On March 26, 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. The negotiations overcame many obstacles before they reached their goal. Frequently it seemed that they would fail, and the area would return to the era of conflict and bloodshed its inhabitants knew so well.
Only nine months earlier, in the summer of 1978, the Israeli government, with Begin at its head, had reached a low ebb in its political fortunes. Plagued by internal dissension, it also clashed with the US administration, which saw Israel’s obstinacy as the cause for lack of progress in talks with Egypt. The high hopes for a speedy peace treaty aroused by President Sadat’s visit to Israel in November 1977 had dissipated. Months of talks, at times direct and at times with US mediation, failed to bring a breakthrough. Each side barricaded itself in its positions and condemned the obstinacy or pettiness of the other side. In July 1978 an attempt was made to renew the talks and some progress was made. But Sadat, offended by the public rejection of his request for an Israeli gesture of goodwill in Sinai, broke off the talks. President Carter invited Begin and Sadat to a summit conference in his mountain retreat at Camp David, starting a process which eventually led to the ceremony in Washington.
To mark the 35th anniversary of the peace treaty the Israel State Archives presents a special publication of 67 documents, 18 of them in English, including telegrams and letters, records of conversations and meetings, and records of government meetings, declassified here for the first time. They open with documents on the unsuccessful attempts to bridge the gap between the two sides in the summer of 1978. The second part of the publication deals with the Camp David summit. Many books and articles have described events at Camp David but until now no original documents have been published to give the public a firsthand impression of the twists and turns of the negotiations.
The documents illustrate the doubts, dramas and personal relations among the participants. Among them are five records of the meetings with the US delegation recorded by the legal adviser Prof. Aharon Barak in his own hand, and presented here for the first time, after transcription with the kind assistance of Prof. Barak. We also present a selection of the internal consultations of the Israeli delegation. The rest were used for preparing the introductions.
The third part of the publication shows how, despite the Camp David accords and large areas of agreement between Egypt and Israel, negotiations again broke down, on the background of opposition in the Arab world and among Begin’s supporters. Months of intensive talks and another personal intervention by President Carter were needed to bring about success. His dramatic last minute visit to Cairo and Jerusalem in March 1979 opened the way for the signing of the treaty.
The publication is divided into three parts:
- Part A. Giving Peace Another Chance: Renewing Talks with Egypt, Crisis and Invitation to a Summit, July-September 1978
- Part B. Summit at Camp David: “Touch and Go” First Stage: Difficult talks with Egypt: Carter presents his proposal (5-12 September)
- Part C: Now or Never: US President Jimmy Carter’s Visit to Jerusalem and Signing the Peace Treaty, March 1979
Prologue: Difficult Talks with Egypt (December 1977- June 1978)
In the summer of 1978 relations between the US and Israel were strained due to the breakdown in talks with Egypt. The US administration, anxious for progress towards peace to prevent another war, regional instability and a rise in oil prices, blamed Israel for the lack of progress.
Following President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in November 1977 Israel and Egypt had opened direct negotiations on a peace treaty. At an early stage they agreed that Israel would withdraw from Sinai and recognize Egyptian sovereignty in return for a full peace agreement and security arrangements, including a UN held zone near the border. (For the beginning of these talks see the ISA publication on Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan’s meeting with Egyptian deputy premier Hassan Tuhami in Morocco, December 1977. However Israel demanded continued control of the settlements it had built on the coast of Sinai and in the Rafiah salient, and of two airfields, Etzion, near Eilat in Israel and Eitam, near the town of El Arish in North Sinai, all in the UN zone. Egypt refused this demand, seeing it as an infringement of its sovereignty.
For map of Sinai, 1975
Israel Air Force planes at the Eitam base in Sinai, 29 July 1981. Courtesy of the Israel Defense Forces and Defense Establishment Archives, IDF Spokesman collection
Another source of tension was Sadat’s insistence that Egypt would not sign a separate peace agreement. In his Knesset speech on 20 November, Sadat offered Egyptian recognition of Israel and a full peace treaty, but demanded Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967 and a just solution of the Palestinian problem. Sadat hoped that if Israel signed a declaration of principles on these points, King Hussein of Jordan would join the talks and would deal with the Palestinian problem together with the local inhabitants. Then he could sign a bilateral treaty with Israel.
