Members of the Israeli delegation at Camp David, September 1978: Aharon Barak, left, Ezer Weizman, Menachem Begin, Ilan Tehila, Moshe Dayan, Elyakim Rubinstein, Avraham Tamir. Moshe Milner/GPO

Israel-Egypt Treaty, 40 Years Later: When Israel Made Peace a Priority

Surrounded by highly motivated advisers, Menachem Begin signed a peace treaty with Egypt while forsaking some of his cherished beliefs. It’s hard to find anyone of similar stature in Israel today



Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat thrust their countries into the unknown when they signed a peace treaty on March 26, 1979. Though the thick document was the product of a year and a half of exhausting discussions aimed solely at locking the two sides into a clear and binding framework that couldn’t easily be breached, both leaders knew they were entering an era of uncertainty. Would the peace last? Would their nations follow in their footsteps? Would the time bomb latent in the treaty – conditioning Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai and the establishment of peaceful relations on the resolution of the Palestinian problem – not ultimately blow the deal to smithereens?

The treaty that was signed appeared to provide reasonable safeguards for the gamble by the two leaders and the sheer daring needed to overcome the bitterness of the past, the mutual suspicions and the prejudices. But the future held tricky obstacles: Israel’s declaration of annexation of the Golan Heights, Sadat’s assassination, the first Lebanon war and the exacerbation of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and liberation from the Israeli occupation.

Now, on the 40th anniversary of the thrilling signing ceremony on the White House’s north lawn, it can be said with justification that the treaty was made possible by the peace ethos Israel had upheld since its founding. All Israeli governments, including Begin’s, which came into being following the 1977 electoral upheaval that ousted Labor after 29 years in power, had made peace their leading priority. They believed in peace, said so and acted accordingly.

True, the Six-Day War undid this conception and also generated a competing ethos – of holding onto and settling the territories conquered in that war – but at the moment of truth the Begin government, too, adhered to the old ethos and rejected the temptation of territory. (“Better Sharm el-Sheikh without peace than peace without Sharm el-Sheikh,” Moshe Dayan had said before recanting after the 1973 war.) Besides the practical considerations, this approach was also morally motivated, whether this was declared or not.

Still, the noble moral imperative came to a halt at the international border between Israel and Egypt; it didn’t extend as far as the Green Line that before 1967 separated Israel from the West Bank. When it came to the regularization of Israeli-Palestinian relations, a goal that was tightly woven into the negotiations between Israel and Egypt, the peace ethos receded in the face of the religious-Zionist ethos that prescribes the retention of Judea and Samaria – the West Bank – even at the price of conflict, more bloodshed and the moral rot that’s dripping into the veins of Israeli society.

The lesson remains relevant today when news reports abound about U.S. President Donald Trump’s emerging peace initiative, and it’s far more pertinent when we compare Israel’s current leaders – their personalities, values, group behavior and motivations – to the dynamic that developed in the top ranks of the Israeli leadership during the negotiations with the Egyptians (and the Americans) four decades ago.

Coalition quartet

Begin signed the peace treaty – which meant forsaking basic tenets of ideology and security, and overcoming deeply held feelings and lifelong values – because he was surrounded by four people who refused to let the opportunity to make peace created by Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem slip through their hands. The four – Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, Attorney General Aharon Barak and Weizman’s adviser Maj. Gen. (res.) Avraham Tamir – played a key role in steering the prime minister to the goal. Each arrived at the hub of decision-making in that period (November 1977 to March 1979) fully ready to play a key role in taking the peace process to the finish line.

\ STRINGER/ REUTERS

Again, the Israeli-Egyptian talks revolved around two issues: the peace treaty itself and the resolution of the Palestinian issue. The negotiations proceeded in two channels, military and diplomatic, which had a reciprocal influence on each other and were welded together at the Camp David summit in September 1978.

Sadat’s adviser Hassan Tuhami emerged from a secret meeting with Dayan in the Moroccan capital of Rabat on September 16, 1977, with the impression that if Egypt made peace with Israel it would get back the Sinai Peninsula. Accordingly, two months later, when Sadat addressed parliament in Cairo and announced his readiness to go to Israel and address the Knesset, he had reason to believe he would receive Sinai as a quid pro quo. Still, the two countries would find themselves in exhausting negotiations on that subject.

