דMaking peace with Egypt: Part 1. The road to Camp David

Introduction

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, symbolizing an event which changed the history of the Middle East. The ceremony on the White House lawn 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 parties had reached deadlock. The Israeli government, plagued by internal dissension, had clashed with the US administration, which blamed Israel’s obstinacy for the lack of progress. The high hopes  raised by President Sadat’s visit to Israel had dissipated. Months of talks, at times direct and at others with US mediation, failed to bring a breakthrough. Each side barricaded itself in its positions and condemned the other. In July 1978 an attempt was made to renew the talks, but Sadat, offended by Begin’s public rejection of his request for an Israeli goodwill gesture, again broke them off. President Carter invited Begin and Sadat to a summit conference in his mountain retreat at Camp David. There agreement was reached on a framework for peace, which eventually led to the ceremony in Washington.

PM Begin speaking at the peace signng ceremony, 26 March 1979. GPO

To mark the 40th anniversary of the Camp David summit we present a special publication of 39 documents, 13 of them in English, including telegrams and letters, records of conversations and meetings, and records of government meetings, first published in 2013. For the first time we also present a collection of 46 scanned files on Camp David and the negotiations on the peace treaty, now released for publication by the military censorship. Part 1 opens with documents on the failed attempts to bridge the gap between the two sides in the summer of 1978.  Part 2 deals with the doubts and dramas at Camp David until the final success. Among the documents are five records of the meetings with the US delegation recorded by the legal adviser Prof. Aharon Barak in his own hand, presented here 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.
Part 3 (in preparation) will show how, despite the Camp David accords and areas of agreement between Egypt and Israel, negotiations broke down again, due to opposition in the Arab world and among Begin’s previous supporters. Months of intensive talks and further 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.

See all the documents in the special publication on our Hebrew website

Some documents from the ISA in English translation, together with some of the US documents on the peace process, can been seen on the website of the Center for Israel Education. 

See also the historical documents in English on the website of the Israel Foreign Ministry and the Carter Library exhibit on the Camp David Accords.

Part 1. The road to Camp David: renewed talks with Egypt, crisis and an invitation to a summit, July–September 1978

Prologue: Talks with Egypt end in deadlock (December 1977- June 1978)
Following President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in November 1977, Israel and Egypt had opened direct negotiations on a peace treaty. 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 (see the chapter on Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan’s meeting with Egyptian deputy premier Hassan Tuhami in Morocco, December 1977, above) . 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, and Eitam, near the town of El Arish in North Sinai [map of Sinai 1975], all in the UN zone. Egypt refused this demand, seeing it as an infringement of sovereignty.

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 full peace, but demanded withdrawal from all 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 proposed to give 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. 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 open during the transitional period.

In December 1977 Begin took this plan to Washington, together with a plan for an agreement with Egypt (Document No. 2, Appendix 1A). The Administration accepted autonomy as a basis for negotiation, but demanded changes so 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 on 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 be taken over by 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 Sadat’s plane had arrived in Israel and an Israeli delegation flew to Cairo, hopes rose in Israel for a regular air route between the two countries. A letter from the chairman of Egyptair, ISA, File A4313/7

After Israel expanded building in the settlements in Sinai, another meeting in Jerusalem in January 1978 also ended in failure, and Sadat recalled his delegation to Cairo. But alongside the political discussions, a military committee was set up to discuss security arrangements in Sinai. Here withdrawal in stages over three years, demilitarized areas, limitation of forces and the role of the UN were agreed. The main subject not settled was the fate of the Israeli settlements and the airfields.

In February 1978 the Administration decided to step in. A joint strategy was worked out with Sadat: Egypt would submit a counter proposal to the autonomy plan, and the US would present a compromise and exert pressure to reach a declaration of principles and an Israeli withdrawal. In March 1978 Begin was invited to Washington and Carter demanded that he 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 resolution allowed for agreed border changes. Attorney General Aharon Barak said the autonomy plan and the abolition of the military government could be seen as implementation of the resolution. The visit ended with an open clash over this issue and over Israeli settlement policy. The Administration, anxious to prevent another war, regional instability and a rise in oil prices, blamed Israel for the lack of progress.

