Israel State Archives’ newly declassified telegrams, letters, records of conversations and meetings, show the tensions & drama in Israeli-Egyptian talks that led to their historic peace 35 years ago.
On 26 March 1979, Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty between their two nations. Afterwards they joined hands with US President Jimmy Carter in the famous triple handshake, which has since come to symbolize an event which changed the history of the Middle East. The ceremony on the White House lawn, broadcast live to the entire world, barely hinted at the dramas of the previous months.
Egypt demands W. Bank withdrawal
Another source of tension was Sadat’s insistence that Israel withdraw from the territories it captured in 1967 and find a just solution of the Palestinian problem.
However the Likud government opposed any withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. Instead, Begin put forward a proposal for self-rule (autonomy) for the Arab inhabitants of these areas for a transitional period of five years.
On 25 December 1977 Begin presented his plan to Sadat, but the two delegations could not agree on a “declaration of principles” on the Palestinian question. After Israel expanded its settlements in Sinai, a further meeting in Jerusalem in January 1978 also ended in failure, and Sadat recalled his delegation to Cairo.
In February 1978, the US Administration decided to become more active. A joint strategy was worked out with Sadat: Egypt would submit a counter proposal to that of Israel, and the US would present a compromise and exert pressure to reach an acceptable declaration of principles and an Israeli withdrawal.
The ensuing clash with the Administration led to criticism by sections of the Israeli public. Following an open letter to Begin at the beginning of March by a group of reserve officers, the “Peace Now” movement was founded. Its supporters feared that Israel would miss the chance for peace if it insisted on keeping control of all of the Biblical Land of Israel.
On the other hand, right wing circles opposed any concessions in Judea and Samaria as well as those already made in Sinai.
On 18 June a government meeting reached a compromise and it was decided that after five years “the nature of the relations between the parties [Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Arabs] could be discussed and summed up”.
In private talks Sadat had agreed not to demand complete Israeli withdrawal and a Palestinian state.
Tensions with US
More tension with the US was caused by President Carter’s decision to sell advanced warplanes to Saudi Arabia and less advanced modern jets to Egypt. In May 1978 Congress approved the sale. The vote was seen as a victory for the Administration over the pro-Israel lobby. However in an attempt to improve relations with Israel it was decided to send Vice President Walter Mondale, who was close to the Jewish community, to visit Israel and to try to restart the stalled peace process.
Mondale arrived in Israel at the end of June and in talks with Israeli officials expressed fears that Sadat might give up his peace initiative if there was no progress. Mondale even warned that the situation might deteriorate and lead to war.
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.
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.”
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.”
E. Jerusalem up for negotiations
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.”
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: “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.
The Camp David Accords were signed on September 17.
Carter breathed a sigh of relief and said 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.”
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.”
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?”
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