However the Likud government opposed any withdrawal in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and Gaza. Begin therefore put forward a proposal for self-rule (autonomy) for the Arab inhabitants of these areas for a transitional period of five years. The military government would be abolished and the inhabitants would elect an Administrative Council which would run day to day matters. Security would remain under Israeli control. Begin and his political movement, Herut, hoped to apply Israeli law to Judea and Samaria and Gaza, but he agreed to leave the issue of sovereignty in these areas undecided during the transitional period.
In December 1977 Begin took this plan to Washington, together with a plan for an agreement with Egypt based on withdrawal from Sinai(Document No. 2, Appendix A, Appendix B). The Administration accepted autonomy as a basis for negotiation, but demanded changes to ensure that it did not become a mechanism for perpetuating Israeli rule. The US stand on the Palestinian question was close to that of Egypt; since 1967 it had adopted an interpretation of UN Resolution 242 calling for Israel to withdraw from the territories with “minor border rectifications” and Carter had already called for a Palestinian “homeland”. However he did not support a Palestinian state which might fall under the influence of the radical Palestinian Liberation Organization and become a Soviet base.
On 25 December 1977 Begin presented his plan to Sadat at a meeting in Ismailia. But the two delegations could not agree on a “declaration of principles” on the Palestinian question. After Israel expanded building in the settlements in Sinai, a further meeting in Jerusalem in January 1978 also ended in failure, and Sadat recalled his delegation to Cairo.
Alongside the political discussions, a military committee was set up to discuss security arrangements in Sinai and Israeli withdrawal. Here good progress was made and withdrawal in stages over three years, demilitarized areas, limitation of forces and the role of the UN were agreed. The main subject left unresolved was the fate of the Israeli settlements and the airfields.
In February 1978 the 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. In March 1978 Begin was invited to Washington and put under heavy pressure to accept the US interpretation of Resolution 242, and especially the preamble referring to the principle of the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war”. Begin, who had resigned from the National Unity Government in 1970 when it accepted the resolution, refused. Israel had always claimed that the formula of withdrawal “from territories” and not “the territories” allowed agreed border changes. Attorney General Aharon Barak argued that the autonomy plan and the abolition of the military government could be seen as implementation of Resolution 242. The visit ended with an open clash over this issue and Israeli settlement policy.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin speaking at the White House during his visit to Washington, with US President Jimmy Carter behind him, 21 March 1978. Photograph: Moshe Milner, Government Press Office
The 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. It was reported that the Administration hoped that Begin would resign and would be replaced by a more flexible leader. Meanwhile Weizman held talks with Sadat in Egypt, and Dayan visited Washington, but no real progress was made.
Vance had posed two questions to Israel intended to reassure the Arabs: was Israel ready to decide the question of sovereignty in Judea and Samaria and Gaza after the transitional period? If so, how should this be done? This demand forced Begin to face the possibility that Israel’s claim to sovereignty in these areas might be raised but not accepted.
During discussions on Israel’s reply, the prime minister suffered a personal crisis. He had already had several heart attacks and was suffering from pericarditis, and his illness and the stress of the decision led to a breakdown. There were rumours that he was unable to function. Meanwhile Dayan demanded a positive answer to the US and threatened to resign. Weizman proposed another formula which would satisfy the Americans, while Haim Landau, who was close to Begin, proposed an alternative assumed to be acceptable to the prime minister. 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”.
Prime Minister Begin trying to draft an answer to Vance’s questions, Carter waits impatiently. Caricature by Shmuel Katz, courtesy of the Katz family
During the discussions with the Americans, Dayan too had formulated arguments which were put to the Egyptians in the form of questions:
- Would Sadat take responsibility for the negotiations or sign an agreement on Judea and Samaria and Gaza, if Jordan would not join the talks?
- Did he accept the American stand against a Palestinian state and that Israel was not required to carry out a total withdrawal?
- Would he agree to the stationing of the IDF beyond the 1967 borders to ensure Israel’s security?
- Would he accept the Aswan declaration by Carter, which said that the Palestinians should participate in determining their own future?
