Israel-Egypt Treaty, 40 Years Later: The Forgotten Adviser Who Drove Camp David Negotiators Crazy

Israeli official Meir Rosenne assumed the role of bad cop in the eyes of Carter, Kissinger and Begin, but his thoroughness ensured a sustainable peace deal

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Moshe Dayan and, to his right, Meir Rosenne, welcome Prime Minister Menachem Begin at New York's JFK airport ahead of peace talks with Egypt, 1978.
Moshe Dayan and, to his right, Meir Rosenne, welcome Prime Minister Menachem Begin at New York's JFK airport ahead of peace talks with Egypt, 1978.Credit: Yaakov Saar / GPO
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The signing of the treaty between Israel and Egypt on the White House lawn on March 26, 1979 marked Israel's first peace agreement with an Arab country. The memoirs of one Israeli official, who adpoted the role of bad cop during the negotiations 40 years ago didn't hesitate to lead the talks to the brink of collapse, tell of the many hurdles on the road that led there.

In November 1977, immediately after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Israel, the Israeli media reported that Meir Rosenne, the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s legal adviser, was appointed a delegate to the Cairo talks, which kicked off the process that ended with the peace treaty.

Rosenne was described as an “excellent jurist,” a “born diplomat.” “I can’t think of a better choice,” said at the time a senior official at the Foreign Ministry. “This is the right man to serve the cause of peace in the best possible way.”

>> 40 years to Israel-Egypt treaty: When Israel made peace a priority

The talks were held on various continents; countless documents changed hands. Rosenne, an expert on international law, helped draw up the drafts and the final agreement to the last detail.

The legal challenge was huge. Until then, peace treaties were signed between sovereign states that recognized each other’s rights. But Egypt hadn’t yet recognized Israel’s right to exist. All the previous agreements Israel and Egypt had signed simply ended fighting.

Meir Rosenne, second from Moshe Dayan's right, at the peace talks with Egypt in Jerusalem, 1978.Credit: Moshe Milner / GPO

This generated a raft of legal precedents. As Rosenne joked, “I’m convinced that if Israel had received royalties for these innovations, we’d no longer need United Jewish Appeal.”

Rosenne refused to take the easy route. When he believed Israel’s interests might be at stake, he opted for the brink. Ezer Weizman, the defense minister at the time, called him “the biggest nudnik at the Camp David peace talks.” Henry Kissinger told him that “you’ve aged me.” Rosenne said of his relations with U.S. President Jimmy Carter: “That he didn’t like me is an understatement.”

He was aware of the way others saw him. “I was the bad Israeli because I insisted on every comma. I felt a tremendous responsibility,” he wrote in his memoirs. “The goal of international agreements is to prevent future misunderstandings so that it’s clear and unequivocal that if there’s a violation, there’s no argument that it took place,” he said.

He responded to his rivals: “If the legal drafting wasn’t important, we could simply have suggested that Israel return Sinai, shake hands the way diamond merchants do, say ‘good fortune and a blessing’ and be done with it.”

The Yiddish option

On another occasion, Rosenne said: “When the politicians don’t want to take responsibility, they always lean on the jurists. That’s why a jurist writing a document must be very careful about every letter and every comma. If everything goes smoothly, nobody will scrutinize the document he wrote. But if there are problems in the future, everyone will blame the jurist.”

He also said a good jurist is one “who can withstand pressure from politicians who want to reach an agreement at any cost.”

Meir Rosenne, front right, with the Israeli delegation at the Cairo antiquities museum, 1977.Credit: Moshe Milner / GPO

Much later Haaretz journalist Yoel Marcus wrote: “The fastidious Rosenne, master of the small clause, doesn’t answer a simple question without checking precedents and references.”

Elyakim Rubinstein, Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan’s bureau chief at the time, said Rosenne was “the keeper of the great seal who had the courage to say things people didn’t always like to hear.”

“Some said ‘what does it matter a word more a word less,’ but Rosenne believed in his mission and insisted on the points that were important to him,” Rubinstein said.

