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When Israelis and Arabs for Once Agreed

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Bettmann/Corbis
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, President Jimmy Carter, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Camp David, Maryland, at the start of the talks that led to the Camp David Accords, September 1978

As the head of the Irgun insurgency terrorizing British forces in Mandate Palestine, Menachem Begin became an obsession of his British enemy. He seemed a new sort of Jew, the fighting kind, a disciple of Jabotinsky and his vision of a Jewish army rising up in Palestine. The authorities were desperate to capture him, especially after the Irgun blew up Jerusalem’s King David Hotel in 1946, killing ninety-one people, more than two dozen of them British (a warning to vacate the premises had gone unheeded). A wanted poster described Begin as “medium build, long hooked nose, bad teeth,” wearing “horn-rimmed spectacles,” and measuring “5ft. 9in.”

In fact, he was about three inches shorter. Scrawny, cerebral, unprepossessing, Begin hardly looked the part of the insurgent leader. Born in 1913 in Brest-Litovsk, then a part of Poland, he studied law at the University of Warsaw while also working for Jabotinsky’s militant Betar Zionists; he managed to get to Palestine in 1942. Having lost his parents and a brother to the Nazis, he was driven by the ferocious conviction that Jews had to live in their own state and be freed from fear. To this end he was ready for anything. Only in a Jewish homeland would Jews escape the withering contempt of colonial overlords—and worse. Begin once told President Jimmy Carter, “There is only one thing to which I’m sensitive. Jewish blood.”

The British never did capture Begin. He taunted them. He refused to mourn the British who died in the King David, expressing grief only for the seventeen Jews killed. The British folded. They conceded that the Mandate was “unworkable” and in February 1947 handed the problem of how to divide the Holy Land to the United Nations. Still, Begin pressed his offensive. When the authorities flogged teenage members of the Irgun, Begin had four British soldiers flogged in reprisal. When the British hanged three Irgunists in 1947, he had two British soldiers hanged. This, at the time, was a shocking expression of what Lawrence Wright, in his fascinating Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David, calls “equivalence in human worth.” Never again would Jews go meekly to the slaughter. In words that resonate today, Wright observes:

Begin intuitively understood that terror is theater. Murder was not the object, even if it was the inevitable result. His idea was to create a number of showy attacks that would make headlines in London and New York and provoke repressive countermeasures.

He quotes Begin’s memoir, The Revolt, first published in 1951:

The very existence of an underground, which oppression, hangings, torture and deportations, fail to crush or to weaken must, in the end, undermine the prestige of a colonial regime that lives by the legend of its omnipotence.

Much later, Wright notes, American forces would find copies of The Revolt in the library of an al-Qaeda training camp. Terror, he concludes, “was not the only reason that the State of Israel finally came into being, but the Irgun campaign was a critical factor in driving the British out of Palestine.”

The Mandate ended on May 14, 1948, and Israel was born, six months after the United Nations had voted to establish two states in Palestine, one Jewish and one Arab. At the time there were about 650,000 Jews in Palestine. Arab armies went to war—Begin’s longed-for Jewish homeland was not empty but peopled by Palestinians—and lost. Israel’s share of territory, originally set at 56 percent, grew through annexation. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were driven out. The Arabs lost one conflict after another, most devastatingly the Six-Day War of 1967. But in 1973, on Yom Kippur, Egyptian forces sliced through Israel’s supposedly impregnable Bar-Lev Line along the east side of the Suez Canal. “My God,” an Israeli radioman reported, “it’s like the Chinese coming across.”

The man behind the surprise attack was Egypt’s mercurial president, Anwar Sadat, in whom Henry Kissinger would later see “an instinctive genius for the bold stroke that could change history.” Israel recovered, but only just, and drove the Egyptians back across the Sinai Peninsula. The legacy of a narrow victory was unease: Israel was shaken by slaughter and aware of a new vulnerability.

In this mood of uncertainty the country veered right. Israelis elected Begin prime minister in 1977, ending almost thirty years of government by the left. So when Sadat flew to Jerusalem in November 1977, he met Begin, now seen as the voice of Israel. Begin told him during a visit to the Yad Vashem memorial to victims of the Holocaust, “All this befell us because we had no state of our own.” Begin declined to applaud Sadat when he addressed the Knesset, and declared: “We, this entire generation, the generation of the Holocaust and resurrection, swore an oath of allegiance: never again shall we endanger our people.”

What audacity, then, for President Jimmy Carter, a devout Christian who, in Wright’s words, “could mentally trace the journey of Abraham from the Mesopotamian city of Ur to Canaan’s sere and rocky landscape two thousand years before Christ,” to gather these two Middle Eastern leaders at Camp David in the fall of 1978 and imagine that he could work out a peace agreement.

