Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Middle East History: It Happened in November; Sadat's Jerusalem Trip Begins Difficult Path of Egyptian - Israel Peace

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Middle East History: It Happened in November; Sadat's Jerusalem Trip Begins Difficult Path of Egyptian - Israel Peace

Article excerpt

MIDDLE EAST HISTORY: IT HAPPENED IN NOVEMBER; Sadat's Jerusalem Trip Begins Difficult Path of Egyptian-Israeli Peace

On Nov. 19, 1977, Anwar Sadat made his historic visit to Jerusalem and declared the next day before Israel's parliament: "We really and truly welcome you to live among us in peace and security."(1)

It was a spectacular moment, a personal commitment of the Egyptian leader's desire for peace. However, deep suspicions remained in Israel even on the day of his arrival. Atop a roof at Ben-Gurion International Airport where Sadat landed were Israeli sharpshooters. Absurd as it seems in retrospect, they were there in part in fear that the Egyptian airplane was not carrying Sadat at all but a planeload of terrorists.(2) Despite such exaggerated suspicions, the visit led within a year and a half to the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab country, mainly because of American largess.

It was not an easy journey. In public, Sadat expressed optimism that his "sacred mission" had essentially solved the Arab-Israeli conflict. But privately he was deeply disappointed by his realization that he had not managed to solve the conflict with one grand gesture. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin showed no willingness to match Sadat's imaginative gesture or even to make any serious concessions, and the Palestinians and other Arab states roundly condemned him for going to Jerusalem.(3) All factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization joined in calling his visit to Jerusalem "treasonous."(4)

Instead of gaining the instant freedom of the Palestinians and Egypt's land occupied by Israel, as he had hoped, Sadat found himself in the following months increasingly isolated. On Dec. 5, 1977, Algeria, Iraq, Libya, Syria and South Yemen jointly condemned the visit and vowed to "work for the frustration of the results of President Sadat's visit to the Zionist entity."(5) The nations said they were freezing political and diplomatic relations with Egypt and would refuse to attend meetings of the Arab League held in Egypt. Sadat's angry reaction was to sever diplomatic ties with all of them.(6)

Less than a week later, on Dec. 14, Sadat suffered another major embarrassment when he called for a conference in Cairo to unify the Arab position and receive international support for his efforts. The Arab nations refused to attend, as did the Soviet Union.(7) Only Israel, the United States and the United Nations attended. No agreements emerged from the conference, adding to Sadat's humiliation.(8)

Sadat's disillusionment was obvious when he hosted a reciprocal visit to Egypt for the Israelis on Dec. 25, 1977. Gone was the magic and drama of his visit to Jerusalem.(9) Instead of personally meeting Begin and his group, Sadat sent his vice president to greet them. There were no bands, no Israeli flags, no placards of greeting for the Israeli delegation. Even Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, who had established the warmest relations of any of the Israelis with Sadat the previous month, found the reception "frosty." Given Begin's well-known love of pomp and ceremony and his excessive concern with dignity, Weizman concluded: "The chilly welcome, the indifference toward Begin, the flouting of the most elementary rules of protocol and courtesy -- all these could only be harmful to our talks."(10)

Sadat met the Israeli delegation not in Cairo but at Ismailiya on the western bank of the Suez Canal. He and Begin immediately retired for brief private talks. Sadat accepted a Begin proposal to form two separate committees to discuss military and political issues. The Egyptian leader made a considerable concession in agreeing that the political committee would meet in Jerusalem, implying to the Israelis "some measure of recognition that Jerusalem was Israel's capital."(11)

The concession was typical of Sadat -- a grand gesture, an open show of conciliation, and underneath an impatience with details, a concentration on general principles, and most of all, a hard determination to regain every inch of Egypt's land. Unhappily, no two negotiators could have been less suited to deal with each other.

Unlike Sadat, Begin delighted in the parsing of sentences, the splitting of words, the elaboration of nuances. He was a subtle and wily negotiator enamored with the rhetorical flourish but trustful only of the technicalities of negotiation. He was as wedded to the concept of Israeli retention of Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, meaning Jewish control over Samaria and Judea, the West Bank, as Sadat was to getting back Egyptian land. As Ezer Weizman noted:

"Anyone observing the two men could not have overlooked the profound divergence in their attitudes. Both desired peace. But whereas Sadat wanted to take it by storm, capitalizing on the momentum from his visit to Jerusalem to reach his final objective, Begin preferred to creep forward inch by inch. He took the dream of peace and ground it down into the fine, dry powder of details, legal clauses, and quotes from international law."(12)

