דMaking peace with Egypt, Part 2. Camp David, the summit that almost failed

ד.1 | Camp David: a pastoral retreat, with a touch of claustrophobia

President Carter sitting on a bench at Camp David, September 1978. Photograph: CIA website, courtesy of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library

Camp David is in the Catoctin Mountains in Maryland, about 62 miles (100 kilometres) north of Washington. Originally a holiday camp for Federal employees, President Roosevelt chose it as a retreat and President Eisenhower named it after his grandson David. It is technically a military installation run by the US Navy and Marine Corps, consisting of a number of wooden cabins, called after native American trees, a dining room, sports facilities, wooded paths, a billiard room and even a cinema. It is some thirty five minutes away from Washington by helicopter.
Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter were very fond of Camp David, and, according to Carter, it was his wife’s idea to invite Begin and Sadat to a summit there. He knew that he would be able to keep out the press and it would also be difficult for Sadat to lose patience and break off the talks. The members of the Israeli delegation liked Camp David less. It was crowded, and they were forced to share the small cabins. Ezer Weizman, wrote in his book “The Battle for Peace” that the densely wooded surroundings gave him claustrophobia. Dayan too wrote that he preferred the open spaces of the desert.
The US team was headed by the president, together with Secretary Vance and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and their assistants. Sadat was accompanied by the foreign minister, Kamel, Boutros Ghali, Hassan Tohamy, Osama el-Baz of the Foreign Ministry who was the political adviser of the vice president, Hosni Mubarak and other aides. Carter notes in his memoirs that Sadat had left his closest associates, Mubarak and Mustafa Khalil, behind to keep an eye on affairs in Egypt. He did not trust his advisers who held extreme positions, and would make important decisions on his own. Begin, on the other hand, was very dependent on his team, who were more inclined to compromise than he was.
In this chapter we present documents on the talks at Camp David including a selection of the minutes of meetings between the Israelis, the Egyptians and the Americans from the ISA collections and records of consultations by the Israeli delegation, all made by Elyakim Rubinstein, then the director of Dayan’s bureau and later a Supreme Court judge. The most interesting ones are shown here; the rest were used to prepare this introduction. The trilateral talks between Carter, Begin and Sadat were not recorded, and the account given here is based on Begin’s reports to his delegation. All of the records are in Hebrew, although the bilateral talks were held in English.
We have also used the documents appearing in the “Foreign Relations of the United States” series and accounts of Camp David by the participants, especially that of Carter, based on his diary, and of William Quandt of the NSA. While the general outline is clear, they often contradict one another as to details and dates. We have chosen the version which fits best with our records.

ד.2 | Egypt and Israel take a hard line (5-9 September 1978)

When the delegations arrived Carter met separately with Begin and Sadat. He hoped that despite the mutual suspicion and lack of respect, he would manage to restore some confidence between them. He also hoped to press Begin to change his stand on Judea and Samaria and to commit Israel to an eventual Israeli withdrawal. As a result, renewed debates on the interpretation of UN resolution 242 took up much of the conference. However there was little chance of Begin making major concessions on this issue, and Dayan and Weizman supported him. The issue of the settlements in Sinai was different. As the ex-commander of the Israel Air Force, Weizman was concerned with the fate of the air bases, but neither he nor Tamir believed that the settlements had military value. Although Dayan was a member of the previous government, which had built them, he too had said that without Israeli forces to guard them and without the airfields, there was little point in keeping the settlements.
On the first night (5 September) Carter met with Begin alone and they discussed the settlements and Resolution 242. Begin reported to the delegation that he had explained that “inadmissibility of acquisition of territory by war” in the UN resolution did not apply to a defensive war like the Six Day War. Carter wrote that he was disappointed that Begin had not brought any new ideas.
The next morning Carter met with Sadat, who told him that he would present a hard line Egyptian plan, demanding Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines on all fronts, including East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, evacuation of the settlements, the return of the refugees, compensation for war damage to Egypt, signature of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and the establishment of a Palestinian entity. On the other hand he offered to make concessions which would help to make the summit a success: Egypt would establish full diplomatic relations with Israel and would agree to an arrangement with the Palestinians based on the Israeli autonomy plan, with minor modifications on the borders and a continued IDF presence in specified places during the transitional period, and even beyond. Carter believed that Sadat had adopted an intransigent opening position in case the talks failed. Later he would make concessions, but not on land and sovereignty in Sinai.
In the consultation of the Israeli team before the first meeting of the “Big Three” leaders,  Dayan argued that they should discuss Sinai since there was no chance for progress on Judea and Samaria and Gaza. However Weizman claimed that this was the main issue, and if an arrangement on it were reached, it would be easier to agree on Sinai. He said that on the latter question he “was ready to go further than we have ever thought”. Begin still saw the settlement issue as the main barrier to an agreement on Sinai (See Document No. 19).
That afternoon Weizmann was invited to a short meeting with Sadat. They had not met since Salzburg (See Part A). Weizman apologized for the leakage of details of that meeting and asked him again to meet Dayan. This time Sadat agreed. He repeated his commitment to negotiate on the West Bank and Gaza if Jordan did not join the talks, if a framework for negotiations was signed at Camp David (See Document No. 20).