The worst Palestinian terrorist attack against Israel, in which thirty-eight Israelis were killed, had occurred less than six months earlier. Begin’s credo was never give an inch, never bend, in the Promised Land of the Jews. Sadat, in the Knesset, had demanded “complete withdrawal from the Arab territories occupied after 1967.” Carter, as Wright notes, was “cool and reticent” but “turned icy” when angry, his voice quiet. “He would smile inappropriately in what looked like a rictus.”

The potential for explosive rupture between these three men of three faiths was greater than for conciliation. One of the many merits of Wright’s book is its evocation of the psychological dueling, in a closed setting, over thirteen days, of men veering between fury and fear of failure. They scream; they pack their bags; they reconvene—again and again. Another is to demonstrate, at a moment when the Israeli–Palestinian conflict looks more intractable than ever, how unswerving commitment allied to imagination and boldness can make something of nothing. The sine qua non, however, is political courage, an almost forgotten commodity.

Carter had been warned against convening the meeting at the 140-acre presidential retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountain Park. His chief political adviser, Hamilton Jordan, drafted a memo so sensitive that he typed it himself and kept it in a White House safe. Its gist was that pressure on Israel, without which no agreement was possible, would hurt the president. Jordan outlined the importance of the Jewish vote to the Democratic Party, pointed out that more than 60 percent of large donors to the party were Jewish, and described the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) as a “strong but paranoid lobby” that controlled a majority of votes in the Senate. In words still applicable, Wright observes: “It was a paradox: nothing could be a greater gift to Israel than peace, and nothing was more politically dangerous for an American politician than trying to achieve it.” Carter was not swayed. He had a sense of destiny, a quixotic belief that God would also be present at the talks.

At the same time the president had few illusions about the difficulties. The Camp David talks, it is important to recall, did not begin with the objective of achieving a separate peace between Israel and Egypt but with the aim of securing an overall agreement, including Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza and a transition to Palestinian self-government. Carter, after a meeting with Begin earlier in 1978, had drafted a document that became known as the “six noes.” It said Begin was

not willing to withdraw politically or militarily from any part of the West Bank; not willing to stop the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements; not willing to withdraw the Israeli settlers from the Sinai, or even leave them under UN or Egyptian protection; not willing to acknowledge that UN Resolution 242 applies to the West Bank-Gaza area; not willing to grant the Palestinian Arabs any real authority, or a voice in the determination of their own future.

Begin’s Likud may appear to have grown more extreme over the years; in truth it has been consistent. Its determination not to cede any land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River and its dismissal of the rights (and often even the existence) of the Palestinian people have scarcely wavered.

Facing this litany of noes, Carter’s ace in the hole was Sadat. The president was fascinated by and drawn to him. Like Begin, Sadat hated the British, colonial occupiers of Egypt. Like Begin, who had been imprisoned by the Soviets for his Zionist activism, Sadat had spent time in prison, five years in all, for conspiring in various ways against the British. Both were passionate in their nationalist beliefs. Both had arrived at core convictions by harsh experience.

But there the similarities ended. Sadat was patrician, dismissive of aides, sleeping until 9:30 in the morning and then eating “a spoonful of honey and royal jelly, along with a cup of sweet mint tea.” Begin burrowed into the small print of any text that was being considered. Sadat was all for sweeping it away. He believed that “70 percent of the conflict between Israel and the Arabs was psychological”; preconceptions therefore could only be shattered by bold gestures; hence his visit to Israel. He loathed the “bluster and empty slogans” endemic among Arabs. He infuriated his entourage with statements like “I shall sign anything proposed by President Carter without reading it.”

To haggle was for him anathema. “We have to concentrate on the heart of the issue, not on technicalities and formalities,” he said. At one point, exasperated by the niggling of his entourage, Sadat screamed: “You are all plumbers! You don’t do anything with anything! I am a statesman. I know my objective. I want to release territory. If I don’t, your grandchildren will be fighting in Sinai, and there will be war after war.”

Behind the bravura lurked calculation. Sadat wanted Sinai back; Palestinian claims were in the end secondary. After 100,000 Egyptian casualties in wars with Israel, he wanted an end to them. Having broken with the Soviet Union he wanted to align Egypt with the United States, a deep strategic shift that would hinge in part on the results of Camp David. In all this he had learned from Israel’s methods since the birth of the state in 1948: pocket what you can, create facts on the ground, push for your core objectives. Grand speeches and principles were all very well but in the end what counted was land.

Sadat had a deep knowledge of, and contempt for, the Arab condition, wonderfully summarized by Wright in his description of the consequences of the battlefield humiliation of 1948:

The Arab defeat would have shattering consequences for those societies. Humiliated in battle, the soldiers returned to take revenge on their governments. Military coups, one after another, turned the region into a vast barracks state. To justify their continued hold on power, the military rulers had to enshrine a permanent enemy, and the one they could all agree upon was Israel. Peace would ruin everything.