The talks dragged on into the next day. But there was no progress. Begin refused to consent to the issuance of general principles on withdrawal and self-determination for the Palestinians, and Sadat refused to accept the idea of Israel retaining Jewish settlements in Sinai. The two-day meeting ended in stalemate and a further worsening of the atmosphere that had seemed so promising only the month before.(13)

The major problem was not the return of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, which had little significance for Begin, but retention of the West Bank with its Jewish settlements. Sadat had vowed that he would not only regain the Sinai but also gain serf-determination for the Palestinians. As he said publicly shortly before going to Jerusalem: The Palestinian problem was the "core and crux" of the Arab-Israeli conflict and that "no progress" could be achieved without its solution.(14)

President Jimmy Carter shared these views. He was the first president to declare publicly that settlements in the occupied territories were illegal.(15) In order to help Sadat, and goad Begin to be more forthcoming, Carter visited Egypt on Jan. 4, 1978. He enunciated what later became known as the Aswan Declaration, a formula that seemed to grant the Palestinians self-determination. Carter said that any solution must "enable Palestinians to participate in the determination of their own future."(16)

On that same day, Israel revealed it was establishing four new settlements in the Sinai. Carter and Sadat were both furious, suspecting that Begin was purposefully fouling the peace process.(17)

Things degenerated. On Jan. 18, 1978, the first -- and last -- meeting of the joint Egyptian-Israeli Political Committee ended in mutual recrimination. The foreign ministers of Egypt and Israel could not get past the first item on the agenda, a declaration of intentions.(18) Sadat ordered home his delegation the next day, saying Israel wanted land more than peace. (19)

Carter met in Washington with Sadat for four days starting Feb. 4 to work out a joint strategy to press Israel to make concessions.(20) Carter by then had "little real trust or confidence" in Begin, according to the National Security Council's Middle East expert, William Quandt.(21) At the end of their talks, Carter and Sadat agreed that Egypt would put forth in writing its proposals for the future of the Palestinians. It was assumed that Israel would reject the proposals and that the United States would then put forward its plan for a West Bank settlement.(22)

But there was a problem that foiled the plan. Israel's supporters adamantly opposed U.S. pressure against the Jewish state. Their hand was strengthened by the coincidence that controversial treaties on Panama, on which Carter had worked so hard, were about to come before the Senate. Carter still did not have enough votes, and several of the senators whose votes the president needed were strong supporters of Israel. Thus, the domestic dimension of the Arab-Israeli conflict once again influenced the White House's actions. In this case it meant the president did not believe he had the political power to apply the necessary pressure on Israel to make it bow to U.S. policy.(23)

So it went month after month. The momentum of Sadat's bold gesture drained away and relations between Egypt and Israel returned to mutual animosity. The final straw came on July 23, 1978, when Begin, in reply to a plea from Sadat that Israel make some modest goodwill gesture in support of the peace process, rudely turned down the Egyptian leader. Replied Begin: "Not even one grain of desert sand. Nobody can get anything for nothing."(24)

Sadat's Final Word

On July 30, a flash cable from Ambassador Hermann Eilts in Cairo informed Carter that Sadat told him in great agitation that he was at the end of his patience. The Egyptian leader demanded that the United States press Israel to abide by the basic principles of U.S. policy: withdrawal, sovereignty for the Palestinians and the illegality of settlements. Sadat said this was his final word.(25)

On that same day, Carter, desperate for some achievement, decided he would invite both Sadat and Begin to a summit meeting at Camp David.(26) It was in this mood of despair that the celebrated Camp David meeting among Begin, Carter and Sadat took place between Sept. 5 to Sept. 17. In the end, it resulted in just what Sadat's critics suspected -- a bilateral deal between Egypt and Israel with only empty words about the Palestinians.

Under the framework dealing with the West Bank and Gaza (the Golan Heights was not mentioned), "full autonomy" was promised the Palestinians after a transitional period "not exceeding five years." The transitional period was to begin with the election by the Palestinians of a "self-governing authority" (administrative council), at which time "the Israeli military government and its civilian administration will be withdrawn" and the self-governing authority would establish "a strong local police force."

Then, "as soon as possible, but not later than the third year after the beginning of the transitional period," negotiations would begin "to determine the final status of the West Bank and Gaza...and to conclude a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan by the end of the transitional period."(27)

Arab reaction was harshly negative, especially among Palestinians. As usual, they had not been allowed to participate in negotiations that presumed to represent their fate.