Ezer Weizman joking with the Egyptians (right to left) Foreign Minister Kamel, Ambassador Ashraf Ghorbal and Deputy Foreign Minister Boutros Ghali at the billiard table in Holly Lodge,7 September 1978. Photograph: Moshe Milner, GPO

Sadat said this again in his meeting with Begin and Carter, and promised to hold simultaneous talks on Sinai. However he would not sign a peace treaty until a settlement on the Palestinian issue was reached. Sadat then read out Egypt’s peace proposal. Carter had warned Begin in advance that Sadat would present a proposal unacceptable to Israel, and asked him not to react on the spot. He said that it was only an opening position. Begin told the Israeli delegation that it was the most extreme proposal by the Egyptians since November 1977. At his next meeting with Carter and Sadat he would say that it was a recipe for the destruction of Israel and demand that Sadat take it back. He asked the legal advisers to draw up an Israeli reply for propaganda purposes. Dayan opposed producing a reply and said that Israel should simply say that the Egyptian proposal was unacceptable and it would negotiate on the basis of its previous proposals, or on each issue on its merits. He believed that the Americans had encouraged the submission of an extreme position so that they could then produce their own compromise – as they indeed planned to do (See the consultation at 18:00 p.m, Document No. 21).
The Egyptian proposal set the tone for the next few days of arguments and acrimony. On 7 September Begin, Dayan and Weizmann met Carter, Vance and Brzezinski. Begin attacked the Egyptian proposal and refused to commit himself on the future of Judea and Samaria. Carter claimed that he could obtain commitments from Sadat that Israel’s interests in those areas would be protected, if they were convinced that autonomy was not a ruse to hide continued Israeli control over the Palestinians. According to Carter, he said that he did not believe the Israelis and accused them of hiding their true intentions. He claimed that the Egyptian proposal was an opening position to impress the Arab world. He would not support a demand for its retraction.
Carter, Begin and Sadat met twice that day. In the first meeting Begin again attacked the Egyptian proposal. An argument developed over the settlements in Sinai and even over Israeli assistance to the Christians in Lebanon, which degenerated into a shouting match. Sadat declared that Begin did not want peace, only land. It was clear that no dialogue was possible between the two. In the second meeting, Begin proposed to renew the Weizman-Gamassy talks on military arrangements in Sinai and to produce a written version of the agreements already reached. He explained Israel’s need for the settlements as a buffer zone between Gaza and Sinai and the national consensus on the issue. Carter asked whether, if all other issues were resolved between Israel and Egypt and only the settlements remained, Begin could bring the question to the Knesset and recommend their evacuation. Begin said he would not get a majority.

Carter then announced that he would present a US proposal on Sunday. On the following day he would consult with the Egyptians, and  Saturday (Shabbat) would be a day of rest (See Begin’s report to the delegation, Document No. 23, See also notes by Avraham (Abrasha) Tamir and Ezer Weizman found among Aharon Barak’s papers, Document No. 22)

Another cause for dissension was the thorny subject of Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria. In a talk with Brzezinski on 8 September a freeze on settlement during the transitional period was proposed. Dayan refused but proposed a deal linking Israel’s settlement programme with agreement to the return of Palestinian refugees to the West Bank and the settlement of the refugees in Gaza outside the camps. Afterwards Dayan told his colleagues that the subject of a freeze was dangerous, “because immediately the Arabs will say we should stop building in East Jerusalem.” Weizman was willing to support a freeze if the strengthening of existing settlements was allowed. Begin argued that in view of the extreme Egyptian demands there was no point in a freeze. It would not ensure a settlement with Sadat. Destroying the settlements in Sinai was unthinkable (Consultation by the delegation, see Document No. 24).

That day Carter met Begin and Sadat again. While Sadat promised to accept any reasonable proposal made by the Americans, Begin opposed the idea. Carter promised to show the proposal to the Israelis first. Only then, according to Carter, did Begin start to realize that any agreement reached with Carter in advance would be very difficult for Sadat to refuse. Meanwhile Dayan suggested to Vance to leave the issue of settlement in Judea and Samaria to the end of the conference, and in fact this was done. The delegation again discussed the Sinai problem and Weizman said that the Etzion airfield could be moved inside Israel. Tamir proposed concessions in Sinai for protection of Israel’s interests in Judea and Samaria. Dayan and Begin strongly opposed a deal based on “Sinai in return for Judea and Samaria”. (Consultation by the delegation, see Document No. 24A). In the evening Carter was invited to a Friday night dinner with the Israeli delegation and was impressed by the singing of the Sabbath songs.