Israel’s willingness in principle to withdraw from all of Sinai was translated into an official proposal, which was made, still secretly, to Egypt in a second meeting between Dayan and Tuhami in Morocco on December 2, three weeks after Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. It was quite a detailed concept, entailing the gradual evacuation of the peninsula, its division into three zones with different levels of demilitarization, the conversion of the three military airfields to civilian use (still under Israel’s control) and the integration of UN forces in protecting the Israeli settlements there, which would remain intact and be subject to Israeli law.

This blueprint was agreed upon between Begin and Dayan only and was presented to Egypt as a “suggestion” (without official status) and not as a “proposal” (something official) – a distinction insisted on by Begin. On this occasion, Dayan also presented to Tuhami, in general terms, the autonomy plan that Begin had conceived. His interlocutor responded coolly, “The Palestinians deserve self-determination.”

Neither the Ministerial Committee for Security nor the army chief of staff, Mordechai Gur, was informed about the Israeli suggestion until 10 days later, December 13. Gur, who had been suspicious about Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem (he worried it was an exercise in deception and called for it not to take place), harshly criticized the suggested plan for Sinai. He also completely rejected the autonomy plan, viewing it as a recipe for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Begin strongly disagreed with him. He and Dayan explained that there was no chance Egypt would be willing to forgo even an inch of Sinai.

The ministerial committee accepted the position of the prime minister and the foreign minister. The panel’s approach was mandated by the situation that Begin and Dayan had engineered without the ministers’ knowledge. The details of the suggested arrangement had already been submitted to Egypt, and Sadat considered it a basis for discussion and shared it with Washington. No changes could be made to the suggestion, though it had been made clear to Egypt that it required approval by the Israeli government. By this method – submitting unofficial suggestions during the negotiating process, binding one’s hands – the Israeli positions would be eroded in the future as well.

For nine months, Israel and Egypt conducted laborious negotiations both on the security arrangements for Sinai and the form of self-government for the West Bank. The talks took a variety of forms: bilateral meetings, private conversations, summits abroad and American mediation. Washington’s effort was aimed at persuading Israel to withdraw completely from Sinai and craft an autonomy plan that could realize the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. To achieve this, U.S. President Jimmy Carter used every means at his disposal – threats, come-ons, visits, bids to mold public opinion and diplomats’ efforts to see which way the wind was blowing within the leaderships of the two countries. On the Israeli side, he found partners in Dayan, Weizman, Attorney General Barak and Tamir, Weizman’s adviser.

The chief venue for the security talks was Cairo, where an Israeli delegation under Tamir installed itself. Tamir, the former head of the General Staff’s planning directorate, who helped devise scenarios to resolve the conflict between Israel and its neighbors, developed a strong identification with the Egyptians’ expectations. Weizman and Tamir both believed (they nourished each other with their impressions from their contacts with the Egyptians) that only a full Israeli withdrawal would produce an agreement.

In their view, acceding to Egypt’s expectations in Sinai would soften Cairo’s stance on the Palestinian issue and pave the way to the signing of a peace treaty. When that hope was disappointed, they said the Egyptians’ obstinacy regarding the Palestinians was mere lip service: Sadat needed a fig leaf to justify to the Arab world his willingness to make peace with Israel. The Egyptian position in the diplomatic channel – all the meetings and conferences on the peace terms – showed that Weizman and Tamir had deluded themselves.

To persuade Begin that he knew what he was talking about, Weizman enlisted Barak’s help. Begin viewed Barak as an impartial, professional adviser who harbored no political or ideological preferences, someone who could be relied on to help with legal issues and formulations. Weizman saw him in the same light. He didn’t know at first what Barak’s political credo was, but approached him because he realized the immense influence Barak wielded on Begin and hoped that through Barak, he would be able to impart his views to the prime minister.

In March 1978, Weizman took Barak with him to Cairo for talks with Sadat and his chief aides. Even though Sadat at the end of these meetings retracted a compromise proposal he made to the two that they had found hopeful, they returned to Israel with a feeling that the Egyptian president had apprised them how far he was willing to backtrack from his declared positions, and that an agreement could be reached on that basis.

Corbis Historical / Getty Images

Interesting plan

The U.S. ambassador to Israel, Samuel Lewis, was extremely well connected in Israel; he was able to pick up information and spot trends. Thus he learned that Weizman had said, in a internal consultation in Jerusalem, that there was no security significance to the continuation of Israel’s settlements in Sinai. Lewis also knew that Weizman wasn’t the only cabinet member who held this view. A sizable group of ministers (the Democratic Movement for Change, the Liberal faction of Likud and some National Religious Party ministers) shared the defense minister’s approach.

