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How Menachem Begin Made Peace With Israel’s Greatest Enemy: Egypt

Carter thought he was a psycho, but the man the British called ‘Terrorist No. 1’ proved himself to be a canny negotiator

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President Anwar Sadat, Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and President Jimmy Carter at the concluding ceremony of the Camp David Summit in the East Room of the White House on Sept. 17, 1978. (AFP/Getty Images)
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Begin ensured that nothing beyond the limited autonomy he was willing to consider would develop. Begin would be satisfied with that stalemate, and intuited that Sadat would, as well. Sadat would get both peace and the Sinai, and would be able to claim that he had tried to secure at least something for the Palestinians. Indeed, Aryeh Naor, who was cabinet secretary under Begin and was present at Camp David, believed that Sadat gave up on nothing that mattered to him. He “couldn’t care less” about the Palestinians, Naor insisted; as the leader of the most populous Arab nation, he simply had to be able to claim that he’d done his utmost to make the Palestinian case.

Carter, who made no attempt to hide his disdain for Begin, went to Ezer Weizman, Moshe Dayan, and Aharon Barak (then Israel’s attorney general, and later President of the Supreme Court) directly. But that was a tactical error of no small proportions, for in doing so, he estranged Begin from the process, giving the aging man the impression that no one was interested in speaking with him. Several times in the second week, Begin attempted to extricate himself from the entire ordeal and return home. The heightened tension, as his body continued to fail him, was too much to bear.

Curiously, the president of the United States also seemed unable to grasp the challenges that a democratically elected leader such as Begin would face in selling peace to the citizens of Israel. Sadat, of course, had no democracy with which he had to deal; but Carter, who knew well the challenges of governing a democracy, seems to have had no awareness or concern for the political challenges that any deal Begin agreed to would face in the Knesset.

Even more bewildering to Carter was Begin’s resolute refusal to even discuss the subject of dividing Jerusalem. When the topic was broached, Begin related to Carter the story of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, the eleventh-century Jewish scholar who was pressured by the archbishop of Mainz to convert to Christianity. Rabbi Amnon asked the archbishop for three days during which to consider, but immediately regretted having done anything at all that might be interpreted as his even considering such an unthinkable act. When he did not appear before the archbishop on the third day, he was dragged in by guards. Rabbi Amnon, when accused that he had broken his pledge to appear after three days, admitted his guilt and asked that his tongue be cut out, since it was with his tongue that he had expressed doubt of his everlasting commitment to Judaism. But the archbishop ruled that instead of his tongue, Rabbi Amnon’s hands and feet should be cut off. Dying, Rabbi Amnon asked that he be brought into the synagogue, as it was Rosh Hashanah. There, in his last moments, he recited a prayer called the U’netaneh Tokef, which became one of the central prayers of the High Holiday liturgy. And then he died.

Begin’s point was clear. Rabbi Amnon sinned by even suggesting that he would consider conversion. Begin was not going to pretend for a moment that Jerusalem was up for discussion. He had struggled to procure the Altalena’s arms for his fighters defending the city in 1948, the Jordanians had desecrated it after his fighters could not hold on, and Israel had recaptured it in 1967 through the sheer grit and bravery of its young sons. This point, at least, Carter understood. Begin was making it clear that he would not make Rabbi Amnon’s mistake; when it came to Jerusalem, there was nothing to talk about. Carter shared the story with Sadat, and the issue of Jerusalem was dropped.

But there was nothing Begin could do to get the Sinai settlements off the table. Many observers felt then, and still believe, that one of Begin’s concerns was that an agreement to dismantle the Sinai settlements would later be used as a precedent for the West Bank. The settlements would also be one of the critical political battles he would have to face upon coming home. Undoubtedly, moving Jews out of their homes was also deeply painful for Begin.

Sadat was not going to be moved on this issue, and everyone on the Israeli team understood that if a deal were to be reached, Begin was going to have to back down. It was Ariel Sharon who apparently convinced Begin that leaving the Sinai would not set a precedent for having to evacuate the West Bank and that the political battles ahead could be managed. The two men, who were linked by Begin’s father’s friendship with Sharon’s grandfather in Brisk and whose most complex collaboration was still to come, partnered in moving the proposal forward. Begin agreed to dismantle the Sinai settlements and dislodge their inhabitants, if the Knesset approved.

Little by little, despite the manifold challenges, progress was made. In the end, Begin sacrificed the Sinai but kept the West Bank, and the Egyptian president got the Sinai back by selling out Palestinian hopes for sovereignty.

Both Begin and Sadat had moved significantly from their opening positions. At the signing ceremony on Sept. 17, Sadat thanked Carter for his commitment, but failed to mention either Menachem Begin or the State of Israel. But Begin complimented Sadat profusely, frequently refer- ring to him as a friend. “In Jewish teachings,” Begin lectured the small audience, “there is a tradition that the greatest achievement of a human being is to turn his enemy into a friend, and this we do in reciprocity.”

An agreement in hand, Begin returned to Israel more popular than ever before. The renewed popularity and momentum in the peace process seemed to revive Begin; suddenly, he was not failing, but was leading the charge once again. But many of his former Etzel comrades were devastated, and in the Knesset, divisions ran deep. It took a full seven hours of heated deliberation to convince his cabinet to sign off on the Camp David agreement and to bring it to the Knesset. In the 17-hour marathon Knesset session that followed, Begin defended his position passionately, reminding his listeners both of the imperative of peace and of the enduring vulnerability of the Jewish people and how Israel would be perceived if they turned the deal down.

On Sept. 28, 1978, at roughly three o’clock in the morning, the Knesset voted 84 “yes,” 19 “no,” and 17 abstentions in favor of the Camp David agreement. The man the British had once called Terrorist No. 1 had made peace with Israel’s most powerful enemy.

This essay was excerpted and adapted from Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul, out next week from Nextbook Press.


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How Menachem Begin Made Peace With Israel’s Greatest Enemy: Egypt

Carter thought he was a psycho, but the man the British called ‘Terrorist No. 1’ proved himself to be a canny negotiator

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