The crisis led to criticism by sections of the Israeli public. Following an open letter to Begin 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 controlling all of the Biblical Land of Israel. On the other hand, right wing circles opposed any concessions in Judea and Samaria as well as in Sinai. It was reported that the Administration hoped that Begin would resign and would be replaced by a more flexible leader. Meanwhile Defence Minister Weizman held talks with Sadat in Egypt, and Dayan visited Washington, but no real progress was made.

Secretary of State Cyrus Vance had posed two questions to Israel intended to reassure the Arabs:

  • would Israel agree 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. Begin 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 carry out his duties.

Ezer Weizman tries to dig out a way to peace as Begin follows him to Washington, March 1978. Caricature by Shmuel Katz, courtesy of the Katz family

Carter waits impateintly for Begin to formulate an answer to Vance. June 1978, caricature by Shmuel Katz, courtesy of the Katz family

 

Meanwhile Dayan demanded a positive answer to the US and threatened to resign. On 18 June a government meeting reached a compromise and 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.”

During the discussions with the US, Dayan too had drawn up questions to Egypt:

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 agree 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 Kemal to London for talks.

More tension with the US was caused by President Carter’s decision to sell advanced warplanes to Saudi Arabia and less advanced jets to Egypt. The Administration presented the sale to Congress 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 over the pro-Israel lobby. To improve relations Carter decided to send Vice President Walter Mondale, who was close to the Jewish community, to visit Israel and to try to restart the peace talks.

ד.1 | Vice President Mondale's visit to Israel

Vice President Mondale visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem, 30 June 1978. Photograph: Moshe Milner, GPO

 

 

Mondale arrived in Israel at the end of June. He visited the Old City of Jerusalem, despite the opposition of the State Department, and gave a speech in the Knesset. In his talks with the Israeli leaders, he said that Sadat might give up on his peace initiative if there was no progress before October 1978, the third anniversary of the 1975 Interim Agreement with Israel. The situation might deteriorate and lead to war (See Document No. 1, Mondale’s meeting with Dayan, No. 1A, meeting with Begin and ministers). Mondale also met with Deputy Premier Yigael Yadin of the moderate DMC party, which supported  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”. His reaction was to 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 could be revived.

Mondale gave Begin an invitation to send Dayan to the meeting in London with Egyptian Foreign Minister Kemal, to be chaired by Vance (Document No. 2). Begin first wanted to study Egypt’s counter proposal to Israel’s peace plan (Document No. 2, Appendix 1B) . Mondale advised Israeli ambassador in Washington, Simcha Dinitz, that Israel should accept the invitation immediately. The Egyptian proposal was extreme and would not be acceptable to the US (Document No. 3). Israel agreed to take part in the conference.

ד.2 | Ezer Weizman's meeting with Sadat in Salzburg

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-Gamassy in Salzburg in Austria, after Sadat had met with Shimon Peres, leader of the Labour Opposition, at a meeting of the Socialist International. Sadat repeated that October 1978 was a decisive date. They discussed security arrangements in the West Bank and the status of Jerusalem. Sadat said that he wanted to pray at Saint Catherine’s monastery (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 Gamassy, who was uneasy about the lack of progress and pressure in Egypt to adopt a harder line. (See Weizman’s report to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, Document No. 4)

President Sadat speaking to Defence Minister Weizman at his residence in Aswan, with Gamassy behind them (in the centre). Photograph: Ya’acov Sa’ar, GPO

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. 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 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.

 

ד.3 | The Leeds Castle meeting and the government decision of 23 July

Begin and Sadat barricade themselves into their positions while Dayan tries to bridge the gap, July 1978. Caricature by Shmuel Katz, courtesy of the Katz family.