In addition to drawing close to Barak, Weizman tried to form an unwritten alliance with his own brother-in-law, Dayan. To that end, he involved their mutual friend, the advertising executive Eliezer Zurabin, who at the time played the part that another advertising man, Reuven Adler, later played in the court of Ariel Sharon. Dayan was cautious. He told Weizman that he didn’t want to do anything behind Begin’s back, but the two would eventually find common ground.

Dayan was acutely attuned to the expectations of the United States. Washington’s mediation was critical for achieving an agreement, he argued, and urged Begin not to strain relations with the Americans. He also recommended that the Americans be polite to Begin and respect his sensitivities about matters of honor and public image.

Weizman made a similar request to his Egyptian interlocutors. In April and May 1978, the two acted largely behind the scenes amid a growing change in the mood in Israel. The shift was epitomized in a letter from 320 reserve officers warning Begin not to miss the opportunity for peace – a letter that spawned Peace Now.

The shift in public opinion eroded Begin’s standing: Support for him declined from 75 percent to 59 percent. The prime minister was in a foul mood during this period. He closeted himself in his office, spoke little, lost his appetite, and grew thin and pale. His aides were worried about his condition. Weizman, on the other hand, was more active. He met with West European ambassadors, briefed journalists and discussed with Lewis possible frameworks for a peace agreement.

The difficulty in achieving a deal lay in the autonomy plan that Begin had dictated to his secretary, Yehiel Kadishai, in early December 1977 after returning home from a diplomatic visit to London. On four pages of yellow paper, Kadishai took down 19 clauses that in Begin’s view would regularize the Palestinians’ lives in the West Bank. Basically, the idea was to allow the Palestinians self-government with limited powers, subject to Israeli security control. Begin derived his inspiration for the autonomy plan from Ze’ev Jabotinsky and arrangements introduced in certain European countries after World War I.

Dayan and Barak were the first to hear from Begin about his intention to propose an autonomy regime. Only after Dayan broached the plan to Tuhami and told Begin about the Egyptian’s response did the prime minister present the plan to Weizman and the deputy prime minister, Yigael Yadin. The Ministerial Committee for Security, which was briefed on the subject 10 days later, gave Begin the go-ahead to present the plan to Carter.

It was in the United States that the process of eroding the proposal began. Begin read his autonomy plan to Carter as they sat by the fireplace in the White House in December 1977. The president responded extremely positively, saying it was an interesting plan and he supported it. But immediately afterward, he and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance raised questions that reflected the administration’s real thinking on the subject. They wanted the plan to be temporary, and to infuse it with elements that would express the Palestinians’ aspiration for self-determination and loosen Israel’s grip on the West Bank.

Begin emerged from the meeting in high spirits. He thought he had mobilized the administration’s support for his proposal, and went public with his impression, believing he was creating an American commitment to the plan. That would quickly turn out to be wishful thinking.

Barak, acting on the comments of Carter and his aides, reformulated the autonomy plan. Some ministers voiced reservations about the plan when Begin presented it to the cabinet, but the prime minister rejected them on the grounds that it couldn’t be altered because it reflected agreements reached with Carter. But the consideration Begin showed for Carter’s comments didn’t endear the autonomy idea to Sadat. The Egyptian president rejected it outright.

For nine months, Carter’s envoys scurried back and forth between Jerusalem and Cairo, trying to square the circle, to transform Begin’s simplistic idea into a plan that would give the Palestinians a quasi-state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The American effort had three aims: to ensure that the autonomy regime would be temporary (five years), to apply to the West Bank and Gaza the withdrawal principle contained in UN Security Council Resolution 242, and to make the Palestinians a partner in determining their future. The linchpin for achieving these goals was the autonomy plan, which underwent constant change, its clauses taking on new meanings and being drawn into realms remote from those envisaged by Begin.

The Americans drew on the aid of Dayan and Weizman. Dayan independently initiated revisions in Israel’s positions and presented them post factum to Begin and the cabinet as personal suggestions that he had put to the other side (“I’m not a courier, I’m the foreign minister”). Weizman, meanwhile, was active with the media to get the public to support an agreement. To formulate his proposals, Dayan enlisted Barak’s help. And to obtain the support of Begin and the cabinet, he would occasionally quote them hawkish ideas that he had voiced to the Americans. In parallel, he urged Carter to be affable toward Begin.

These maneuvers didn’t extricate the negotiations from their impasse. Begin and Sadat dug in, leading Vance and his aides, who in August 1978 were on a shuttle mission to the Middle East, to warn Carter that the gap between Israel and Egypt was nearing a total rift. Carter invited the two leaders to Camp David.

