Camp David Minutes Show How Understanding Overcame Distrust

'How can I make an agreement with people I don’t trust?' Sadat asked. But he did, as did Begin - despite what he called his 'pained heart.'

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin join hands on the day of the signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty in 1979.
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
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Back on July 2, 1978, Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan sounded discouraged in his conversation with Walter Mondale at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. He told the U.S. vice president that his 30 years of negotiating with the Arabs had brought no results “other than the fact that some of those we negotiated with were murdered.”

The Dayan-Mondale meeting features in one of 67 documents totaling hundreds of pages on the Camp David negotiating process. The Israel State Archives is posting the documents on its website Wednesday, the 35th anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt.

The documents, 18 of them in English, shed light not only on the negotiations after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem that led to the peace treaty. They contain references to issues that Israel grapples with to this day, including the West Bank settlements, Palestinian self-determination and the ultimate status of Jerusalem.

The documents show how U.S. President Jimmy Carter helped officials on both sides overcome their deep suspicion of one another, eventually persuading Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Defense Minister Ezer Weizman and Dayan – who at first refused to even consider removing the settlements in northern Sinai – to finally agree to evacuate them.

Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon’s contribution to the negotiations is also documented. He, too, declared that for peace he was willing to demolish settlements.

The documents show that the road to the triple handshake on the White House lawn was a tough one. It often seemed that the talks would fail. Only at the end could Carter breathe a sigh of relief and say to Begin: “What we have achieved up till now is no less than a miracle …. The hand of God is in what has been achieved.”

The documents include telegrams, letters, summaries of conversations and minutes from cabinet sessions and meetings of the negotiating teams. Among them are records of meetings of the Israeli negotiating team that were handwritten by Aharon Barak, later a Supreme Court president. Barak, then the legal adviser to the Israeli delegation, recorded some of the most critical meetings, at which no stenographer was present.

“These minutes are of great importance because to date no original documents from the Camp David conference have been released,” an archive official said. Despite the passage of time, some of the documents have sections censored out.

Sharon weighs in

Several hours after the meeting between Dayan and Mondale, the American and Begin met, each taking along several officials. At that encounter, Sharon stressed Israel’s security situation, saying, “It looks strange to belong to a nation which is the only one maybe in the world that has to convince [sic] of its right to exist and its right for security …. I am afraid that we are the only ones around the world.”

He noted that terrorist activities in the region did not start after the War of Independence in 1948. “We had hundreds of casualties in the ‘30s, during what used to be called then the Arab riots or the Arab rebellion between 1936 to 1939," he said. "We had casualties in 1929, casualties in 1921, casualties in 1920. Arab terrorists … were a crucial fact in this part of the world for many, many years.”

Sharon expressed vehement opposition to the Arab demand to withdraw from the areas Israel occupied during the Six-Day War.

“I would like to put it in simple words: If you ask me, is it possible for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, the answer is no …. I don’t see any government in the country, not in the past and not in the future … that [would dare] come with such a plan,” he said.

“If there is a direct question and I give a direct answer: If you ask me, can we withdraw our troops from the West Bank now or in the future, the answer is no.”

At the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on July 25, 1978, Weizman described his meeting with Sadat on July 13 in Austria. He described the encounter as friendly, though he repeatedly referred to Sadat as “this goy.”

“You have to sit with this goy and hear what he says,” Weizman said. “You don’t have to accept what he says, but we for sure must understand what he’s saying.”

Weizman met Sadat’s wife at that meeting but strongly denied reports that he had kissed her. “If I had given her a kiss, Sadat would have thrown me out the window. To write that I gave a Muslim woman a kiss is totally absurd.”

A document from September 6, 1978 quotes Dayan in a conversation with an unnamed person or persons saying that Israel would agree to negotiate the future of East Jerusalem.

“Not only is everything up for negotiation, I was asked if East Jerusalem was subject to negotiation,” Dayan said. “I said yes – we annexed it unilaterally, and it is subject to negotiation even though we annexed [it]. It’s true that we’ve applied Israeli law [there], but this fact doesn’t mean that the issue can’t be negotiated. You know this is a very sensitive issue for our people."

‘The destruction of Israel’

The Camp David summit, from September 5 to 17, 1978, was rife with tension. At one point Begin told the Israeli delegation there was no point in even discussing the Egyptian proposal because it was aimed at creating a Palestinian state and was “a prescription for the destruction of Israel.”

Sadat, too, expressed distrust of his interlocutors. He repeatedly argued that Israel wanted his land and he would not sign anything until the issue of the settlements was resolved. “How can I make an agreement with people I don’t trust?” he said.

The documents show that only a day before the accords were signed, both delegations had started packing their bags to return home. They also show how the Iranian revolution helped convince the parties to sign a deal.

The Camp David Accords were signed on September 17. On September 24, Begin presented the agreement to the cabinet, stressing that the delegation had put up a valiant fight on behalf of the Sinai settlements.

“With a pained heart, but with head held high, I am submitting this proposal,” he told the cabinet. “Why with a pained heart? Because we fought every possible fight for these settlements … but I concluded that it’s better this way than to leave the settlers, with all the pain in my heart and deep sadness.”

This was not the only part of the agreement that Begin was pained by. The accords called for the establishment of an autonomous, self-governing Palestinian authority in the West Bank and Gaza within five years.

“From the Palestinian perspective, there will come a day and it will be called a Palestinian state,” Begin said. 
“And we are closing our eyes to this?”

Osama Al Baz, left and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at Camp David in 1978.Credit: Wikicommons

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