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Steinberg: Lessons from Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty still relevant

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Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin after their first conference at Sadat's residence in Ismallia in December 1977. (YAACOV SAAR ISRAEL GOVERNMENT NATIONAL PHOTO COLLECTION)

Imagine a Middle East without the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. The picture is frightening, particularly with the wars, terror and chaos almost everywhere else. If Egypt and Israel were still threatening and waging full-scale war against each other, as was the case between 1948 and 1973, life for all would be hell.

Instead, 40 years ago, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat achieved what many thought was impossible. Building on limited disengagement agreements following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, they overcame mutual suspicions and internal opposition. On March 26, 1979, Begin and Sadat signed a peace treaty, ending the state of war and also establishing diplomatic, trade and cultural relations.

The lessons of this success are as important today as they were 40 years ago. Like other historical turning points, there were many factors, starting in mid-1977, when Begin became prime minister. He understood that Sadat sought to recover the Sinai Peninsula and Egyptian pride – both lost in the 1967 Six-Day War – but without risking another war.

Begin embraced the opportunity, learning the details of Sadat’s visit to Romania, where he talked about peace options. Begin travelled to Romania, showing that he was also ready to explore peace options. The same message was conveyed to the Americans.

In parallel, Begin sent his foreign minister, Moshe Dayan, to Morocco for secret meetings with Sadat’s closest aide. In these sessions, they outlined what would eventually become a peace treaty.

These meetings set the stage for Sadat’s dramatic arrival in Tel Aviv in November 1977 – an event that the Egyptian leader initiated and Begin carefully nurtured. Both leaders wanted peace and both realized that the American-Soviet framework involving grand conferences in Geneva would be a disaster. Sadat and Begin worked together to go around U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s naiveté, often excluding the Americans from their plans.

After the euphoria of the initial visit, however, the negotiation of the detailed terms turned out, not surprisingly, to be slow and difficult. Two sets of issues were simultaneously on the table. First came the terms of the Egyptian-Israeli peace, such as borders, the fate of the settlements and security arrangements. To resolve the complexities, it was necessary to bring Carter and the Americans back in to the negotiations, as seen at the pivotal Camp David Summit in 1978.

This part of the framework was relatively straightforward and, eventually, solutions were found. At Camp David, Begin reluctantly agreed to remove the Israeli presence from the Sinai, becoming the first Israeli leader to take down settlements. His closest friends and allies were livid, calling him a traitor. But Begin stayed the course for the sake of peace.

But Sadat and, to a greater degree, Carter also demanded an agreement on the West Bank, based on what he called a Palestinian homeland. Here, Begin drew the line, rejecting any foreign sovereignty in any part of Eretz Yisra’el. But for the sake of peace, he accepted a plan for limited autonomy, providing for self-rule on domestic issues, and leaving Israel responsible for security and foreign policy. For a week at Camp David, and most of the six months of negotiations that followed, Begin rejected Carter’s pressure and threats.

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In the end, the terms were finalized and signed. This was Begin’s stellar achievement, and counter to pessimistic predictions of many Israelis, the agreement has withstood numerous crises.

There are many lessons to be learned, beginning with leaders willing to take prudent risks in order to achieve peace. In Sadat, Begin had a partner who recognized this, and the Israeli leader responded in kind.

Today, among Israel’s other neighbours, there are no leaders who show any indication of following Sadat’s example. But if one emerges, Israel will need a leader like Begin to grasp the opportunity.

 

Menachem Begin and the Israel-Egypt Peace Process by Gerald M. Steinberg and Ziv Rubinovitz, was published last month by Indiana University Press.

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