In private talks Sadat had agreed not to demand complete Israeli withdrawal and a Palestinian state. But it was still not clear if he would sign a peace treaty and an agreement on the West Bank and Gaza. He agreed to send Foreign Minister Mohammed Ibrahim Kamel to London for talks on these issues.
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. To ensure Congressional approval the Administration presented the sale as a package deal, along with F-15 and F-16 planes for Israel. 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.
1. Vice President Mondale’s visit to Israel
Mondale arrived in Israel at the end of June with his wife and daughter. He visited the Old City of Jerusalem, despite the opposition of the State Department, gave a speech in the Knesset and met with former prime minister Golda Meir. He held political talks with the Israeli leadership, including Begin, Defence Minister Ezer Weizman and Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan in which he expressed fears that Sadat might give up his peace initiative if there was no progress. Sadat had declared that the deciding date was October 1978, the third anniversary of the Interim Agreement with Israel signed in 1975. Mondale warned that the situation might deteriorate and lead to war(See Document No. 1, Mondale’s meeting with Moshe Dayan,No. 1A, meeting with Begin and ministers).
Mondale also met with Deputy Premier Yigael Yadin of the moderate DMC party, which supported territorial concessions in Judea and Samaria. According to US documents, Yadin said that the American pressure on Begin to agree to withdrawal in these areas was ineffective. Begin felt that perhaps the US believes that he will never “be able to deliver the goods” and Sadat sees him as “a hopeless case”. Given these feelings, Begin had become passive or intransigent: “He in effect tells Weizman and Dayan to go ahead and play the game their way”. In Yadin’s opinion, “if there is anyone who can do more than others to reach a peace agreement, Begin is the one”. If Begin was convinced that the US believed in him, his own belief in his mission to bring peace could be revived.
Mondale also gave Begin an invitation to send Dayan to London to meet Foreign Minister Kamel, under the chairmanship of Vance. Begin first wanted to study the counter proposal to Israel’s peace plan(Document No. 2, Appendix C) issued by Egypt after many postponements. Mondale advised Israeli ambassador in Washington, Simcha Dinitz, that Israel should accept the invitation immediately. The Egyptian proposal was extreme and unacceptable to the US(Document No. 3). Israel agreed to take part in the London conference.
See also: Document No. 2.
2. Ezer Weizman’s meeting with President Sadat in Salzburg, 13 July
Defence Minister Weizman, who led the military talks, was on good terms with Sadat. On 13 July he met Sadat and the Egyptian Defence Minister Mohamed Abdel Ghani el-Gamasy in Salzburg in Austria, after Sadat had talked with Shimon Peres, leader of the Labour Opposition, at a meeting of the Socialist International. The talk had no concrete result, but Sadat repeated that October 1978 was a decisive date. They discussed security arrangements in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Sadat said that he wanted to pray at Saint Catherine’s monastery in Sinai (Jebel Musa, considered the site of Mt. Sinai) at the end of Ramadan, and asked if Israel would shoot him if he went there. To give momentum to the negotiations he proposed that Israel should transfer El Arish and the monastery to Egypt as a unilateral gesture. Weizman also met with Gamasy, who said that he was uneasy about the lack of progress in the talks and pressure in Egypt to adopt a harder line. (See Weizman’s report to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, Document No. 4).
Egyptian president Anwar Sadat praying at the foot of Mt. Sinai, at the Saint Catherine’s monastery after the signature of the peace treaty. On his left the Vice- President, Hosni Mubarak. 19 November 1979. Photograph: Ya’acov Sa’ar, Government Press Office
Weizman also described the meeting to the American ambassador, Sam Lewis. Sadat’s expectations from the London talks were not high, but he wanted to remain in touch with Weizman afterwards. Sadat was a “peculiar guy” and his ideas were ill defined, but Israeli withdrawal from El Arish might allow him to extend the October deadline. Under pressure from his colleagues who were envious and mistrustful of his exclusive channel with Sadat, Weizman had urged him to meet with Begin again and also to see other ministers, including Dayan and Agriculture Minister Ariel “Arik” Sharon: “The system by which we communicate, where we see each other once in a blue moon, and the papers in Egypt are full of blasphemy, and the only character they would like to see is yours truly, that the Prime Minister is an unavoidable not even necessity, that the Foreign Minister is an unwanted character – this will not go on.” Weizman proposed that the two sides should appoint negotiating teams and lock themselves up for a week until they came up with an understanding.
