Monday, March 18, 2013

The Rabbi and the Goat: How the Peace Treaty was Saved, March 1979

Yesterday we published a series of documents here about US President Jimmy Carter's visit to Israel and the crisis in the peace talks with Egypt, which nearly derailed the treaty at the last minute. The media in Israel took great interest in the publication and especially in the clashes between Carter and Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Yet the treaty was signed in the end. What happened?

The heroes of the last ditch rescue were Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, and a lesser known collection of Israeli ministers. The talks broke down over Egypt's demand to send liaison officers to implement Israel's autonomy plan in Gaza, and Israel's demand to include an Egyptian commitment to sell it oil in the peace agreement. The Egyptians were willing to sell the oil--they just didn't want to say so. On March 12, after yet another fruitless meeting, Vance had 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". The US was willing to give a guarantee that if Egypt let Israel down, America would supply Israel's oil requirements.
Yigael Yadin and Menachem Begin
Photograph: Chanania Herman, Government Press Office
Yigael Yadin, the deputy prime minister, said that Vance's suggestion reminded him of the old joke about the rabbi and the goat. The rabbi was asked by a poor Jew to solve the problem of an overcrowded house. He told the Jew to put in a goat as well. When he took it out there was much more room. Vance was suggesting taking out the two "goats" of Gaza and the oil. However, Yadin did not see how Israel could drop the demand for oil which was part of normalizing relations with Egypt. Begin agreed: Israel would accept 50% of Vance's proposal and drop Gaza (See the record of this meeting, Document 7).

The meeting ended. Exhausted after an all-night Cabinet meeting and feeling ill, Begin went home to rest. Vance went back to his hotel. Carter had agreed to stay till the next day, but his press secretary was already briefing the press on the failure of the president's mission. Ezer Weizman, the defense minister who was close to Sadat, accused his colleagues of missing the chance for peace and hinted at resignation.

The ministers were determined not to allow further erosion of Israel's position in the negotiations, but the prospect of the president leaving empty-handed was grim. A group of ministers stayed behind, apparently asked by Yadin to find a way out--Dayan, Eliezer Shostak, Gidon Patt, Josef Burg, Ariel Sharon (yes, Sharon the "extremist"), Aharon Abuhatssira, Shmuel Tamir and Yadin himself. It was this group which brought about the breakthrough. They proposed a formula on oil, which Dayan thought the Americans might accept. He phoned Begin, who authorized him to go back to Vance. Vance agreed to ask the Egyptians not to mention Gaza in the treaty, if the oil issue was settled. (Egyptian access to Gaza already appeared in the agreement on normalization). Dayan said that Israel would accept a general commitment by Egypt to sell oil to Israel like any other country and an American guarantee for twenty years. They eventually settled on fifteen years. After calling the president, Vance and his staff drafted a clause to be added to Annex III of the treaty on trade relations. Carter invited Begin to breakfast at Dayan's suggestion.

The following morning Vance and Dayan joined Carter and Begin at breakfast. Carter presented the clause as his proposal, and Begin said he would bring it to the government. Carter also requested some gestures towards the Palestinians, and Begin agreed to consider them. Before he left for the airport, Carter proposed to Begin that the question of Gaza be dropped, and Begin accepted gladly. Sadat still required some persuasion, but Carter made it clear that this was the best offer he would get. He wrote to Begin that Sadat had agreed (Document 8). Begin and Carter may not have seen eye to eye, but they could not let slip the chance for peace with Egypt.
Begin, Carter and Sadat in Washington, March 1979
Photograph: Ya'acov Sa'ar, Government Press Office

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