Sunday, March 17, 2013

Now or Never: US President Jimmy Carter's Visit to Israel, March 1979

The Last Lap of the Peace Negotiations with Egypt
Prime Minister Begin, President Jimmy Carter and Israeli President Yitzhak Navon, March 10, 1979. Photograph Government Press Office
The Camp David accords were signed by President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and witnessed by President Jimmy Carter on September 17, 1978. These agreements provided the framework for the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel and were greeted as the dawn of a new era in the Middle East. However, the celebrations soon gave way to frustration. Even after a draft treaty had been approved by the government of Israel, there were several issues on which the sides could not agree. For months they were in deadlock.

In February 1979, Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and Egyptian Prime Minister Mustapha Khalil met again at Camp David, but it was clear that Dayan did not have the authority to break the impasse. Carter asked Begin to come to Camp David but he refused. Instead he flew to Washington for talks with Carter himself. After some progress, Carter decided to take the plunge and go to the Middle East himself. He planned to meet with Sadat, to present the latest proposals agreed with Begin and to finalize the details of the treaty, so that it could be signed during his visit.

In Israel, many wondered if Carter's visit was not too big a gamble, in view of the gap between the sides. However, Dayan told senior staff at the Foreign Ministry that Carter's decision was not a gamble but a political necessity, in view of the latest developments in the Middle East and the fall of the pro-American regime in Iran. (See Document 1)

Carter stayed in Egypt for three days and met with Sadat, but the Egyptian president rejected the proposals. On March 10, Carter came to Jerusalem to meet with the Israeli leaders and to give them the message that it was "now or never." Carter's visit was marked by tense and dramatic meetings between the president, accompanied by his top advisers--Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and Defense Secretary Harold Brown--and the Israeli delegation. The Israelis strongly opposed Egypt's latest demands and at the height of the argument, Begin said bluntly to Carter: "Mr President, we shall sign only what we agree to and we shall not sign anything to which we do not agree" (See Document 5). At the last minute, when it seemed that Carter would return to Washington empty-handed, a breakthrough was achieved which enabled him to return to Cairo and to obtain Sadat's agreement to the treaty. "That is the best news of my life, wonderful news," said Carter when Begin called to tell him that the Israeli government too had approved the latest proposals and the way was clear for the signing ceremony (See Document 9).

These documents mark three stages in the dramatic story of the last lap of the peace negotiations, when the president of the United States took the unprecedented step of holding direct talks with the entire government of Israel. They are part of a collection of eleven documents presented by the Israel State Archives in honor of President Barack Obama's visit to Israel and to mark the 34th anniversary of President Carter's visit. The documents were chosen from the Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign Ministry collections and form part of an ongoing project on the peace negotiations with Egypt, in which the US played a vital role. (See also the ISA's publication on President Sadat's visit to Israel in November 1977.)

A. Introduction: What was the argument about?

In mid-October, talks on an American draft of the peace treaty began in Washington. After the initial euphoria of Camp David, the differences between the parties again began to emerge. The angry reaction of the Arab world forced Sadat to prove that he was still committed to the Palestinians and to an overall peace treaty. Begin, under attack by his friends and supporters for abandoning all of the Sinai, was determined to make no more concessions. Although agreement was quickly reached on most of the treaty, several issues remained in dispute:

· Diplomatic relations: Israel feared that Egypt might get all or most of its territory back before the exchange of ambassadors, while Egypt wanted to link the exchange to the elections for a self-governing Palestinian authority. Israel wanted to make it clear that there was no "linkage" between the peace treaty and the agreements on autonomy, by means of Article VI (2) of the treaty, which says that the parties will carry out their obligations without reference to any other agreement.

· The timetable for autonomy: The Egyptians were afraid that Israel would not carry out the autonomy plan, in view of Begin's refusal to freeze settlement activity in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and Gaza "during the negotiations". Carter was sure that he had agreed to a freeze until the end of the negotiations on autonomy, but Begin insisted that he had agreed to three months only. Israel accepted an Egyptian proposal that Begin and Sadat should sign a joint letter to accompany the treaty, committing them to hold negotiations on autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza. However it did not want to set a target date for the establishment of autonomy.

