'This American Chutzpah Makes My Blood Boil,' Menachem Begin Said During Jimmy Carter's 1979 Visit to Israel for Egypt Peace Talks

Drama surrounding U.S. president's visit endangered signing of peace accord with Egypt; State Archive publishes protocols ahead of Barack Obama's visit to Israel.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

On March 12, 1979, while U.S. President Jimmy Carter was visiting Israel, a special cabinet session was called, headed by Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The contents of this meeting remained confidential until Sunday, when the State Archives published them for the first time, 34 years after Carter's historic visit - and just in time for President Obama’s.

A look through the meeting’s protocol reveals the immense drama that took place during Carter’s visit – drama that threatened to wreck the entire presidential visit, and endangered the very signing of the peace accord with Egypt for which Carter had come.

“Now or never!” was the message used by Carter as discussions commenced with Begin and his ministers, who were adamantly opposed to Egypt’s demands. "Mr President," Begin bluntly told Carter midway into the negotiations, "we shall sign only what we agree to, and we shall not sign anything to which we do not agree.” In the end, a last-minute breakthrough was achieved, an event which prompted Carter to tell Begin, via telephone, "That is the best news of my life - wonderful news."

President Carter’s visit to the Middle East was intended to finalize the deal's details and oversee its signing. On March 7 he spent 3 days in Egypt, and on March 10 arrived in Israel.

Half a year earlier, at a formal ceremony at the White House, Begin, Carter and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David Accords, which outlined a framework for a peace treaty to be signed between Israel and Egypt. The optimism that marked the proceeding, however, quickly turned into a crisis that threatened to delay the signing.

The cabinet meeting, whose protocol was made public for the first time Sunday morning, reveals the tensions that strained Israeli-U.S. relations regarding the visit. At the height of the negotiations, unofficial reports were received by Israeli officials which stated that the U.S. president was already on his way out of the country, and that roads and airspace had been sealed off to prepare for his departure.

Begin concluded the visit by saying "I don’t think we can say the president was hurt. On the other hand, he certainly hurt me, with one statement he made. I wish him well, I am fond of him and feel sentimental towards him, but when he said to me in English: “You will have to sign it,” I responded to him immediately 'We shall sign only what we agree to', after which he lowered his tone.”

Begin called the American demand that Israel publicize planned stages of withdrawal from the Sinai “chutzpah,” saying “How can we decide today? The withdrawal process has not yet begun and already the Israeli prime minister needs to give them a list what it will withdraw from first and what later…”

Begin had a hard time concealing his disapproval. “We are to decide today on stages of withdrawal? I must admit, I know how to keep calm, and I have proven that today. This makes my blood boil. To confront us today with such a demand? A need to fulfill the whimsy of Sadat or the Americans – this is why we have to accept this? Certainly not. to do this would mean defeat in the fullest sense of the word."

Begin was not averse to calling off negotiations if he felt he was being pressured. “If he is willing to say that if such and such happens then there won't be an agreement, then we can say that too, and I am worry-free. I want this peace with all my heart, and wish to sign this peace agreement according to the terms we discussed together,” he said.

It would later surface that Carter had also been angry with Begin. In a meeting between the two, Begin told Carter that the treaty could not be signed during his visit, since Begin would need to hold a government meeting to discuss its details first, and also present the treaty to the Knesset. Carter was furious. In his diary he wrote: "I couldn't believe it. I stood up and asked him if there was any point in me staying any longer."

MK Shmuel Tamir tried to calm the cabinet meeting, saying “The prime minister and the president should meet. I don’t think things should remain tense. The matter must be worked out, since a government cannot be held according to telegrams sent from the other side.”

MK Haim Landau said, who complained about the American approach to negotiating, said “They are conducting negotiations with us here on behalf of the Egyptians." He added that the Americans do not ask to use or respond to anything they believe the Egyptians won't accept and described the negotiations as "very strange … the likes of which I’ve never seen.”

Landau opposed any meeting taking place between Begin and Carter. “I don’t think there’s room for the prime minister to meet with the president today… it can be wrapped in pretty words, but the essence is that we need to see where we go from here. We need to say, 'Sir, why are you hanging around here?' In my opinion, Carter will ask for a meeting and then it will be appropriate – according to his initiative, not ours.”

During the meeting, Landau went on to say, “They are putting the pressure on us to get what they want. There is no limit to their dictation. This is the time to stop them and they can be stopped without concern… So we don’t [want to] create a situation in which the Americans tell us at some point that we cheated them regarding the territories.”

Minister Yitzhak Modai also criticized the way negotiations were being conducted, claiming not everyone was aware of what was happening. “We try to coordinate [our] position with the United States. They go to Egypt, change their position, return, we coordinate positions again, they go to Egypt again and change their position [and so on and so forth]."

Modai compared it to math, saying that it would only be over when Israel accepts Egypt’s position. “However, one can also argue mathematics,” he said. He proceeded to give the negotiations the nickname, “The War of Attrition.” It was in fact Ariel Sharon, then agriculture minister, who calmed the situation. “Nothing happened… I suggest we don’t get out of hand. Everything is under control. The fact that a minister doesn’t know what he’ll do at six. So what? He’ll find what it is that he must to do.”

The PM and the ministers also went to lengths when addressing the future of the Gaza Strip, expressing fears that Egypt was attempting to gain a foothold in Gaza in order to restore their control over it, or to encourage the establishment of a Palestinian state within it.

Today, Begin's words can be read in the context of the Gaza pullout led by Sharon some 27 years later, while he served as prime minister. “We mustn't allow one Egyptian to handle all the residents of Gaza", Begin warned. "No Egyptian delegation should go there… They will turn the Gaza Strip into a volcano, those are the instructions and that is how they are talking, the first step to Palestinian independence. It will start with six people, then a few more, and then they will send them to Judea and Samaria. They will talk to the mayor of Nablus and say to us: ‘What do you care? You agreed to negotiate with us."

Sharon warned that if Israel would show a willingness to discuss the issue “it would mean a Palestinian state next month,” adding, “You don’t know the Gaza Strip. No matter what the price- this cannot happen, ever!”

Later on in the meeting, Sharon said: “Very few here are familiar with the Gaza Strip. Anyone who understands it, knows what it means to allow an Egyptian delegation to be there. It is not the sprawling expanse of Judea and Samaria, it is a very small place; a tiny place, where a storm can easily erupt within a day. This is the reason no Egyptian officials or delegation will be allowed there on my watch.”

Modai expressed his concern over the Egyptian plan to enter Gaza. “The formula is simple: Get El Arish and, as quickly as possible, reach the international border, set up a communication office in Gaza, and then the whole world will see that there is an Egyptian government there … I am concerned that the Palestinian state will begin in Gaza, not in Judea and Samaria.”

At the end of the day, despite all the tensions and disputes, a peace agreement was signed with Egypt on March 26, 1979. The documents published by Israel's State Archive can be found on its website: www.archives.gov.il

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