Their criticisms pointed out that there was no elaboration of what Begin meant by "full autonomy"; there was no detailed plan on just how the administrative council was to be elected or which Palestinians would be eligible to serve on it. Nor was there any mention of the principles that Sadat had sought such as "self-determination" or "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war." In addition, there was no challenge to Israel's claim of sovereignty over Jerusalem, nor had Begin committed Israel to anything more than a temporary freeze on settlements, an implicit acceptance of his contention that they were legal. Finally, the PLO, the body designated by the Arab world to represent the Palestinians, was not mentioned.(28)

In the end, none of this mattered. Begin had no intention of honoring the parts of the agreement dealing with the West Bank and Palestinians, as he quickly made clear. Almost immediately after signing the accords, the Israeli leader began to reinterpret them in such a narrow way that they lost all meaning in their application to the Palestinians and the West Bank.(29)

Although the accords said that the question of sovereignty of the West Bank and Gaza would be negotiated after five years, Begin went before Congress two days after the accords had been signed and declared: "I believe with all my heart that the Jewish people have a right to sovereignty over Judea and Samaria."(30)

The following day, Begin told Jewish American leaders in New York: "I hereby declare the Israel Defense Forces will stay in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip to defend our people and make sure Jewish blood is not shed again. I hereby declare they will stay beyond five years."(31)

As for the phrase "legitimate rights of the Palestinians," which was used in the agreements as an acknowledgement of Palestinian interests, Begin declared that it "has no meaning." He had accepted the phrase only to please Carter and Sadat "and because it does not change reality."(32)

In reality, no serious effort was made by Begin in the five additional years he remained as Israel's leader, and none during the seven years his Likud successor, Yitzhak Shamir, was in power. Instead, the practical result of the accords was to neutralize Egypt, the Jewish state's most powerful Arab neighbor. As anticipated by Sadat's critics, this freed Israel to pursue aggressive policies such as the annexation of Jerusalem in 1980, the bombing of Iraq's nuclear facility in 1981 and the invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

At the same time, Begin enormously expanded Jewish settlements in the territories occupied in 1967, which was his main priority. When he came to power in 1977, there were about 50,000 Jews living in Arab East Jerusalem and about 7,000 in 45 settlements in the West Bank and in an additional 45 in the rest of the occupied territories. When he left office six years later, there were close to 200 settlements in all the occupied territories, with about 100,000 Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem and 22,000 Jewish settlers in the territories.(33)

The positioning of the settlements essentially established the central points for Jewish settlement throughout the territories. His Likud successor, Yitzhak Shamir, then pursued an aggressive program that substantially thickened and expanded these focal points.(34) When Shamir left office in mid-1992, there were about 245,000 Jews in some 250 settlements, including East Jerusalem.(35)

The NSC's William Quandt, who attended the Camp David meetings, concluded: "Begin was no doubt the most able negotiator at Camp David."(36)

Camp David was a triumph for Israel and Begin's settlements policy, and it was accordingly widely hailed by the U.S. media and in Congress. But for Carter and Sadat it was a disaster waiting to happen. Despite all the hype, the fact was that Israel showed no more willingness to make concessions after Camp David than before. Talks between Egypt and Israel to implement the accords quickly broke down and the Middle East returned to gridlock. Carter and Sadat had spent a huge amount of time in search of peace but by the beginning of 1979 it was as elusive as ever.

In desperation, President Carter himself flew off to the Middle East in March 1979. He spent a week shuttling between Egypt and Israel before finally gaining a peace agreement between the two countries.

It did not come cheaply. The treaty not only cost the president his time but the American taxpayer unprecedented amounts of money. The United States promised Israel in a far-reaching Memorandum of Understanding a variety of major transfers of technology and aid, including $3 billion to relocate two Israeli air bases out of the Sinai, where they had no right to be in the first place.(37) Egypt also profited. It was given $1.5 billion in military aid over three years.(38)

Following the treaty, which was signed in Washington on March 26, 1979, U.S. aid climbed until 1985, when it reached $3 billion annually for Israel and $2.1 billion for Egypt, all of it in nonrepayable grants. These levels remained the same in 1998, giving Egypt and Israel the distinction of being the two largest recipients of U.S. aid in the world.

The treaty did nothing to help Carter's political fortunes. He went down to defeat the next year at the hands of Ronald Reagan, a strong supporter of Israel who immediately declared as president that Israeli settlements were not illegal. Anwar Sadat paid for his efforts with his life. He was gunned down by Muslim fundamentalists on Oct. 6, 1981, while celebrating the eighth anniversary of his war against Israel. Begin remained in power until Sept. 15, 1983, when he voluntarily resigned, successful in his life's aim to establish the master plan for Jewish settlements in Palestine.


(1) The text is in New York Times, 11/21/77, and Quandt, Camp David, Appendix C. Also see Sadat, In Search of Identity, p. 309; Brzezinski, Power and Principle, p. 111; Fahmy, Negotiating for Peace in the Middle East, p. 277; Rubenberg, Israel and the American National Interest, p. 217.