· Autonomy in Gaza first: After it became clear that King Hussein of Jordan would not co-operate, Egypt proposed to implement autonomy first in Gaza, where it had more influence, and to allow it a special role there. Israel was opposed.

· Priority of obligations: Another problematic article was Article VI (5) which deals with a possible clash between the peace treaty and other treaty obligations. Egypt did not want to say in public that the peace treaty counted for more than its obligations to other Arab states.

· Oil supply: Israel was concerned about its oil supply after withdrawal from the oilfields in Sinai and wanted a long term Egyptian commitment to sell oil to Israel. Egypt saw special treatment for Israel as an infringement of its sovereignty in Sinai.

During the talks in Washington, Defense Minister Ezer Weizman offered to speed up the first stage of withdrawal and to hand over El Arish within two months. Carter pressed the Egyptians to agree to an exchange of ambassadors one month later. But Begin rejected earlier withdrawal and refused to accept a target date for the autonomy talks, in view of the danger of Jordanian non-cooperation or PLO disruption. He also demanded agreement with the US on financial aid to cover the costs of the evacuation.

On November 21, the Israeli government approved the final US version of the treaty, but rejected a target date. After Jordan and Saudi Arabia attacked him at the Baghdad Arab summit, Sadat demanded revision of Articles VI and IV (on security arrangements in Sinai) and refused to send an ambassador to Israel as agreed. A compromise arranged by Vance was rejected by Israel. Confrontation between Israel and the US seemed imminent. But the fall of the Shah's regime in Iran in January 1979 led Carter to seek a foreign policy success. Egypt's role as a moderate force in the region became even more important and Israel needed a substitute for Iranian oil. Carter decided on a final effort to wrap up the talks.

B. "A new mission in the service of the oldest of human dreams – the dream of peace": Carter's visit to Egypt

Before leaving for Egypt Carter made a statement saying: "I leave today on a new mission in the service of the oldest of human dreams – the dream of peace. Nowhere is the hope of peace more fervent, more alive, than in the Middle East. Nowhere is the path to the realization more difficult, nowhere might the price of failure be more terrible…" He was convinced that President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin, and the peoples of Egypt and Israel, shared his determination to see these negotiations bear fruit.

On March 7, Dayan gave an assessment of the factors which had prompted Carter's visit to senior staff of the Foreign Ministry (Document 1). Yeshayahu Anug asked if Carter's move was a "gamble" or if his success was virtually assured. Dayan answered "I think that for Carter this is a political necessity. The United States has a major need to stabilize the situation in the Middle East after Iran … It is not a "gamble" either way, even if nothing comes out of it." Even if an agreement was not reached, the US would need Egypt, but it would be much easier to obtain assistance from Congress if there was peace with Israel. Dayan said that his talks with Khalil at Camp David were inconclusive because Begin and Sadat were not there. He did not know why Sadat had not come, and the president himself was being forced to "shuttle" between Cairo and Jerusalem (as Secretary of State Kissinger had done after the Yom Kippur War).

On the same day, a report from Cairo (Document 2) suggested that the Egyptian reaction to the new proposals was generally positive, although the signing of the treaty was not yet ensured. Later, the Israelis learned from Carter that Sadat had demanded changes in the text of Article VI which Begin and Carter had agreed in Washington and additions to the joint letter. Sadat proposed that if the details were settled he would come to Jerusalem to sign and afterwards Begin would come to sign in Cairo.

C. Now or never: Carter in Jerusalem

Carter arrived in Israel on Saturday night, March 10, 1979, and met with the prime minister. Begin said that the treaty could not be signed during the president's visit, since Begin was committed to hold a government meeting on the autonomy plan first, as well as to present the treaty to the Knesset. This news surprised and angered the president. In his diary he wrote: "I couldn't believe it. I stood up and asked him if it was actually necessary for me to stay any longer." Carter asked Begin if he really wanted peace. The prime minister insisted that he did, but Carter was convinced that he was trying to block a treaty. His only hope was to appeal above Begin's head to the government, the Knesset and the Israeli public.
Aliza and Menachem Begin at dinner with Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter at the Prime Minister's Residence, March 10 1979. Photograph: Government Press Office
On Sunday, March 11, Vance gave Dayan a copy of the proposed Memorandum of Understanding between Israel and the US, including guarantees of Israel's oil supply like those given in 1975, when Israel withdrew from the Abu Rodeis oil field. He showed him the latest version of the joint letter. Dayan said that if the Egyptians insisted on implementing autonomy in Gaza first, Israel would see this as the end of their role in the process. Vance was worried about the Knesset vote, but Dayan said it was a foregone conclusion if the government approved the peace treaty. (See the record of the meeting, Document 3)