President and Mrs Carter taking part in the Shabbat dinner with the Israeli delegation, 9 September 1978. Photograph: Moshe Milner, GPO

ד.3 | The US proposal and the reactions of Egypt and Israel (10-11 September)

First page of Aharon Barak’s record of the meeting with the President, 10 September 1978, ISA, MFA 6913/7, p.2

Carter and his team used the day off to put the finishing touches to the US proposal, based on a draft drawn up by State Department and NSC experts. They knew that it would be very difficult to change Begin’s attitude. Their aim was to produce a proposal acceptable to Egypt, which would be sufficiently attractive to most of the Israeli delegation, so that they would press Begin for concessions.
On Saturday night (9 September) Vance proposed to Dayan that the Americans joined the bilateral talks on Sinai. Dayan asked that the issue of settlements in Sinai be left until then, and explained the Israeli fear that giving them up would be a precedent for evacuation of the Golan Heights in an agreement with Syria (See  Document No. 25). On Sunday they tried to improve the atmosphere: Brzezinski played chess with Begin, and on Sunday afternoon Begin and Sadat visited Gettysburg, site of the Civil War battle and Lincoln’s famous Address, together with Carter, and were reminded of the high cost of war.

Begin, Carter and Sadat at Gettysberg, 10 September 1978. Photograph: GPO

On their return Carter presented the US plan. It included many positive elements in order to obtain Israeli support:
Ending the state of war;
• Passage of Israeli ships through the Straits of Tiran and all international waterways;
• Secure and recognized boundaries;
• Full normal relations between Israel and Egyptl
• Withdrawal from Sinai in stages, over a period of three years;
• Demilitarization of Sinai and early warning stations;
• Ending the Arab boycott
A peace treaty would be signed within three months.
In the West Bank and Gaza the Arabs would receive full autonomy; after five years the final status of the area would be determined. The IDF would withdraw into specified security locations.

The plan also included elements which it would be difficult for Begin to accept:
The principle of inadmissibility of acquisition of territories by war and other elements of Resolution 242, such as the statement that it applied “on all fronts” i.e. including the West Bank and the Golan Heights;
• Recognition of the “legitimate rights” of the Palestinian people and their right to take part in determining their future;
• The final status would include Israeli withdrawal to the June 1967 boundaries with minor modifications.
There were also paragraphs on a solution to the refugee problem, including the Jewish refugees (from Arab states) and Jerusalem. The city should not be divided and the holy places should be controlled by representatives of the three faiths. “All peoples must have free access to Jerusalem and enjoy freedom of worship”. There should be a representative municipal council, and, as for the final status, it said vaguely that “an agreement on relationships in Jerusalem” should be reached in the negotiations on the West Bank and Gaza. Israel, which had extended Israeli law to East Jerusalem, had wanted it excluded from the talks, but the issue was important to the Saudis, whose political and financial support for Egypt was vital.

In the meeting Carter warned against the consequences of failure and urged the Israelis to be flexible. He said that Sadat had received a letter from King Hussein of Jordan promising to join the talks if agreement was reached. Carter explained that three subjects would be treated separately: sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza, which would not be discussed at Camp David, the problem of settlements in the West Bank and an agreement in Sinai. He planned to give the proposal to Sadat that evening, after receiving Israel’s comments. Begin asked for a recess to consider the plan, since it was a fateful decision and every word was crucial. Carter emphasized that the details of the agreement did not interest him but only the fact it was signed. The US would agree to any settlement acceptable to Israel and Egypt, or Israel and Jordan. Begin promised to give Israel’s answer by 10 p.m. and immediately began to object to the “inadmissibility” clause in the Preamble, on the intention to reach an agreement based on Resolution 242. Carter warned: “There is no chance that Sadat will sign a document which does not refer to the resolution”. (See the typed record of the meeting, Document No. 26 and the US proposal.)

After the break, Barak presented changes  including the deletion of the reference to Resolution 242 “in all its parts” and the principle of “inadmissibility of acquisition of territory”. Carter said that he would not have convened the conference unless Israel agreed to accept the resolution. The formula was important to Sadat in order to persuade Jordan. As usual Dayan tried to direct the discussion away from abstract principles and legalities to practical problems. Israel was concerned that this formula might commit it to withdraw from Judea and Samaria and the Golan. But the present negotiations were not on these issues. Israel had already agreed to withdraw from all of Sinai and to abolish the military government in Judea and Samaria. A peace treaty would be made with Jordan, not the Palestinians. Carter said that Sadat was not interested in the details of negotiations with Jordan or Syria. He wanted a general statement to make it clear that the aim was an overall settlement.
Afterwards they went over all the corrections demanded by Israel. In some cases the Americans accepted them, in others they said they would present Israel’s objection. After the meeting ended at 3 a.m., Carter invited Dayan to his cabin. He claimed that Begin was an obstacle to peace and asked for Dayan’s help. Dayan replied that Begin truly wanted an agreement.
The next morning Carter presented the plan to Sadat, with some Israeli amendments. The close contacts between the US team and the Israelis worried the Egyptians, who feared collusion. Sadat again rejected the Israeli request to leave the settlements in Sinai, as well as Carter’s request to include diplomatic relations and the exchange of ambassadors in the draft. However he did not ask for any changes except for the stationing of Egyptian and Jordanian forces in the West Bank and Gaza, to “balance” the Israeli presence. He passed the draft on to his advisers.

