visit and discussions on what was to happen next. All these documents have been uploaded to the Archive website

Begin’s visit to Romania – the only Communist country that then maintained diplomatic relations – took place at the end of August in 1977. Israel tried to promote ties with Egypt via Romania, which had good relations with the Arab world. The visit took place 12 years before the Romanian dictator was ousted, and executed.

In a one-on-one meeting with Ceausescu, Begin heard that Sadat had agreed to a direct meeting between Israeli and Egyptian representatives. “I took advantage of the opportunity for a personal conversation with Ceausescu when the president stopped a discussion that had been going on for two hours and walked with me in the garden, only with an interpreter,” Begin told his ministers.

In addition to relations with Egypt, Ceausescu’s demanded that Israel recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization and negotiate with it. Begin updated the ministers on what Ceausescu had said to the effect that “We should recognize the PLO, hold negotiations with [Yasser] Arafat – Arafat is a good person – Ceausescu has spoken to him and there are people who are a lot worse in the PLO – Arafat is prepared to recognize the State of Israel.”

At the meeting, Romania demanded that Israel withdraw from the territories it had occupied a decade earlier, in 1967. “He too commented on the settlements and I replied as necessary,” Begin informed the ministers. “He demanded withdrawal to the 1967 borders He said: If the Israeli policy continues, that is, according to what he said, non-agreement to a withdrawal to the lines of June 4 1967, non-recognition of a Palestinian state, non-conducting of negotiations with the PLO – he is concerned, and he said this anxiously, that anti-Jewish feelings will arise in many parts of the world.” Begin said replied: “I want you to know that the Jewish people is united today, more than ever, around Israel.”

Along with the message from Sadat transmitted via Romania, Israel utilized its contacts with Morocco and King Hassan II to facilitate a high-level Israeli-Egyptian meeting. On September 9 a positive reply arrived: The Egyptians are prepared to meet.

On September 16 Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan flew secretly to Morocco and met with Egyptian deputy prime minister Hassan Tohami. A report written at the Mossad describes the meeting in considerable detail. “Upon their arrival the guests were taken to the king’s official guest house, which is located near his private villa. After a short rest ... they were taken in through a special back door used for clandestine visits and secret guests,” says the Mossad report. Then “the group was received by (the Mossad has censored the subsequent words), which enabled Dayan to free himself of his makeup and return to his natural appearance.”

Tohami turned to Dayan and said: “All these years I thought I would meet you only on the battlefield or in a diplomatic defeat and here we are, the two of us, in a search for peace, thanks to the king’s efforts and the faith Sadat has in Begin and you. You are strong and courageous leaders and we believe you will dare to take fateful decisions for a full and fair peace.”

Tohami added that “Sadat is very serious about peace” and stressed that at this stage the talks were being conducted without the knowledge of the United States.

The Palestinian issue was discussed in the conversation. “It is possible to curb the danger of the radical Palestinians if the Arab countries are allowed to deal with them. The Palestinians will become a more powerful factor if an answer is not found for their national aspirations. The Arab countries are able to supervise their radical tendencies, which for the most part can be neutralized ” In sum, Tohami said that Sadat had agreed to a dialogue with Israel and that he had confidence in the Begin government, but conditioned the meeting on agreement in advance to withdraw from the territories.

The meeting lasted for four hours. It also included, of course, a dinner and an exchange of gifts. “Dayan presented the king with a set of Canaanite weapons from his own personal collection,” wrote the Mossad. The visit ended well but, according to the Mossad report, “one of the people involved suggested that on his next visit Dayan wear somewhat darker glasses because the ones he wore were too transparent.”

Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin join hands on the day of the signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty in 1979. Credit: Yaakov Saar