Night fears

The dynamics that had developed at the top of the Israeli government since Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in November 1977 reached their climax at Camp David in September 1978. Begin found himself isolated, surrounded by four opinionated people determined to bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion. None of Begin’s veteran comrades in arms – and comrades in worldview – were with him other than his secretary, Kadishai, and his wife, Aliza. His son, Benny Begin, who was in the United States at the time, was in telephone contact with the prime minister.

Following vacuous discussions in the conference’s first days, which were devoted to the position papers that had been presented during the long months of negotiations, Carter met privately with Begin and Sadat, both individually and together. Also, new proposals were considered in small groups, and the Americans applied pressure, both direct and indirect.

The talks then considered Washington’s suggestions for bridging the gaps between the sides. At first Begin stood firm and refused to accept the administration’s proposals. Carter took Begin to task in comments to Dayan and Weizman; he said the prime minister’s stubbornness would drag the Middle East into a new war. At this stage, the two Israelis kept to themselves their own reservations about Begin’s approach; they wanted the Egyptians and Americans to be flexible first.

Weizman paid visits to Sadat in his cabin and exchanged compliments, assessments and jokes (“I’m popping in to kiss him good night,” he would tell the Israeli delegation). Dayan was careful to avoid confrontations with Begin, preferring to sow in Begin’s mind the seeds of ideas that would sprout into compromises that Begin would take credit for. Barak maintained his image as a legal adviser helping the prime minister with the language, though actually he discussed with Carter the possible limits of Begin’s flexibility and didn’t hesitate to tell the delegation his views on the issues in dispute. Tamir sufficed with feeding Weizman advice and information, and avoided giving others the impression that he was fully in accord with the defense minister’s views.

At Camp David, Begin was a forceful prime minister, exuding vitality and high spirits, sometimes haughty, high and mighty. He showed self-confidence, adherence to his principles and optimism. He often left the Israeli delegation with the impression that it was less important for him to reach a peace agreement with Egypt than to prevent a situation in which Carter would blame Israel for the talks’ failure.

The turning point came after Carter’s decision to negotiate personally with Barak and Osama El-Baz, the deputy director general of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry and the chef de bureau to Vice President Hosni Mubarak. Every evening Barak would come to the prime minister’s cabin and read to the delegation the clauses of the agreement agreed on that day. No printed drafts were presented. The delegation members commented on what they heard, and Barak explained to them his reasons for accepting the wording, persuading Begin that the clauses would not block the basic goals he sought regarding the Palestinians.

Barak would urge the delegation to decide quickly, as Carter was waiting for an answer. This decision-making format was made possible because of the stipulation that the agreements reached were ad referendum – subject to approval by others, whether by the full delegation or, afterward, by the government or the Knesset. This procedure facilitated Begin’s acceptance of the concessions that were foisted on him.

In the middle of the night, in their shared cabin, Dayan would come to Barak’s room, in pajamas and without his eye patch, and discuss new proposals for the items on the agenda for the next round of talks with Carter. The two found themselves on the same wavelength. Dayan admitted that his 30 years of managing affairs of state had come to a head in this moment; he wasn’t going to let the opportunity to make peace with Egypt slip through his hands. Barak shared with him his own anxieties about death and recommended that he know when it was time to leave public life; Dayan was already ill at the time. Weizman, too, consulted with Barak and encouraged him to press on with the task, declaring, like Dayan, that he wouldn’t let the chance for peace go by.

Fateful decision

In the four days between September 13 and 16, the Israeli position was ripped to shreds at the instigation of Carter, who had no compunctions about threatening or flattering Begin, Dayan, Weizman and Barak and, through his agents, applying the same treatment to the rest of the Israeli delegation. He did likewise with Sadat and the Egyptian delegation.

The four senior members of the Israeli team divided the work: Weizman and Tamir concentrated on softening Begin’s stance about the arrangements in Sinai, and Dayan and Barak dislodged him gradually from his ideological rigidities. The four didn’t function as conspirators so much as allies whom fate had summoned together for a historic opportunity they had no intention of missing.

Under virtual siege, Begin accepted terminology that ensured the Palestinians full autonomy and the solution of all aspects of the Palestinian question. The self-government arrangement would be temporary, powers would be transferred from the Israeli authorities to the council of the autonomous regime, the temporary arrangement would be considered in principle self-determination for the residents of the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli security forces would withdraw from the autonomous regions, negotiations on a permanent agreement would begin after three years, with the participation of Palestinian representatives, Resolution 242 would be a factor in the talks on a permanent agreement, which would recognize the legitimate rights and just demands of the Palestinian people, and a procedure would be determined for the Palestinians to take part in determining their future.