Meanwhile the Israeli delegation tried to persuade Begin that Israel could accept the formula that the agreement would be based on Resolution 242 “in all its aspects”. Begin pressed Rosenne, who supported this stand, to give way, and said that this was an American-Arab formula. Dayan accused Begin of forcing his views on the delegation: “It has become impossible to express any views which are different from yours.” Begin protested: “Since the [war of ] attrition on the Suez Canal such a war of attrition has not been directed at one man.” In the end he accepted the proposal, saying “It will all fall on my head. I will ask Ezer to protect me from [extremist Knesset member] Geula Cohen.”

That day Carter also met with Weizman and Tamir, who explained Israel’s security needs in Judea and Samaria to protect it against terrorism and the threat from the Eastern Front (Iraq and Syria). Carter was surprised to hear that Israel had reached an understanding with Egypt on two stages of withdrawal over three years and on demilitarized and limited forces zones. Sadat confirmed these understandings. Tamir and Weizman opposed Egyptian forces in Gaza or Jordanian ones in Judea and Samaria, but were willing for joint patrols with Jordan. Carter also talked to Dayan and Barak who explained why Israel opposed some points in the US draft. He told them that if they failed to reach agreement Sadat wanted to sign a joint Egyptian-US document, which would be very unwelcome to Israel. Barak proposed an Israeli-US document divided into three: subjects agreed; subjects which the delegation did not have authority to decide, but would recommend the government to agree, and subjects which would be brought to the government and the Knesset without a recommendation. Dayan and Barak too opposed an Egyptian or Jordanian presence in Judea and Samaria or Gaza. As long as their status was undecided, no foreign army should be allowed to enter.(See Document No. 27).

ד.4 | A day of crisis (12 September)

Prime Minister Begin briefs the members of the Israeli delegation on tthe porch of Laurel Lodge at Camp David. Photograph: Moshe Milner, GPO

The next day the talks reached a crisis. When Sadat came to talk with Carter the US president felt that he was about to announce that the conference was over. He started to talk about Sadat’s favourite subject – how to counter Soviet influence in the Middle East and Africa – and told him that a settlement with Israel would free Egyptian forces for the defence of the area. Sadat said that he could not accept the US wording on Jerusalem and the Palestinians, but Carter insisted that he had already given these formulas to the Israelis and could not change them now. He promised to help Sadat enlist Saudi support.
The atmosphere in the Israeli delegation was gloomy as well. Barak and Dayan described their conversation with Carter and said that he planned to present a proposal on Sinai based on withdrawal in stages and the evacuation of the airfields and the settlements. The Americans would submit a new version of the framework proposal, and Dayan said that if Israel did not accept it, they would appeal to public opinion and say that Egypt’s position was justified. Begin repeated his opposition to the inadmissibility formula, and said that no Israeli could agree, “whoever might suggest it, with all due respect to the US president and all due suspicion to the president of Egypt.” He proposed to draft a general document saying that negotiations would continue for three months until agreement was reached. Weizman said that if the settlements in Sinai stood between Israel and an agreement, he was in favour of peace “even if the settlements have to go….if I can reach a peace treaty with Egypt today based on united Jerusalem, open borders, diplomatic [relations], Sharm el-Sheikh open [to Israeli shipping], I am willing to go to the Rafiah salient and to tell them to leave.” Begin’s response was “I understand you and it is not agreed. The government and the Knesset will decide.” Dayan explained Barak’s proposal for a partial agreement, which would enable Sadat to get back part of Sinai and not to leave empty-handed.
The Americans’ insistence on including the principle of inadmissibility of acquisition of territory by war greatly annoyed Dayan, who was suffering from pain in his eye and back and other health problems. After Vance submitted another memorandum on it, he told Lewis that the secretary had committed a “fatal blunder” and the Israeli delegation was about to disperse. Barak would return to Israel the next day to be sworn in at the Supreme Court, he himself had ordered a flight home and Begin would go to Washington to explain the failure of the conference. The conference would break up on an issue completely irrelevant to the negotiations on Sinai and the West Bank, because of the Egyptian demands. “You are the great United States but the Egyptians want it.” Dayan told his colleagues that Lewis was alarmed by his threat. It was possible that the Americans sought confrontation with Israel, but they might genuinely want an agreement and Sinai was the key. Lewis had proposed solutions to the problem of Resolution 242, among them a proposal by Mondale to quote the full text of the resolution – “the whole bloody thing”, as he put it. Dayan asked the legal advisers for help, but the prime minister was adamant (See Document No. 28).
That evening Dayan described his conversation with Lewis to Begin, who was pleased to hear of the American reaction. Vance joined them and asked them to be patient. Dayan said that after they had heard from the president about his proposal on Sinai they concluded that the conference was over. Begin decided to go to speak to Carter himself. The following day Barak would meet with the president to go over the new framework proposal.
When he returned, Begin said that Carter too had proposed to include the text of Resolution 242 in the agreement. Begin told him that it would be an honour for him to cut off his right hand for the sake of the Land of Israel. According to Carter’s account, Begin became emotional and said that he could not sign any agreement including Resolution 242 because he represented the will of the Israeli people. Carter told him that according to public opinion polls a majority of Israelis supported an agreement based on ending settlement, evacuation of Sinai and withdrawal from part of the West Bank. He accused Begin of giving up peace with Egypt, recognition and diplomatic relations for the sake of a few illegal settlements in Sinai.