What distinguished Sadat, and gave Carter a toehold, was that he actually believed in peace, understood its price, and saw its possibilities.

Still, on one issue Sadat would not budge, and that was on one group of settlements—the thirteen Israeli settlements in Sinai. Begin believed they were essential outposts for the protection of Israel. He had even pledged to retire to one of them. King Farouk, President Nasser, and Sadat himself had all attacked Israel from Sinai. Never would Begin relinquish them and so endanger his people again. He told Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, “My right eye will fall out, my right hand will fall off, before I agree to the dismantling of a single Jewish settlement.”

On the third day of the conference, which began on September 5, 1978, disagreement on this familiar issue boiled over. Wright quotes the sharp exchange between the leaders:

“Never!” Sadat said adamantly. “If you do not agree to evacuate the settlements, there will be no peace.”

“We will not agree to dismantle the settlements,” Begin replied stonily. “The opposition will not agree to it either.”

Carter, understandably, was sometimes close to despair. But in Brzezinski and Cyrus Vance, his secretary of state, he had men with a powerful combination of inventiveness, experience, persistence, and patience. They knew there was no quick diplomatic road to yes. They understood, as Wright puts it, that “each side had to believe that it had something vital to lose, which was its standing with the United States.” The shouting had to be endured. These were volatile leaders. America would have to do what the Obama administration (despite indications to the contrary) has never dared do: formulate a document encapsulating its conception of a peace settlement, put up with all the dissent, and whittle away objections one by one.

In the end there would be twenty-three versions of the American proposal, first presented on Day Six. By then, Begin had already begun calling Camp David “a concentration camp de luxe.” But brinkmanship was one thing, failure another. Israel, too, needed America; and Sinai, unlike the West Bank, was not part of “Eretz Israel,” the biblical land the prime minister believed had been promised for all eternity to his people.

Wright’s method is to tell the story of the conference with a chapter devoted to each day, while weaving in history of both the lands and the leaders. He is a deft storyteller. The forward motion of the talks is balanced against the rearview sweep of the historical background he sets out. The characters come to life. It becomes easy to imagine them lodged in their cabins, wandering the woods, stumbling into chance encounters, storming out of meetings. Claustrophobia gathers. Once, on day six, they are let out—to Gettysburg. Everyone is surprised when Begin, his voice rising, recites Lincoln’s address—“that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” It is one of those moments when hope peeps through. Peacemaking involves strange alchemy.

Begin’s delegation includes the legendary Moshe Dayan, the relatively dovish Ezer Weizman (Chaim Weizmann’s nephew, whose son was disabled by the bullet of an Egyptian), and the brilliant lawyer Aharon Barak. Sadat is flanked by his volatile foreign minister, Mohamed Kamel (who predicts that peace with Egypt will free Israel “to impose its schemes for annexing the occupied territories”), and, as legal adviser, the Harvard-educated Osama el-Baz. Kamel is often driven to distraction by Sadat. Kissinger had the same difficulty with the Egyptian president: “Great men are so rare that they take some getting used to.” A simple question haunts Weizman: “If peace was really achievable, wasn’t it immoral to fail?” Dayan is a hawk, convinced that the Sinai settlements should be seen as a vital security belt. Wright quotes his speech in response to the murder in 1956 of a twenty-one-year-old friend, Roy Rotenberg, close to the Gaza Strip:

Millions of Jews who were annihilated without having had a country look to us from the ashes of Israeli history, commanding us to settle and build a land for our people. But beyond the furrow border, a sea of hatred and vengeance swells, waiting for the day that calm will dull our vigilance, the day that we listen to ambassadors of scheming hypocrisy who call on us to lay down our arms….

Presiding over these passions is an American president who feels a deep connection to the Bible and its terrain. The injustice of the American South has imbued in him a hunger for justice. He refuses to fail. On day ten, all seems to be lost: “It was heartbreaking to see how insignificant the differences really were when measured against the enduring advantages of peace.” The next day Sadat readies his helicopter. Yet encouraged by his wife Rosalynn (their marriage is an evident source of strength), Carter persists, drafting and redrafting on his yellow legal pads. He understands that “he would have to force them to make the peace they both wanted but couldn’t achieve on their own.” He threatens each party with the loss of American support in the event of failure. Wright concludes: “There would be no peace treaty without Carter’s unswerving commitment to bring this conflict to an end.”

When Carter first presents his proposal, Weizman describes it as “seventeen pages of high explosive.” Sadat is also unhappy. Carter scolds Begin for his attitude to the occupied West Bank: “What you want to do is make the West Bank part of Israel. No self-respecting Arab would accept this.” The subsequent story is one of adjustment and improvisation. Any student of diplomacy will find in these pages rich instruction in how creative ambiguity can be deployed to finesse obstacles. Carter, for example, has the genial idea of saying that any accord will be dependent on approval by both the Knesset and the People’s Assembly in Cairo. This alleviates pressure. The ambiguity, however, has a price. In essence, language on the West Bank is progressively watered down and the Israeli occupation there becomes the quid pro quo for getting Begin to agree to evacuate Sinai, Sadat’s deal-breaker.