After a visit by Carter to the president of Israel, Yitzhak Navon, to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, and to Mt. Herzl, the talks began. The Israeli delegation consisted of Begin and a group of ministers, together with Attorney-General Yitzhak Zamir and other top aides. Begin insisted that Carter should chair the meeting, since a president outranked a prime minister. Carter described his talks with Sadat and the "outpouring of sentiment" in Egypt for peace. He presented the situation as "now or never": if the treaty was not concluded during his visit, it would be very difficult to do so later. He mentioned the Egyptian request to change the word "derogate" in Article VI. Begin emphasized that this article was vital to prevent Egypt joining in a war between Israel and Syria. Nevertheless, he agreed to try to find another word. To prove that Egypt had not abandoned its hostility to Israel, Begin quoted from slanderous attacks on Israel and the Jews in the Egyptian official press.

Sadat's proposal for an addition to the joint letter--to send Egyptian liaison officers to Gaza--aroused bitter opposition in Israel. Carter said that Egypt had only made the suggestion on "Gaza first", which did not appear in the Camp David Accords, in order to be helpful, after Jordan and the Palestinians had refused to take part. Much suspicion was felt in the Arab world, which he shared, that Israel wanted to delay implementation of the autonomy plan, especially in view of Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon's plans to settle a million Jews in Judea and Samaria. Begin and Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Yadin insisted that autonomy was an Israeli initiative and the government stood behind it (Record of the meeting, Document 4).

Summing up the talks that afternoon, Carter said that he could not devote any more time to the Middle East. He would like the treaty "not to be just a piece of paper that both sides have signed reluctantly … with remnants of animosity and distrust" but to revive the atmosphere of genuine friendship and mutual trust of Sadat's visit to Jerusalem and the Camp David summit. He believed that the problems of oil supply and the exchange of ambassadors could be solved, especially if Israel would reconsider a commitment for early withdrawal in Sinai. He asked the government to be "forthcoming and generous".

A late night government meeting was called to approve new formulations. Before this Vance met with Dayan to tell him what the Egyptians might accept. Dayan argued that the subject of liaison officers should be postponed to the autonomy talks. It would be much easier to persuade the government without it. The government meeting, which lasted till 5 a.m., approved the new formulations on Article VI and agreed that Israel would reconsider early withdrawal from Sinai. But it remained adamant in opposition to an Egyptian presence in Gaza and demanded a permanent Egyptian guarantee to sell a fixed amount of oil to Israel. The Israeli side did not realize that, in effect, Carter had full authority from Sadat to negotiate as he saw fit. They expected Vance to go to Cairo to receive a reply.

D. "We shall not sign anything to which we do not agree": Crisis in the talks

At 10:30 the following morning, after receiving the government's decisions, Carter again met with Begin, this time with the entire government present (Document 5). He admitted that they had indeed "been forthcoming, in some instances very generous" but asked for more concessions. He argued that the request to omit all reference to Gaza in the joint letter undermined the US commitment, as a signatory to the Camp David accords, to ensure that autonomy was implemented. He asked for details of the stages of the withdrawal and insisted that the US guarantee of Israel's oil supply was sufficient. Begin demanded that the phrase on liaison officers be removed. After normalization there would be free access to Gaza for the Egyptians. Carter was insistent: "To me it is a very crucial issue and your response has not been adequate". This was the first time in all the negotiations that the US had taken a position that it considered important to its own integrity. "[And] unless there is some assurance that the [Egyptian] negotiating team can have access to the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, I do not feel that I can carry out my commitment to the American people nor to you nor to the Palestinian Arabs nor to Egypt. It is a crucial issue to us and I think it is something you will have to decide."