ד.5 | "Everyone has his own Camp David": Aharon Barak – making and recording history

On 13 September Carter began a series of sessions with Barak and Osama el Baz to refine the American proposal after the Egyptian amendments had been received. Barak played a central role at Camp David. According to Carter he had a great influence on Begin, and he found common ground with el Baz, a graduate of Harvard Law School, despite the Egyptian’s extreme views. In an interview with the ISA Barak explained that his relations with Begin became close during the early days of the government. Due to Begin’s inexperience he was glad of Barak’s legal advice on matters such as drafting the guidelines of government policy and giving a legal opinion on the coalition agreements. Barak was present at all government meetings. The prime minister, also a lawyer, saw him as an adviser who was above party, and Barak greatly valued Begin’s respect for the rule of law.

Since Barak had already been appointed to the Supreme Court, he needed the permission of the president of the Court, Justice Joel Sussman, to go to Camp David, and stayed out of the discussions on the Sinai settlements, which he saw as a political issue. He was not only a participant in the meetings: he also recorded several of the most important ones with the Americans, taking minutes in his own hand, in Hebrew (although the discussions were in English) while taking an active part. These minutes are very important for an understanding of the conference. The Israelis and the Egyptians were convinced that the meetings and their conversations were being recorded by the Americans, but the US participants have denied this. President Carter himself took notes, which have been published in part. There are a number of discrepancies between Carter’s record and the Israeli documentation.

Barak’s minutes were preserved in the ISA, but they were almost unreadable. In 2013 Prof. Barak kindly agreed to decipher them for us, and the minutes are presented here in a typed version. Prof. Barak remembered the events of the conference well, and especially his meetings with Carter and el Baz which involved an unprecedented personal effort by the president. At 5 a.m. he met alone with Carter, who used to get up very early to pray. They ate breakfast and then el Baz would arrive. El Baz was an experienced draftsman but his rigidity often annoyed the president, who would appeal to Sadat himself. Barak knew the Israeli positions well as he had helped to draft them. As he put it, he “knew how to phrase things in such a way that they [the Israeli leaders] would be able to agree.” Afterwards he submitted the results to Begin and the delegation, and Begin almost always accepted them. In this way progress was made on the framework agreement. The Resolution 242 issue was settled by striking out the inadmissibility clause that Begin so strongly opposed, appending the full text of the resolution to the agreement and stating that it would be based on Resolution 242 “in all its parts”, as Begin had already agreed. A clause on Jerusalem was agreed: it would not be divided and representatives of each religion would run the Holy Places. The expression “Palestinian people” would appear, but Carter would write a letter to Begin recognizing Israel’s stand that the correct term was “Palestinian Arabs”.