The aim of a comprehensive peace is sacrificed in order to make a separate peace, a source of endless bitterness to Carter, who felt tricked by Begin. Arafat’s judgment was withering: “Sadat has sold Jerusalem, Palestine, and the rights of the Palestinian people for a handful of Sinai sand.” The verdict is superficially persuasive. The truth, however, is that Sadat’s kind of practicality might have secured a lot more for the Palestinian people by now. Sadat’s view was clear: there was no point in keeping Sinai under Israeli domination until a solution was reached to the Palestinian problem because Israel would then cover it with settlements.

In the end, the talks succeed when Begin agrees to do what he had vowed to lose an eye before doing—remove the Sinai settlements—and when a weak compromise is reached over the West Bank and Jerusalem that proves easy for Israel to ignore or pretend never happened. Ariel Sharon, the chief architect of Israel’s settlements, tips the balance on Sinai. In a telephone conversation with Begin, Sharon says that if the Sinai settlements are the last obstacle to an accord, “I see no military objection to their evacuation.” Begin bends. Sadat is satisfied.

As for the West Bank settlements, then a fraction of today’s (with more than 550,000 settlers now in the West Bank and East Jerusalem), they are another story. Carter had been adamant on securing unequivocal language: “After the signing of the Framework Agreement and during the negotiations, no new Israeli settlements will be established in the area, unless otherwise agreed.”

He then relents, agreeing that this may be spelled out in a side letter rather than the accord itself, but still believes he has Begin’s word on a five-year settlement moratorium while negotiations on Palestinian self-rule proceed. It was not to be. Begin never sent a letter saying anything of the sort. Of the two Camp David documents—“Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel” and “Framework for Peace in the Middle East”—only the first proved of any value. Carter tells Congress, “After the signing of this framework last night, and during the negotiations concerning the establishment of Palestinian self-government, no new Israeli settlements will be established in this area.” It was wishful thinking. As soon as the Knesset approved the accords, Begin announced plans to “thicken” West Bank settlements. Carter was livid. When Sadat and Begin were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Carter noted in his diary: “Sadat deserved it.”

Was the success of one agreement dependent on the failure of the other? Or put another way, did Begin only agree to remove settlements in Sinai because he knew he could then expand them in the West Bank? Was Carter negligent in allowing Begin’s sleight of hand? Certainly the president’s ardor in pursuing an Israeli–Palestinian peace afterward appears inextricably tied to his sense of betrayal and work uncompleted at Camp David.

Wright ends his book by saying, “It’s impossible to calculate the value of peace until war brings it to an end.” This is, I think, his way of saying that the partial peace that did hold had incalculable value no matter what; that a great achievement had a price; and that it is worth recalling the courage allied to pragmatism that brought the agreement about. Still, Wright has no illusions:

In signing the treaty with Israel, Egypt severed its link to the Palestinian cause. Without a powerful Arab champion, Palestine became a mascot for Islamists and radical factions who could only do further damage to the prospects of a peaceful and just response to the misery of an abandoned people.

The peacemakers did not fare well. Sadat was assassinated soon afterward, in 1981, by the “cowards and dwarfs” and “hissing…snakes” of the Arab world who never forgave him for making peace with Israel. Begin overplayed his hand, invading Lebanon in 1982, where Sharon’s army destroyed an archive of documents of the old Palestine in Beirut and Israeli soldiers left behind this graffiti: “Palestinian? What’s that? Palestinians, fuck you” (observed by the young Thomas Friedman of The New York Times). Wright writes of Begin: “The war in Lebanon and the death of his beloved wife, Aliza, broke him.”

Carter, who saw the Iranian revolution oust the Shah and install the Ayatollah Khomeini in the months between the end of Camp David and the formal signing of the peace on March 26, 1979, could not then know how the Islamic Republic, and the aborted mission to rescue American hostages there, would come to dominate the memory of his presidency, rather than the Middle East peace he made.

That is certainly unjust, for the cold peace between Israel and Egypt was an immense diplomatic achievement and has saved countless lives. Thirteen Days in September acknowledges the injustice while demonstrating what courage, risk, and statesmanship can achieve. Israel gave up settlements it had vowed never to cede—and thrived. It could give up many more West Bank settlements and continue to thrive. Sadat set his core objective and achieved it. Palestinians could also gain much through fierce realism and abandonment of maximalist aims. Wright’s book, never didactic, always illuminating, should be essential reading for the cast of political pygmies who produced the latest round of pointless killing in Gaza.