Secret 1978 Talks Lay Bare the Hawk That Peacemaker Peres Once Was

'Jordan is also Palestine,' the late Shimon Peres tells then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, declassified minutes of a top secret meeting ahead of Camp David reveal.

Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz
Shimon Peres, leader of the Israeli opposition is shown in June 1981 in his office.
Shimon Peres, leader of the Israeli opposition is shown in June 1981 in his office. Credit: AP
Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz

“This is a conversation between three people, except for our friend [the stenographer], and it must remain that way” Prime Minister Menachem Begin warned politely at the start of the meeting, on August 31, 1978, with opposition chairman MK Shimon Peres and chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee MK Moshe Arens.

The minutes documenting the meeting, some of which appear below, were classified as “top secret.”

Four days later, Begin flew to the Camp David conference and returned with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s historic signature on a framework agreement for Middle East peace. Just before his trip, he had invited his political arch-rival, the opposition chairman, to update him.

“We want the conference to be successful, Begin told Peres at the meeting. “For the sake of peace, but we have another reason: Carter is taking a risk as the leader of the free world, which we are a part of, and we want the prestige of the U.S. president to remain intact.”

Still, Begin was pessimistic. “It is inconceivable that in six to eight days we can sign a peace agreement. I say to Carter, you’ve been negotiating over Panama for 14 years. I am asking even for four years.”

Begin laid out his red lines for Peres. The settlements in Sinai would remain, the Palestinians would be granted some kind of autonomy; the question of sovereignty would be left open for five to seven years. “If somebody proposes Arab sovereignty, we’ll bring up our demand for sovereignty over Judea and Samaria,” Begin said.

Peres: The question is whether you’d be ready to consider it if they propose territorial compromise.

Begin: I need to hear it first from themI won’t let them put words in my mouth.

Peres enumerated for Begin the issues they agreed on. “We don’t agree to return to the 1967 borders, Jerusalem must remain unified and the defense of Israel must begin from the Jordan River with an IDF presence in Judea and Samaria.”

Begin: And Gaza.

Peres: I’m talking about Judea and Samaria, and not Gaza, but never mindwe are against a Palestinian state, we insist that the settlements in the Rafah enclave remain.

This, Peres said to the man who would soon return the land on which all those settlements had been built to Egypt.

Peres told Begin that his “opinion through the years had been that for an undefined period there is no choice but a functional compromise” in Judea and Samaria.

Begin: That is, without territorial division?

Peres: I don’t see a map that could be accepted by both sides. I don’t want us to deceive ourselves...I do think that one of these days there will be a need for a partition because we won’t know what to do with the Arabs.

We’ll reach 1.8 million Arabs and I see our situation as getting very difficult and not a matter of police or prisonI see them eating the Galilee and my heart bleeds, because I was one of the founders of Ramot Naftali [a moshav in northern Israel] and I see 300 houses bought by Arabs and that’s the beginning of the process.

They live in houses in Afula and in Acre and they take over entire streets. The moshavim are full of Arab laborers and Jews sitting in their houses and playing tennis and the Arabs are working in the fields. That doesn’t seem right to me.

Peres then told Begin about a meeting he had had with Sadat shortly beforehand, in Vienna, under the auspices of the President of the Socialist International, Willy Brandt.

“Sadat will try to appear as moderate as possible at Camp David because he’s working on public opinion there. In my opinion he wants to get something that bothers me, he wants to get American weapons and has to take this into consideration. I’m very glad they gave us the F15 and F16. I’m glad it happened before Camp David,” Peres said.

Begin then discussed the meaning of the term “Palestinians,” saying: After all, we are Palestiniansit’s true that there’s a country the non-Jews call Palestine. But it’s the Land of Israel.”

Peres: I’ll tell you where you and I disagree: I say that Jordan is also PalestineI’m against two Arab countries and against another Palestinian country, against an Arafat state. Today 50 percent of the inhabitants of Jordan are Palestinians and that is the Palestinian state..I say our partner is the Jordanians and not the Palestinians

Arens: I agree with you 100 percent.

Peres told Begin and Arens he believed the Palestinians were not partners for peace “because they don’t want to risk their connections with Jordan on the one hand, and act against the PLO on the other.”

Peres said that even if Israel received a “theoretical right to buy land” he didn’t believe there would be any Palestinians who would sell Israel land.

“We already see how difficult that is. We can buy land here and there by deception but that’s a bother, and worrisome.”

Peres added that he believed the Gazans should be given Jordanian passports and that King Hussein take in Palestinian refugees, to which Begin replied “I agree with you.”

Peres then gave an amazing reason for his preference that Jordan extend its patronage over the Palestinians. “Because they can do to the PLO things that we can never do. Why are schools and students protesting? Because when adults protest – they shoot them immediately.”

Peres told Begin: “In my opinion, and I know I can be accused of optimism, we can reach a separate agreement with the Egyptians with the right words.”

Peres shared with Begin more impressions of his meetings with Sadat, saying he “greatly exaggerates Israel’s technological and scientific capabilities. He thinks that we are capable of God knows what.” We can do a lot, that’s the truth, Begin replied.

The end is known: Begin agreed to a deal at Camp David that led to a peace treaty months later, and ultimately an Israeli withdrawal from Sinai. At Oslo, Peres, once a champion of Jordan as the solution to the Palestinian issue, laid the foundations for a would-be Arafat state.

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