3. The Leeds Castle Conference (17-19 July) and the Israeli government decision (23 July)
The conference of foreign ministers was moved for security reasons from London to Leeds Castle in Kent, a picturesque castle in the middle of a lake. Vance tried to break down the barriers between the Israelis and the Egyptians, persuading them to sit together at meals. The two sides presented their positions on the future of Judea and Samaria and Gaza. Kamel and his Foreign Ministry team were known to be very sensitive to attitudes in the Arab world and to resist any compromise. In a private talk with Vance Dayan took upon himself to persuade the government to agree to a new formulation, which was described as a “personal statement”: after five years of self-rule, the issue of sovereignty in these areas could be “discussed and decided”. This formula was closer to that demanded by the Americans than the one adopted by the government in June.
Leeds Castle in Kent, near London, where the conference of foreign ministers was held. Photograph: Wikimedia
At the same time Dayan made it clear that a settlement based on withdrawal from Judea and Samaria and Arab sovereignty there was unacceptable to Israel, even if accompanied by the best security arrangements. Israel’s opposition to such a settlement was a matter of principle, based on security, national and practical considerations. The Palestinians could decide their future after the transitional period by means of talks between Israel, Jordan and their elected representatives, but not by a plebiscite as proposed by the Americans, which was likely to be swayed by PLO intimidation. They would not be allowed to set up a Palestinian state. He gave Vance an unofficial paper including these points. (See the record of Dayan’s talk with Vance and the paper, Documents 5, 5A).
Vance was satisfied with the results of the talks, where practical issues were discussed for the first time, and planned another round at the US early warning station at Um Hasheiba in Sinai, which Weizman and Gamasy would also attend.
On his return from Leeds Castle Dayan brought his “personal stand” to the government meeting for approval. He warned the ministers that Israel was facing a crisis with the United States because of its intransigent stand. To the surprise of many Begin argued that it was unthinkable for the government not to give its backing to the foreign minister. The formula that sovereignty in Judea and Samaria and Gaza “would be discussed and decided on” after five years was approved, with no further ado.
The second half of the dramatic government meeting was devoted to Sadat’s proposal that El Arish and Saint Catherine’s monastery should be transferred to Israel unilaterally, which had already been leaked to the media. Begin strongly opposed it, using emotional and harsh language and quoting the American saying “You can’t get something for nothing”. Several ministers had reservations about the tone of his reply and suggested he give it to Sadat privately, but Begin insisted on publishing the text and planned to read it in the forthcoming political debate in the Knesset. At the same time he protested against the Opposition’s attacks on him during his illness and claimed that his colleagues had not defended him (See the record of the government meeting, Document No. 7).
See also Document No. 6.
4. Egypt breaks off the talks: invitation to Camp David
Begin’s tough speech in the Knesset, in which he said that Israel would not return “even a single grain of sand in the desert” to Egypt as a gift, brought Israel’s relations with Egypt to a new low. Sadat was deeply insulted and ordered the Israeli military delegation still in Egypt to leave. In an attempt to halt the deterioration Weizman wrote to Gamasy, expressing his regret over the decision and hope that no more steps would be taken which might hold up or even end the peace process (Document No. 9). A few days later Sadat rejected Vance’s plan for a new round of talks in Um Hasheiba (Document No. 10).
In order to save the peace process, Carter decided to change tactics and adopted an idea similar to the one Weizmann had put forward. He invited Begin and Sadat to meet him in a summit for continuous talks, which would go on until an agreement was reached.
The invitation (Document No. 11) was brought by Vance, and both leaders accepted gladly. Carter decided to hold the meeting at Camp David, at the beginning of September. The time had come to present a US compromise proposal, in the hope that the sides would find it easier to accept this plan than to make concessions to one another. To prevent leaks and distortions the media would be excluded. Carter demanded that the experts in the State Department and the National Security Council set ambitious goals for the summit; achieving a written agreement to negotiate a peace agreement and a detailed programme for its implementation. He believed that if three strong leaders who sincerely wanted peace missed this chance, no one would succeed.