Begin replied: "Mr. President, we shall sign only what we agree to and we shall not sign anything to which we do not agree." Israel would carry out every word of the Camp David agreement but it could not be forced to accept an addition to it. He agreed to call another government meeting. After Vance said that he had tried and failed to persuade Egypt to give Israel a guaranteed supply of oil, Justice Minister Shmuel Tamir argued that Egypt was perpetuating the Arab boycott. Israel had made great sacrifices for peace, but Egypt refused to give this assurance of good faith. (Record of the meeting, Document 5)

The meeting was cut short as it was time for Carter and Begin to speak in the Knesset. In Carter's speech he said pointedly: "The people of the two nations are ready now for peace. The leaders have not yet proven that we are also ready for peace enough to take a chance." Begin's speech was interrupted repeatedly by members of the right and the Communist party, and MK Geula Cohen was removed from the chamber.

Carter believed that Begin took pleasure in showing him the strength of Israeli democracy. However, in the government meeting which followed Begin was angry and upset, and complained that the Americans too did not appreciate Israel's sacrifices, which had led his opponents to call him "Petain" (the French collaborationist president In World War II). Begin had now realized that Carter was negotiating on behalf of the Egyptians, and would not discuss any proposals which he thought they would not accept. Begin regarded the demand for details about the stages of the withdrawal as Egyptian effrontery, backed by the Americans. The ministers voiced suspicions that Egypt wanted a foothold in Gaza in order to restore Egyptian rule or to encourage the establishment of a Palestinian state. Most of them called for a determined stand against further concessions.

However several ministers, among them Health Minister Eliezer Shostak, Housing Minister Gideon Patt and Finance Minister Simha Ehrlich, felt that some of Israel's demands were unreasonable. Shostak said they should not insist on specific quantities of oil and long term arrangements. On Gaza and Carter's suspicions of Israel's intentions over autonomy: "they have a right to suspect us and it is a very sensitive point". Like Dayan, he wanted to postpone the discussion to the autonomy talks. He did not reject the possibility of liaison officers, to which Sharon objected: "That means a Palestinian state within the month." Ehrlich was also willing to compromise on oil, although he said no more concessions should be made that day. He rejected suggestions for another meeting with Carter, which would only end in offending the president.

The meeting took place in an atmosphere of confusion and despondency. Patt complained that no one was listening and Religious Affairs Minister Aharon Abuhatssira said that it was impossible for a group of thirty people to conduct negotiations. According to the schedule, Carter was supposed to leave, and roads and Israeli air space had been closed in preparation for his departure. Eventually, the government decided not to change its decisions and to ask Carter to transmit them to the Egyptians (Record of the meeting, Document 6).

At 4:45pm, the delegation met with Vance and went over the same ground. At the end of the meeting Vance proposed an idea: "You have got two issues that were not rooted in Camp David … one of them is the Gaza issue. One is the question of oil. Suppose one drops both of those issues, and inasmuch as oil is a more weighty kind of issue, that could be taken care of, that we are prepared to give our guarantee". Yadin replied that the suggestion reminded him of the old joke about the rabbi and the goat (the rabbi solved the problem of a crowded house by putting in a goat as well. When he took it out there was much more room). However, he did not see how Israel could drop the demand for oil which was part of normalization. Begin concurred: Israel would accept 50% of Vance's proposal and drop Gaza (Record of the meeting, Document 7).

After the meeting, exhausted from lack of sleep and feeling ill, Begin went home to rest. Vance went back to his hotel. Carter had agreed to stay till the following day, but his press secretary was already briefing the press on the breakdown of the talks and the failure of the president's mission.

