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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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Four years after the Yom Kippur War, when Menachem Begin was elected prime minister of Israel, he made it clear that he was willing to negotiate with Egypt. In late August 1977, he visited Romania and asked President Nicolae Ceausescu for his help; given Ceausescu’s close relationship with Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, Begin believed this avenue had a better chance of success than almost any other. He also sent Moshe Dayan, his minister of foreign affairs, to Morocco to secretly convene with King Hassan and express Israel’s desire for peace talks with Egypt.

When Sadat visited Romania shortly after Begin, Ceausescu said to him: “Begin wants a solution.” Sadat replied, “Can an extremist like Begin really want peace?” Ceausescu answered him, “Let me state categorically to you that he wants peace.” He added, “Begin is a hard man to negotiate with, but once he agrees to something he will implement it to the last dot and comma. You can trust Begin.”

Perhaps knowing this, Sadat made his move on Nov. 9, 1977, during a parliamentary address. Israel “will be stunned to hear me tell you that I am ready to go to the ends of the earth, and even to their home, to the Knesset itself, to argue with them, in order to prevent one Egyptian soldier from being wounded.”

His Egyptian audience, which included PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, was incredulous. In Israel, Begin—understanding that his message had been received—was both receptive and wary. In a Nov. 11 radio broadcast aimed directly at the Egyptians, Begin invited Sadat to Jerusalem, saying he hoped that the biblical model in which “Egypt and Eretz Israel were allies; real friends and allies” could be restored. Following the radio address, Begin sent an official and cordial invitation to Sadat, unsure whether Sadat would even consider it. Two days later, Sadat accepted.

Preparations proceeded for Sadat’s arrival on Nov. 19. As Sadat descended the steps of his plane, Begin met him at the bottom. The two men embraced, awkwardly for a moment, and then more comfortably. The following day, after praying at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and visiting Yad Vashem, Sadat delivered his momentous address in Arabic at the Knesset.

It was the first time that an Arab leader spoke in the Israeli parliament. Sadat laid out five conditions for peace: Israel’s complete return to the 1967 borders, independence for the Palestinians (a notion that he left entirely undefined), the right for all to live in peace and security, a commitment not to resort to arms in the future, and the end of belligerency in the Middle East.

Not surprisingly, Begin’s speech was laced with biblical references, and stressed the Jewish people’s historical connection to the Land of Israel. He also repeated Israel’s willingness since 1948 to engage in negotiations with Egypt among other Arab nations. Lastly, he offered a prayer “that the God of our common ancestors will grant us the requisite wisdom of heart in order to overcome the difficulties and obstacles, the calumnies and slanders.”

Sadat and Begin were in many ways an emotional and political mismatch, and even with American mediation, negotiations quickly got bogged down and became acrimonious. Begin, the lawyer, understood that the devil was in the details and wished to proceed exceedingly carefully. Ceausescu had warned Sadat that Begin would be a tough negotiator, but trustworthy once a deal was reached; Sadat, however, was unprepared for the belabored give-and-take over so many details. Carter pushed Begin to accede to Sadat’s demands. But Begin insisted on moving deliberately. There were principles that had animated him his entire life, and he was not about to abandon them now, even for peace with Egypt. But what to him seemed careful and responsible chess playing on the domestic front struck Sadat and Carter as foot-dragging. The relationships became increasingly fraught. At a joint summit in Ismailia on Dec. 26, 1977, it became quite clear that the two sides faced “an unbridgeable abyss of misunderstanding and deadlock.”

Begin was depressed, and to those who knew him well, there were signs of physical decline. He had been hospitalized for heart issues in 1977, and in May 1978, he collapsed and was hospitalized again. His mounting physical health problems led a Hadassah Hospital physician to wonder about his mental health. “The problem is that he has to take conflicting medications—some dealing with his diabetes, other with heart problems—and as a result he’s suffering from frequent and extreme ups and downs in mood swings,” the doctor said. Begin could rise to the occasion when needed, but it seemed that he could not sustain his energy or his focus.

Carter had his own concerns. Fearful that the collapse of peace talks could send Egypt back into the orbit of the Soviet Union, he decided on a Hail Mary pass: an intense 12-day summit in the secluded woods of Camp David. Seemingly a perfect setting for the summit, Camp David was guarded by U.S. marines and was isolated from the outside world and the press. Begin called it a “concentration camp deluxe.”

As he boarded the plane to the United States, Begin mentally girded himself for a challenging series of negotiations by calling to mind the words of his master and teacher, Ze’ev Jabotinsky: “The only way to achieve an agreement in the future is by utterly abandoning all attempts to achieve an agreement in the present.”

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From the first day of the Camp David summit, on Sept. 5, 1978, the arguments were heated. Sadat demanded Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza in order to pave the way for a future Palestinian state. To Begin, the request was ludicrous. The PLO had been founded in Cairo with Egypt’s support, had been sworn to Israel’s destruction from the very outset, and Sadat was demanding not only that Israel weaken its buffer by giving back the Sinai to him, but that it create a state for those who remained expressly committed to Israel’s destruction. Sadat also demanded financial compensation to the Egyptian government for damages during and after the October War of 1973. Though he had apparently informed Carter in advance that he was willing to compromise on all these issues, he felt he had to make a strong initial showing. (Ambassador Samuel Lewis later related that Sadat had also been warned by his aides that if he compromised too readily, he might be killed.)

Begin rejected all of those demands, calling them “chutzpah.” The negotiations quickly descended into bitter acrimony. Carter wrote, “All restraint was now gone. Their faces were flushed, and the niceties of diplomatic language and protocol were stripped away. They had almost forgotten I was there.” Within the first two days of the summit, Carter decided that there would be no more face-to-face meetings between Begin and Sadat at Camp David.

The Americans themselves were divided in their assessment of Begin. Sam Lewis felt that “Begin was not able personally to wrap himself around options and alternatives and possibilities and subtleties,” but Cyrus Vance, Carter’s secretary of state, thought he was “one of the finest poker players” he had ever seen. So determined was he to ensure that no detail was out of place that he stonewalled Carter to his breaking point. Subtleties in language, for example, the differences among “Palestinians,” “Palestinian people,” and “Palestinian Arabs,” were the bricks on which Begin built his case. Carter, who undoubtedly did not understand the existential vulnerabilities Begin felt the president was pressuring him to accept, lost all regard for the Israeli leader. Begin is a psycho, he apparently told his wife.

But what Begin was actually doing was carefully angling for a “compromise” that would ensure that the issue of Palestinian autonomy did not spin out of control. He was unwilling to give up any part of the Land of Israel, and was buttressed by Dayan, who believed that the West Bank was critical to Israel’s security. What the parties slowly inched toward was an agreement in which the Palestinians would have a self-governing authority that would be elected for a period of five years. During that five-year period, a final-status agreement would be discussed—but the agreement was subject to the approval of all sides. That meant, in essence, that every side would have a veto. That arrangement both satisfied everyone in the short term and doomed any Palestinian prospects for real autonomy to failure. The Palestinians would demand Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, and Israel would veto it; Israel would demand that it retain control over the West Bank, and the Arabs would veto it.

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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