Carter’s letter, courtesy of the Menachem Begin Heritage Center

In the evening of 13 September Carter sent a letter to Begin signed “Jimmy” on the progress they had been made. Soon afterwards Vance brought the draft on Sinai to Dayan, who rejected it outright since it included evacuation of the settlements and the airfields. At 11:30 the delegation agreed on most of the elements in the agreement except for the settlements and the airfields. Meanwhile Barak had received another text and a new round of amendments began.
The next morning Begin asked Barak to make a final effort to keep the phrase “legitimate rights” of the Palestinians out of the text. But if he failed, Begin would accept it. Rosenne and Tamir worked on the Sinai agreement: Rosenne said that the Egyptians were keen to settle and would accept clauses that they would otherwise reject. However Sadat put forward a new demand: that a Muslim flag should be flown over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Dayan explained that he did not mean a national flag, but a religious one. Begin was determined not to allow even a religious flag on the holiest site of the Jewish people: it would mean that the Mount belonged to the Muslims. He could acquiesce if a Muslim flag was flown over the mosque, but would not give agreement in writing. (For an extract on Jerusalem, see Document No. 29A)
On the afternoon of 14 September Dayan went to have tea with Sadat in his cabin. According to Dayan he tried to persuade Sadat to postpone the decision on the settlements. He explained why they were set up and described them as a residue of the Nasser era. Sadat again accused Israel of wanting his land. He would not sign unless the settlements were removed. “How can I make an agreement with people I don’t trust?” he asked. (See Document No. 29).
Soon afterwards Vance brought a new version of the agreement on Judea and Samaria and Gaza. It included formulations contrary to those agreed on the Palestinians’ right to determine their own future, and even the demand for a referendum already refused by Israel. He explained that the Egyptians had rejected the understandings with Barak. The secretary, usually calm and to the point, lost his temper and said that the Americans had to consider the Egyptian point of view as well as that of Israel. Begin said that Israel had made many concessions and had accepted phrasing which they had never thought possible. Vance agreed to make a final effort. (See the translation on the Center for Israel Education website)
That evening Quandt made a list of the pros and cons of two scenarios to end the summit: signature by Israel and Egypt on a joint document, even one with little meaning, or an American-Egyptian document which would mean confrontation with Israel. According to Quandt, at this point Carter decided that a significant agreement on both Sinai and the Palestinian issue was not possible. If the US persisted, there might be no agreement at all. The option that remained was to get Sadat what he most wanted – the evacuation of the settlements and the airfields – in return for reducing Israel’s commitments to the Palestinians. They knew that Judea and Samaria were close to Begin’s heart, and he would find it easier to make concessions in Sinai if a formula on that issue was found.

ד.6 | Another crisis and breakthrough (15-16 September)

By Friday, 15 September, after thirteen days shut up in Camp David, the members of the delegations were becoming tired and impatient with their stay in what Begin called “a concentration camp de luxe”. Carter was told that the Egyptians had packed their bags and Sadat had asked Vance to order a helicopter to take him to Washington. According to Carter he persuaded Sadat to stay by making a personal appeal, saying that if he broke off the negotiations unilaterally he would damage Egypt’s relations with the US and break his promise to the president. Sadat said that Dayan had told him that Israel would not sign the agreement. If Egypt signed an agreement with the US it would serve as the basis for the next round of talks and weaken Egypt’s position. Carter promised that if the conference failed all proposals would be null and void.

Meanwhile Weizman and Dayan were meeting to try to save the situation. The settlements in Sinai were the main obstacle: Dayan proposed withdrawing the IDF and leaving discussions on the civilians till the third year of the agreement. Meanwhile there would be elections in Israel and perhaps another government might be elected…If this was rejected, a clause could be included that the settlement issue would be decided between the parties. Weizman said that for the sake of peace he was willing to evacuate all of Sinai. (See Document No. 30). The documents do not give a clear picture of this crucial day, but at one point, during a consultation with Begin, Weizman mentioned that he had asked Lewis if the Americans could build air bases in Israel instead of the airfields in Sinai.  The  airfields were important but relations with the US were more valuable, and Weizman decided to take the initiative. According to Quandt, who was working on Carter’s speech announcing the failure of the summit and blaming Israel, during the day Carter agreed to Weizmann’s proposal. When Barak, Dayan and Weizman met with the Americans at noon, it had already been decided that Israel would remove all its military installations from Sinai after the building of the airfields, which would take three years. Dayan still insisted the settlements issue should be decided later, but Vance said that Sadat would not agree. Brezezinski said: “It is an emotional issue for both Sadat and Begin, and the world will support Sadat”. Dayan replied: “Sadat will have the support and we will stay in Sinai. It doesn’t bother me.”

Menachem Begin at the inauguration ceremony of the yeshiva of Yamit in Northern Sinai, 29 September 1977. Photograph: Moshe Milner, GPO

In order to increase the pressure on Begin and Sadat, Carter announced that the conference would end on Sunday, 17 September. He sent both of them a handwritten letter asking for their final proposals.

In consultations  Begin told his colleagues that he would be stoned by members of his party in reaction to the agreement. Dayan told him that he would be applauded for his achievements. Tamir told Weizman that they should ask Arik Sharon to telephone Begin and give his approval for the evacuation of the settlements. Sharon did call, and Weizman believed that his support influenced Begin, but he had still not told Carter that he was willing to change his stand. In the evening a new position on Judea and Samaria was submitted to Carter and Sadat, and Sadat said that for the first time he began to believe that Israel wanted a settlement.

On Saturday, 16 September Carter made a final attempt to obtain concessions on the settlements from Sadat, without success. Afterwards he met with el-Baz and listed all the advantages for Egypt and the Palestinians if the agreement was signed. For the first time the Palestinans would have self rule and Israeli recognition of their rights. Egypt’s leadership of the Arab world would be strengthened as well as American commitments to Egypt.