Begin had utterly rejected these formulations at the outset of the negotiations, but at Camp David he was overpowered by the joint will of Carter and the four key figures of the Israeli delegation. The four argued that the new terminology didn’t undo his original intention to ensure Israel’s long-term hold on the West Bank and Gaza and to avert the application of Palestinian, Jordanian or any other non-Israeli sovereignty there. Some in the Israeli delegation disagreed with this assumption. Elyakim Rubinstein and Simcha Dinitz told each other that, “At Camp David we founded the Palestinian state.”

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The nut that remained to be cracked was the future of the Israeli settlements in Sinai. It was Dayan who steered the discussions so that this issue would be left for last. He believed that if understandings were reached on the other matters, agreement was more likely on the settlements as well.

He was right. On September 15, Carter informed Begin and Sadat that the conference would have to end within two days. The fate of the settlements would have to be decided immediately. It was an acute dilemma: Forgo completely an Israeli presence in Sinai or miss the chance for peace. The delegation members knew that Begin was worried about the likely reaction of Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, who had remained in Israel, to an agreement on removing the settlements.

Tamir stepped into the breach. He suggested to Weizman that he call Sharon and apprise him of the decision now hanging in the balance. Tamir and Sharon were old friends, comrades in arms and partners in schemes from way back. With Weizman’s approval, Tamir called Sharon, told him that only the demand for removing the Sinai settlements was holding up a successful conclusion of the negotiations, and informed him that a green light from him would make it easier for Begin to make the necessary decision.

Sharon replied that he could go ahead and tell Begin that peace was preferable to the continued existence of the Sinai settlements. Tamir asked Sharon to call Begin and say so personally. The next day, Begin said to the delegation, “I have something important to tell you,” and informed them about his conversation with Sharon.

Five more months were needed to complete the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, a period when new issues arose and earlier disputes were recycled. The talks again entailed shuttle missions by U.S. envoys and the summoning of the two sides to mini-summits in Washington. (In one meeting of the Israelis, Eliahu Ben-Elissar, the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office who was co-opted to the delegation, insisted that Dayan pressure Vance to revise his approach. Dayan replied, “You know, there are two phones here. Go and pressure him.”) Carter also made threats publicly, as well as a dramatic address to the cabinet in Jerusalem.

Even in this final stretch of the journey to peace, crises erupted whose resolution began with private meetings between Dayan and Weizman – Barak was now a Supreme Court justice but was sometimes summoned when needed – and, at a critical moment, with Sharon as well. The same pattern recurred: Dayan suggested a creative solution, Weizman appealed to the public arena and mobilized support for his position, and in quiet dialogues with the American mediators a solution was found that was presented to Begin and Carter for approval.

Begin was convinced that the removal of each respective obstacle had not encroached on his principles. This mechanism let the coalition of the fourget Begin to believe and declare “Habemus pacem” – hevenu shalom alekhem – “We have brought peace unto you.”

***

If Menachem Begin comes across here as someone who was overcome by the process he himself fomented and was carried to places he had wanted to avoid, it turns out his gamble paid off. He achieved peace with Egypt (even if not a closeness between the two peoples) without having to forgo Israel’s hold in the West Bank. The erosion in his positions on the Palestinian issue throughout the talks didn’t create (at least to date) a sufficiently powerful lever to generate a significant change in the status of the West Bank and of the Palestinians.

Perhaps the opposite: Begin’s feeling that he went too far in his concessions to the Egyptians led him to harden his views in the subsequent talks on implementing the autonomy agreement. It led him to replace his representatives in the negotiations and to lend a hand to initiatives that widened and deepened the Israeli presence in the West Bank. That trend intensified tremendously after Begin left public life, and the results are apparent in the current composition of the Israeli leadership and its worldview.

Today Israel is being led by a person who wants the public to believe in his supposed personal strength and ability to keep the country safe – the aspiration for peace isn’t on his agenda. He’s surrounded by ministers and aides lacking a moral and ideological backbone, yes-men to his every whim. No leader today possesses the stature of Menachem Begin, nor is there anyone with the ideological approach and personal temperament of Moshe Dayan, Ezer Weizman, Aharon Barak or Avraham Tamir.

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