Things weren’t always tense. During the Camp David talks Rubinstein and Rosenne shared a room with then-Attorney General Aharon Barak. This proximity provided comic relief as well. As Rosenne recalled it, this included the suggestion “that during walks we would sometimes speak Yiddish so that the Americans, who listened to everything, would have to bring a translator. Thus we’d arrange some extra income for some Jew.”

Though sometimes exasperated by Rosenne, Dayan and Prime Minister Menachem Begin appreciated his drafts and professional contribution. “When I got to know him closely during our work, I saw his proficiency in the matter, his thoroughness and intelligence,” Dayan wrote.

In Weizman’s book “The Battle for Peace,” he wrote that Rosenne exuded a great mastery and an extraordinary ability to bargain in the legal sphere.

A jurist’s masterstroke

Rosenne proved repeatedly during the talks that it paid to insist on every detail. For example, he realized there could be a contradiction between the peace treaty and agreements Egypt signed in the past letting it go to war with Israel.

Meir Rosenne, sitting under the bright light, at the peace talks in Cairo, 1977.Credit: Moshe Milner / GPO

Rosenne learned during his work that Egypt had signed agreements with Arab states stipulating that if they found themselves at war, Egypt would defend them. He feared that if a war broke out between Israel and one of those countries, Egypt would breach the peace treaty and join the fighting.

So Rosenne demanded that the treaty include a clause stipulating that the agreement would take precedence over Egypt’s other commitments. The Egyptians refused to sign.

“Dayan was angry with me and said I shouldn’t have raised the issue to begin with, because I was giving the Egyptians ideas. They published newspaper articles against me, blaming me for not reaching an agreement,” Rosenne said.

But he stood his ground. “It may not be especially pleasant being responsible for not obtaining an agreement, but I told Dayan that without that clause I would quit, because I had a professional conscience,” he said.

Dayan asked Rosenne for American jurists’ opinions to justify his argument. So he traveled with Barak to Yale, where they met with Eugene Rostow, who served as an under secretary of state under Lyndon B. Johnson and helped draft UN Resolution 242 after the Six-Day War. Rostow supported Rosenne and said: If you don’t have that, you don’t have peace but rather the illusion of peace.

The negotiations with Egypt struck obstacles to the last moment. At the peace agreement’s “ratification” stage – held in a separate ceremony after the treaty had been signed and confirmed by the parliaments – the process almost collapsed. “The Egyptian ratification paper said Israel had agreed to withdraw from all the territories it captured in 1967 and give complete autonomy to all these territories – something that wasn’t written an any document we had signed,” Rosenne said.

He agonized whether to halt the procedure, even though the international media, Knesset members and Egyptian lawmakers had come to the ceremony. “I called Prime Minister Begin and told him what happened,” Rosenne said later. “He agreed with me that we couldn’t accept ratification papers that consisted of such grave distortions.”

Meir Rosenne, second from left, with the Israeli delegation at the Pyramids of Giza, 1977.Credit: Moshe Milner / GPO

To avoid spoiling the event, Rosenne received a written commitment from the Americans to make sure to amend the Egyptian document after the ceremony.

When the agreement was signed, Rosenne sighed with relief. “I’m sure the legal side didn’t hinder the negotiations,” he said. “Every minute devoted to the legal aspect will prevent misunderstandings in the future.”

Sadat withdrew all his demands for a Palestinian state and self-determination for the Palestinians. He even renounced his demand that Israel undertake to withdraw completely from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Begin, meanwhile, agreed to dismantle the settlements and airports in Sinai that had previously been described as “extremely vital to Israel’s security.”

Later Rosenne had only one regret: “We achieved a cold peace, but we didn’t make sure that the Egyptians wouldn’t propagandize against us. We should have demanded that Egypt couldn’t have peace with us on the one hand and attack us at the UN and raise generations of Egyptians hating Israel on the other.”

Rosenne went on to serve as Israel’s ambassador in Paris and Washington, and died four years ago.

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