Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Missed Opportunity for Peace? Begin and Sadat Meet at Ismailia, 25 December 1977

 This week, when the Christian world celebrates Christmas, is also the anniversary of the second meeting between President Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin. During Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in November 1977 many journalists asked if Begin would be invited to visit Cairo in return. Sadat avoided the question while Israel occupied Egyptian territory, but he offered to invite Begin to his home in Ismailia, on the west bank of the Suez Canal, some 90 minutes from Cairo.

At the beginning of December, Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and Egyptian Deputy Prime Minister Hassan Touhamy had met in Morocco to discuss a peace agreement (see the Mossad report on the meeting). Israel had agreed that Egyptian sovereignty over all of occupied Sinai should be restored. However Begin and Dayan wanted to keep the settlements Israel had built there and two air bases, Etzion, near Eilat, and Eitam, near El-Arish and the Rafiach Salient,  under Israeli control. Sadat refused.
In return for his gesture of visiting Jerusalem and offering Israel security within recognized borders, Sadat wanted the Israeli government to make a declaration that it would withdraw from the territories occupied in 1967 and seek a just solution to the Palestinian problem.  This declaration would enable him to make a peace treaty with Israel and to invite the other Arab states to join in. But the  government, especially Begin, who hoped to extend Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and Gaza, could not agree. Instead Begin drew up a plan for a temporary regime giving the Palestinian inhabitants autonomy and took it to Washington to be approved by US President Jimmy Carter. On 25 December Begin, together with Dayan, Defence Minister Ezer Weizman and a group of advisers and aides, went to Ismailiya to present the plan to Sadat. The records of their meetings are in the Israel State Archives.
The atmosphere at the talks was friendly. Sadat was celebrating his birthday and he welcomed the delegation to Egypt "perhaps the first time we sit together since Moses crossed the waters not very far from here. We sit together to tell the whole world that we are working for peace and that we shall establish peace." Begin wished him as many years as Moses lived - to the age of 120. He too was sure that the two nations would make peace. They had already agreed to set up a political and a military working committee.

Begin and Sadat after their first meeting in Ismailia
Photograph: Yaacov Sa'ar, Government Press Office

But then Begin began to outline Israel's peace proposals and the autonomy plan. He explained that the Palestinian Arabs would enjoy self rule and the Palestinian Jews security. His long explanation tired Sadat, who had no patience for details. Begin, attacked by the right for presenting a plan which might become the basis for a Palestinian state, felt he was making a great concession. But it did not meet Sadat's needs.
The Egyptians proposed a joint declaration on Israeli withdrawal, on the right of all states, including Israel, to sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence, and on a just solution for the Palestinians based on self-determination. After the legal experts had got together, Begin and Sadat met again. You can see in the record of their meeting how hard it was for each leader to understand the other's background and thinking: Begin, who was so deeply marked by his relatives' death in the Holocaust and by fear of Israel's destruction by the Arabs; Sadat, by his fight for Egypt's independence from colonial rule. He said that for himself, Israel and Egypt could reach a bilateral agreement. "But I cannot do it because Egypt is the leader of the Arab world. Yes, that is right. Egypt has always been the leader." 
(Dayan at Ismailia with Egyptian Foreign Minister Muhammed Ibrahim Kamel (on the right
(and Abd-el Meguid, ambassador to the U.N. (centre
Photograph: Yaacov Sa'ar, Government Press Office
 Begin refused to mention self-determination, which to him meant a Palestinian state ruled by the PLO, then a Soviet- backed terrorist organization. Sadat's Foreign Ministry advisers refused to back down, the meeting was a failure and the two sides issued separate statements. Dayan felt that an opportunity had been missed. But some of the formulations reached at Ismailia later formed the basis for the Camp David agreements. Begin finally visited Cairo in  April 1979, after the signing of the peace treaty.

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