A Democratic US president arrives in the country and holds tense talks with a
suspicious Likud Israeli prime minister and his government that touch on Iran, a
settlement freeze, and poisonous anti- Israeli articles in the Egyptian press,
among other issues.
Is this a reference to US President Barack Obama’s
visit to Israel in four days time? No. Rather, it is among the tidbits culled
from a cache of documents released Sunday by the Israel State Archives relating
to the March 1979 visit of former US president Jimmy Carter, then only the
second sitting US president to visit Israel following Richard Nixon in
The documents portray a tense and dramatic visit that Carter paid
the country beginning on March 10, after spending three days in Egypt. The
purpose of the trip, made soon after the overthrow of the shah in Iran in
January 1979, was to finalize the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. The
framework for that treaty was signed at Camp David some six months earlier, but
the drawing up of the actual treaty had stalled and both Egypt and Israel
stiffened their positions.
Carter’s frustration, however, was directed
more at then-prime minister Menachem Begin than at Egyptian president Anwar
Sadat, as he said during a briefing with US congressmen in the White House soon
after his return to the United States.
According to a declassified cable
of that meeting written by Zvi Rafiah of the Israeli Embassy, Carter praised
Begin, Sadat and even foreign minister Moshe Dayan, but said it was much easier
doing business with Sadat.
“It is possible to finish within half an hour
all the most difficult problems with Sadat,” Rafiah quoted Carter as
“Sadat deals with the general problems, deals with the wider
issues and leaves the details to his foreign minister.
Begin, on the
contrary, is a semanticist who wants to go over the details
Unlike the upcoming Obama visit, the background to Carter’s
trip was the signing of a framework peace deal – between Begin and Sadat at Camp
David in September 1978. This was followed by talks on the draft peace treaty in
Washington in October, but those talks did not lead to a speedy
According to an explanation on the Israel State Archives’
blog of the documents released Sunday, “after the initial euphoria of Camp
David, the differences between the parties again began to emerge. The angry
reaction of the Arab world forced Sadat to prove that he was still committed to
the Palestinians and to an overall peace treaty. Begin, under attack by his
friends and supporters for abandoning all of the Sinai, was determined to make
no more concessions.
Although agreement was quickly reached on most of
the treaty, several issues remained in dispute.”
Just prior to his visit,
Dayan briefed the Foreign Ministry staff on why Carter was coming at that
“I think that for Carter this is a political necessity. The United
States has a major need to stabilize the situation in the Middle East after
Iran,” he said, referring to the fall of the Shah and the arrival in Iran of
According to the archivist, Carter apparently thought
he would be able to get the treaty signed during his visit, and was frustrated
and angry when – soon after arriving in Israel on March 10, 1979, and meeting
Begin – he understood this was not in the works. Begin said he would have to
discuss the autonomy plan first with his cabinet, and take the treaty to the
Knesset for its approval.
Carter wrote in his diary: “I couldn’t believe
it. I stood up and asked him if it was actually necessary for me to stay any
According to the archives’ blog, “Carter asked Begin if he
really wanted peace. The prime minister insisted that he did, but Carter was
convinced that he was trying to block a treaty. His only hope was to appeal
above Begin’s head to the government, the Knesset and the Israeli
The next day, March 11, Carter and his delegation met with Begin
and some of his senior ministers to discuss proposals for overcoming the impasse
with the Egyptians.
Carter pressed Begin at the meeting, saying that
signing the treaty was a “now or never” proposition. Carter spoke about how he
would like the treaty to not “be just a piece of paper that both have signed
reluctantly” with “remnants of animosity and distrust,” but rather something to
revive the feeling of genuine friendship engendered by Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem
The Israeli government met into early the next morning, and
accepted some of the Egyptian conditions, but rejected others. Carter did not
think Israel was forthcoming enough, and at a meeting with Begin and his entire
government asked for more, and at one point said “your response has not been
Begin stood his ground, and responded at the meting, “Mr.
President, we shall sign only what we agree to and we shall not sign anything to
which we do not agree.” That tense meeting was cut short as both had to go
address the Knesset.
After those speeches Begin met alone with the
cabinet and discussed the negotiations, including the American demand that
Israel make public its schedule for withdrawal from Sinai.
nothing but chutzpah,” Begin fumed, as recorded in the protocols of that meeting
Carter then flew to Egypt and presented Sadat with
Israeli proposals, while Begin held another government meeting and discussed
understandings Carter had received from Sadat. When Begin called Carter on March
14 to tell him that the government had accepted the proposals Carter responded
by saying, “this is the best news of my life, wonderful news.”
ended the conversation by saying to Begin, “God bless you and
Twelve days later Begin flew to Washington where he signed the
accords with Sadat.