5. Preparations for the Camp David conference in Israel
While in America intensive preparations were made, including CIA studies of the two leaders and detailed appraisals of their stands, in Israel at first the leaders did not realize that this would be a crucial meeting. Begin told Ambassador Lewis that he saw ensuring continuous direct negotiations as the main aim of the summit (See Document No. 13).
At a government meeting Begin said that preparations should be made but there was no need to panic. A committee,headed by Eliyahu Ben-Elissar, the director-general of the Prime Minister’s office, and Maj. General Avraham Tamir, the head of the IDF planning branch who had led the military talks with Egypt, prepared a list of possible options for bridging the gaps between the sides. At Dayan’s request the government did not lay down guidelines for the talks in order not to tie the hands of the delegation. Thus its members would be able to accept or reject proposals without being bound to particular formulas. If they were offered proposals which were contrary to Israel’s accepted stand, they would bring them to the government for approval.
Director-General of the Prime Minister’s Office, Eliyahu Ben-Elissar and the head of the IDF Planning Branch, Maj. General Avraham Tamir preparing for the Camp David conference, 18 August 1978. Photograph: Ya’acov Sa’ar, Government Press Office
On 27 August the government approved the composition of the Israeli delegation at Camp David. It would be headed by Prime Minister Begin and would include the Foreign Minister and Defence Minister, Aharon Barak (who had been appointed to the Supreme Court but had yet to take up his post); Simcha Dinitz; Maj. General Tamir; the legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry, Meir Rosenne; media adviser Dan Patir: Elyakim Rubinstein, the head of Dayan’s bureau and a number of other officials and assistants, including the chief of Begin’s bureau Yehiel Kadishai, and his personal doctor, Prof. Mervyn Guttesman.
It was only after the government had received the report on Ambassador Dinitz’ talk with Vice President Mondale that its members began to realize the ambitious plans the Americans had for the conference. Mondale told Dinitz that ensuring the continuation of the negotiations was not enough. This was a unique opportunity; only Sadat could speak for Egypt and the rest of his team were lacking in authority or good will. Thus the conference should be used to decide on principles or guidelines which would serve as the basis for an agreement. There Israel could get answers to the questions it had been asking: would Sadat really sign a peace treaty with Israel? Would he negotiate on Judea and Samaria and Gaza if Jordan would not join the talks? Sadat’s replies would be binding. (See Dinitz’ report on the talk with Mondale, Document No. 15).
Dayan knew that one of the main points of contention at the conference would be the future of the Palestinians. He too made preparations on this issue. In a meeting with heads of departments in the Foreign Ministry he presented his stand: he was convinced that the Arab residents of Judea and Samaria and Gaza were interested in self-rule and living side by side with Israel within open borders (See Dayan’s speech to the heads of departments, Document No. 14, and a similar speech in English, Document No. 14A).
Before he left for Camp David Dayan also talked to representatives of leading families in the West Bank who had close ties with Jordan. He met with Ariel Sharon and told him of these meetings. Sharon updated Dayan on the latest plans for Jewish settlements and roads and explained which of these were the most important. As to the future of the area, Sharon favoured more autonomy for the Palestinians and ties with Israel rather than giving a role to Jordan, while Dayan thought Jordanian involvement would be a bulwark against the return of the refugees (See the record of Dayan’s talk with Sharon, Document No. 16).
On 4 September the members of the delegation met for a consultation also attended by Yitzhak Hofi, the head of the Mossad, Israel’s Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations. Dinitz described the US plans for the conference outlined by Vance(Document No. 17) and Hamilton Jordan, Carter’s political adviser. The president had promised to consult with Israel before putting forward proposals. Begin said that he would present Israel’s opposition to withdrawal in Judea and Samaria and Gaza or to any foreign sovereignty in these areas. The IDF could withdraw to specific encampments, but would reserve the right to intervene if there were riots or the PLO tried to seize control. As for the settlements in Sinai, there was a national consensus against giving them up. The meeting ended with a discussion of the situation in Iran, where the shah’s pro-Western regime was threatened, and in Afghanistan. (See the record of the consultation, Document No. 18).
Theentrance to Camp David, 5 September 1978. Photograph: Moshe Milner, Government Press Office