The conference of foreign ministers was moved for security reasons to Leeds Castle in Kent. Vance tried to break down barriers between the two sides, persuading them to sit together at meals. Each presented their position on the future of Judea and Samaria and Gaza. Kemal and his team were sensitive to attitudes in the Arab world and resisted any compromise. In a private talk with Vance, Dayan promised to persuade the government to agree to a new formula, described as his “personal statement”: after five years, the issue of sovereignty could be “discussed and decided”. This was more acceptable to the Americans than the government’s decision in June. At the same time Dayan made it clear that Israel would not accept a settlement based on withdrawal from Judea and Samaria and Arab sovereignty there , even if accompanied by the best possible security arrangements. Israel opposed it on principle, based on security, national and practical considerations. The Palestinians could decide their future after the transitional period “through talks between Israel, Jordan and their elected representatives”, but not by a referendum as proposed by the Americans, which could be swayed by PLO intimidation. They would not be allowed to set up a Palestinian state. He gave Vance an unofficial paper on these points. (See the record of Dayan’s talk with Vance and the paper below, File A 4313/14, Documents 5, 5A and 6. See also record in English of the meeting on 18 July 1978, File MFA 6866/8, pp. 259-283)

 

First page of the “talking paper”, ISA, A4314/14

Vance was pleased and planned another round of talks at the US early warning station at Um Hasheiba in Sinai with Weizman and Gamassy. On his return from Leeds Castle Dayan brought his “personal stand” to the government meeting for approval. He warned that Israel faced a crisis with the United States if it did not change its stand. To the surprise of many, Begin argued that it was unthinkable for the government not to back 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 more ado. The second half of the dramatic meeting was devoted to Sadat’s proposal that El Arish and Saint Catherine’s monastery should be transferred to Israel unilaterally, which had already leaked to the media. Begin strongly opposed it, using harsh language and quoting the American saying “You can’t get something for nothing”. Several ministers had reservations about this 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 meeting, Document No. 7).

 

ד.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 relations to a new low. Sadat was deeply insulted and ordered the Israeli military delegation in Egypt to leave. Weizman wrote to Gamassy, expressing regret over the decision and hope that no more steps would be taken which might hold up or even end the  negotiations (Document No. 9). A few days later Sadat rejected Vance’s plan for talks in Um Hasheiba (Document No. 10.)

To save the peace process, Carter decided to adopt an idea similar to the one Weizmann had put to Lewis. 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 was brought by Vance, and both leaders accepted. (Document No. 11, No. 12). Carter decided to hold the meeting at the presidential retreat in the mountains near Washington, Camp David, at the beginning of September. The time had come for a US compromise proposal: the two sides might find it easier to accept this plan than to make concessions to one another. To prevent leaks and outside pressure, the media would be excluded. Carter demanded that  his experts 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 else could succeed.

ד.5 | Israel's preparations for the summit

The entrance to Camp David. Photograph: Moshe Milner, GPO

The Administration was making intensive preparations for the summit, including CIA studies of the two leaders, but 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 (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 Eliahu Ben-Elissar, the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, and Maj. General Avraham Tamir, who had led the military talks, prepared a list of options. 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 could accept or reject proposals without being bound to particular formulas. If they were offered proposals contrary to Israel’s accepted stand, they would bring them to the government.

On 27 August the government approved the composition of the Israeli delegation at Camp David. Headed by Begin, it 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); Dinitz, Tamir; the legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry, Meir Rosenne; media adviser Dan Patir: Elyakim Rubinstein, the head of Dayan’s bureau and other officials and assistants, including the chief of Begin’s bureau Yehiel Kadishai, and his personal doctor.

Only after the government had received the report on Dinitz’ talk with Mondale did its members began to realize the ambitious plans the Americans had for the conference. Mondale said 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 to serve as the basis for an agreement. There Israel could get answers to its questions: 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?  – and Sadat’s replies would be binding. (Document No. 15)

Dayan too made preparations. In a meeting with senior staff of his ministry he said that from his talks with the Arab residents of Judea and Samaria and Gaza, he was convinced that they wanted self-rule and to live side by side with Israel within open borders (See Document No. 14, and a similar speech in English, Document No. 14A). Before he left Dayan also talked to representatives of leading families in the West Bank with close ties with Jordan. He met with Sharon and told him of these meetings. Sharon updated Dayan on the latest plans for Jewish settlements and roads. 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 Document No. 16).

On 4 September the members of the delegation met in New York together with Yitzhak Hofi, the head of the Mossad, the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations. Dinitz described the US plans for the conference according to 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 foreign sovereignty there. The IDF could withdraw to specific encampments, but would 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.  (See Document No. 18).

A virtual tour of Camp David with photographs from different periods