In further talks with the Americans Barak argued that there was no time to make a detailed agreement on autonomy and a vague text should be adopted, which each side could interpret as it wished. A solution for the most problematic issues was found – they would be taken out of the Framework and put into letters summing up the commitments of the parties. Begin agreed for the first time to adopt a fallback position on the Sinai settlements. If Sadat could not be persuaded to continue negotiations later, he would bring the issue to the Knesset. He still feared public reaction: “Why should we three take responsibility, so they will scratch our eyes out when we get home? Peres made a national commitment as well that the settlements will stay.”

Carter adopted the same tactics in his meeting with Begin, Dayan and Barak that night as he had with the Egyptians. He listed the advantages to Israel if they signed, including full peace with Egypt, diplomatic relations, security arrangements in Sinai and a settlement in the West Bank which met almost all of Israel’s demands, including a military presence and a veto over the final status. Israel would end the military occupation, and its relations with the US and the rest of the world would improve. Begin agreed that with some effort the Framework could be signed. He still wanted further negotiations on the Sinai settlements. But if he failed, he would call a Knesset meeting within two weeks and ask the members to vote for the evacuation if all other issues with Egypt were settled. Begin promised to give the Knesset members a free vote. Carter agreed that this was a fair offer.

After the rest of the Sinai accord was discussed, they turned to the issue of Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria. Carter wanted a commitment that Israel would refrain from any further settlement activity. Begin refused even a temporary freeze, but agreed to “act prudently” during the three months fixed for negotiations with Egypt on a peace treaty. During this time Israel intended to set up three NAHAL military settlements, two in the Golan and in Israel and only one in the Jordan Valley (in the West Bank).  Dayan began to discuss other periods: during the negotiations on setting up the institutions mentioned in the autonomy plan, which were also supposed to take three months, and the five year transitional period. He thought that the settlement issue should be part of the discussions on autonomy. Israel should agree to allow a fixed number of refugees into the Palestinian autonomy in return for Palestinian agreement to settlements. As the meeting ended, Carter asked Begin to agree in writing to a formula freezing settlement “during the negotiations”. To Carter it seemed clear that he meant the transitional period, but Begin would never have considered a freeze for five years, as his statements to his colleagues make clear. He said that he would consider the president’s request, and would let him know the following day. (See Barak’s record, Document No. 31, and his telegram, Document No. 36)

At 1 a.m. Dayan and Begin reported to Weizman. Begin told him of the plans for detailed talks on a peace treaty to be held in El Arish (they were later moved to Washington). Begin also said that they had agreed on an interim withdrawal to the El Arish-Ras Muhammed line three to nine months after signing the peace treaty, and after this Egypt would establish diplomatic relations. Begin mentioned that an undivided Jerusalem would be mentioned in the Framework for Peace, and “every word had been settled with the Americans”. Dayan added details about Sharon’s phone call to the prime minister. (Document No. 31A)

ד.7 | Last minute troubles over Jerusalem, signing the Camp David Accords

The next morning (17 September) Sadat approved most of the items agreed with Israel, with slight changes. They agreed to drop the paragraph on Jerusalem, which was not strong enough for Egypt, and Carter promised him a letter restating the US stand on Jerusalem. He also told Sadat about the Israeli promise to freeze settlement activity, as he understood it. Following Sadat’s decision to sign the agreement the foreign minister, Kamel, resigned. Vance told the Israelis that Sadat was disturbed by the reaction of his aides, and suggested changes to the document on Palestinian self rule, without success.

When the Israelis saw the text of the letter Carter planned to send Sadat on East Jerusalem, repeating their traditional position that it was part of occupied territory, a new crisis arose. Dinitz told Mondale that Begin would not sign the agreement if this letter accompanied it. He claimed that the US action was dangerous and illogical, since the Americans had said many times that Jerusalem should not be divided again. Afterwards Dayan met with Carter and told him that the Israelis had not realized what the president intended. Carter said he could not go back on his promise, but Sadat did not expect Israel to withdraw from all territory captured in 1967. Israel could not stop the US from stating its historic position or tell it when to do so. Vance came up with a solution: the letter would say that the US supported the stand taken by its ambassadors at the UN, without details of this stand. (See Documents Nos. 32 and 33). After Barak and Vance had drafted the letter, Carter went to see Begin in his cabin, bringing with him photographs of the three leaders which he had autographed personally for each of Begin’s grandchildren. According to Carter, Begin was moved by this gesture, but still said that he could not sign any statement on Jerusalem. However he agreed to read the draft. After reading it, Begin said that he would write a letter stating Israel’s position – that united Jerusalem was the capital of Israel, and telephoned Carter to say that he agreed. The last obstacle to the signing of the Agreements had been removed.

