Israel: The Sticking Point

Menachem Begin
Menachem Begin; drawing by David Levine


Near El Arish, in the northern Sinai, twenty-five miles across the pre-1967 border, a cluster of red-roofed concrete boxes stands defiant on the sand dunes—Neot Sinai, one of the seventeen Israeli settlements that have been built in this area since Israel took it over from the Egyptians in 1967.

There are only twenty families in this cooperative, set up in 1973. All of them are stout supporters of Israeli Premier Menachem Begin. “We’re the government’s people, and this is the government’s cooperative,” declares Yitzhak Regev, a tanned and bearded figure who is Neot Sinai’s secretary. The framed letter bearing the crest of the state of Israel and displayed beside his desk underscores his point. “Dear friends,” it reads,

I was happy to read your letter telling me of your members’ meeting decision on 12 November, 1977. In the name of my wife and I, please accept our thanks for your unanimous decision to accept us as full members of the cooperative.

The letter was signed by Menachem Begin and dated December 1, 1977, just one week after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s momentous visit to Jerusalem.

The premier intends to make Neot Sinai his home when he retires, much as Israel’s founding statesman David BenGurion, a lifelong enemy of Begin, whom he referred to as “that man,” retired to a kibbutz in the Negev desert. But while Ben-Gurion chose his home inside Israel proper, Begin has chosen his inside Egyptian territory.

Menachem Begin never tires of saying that no man on earth wants peace more than he. President Sadat says he has offered just that: peace in return for the Arab territories conquered by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, and specifically, for Egypt, the return of the Sinai Peninsula including Neot Sinai and the other settlements. But as many times as Premier Begin has said that he wants peace, he has also said that the northern Sinai settlements will remain under Israeli control. And his loudest statement to this effect was not in any public speech, but in the letter proudly displayed in a sandy office cubicle 100 miles from Jerusalem.

Even before Begin’s rise to power a year ago, Israel’s settlements in the territories it conquered in 1967 never seemed to be negotiable—whether on the Golan Heights to the north, in the West Bank of the Jordan River to the east, or in the sands and rock of Sinai to the south. The Allon plan of the late 1960s called for returning much of the West Bank territory populated by Arabs while retaining the West Bank settlements. Wherever and whenever Israelis have set up civilian settlements, these have been permanent. This is part of Israel’s ideology, part of the way it established its borders in the 1948 war of independence, when it lost only the few settlements whose defenders were killed to the last inhabitant.

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