(2) Quandt, Camp David, p. 147.

(3) Safty, From Camp David to the Gulf, p. 68.

(4) The text is in State Department, American Foreign Policy 1977-1980, p. 635.

(5) Text in State Department, American Foreign Policy 1977-1980, pp. 636-38.

(6) Riad, The Struggle for Peace in the Middle East, p. 308.

(7) O'Brien, The Siege, p. 580; Safty, From Camp David to the Gulf, pp. 71, 72.

(8) Dayan, Breakthrough, p. 99.

(9) Quandt, Camp David, p. 159; Safty, From Camp David to the Gulf, pp. 69-70; Sicherman, Palestinian Self-Government (Autonomy), pp. 11-12. Also see Dayan, Breakthrough, pp. 102-05; Weizman, The Battle for Peace, pp. 122-35.

(10) Weizman, The Battle for Peace, pp. 123-24.

(11) Ibid., p. 126.

(12) Ibid., pp. 136-37.

(13) The text of their joint news conference is in New York Times, 12/27/77.

(14) New York Times, 4/5/77.

(15) The text is in New York Times, 7/29/77. Previous administrations had taken this position through statements by various spokesmen but Carter was the first president to say it in public. See Boudreault and Salaam. U.S. Official Statements: Status of Jerusalem.

(16) "The text of Carter's and Sadat's statements are in New York Times, 1/5/78, and Medzini, M. Israel's Foreign Relations, Selected Documents, 1977-79, pp. 289-90. Also see Brzezinski, Power and Principle, p. 239; Quandt, Camp David, p. 161; Sicherman, Palestinian Self-Government (Autonomy), pp. 12-13; Tillman, The United States in the Middle East, pp. 220-21. Tillman observes that Carter never embraced the idea of an independent Palestinian state and that the declaration actually put the Palestinians on notice that while "they might `participate' in deciding their own future, Israel and perhaps others would participate as well, guaranteeing that there would be no independent Palestinian state." See Brzezinski, Power and Principle, pp. 234-39, for background on U.S. attitudes toward the Middle East at the start of the year; compare with Quandt, Camp David, p. 168.

(17) Quandt, Camp David, p. 161; Safty, From Camp David to the Gulf, pp. 70-71.

(18) Dayan, Breakthrough, p. 112; Safty, From Camp David to the Gulf, pp. 71-72.

(19) Quandt, Camp David, p. 165.

(20) Brzezinski, Power and Principle, pp. 243-44; Quandt, Camp David, p. 175; Safty, From Camp David to the Gulf, p. 73. Kimche, The Last Option, pp. 95-110, has a particularly sensational account of this joint effort.

(21) Quandt, Camp David, p. 167.

(22) Ibid., p. 175. Also see Rubenberg, Israel and the American National Interest, pp. 221-23. The text of the joint Carter-Sadat public statement is in New York Times, 2/9/78.

(23) Quandt, Camp David, p. 174.

(24) Rubenberg, Israel and the American National Interest, p. 231.

(25) Quandt, Camp David, pp. 201-02.

(26) Ibid., p. 202; Brzezinski, Power and Principle, pp. 251-562. Also, Khouri, The Arab-Israel Dilemma, p. 406.

(27) For a detailed comparison of the differences between the accords and Begin's original Home Rule plan offered in December 1977, see Sicherman, Palestinian Self-Government (Autonomy), pp. 13-14.

(28) Quandt, Camp David, pp. 255-56; Khouri, The Arab-Israel Dilemma (3rd ed.), pp. 407-08. Also see Safty, From Camp David to the Gulf, pp. 78-84.

(29) Quandt, Camp David, pp. 260-61.

(30) Tillman, The United States in the Middle East, p. 134.

(31) Ibid.

(32) Ibid., p. 132. Also see Rubenberg, Israel and the American National Interest, pp. 138-39.

(33) Foundation for Middle East Peace, Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories, Special Report, July, 1991 (Washington, DE); Aronson, Creating Facts, p. 70.

(34) Author interview with Geoffrey Aronson, Washington, DC, Jan. 24, 1994.

(35) Associated Press, Washington Times, 5/9/92.

(36) Quandt, Camp David, p. 255.

(37) State Department, American Foreign Policy 19771980, p. 667; "US Assistance to the State of Israel, Report by the Comptroller General of the United States," GAO/ID-83-51, US Accounting Office, June 24, 1983.

(38) Quandt, Camp David, p. 316; Safty, From Camp David to the Gulf, pp. 85-88.

Articles may be reprinted with proper attribution, except for photos and cartoons. Article copyright American Educational Trust.

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