E. Last minute solution 

The government was determined not to allow further erosion of their stand, but the prospect that the president of Israel's most important ally would leave empty-handed was a grim one. According to his memoirs, Weizman accused his colleagues of missing the chance for peace and hinted at resignation. A group of ministers remained, apparently asked by Yadin to try to find a way out--Dayan, Shostak, Patt, Burg, Sharon, Abuhatssira, Tamir and Yadin himself. It was this group, several of them little known to history, which brought about the breakthrough. The meeting was not recorded, but it seems that they proposed another formula on the oil question, which Dayan thought the Americans might accept. Dayan telephoned Begin, who authorized him to discuss it with Vance. The two met again and Vance agreed to propose to the Egyptians not to mention Gaza in the treaty, if the oil issue was settled. (Egyptian access to Gaza was already promised in the normalization agreement.) Dayan said that Israel would accept a general commitment by Egypt to sell oil to Israel in the peace treaty and a long term American guarantee. He asked for twenty years, and they eventually agreed on fifteen. After calling the president, Vance and his staff drafted another clause in the peace treaty, which was added to Annex III on trade relations. Carter invited Begin to breakfast at Dayan's suggestion.
Working breakfast at the King David Hotel to settle the final details of the agreement, March 13. 1979. Photograph: Government Press Office
The following morning, Vance presented the new clause to Dayan. They then joined Carter and Begin at breakfast. Carter presented the formula as his proposal, and Begin said he would bring it to the government. Carter also requested some gestures towards the Palestinians, including freedom of movement (which at that time they already enjoyed) and association, and the release of political prisoners. Begin agreed to consider them. Dayan requested that the official press in Egypt should stop its personal attacks on Begin. Before he left for the airport, Carter proposed to Begin that the question of Gaza be dropped, and Begin accepted gladly.

Carter telephoned Begin from Cairo to tell him that Sadat had agreed to the new proposals. That same day, Carter sent Begin a letter summing up their agreements (Document 8, see also Document 11 in Hebrew). If Israel reinstated its proposal on phased withdrawal, Sadat would renew his agreement to the exchange of ambassadors. Sadat had agreed to the addition on oil to Annex III and even offered to construct a pipeline from the oil wells to Eilat. Carter added that he looked forward to seeing him and Sadat in Washington, where the treaty would be signed.

Begin read out the letter at another government meeting on March 14 and presented the understandings. The new formulations were approved and Begin called Carter to tell him of the government's decision (Record of the conversation, Document 9). Carter responded "That is the best news of my life, wonderful news." Begin congratulated Carter on the speech he had made on his return in which he said "risk of failure should never deter us from a worthy end. No goal is higher than that of genuine peace"

We can see Carter's own view of the talks in a briefing to leaders of Congress on March 14. According to a report by Zvi Rafiah of the Israeli embassy (See Document 10), he praised Sadat, Begin and Dayan, but noted that it was much easier to deal with Sadat, who could settle the knottiest problems in half an hour and left the details to his foreign minister. Begin was a "semanticist" who wanted to check everything. (Senator Daniel Moynihan tried to explain that Begin was a lawyer, and when he wrote something he really meant it.) In Jerusalem, Carter had learned with horror about the delays Begin wanted, because Sadat could not wait any longer for an agreement. Carter was also worried about Arab opposition. Sadat said that he would deal with the Arabs if Carter would take care of Israel. Carter added with a smile "I don't know who got the better deal". Egypt needed massive economic and military aid; Israel too would receive large sums.

After a stormy debate which lasted 28 hours, the Knesset approved the peace treaty on March 21. Begin flew to Washington for the signing ceremony which took place on March 26, 1979. In Begin's speech he paid tribute to the efforts of President Carter who had never accepted defeat. Begin also joked at his own expense about Carter's impatience at his fondness for legal details and his "intransigence": "Our friend, President Sadat, said that you are the 'unknown soldier' of the peace-making effort. I agree, but, as usual, with an amendment. A soldier in the service of peace you are; you are, Mr. President, even, mirabile dictu, an intransigent fighter for peace. But Jimmy Carter, the President of the United States, is not completely unknown. And so is his effort, which will be remembered for generations to come."
Prime Minister Begin and President Carter applaud the speech by President Anwar Sadat during the peace signing ceremony in Washington. Photograph: Government Press Office
For more detail see the full Document list.

Historical editing: Louise Fischer, Hagai Tsoref
English translation and editing: Louise Fischer
Internet content editing: Oranit Levi
Scanning: Shlomo Mark

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