Meanwhile Barak brought the president a letter in which Begin agreed to freeze settlement activity for three months during the negotiations with Egypt. Carter, who was busy writing his speech, rejected it, saying that it was not what had been agreed. He decided to deal with the matter later. Begin and Sadat exchanged friendly visits, and the three leaders flew to Washington.
The signing ceremony took place that evening in the White House. Carter praised Begin and Sadat for their leadership and presented the two agreements: the framework for negotiations between Israel and Egypt on a peace treaty and the framework for an overall settlement and a solution to the Palestinian problem. (See Document No. 34, the text of the Agreements and accompanying letters). Begin and Sadat praised Carter for his courage and for his hard work and persistence. Begin added in Hebrew that he hoped that they could return to Israel and tell the people that they had brought peace.


See also Carter’s speech and Sadat’s speech at the signing of the Accords

The next day Begin and Sadat appeared together at a joint session of Congress and were received with thunderous applause.

ד.8 | Arguments with the US over settlements, the Knesset approves the Accords

Begin leads his followers through the woods in search of peace, a tearful Geula Cohen protests and Yigal Hurvitz strikes off on his own. Caricature by Shmuel Katz, courtesy of the Katz family.

Although the Camp David Accords were greeted as a tremendous achievement for all three leaders, Carter was soon angry with Begin over speeches in which he gave a very narrow interpretation of the autonomy plan. Carter published his own view, which was intended to ensure Saudi support and to persuade Jordan and the Palestinians to join the talks. This upset Israel. Another source of tension was the letter on the settlements freeze. Carter was convinced that his notes were accurate, and said that it was “clear and obvious” that the subject of the discussion was the negotiation on the autonomy agreement. He believed that Begin had agreed and then changed his mind. On 20 September Harold Saunders of the State Department asked the Israeli minister in Washington to have an amended letter delivered to the president (See Document No. 35).  Barak checked his notes, and his reply (Document No. 36) supported Begin’s version. The Americans continued to demand a letter ensuring that no settlements would be established during the negotiations on autonomy.
Meanwhile Begin had returned to Israel, where public debate on the agreement and the evacuation of the settlements was in full swing. On 21 September supporters of the agreement held a mass demonstration in Tel Aviv. At the airport Begin was met by a large crowd, but also by demonstrators brandishing black umbrellas and shouting “Munich!” in reference to Britain’s agreement with Nazi Germany in 1938. Begin was very hurt by these demonstrations and by an attempt by the Gush Emunim movement to set up an illegal settlement. The settlers were removed by force on the instructions of the defence minister.

On 24 September Begin presented the Accords to the government and told them of the struggle to keep the settlements in Sinai: “And with heavy heart, but head held high, I make this proposal. Why is my heart heavy? Because we fought for these settlements in every way possible, and in the end we are faced with only one [other] choice, to give up the agreement with Egypt itself…I came to the conclusion that it is better this way than to leave the settlers, with all the heartache and deep sorrow involved, but I believe, that in this we are serving the people of Israel.” The government approved the agreements by a large majority. On 27 September Begin brought the Accords, together with the proposal to evacuate the settlements, if a peace treaty with Egypt was achieved, to the Knesset for approval in a single motion. Although he had not intended to do so, in the end Begin did fight for the agreements. He was interrupted by hecklers both from the opposition and from the Likud. MK Geula Cohen was removed from the chamber. Opposition leader Peres announced that the Alignment would vote for the agreements despite their criticism of the way the negotiations were handled. Dayan pointed out that all Israel’s previous governments had held negotiations with themselves. There was no guarantee that in the future Israel would be offered a better agreement. At the end Begin summed up and a roll call was taken. 84 Knesset members voted for the agreements, 19 – against, mostly from the Herut party, among them Moshe Arens, the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee. 17 abstained, including Yigal Allon and Shlomo Hillel of the Alignment, Zebulon Hammer, the education minister, of the NRP, and Yitzhak Shamir, the Knesset speaker. Minister Yigal Hurvitz abstained and decided to resign from the government. (For excerpts from Dayan’s speech and Begin’s reply, see Document No. 37)
Begin was distressed by the attacks and especially by being called a traitor. He told Lewis that if he did not have a majority of coalition members he would resign, since he refused to be dependent on the votes of the opposition. At the same time he asked Lewis to transmit a letter to the president repeating Israel’s stand on the settlement freeze. Lewis was afraid this would lead to another clash with Carter, who felt that his credibility was threatened. Begin also refused to promise that the issue could be discussed with the Palestinians after autonomy was established. In the end an oral message was delivered (See Begin’s talk with Lewis and the oral message, Documents Nos. 38 and 39). The Americans decided to leave the argument there. Carter telephoned Begin and sent him a message congratulating him on the Knesset decision and proposing to open talks on the peace treaty in Washington in October 1978 .

First page of Carter’s letter to Begin, File A 4155/16