Book review: Begin’s dramatic journey to peace

Gerald Steinberg and Ziv Rubinovitz have penned a deep dive of Israel’s first-ever peace treaty with a neighboring country

MENACHEM BEGIN, Jimmy Carter and Anwar Sadat at a Marine Corp Ceremony on September 7, 1978. (photo credit: COURTESY THE JIMMY CARTER LIBRARY)
MENACHEM BEGIN, Jimmy Carter and Anwar Sadat at a Marine Corp Ceremony on September 7, 1978.
More than 27 years after his death, Menachem Begin – Israel’s sixth prime minister – has been popping up in headlines quite often. He was featured in campaigns during this year’s election by parties across the political spectrum, from Kulanu, (as a specter peering over Moshe Kahlon’s shoulder in campaign posters), to Blue and White, to Meretz. In March, public broadcaster KAN aired a three-part docu-series called “Days of Begin,” an in-depth look at the years Begin was prime minister.
It is in this climate that Gerald M. Steinberg and Ziv Rubinovitz published a book about the late prime minister and the Camp David Accords, which brought a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt in 1978. Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University, and Rubinovitz, an Israel Institute Teaching Fellow at Sonoma State University, have worked together to create a scholarly resource for those looking to get into the weeds of how Israel’s first right-wing prime minister was the man to bring about Israel’s first peace treaty with a neighboring country.
Menachem Begin and the Israel-Egypt Peace Process: Between Ideology and Political Realism comes five years after Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Lawrence Wright released a book on the same topic: Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David. Wright’s book, a folksy yet historically sound, narrative-driven account of the accords, posits that Carter and Sadat became fast friends because of their rural upbringings, and details what the two Middle Eastern heads of state had for breakfast every morning.
The two tomes could not be more different. Steinberg and Rubinovitz have created a deep scholastic dive into the intricacies of the accords, and as the book was published by Indiana University Press, it suggests that it is geared toward academics.
However, even academics might appreciate a little background as the authors jump straight into the deep end. Key terms such as UN Security Council Resolution 242 are introduced without any background. White House National Security Council Member William Quandt is introduced some 50 pages in with just a last name – no first name or title. You either need an encyclopedic understanding of Israeli history and politics or constant access to a search engine to make it through the book.
Yet in the very first pages, the authors claim that a full accounting of Begin’s ideological genesis is “beyond the scope of the book.” But the book, from the title to the last pages, hammers home the point that Begin was driven by ideology when it came to negotiating an accord, and the question of how Begin’s deep attachment to the Land of Israel came about is simply not answered. It’s not a particularly hard question to answer, as dozens of books have done so before, but oddly, the authors choose not to.
Though the genesis of Begin’s ideology isn’t clearly addressed, the authors do note that the entire reason an agreement was feasible was because he did not consider the Sinai to be part of the biblical Land of Israel. This aspect of Begin was incomprehensible to the Americans, who viewed him as irrationally inflexible. As a result, though the prime minister supported the settlement endeavor in the Sinai Peninsula (before the summit he pledged to retire to one), he was not ideologically bound to keeping the Sinai.
This also helps to explain why the Palestinian track of the accords fell through: because Begin considered the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to be an integral part of the Land of Israel. Because he argued that “the concept of autonomy will lead to a Palestinian state,” which he felt would endanger Israel’s security, he concentrated on pushing through the peace deal with Egypt while kicking the Palestinian issue down the road.
The authors note that “the two central dimensions of the negotiations – the Egyptian-Israeli element... and Palestinian autonomy – were loosely linked, but the Camp David texts kept them separate and not directly dependent on each other.” Because Begin was able to negotiate one without the other, he was viewed by some in the United States and Egypt as a “master negotiator.”
ONE AREA where the authors excel is reminding their readers just how improbable the peace accords were, especially in their beginning stages. Sadat’s arrival in Jerusalem to address the Knesset in November 1977 was not just surprising. It was earthshaking in its unlikeliness. Prime Minister Golda Meir said just days before Sadat’s arrival, “Grass will grow in my hand if he comes to Jerusalem,” and then-opposition leader Shimon Peres “dismissed Sadat’s plan [to come to Jerusalem and address the Knesset] as mere rhetoric.”
More dramatically, “IDF chief of staff Mordechei Gur suggested calling a military alert, warning of a scenario in which Sadat’s visit would serve as a cover for a mass assassination operation against the Israeli dignitaries gathered at the airport to greet [Sadat].”
The authors also do well to point out that Begin was attacked by right-wing parties (including his own) and also by the Labor Party, which on this occasion, was hawkish. Labor, the authors note, “sought to annex the eastern coast [of Sinai],” and during negotiations, “Peres... attacked Begin for offering ‘too much’ in the first stages of negotiations.” In contrast, as early as June 1967, just days after the war, Begin stated a willingness to return the Sinai to Egypt in return for peace.
Carter’s administration didn’t care to think about the domestic Israeli political situation and the authors point out that they “preferred to deal with Begin and Sadat as unitary acts operating in a domestic political vacuum,” which “fueled the tensions between Begin and Carter.” These tensions never fully evaporated – as Quandt recalled later: “We never quite figured out how to get around Begin or work through him or work over his head or behind his back. I cannot stress... how difficult that turned out to be.” Nevertheless, Begin often quoted from the Bible because he “believed that this would establish a common language with the US leader.”
The Carter administration does not come off particularly well, and is portrayed as completely unprepared for both Begin’s electoral victory in 1977 before the accords (“When the White House discussed scenarios for the Israeli elections of 1977, “none of [them] included the possibility that Begin would emerge victorious and become prime minister”) and for understanding the subject matter during negotiations. The authors write that after Abraham Tamir, a member of the Israeli delegation, gave Carter a two-hour lesson on the Sinai during the negotiations, “Carter thanked [him] for teaching him more... in two hours than his aides did in two years.”
Though the book was written about an event 40 years ago, some tidbits are reminders of how little has changed for Israeli relations.
“Begin warned that Sadat was deceiving the world by speaking of peace while intending to annihilate Israel,” the authors wrote, a frequent criticism leveled against former PLO president Yasser Arafat (who may not have been able to annihilate the Jewish State, but certainly had the power to step up attacks against Israelis during the intifadas).
Later, the book recounts Carter saying, unexpectedly, during a town hall, “there has to be a homeland provided for the Palestinian refugees.” A US official responded: “We were stunned, furious; that Carter should give his [public endorsement of a Palestinian homeland] away... for nothing. It was dumb, utterly stupid,” a nearly identical response to what some State Department officials said in response to US President Donald Trump’s move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem last year.
Somewhat bizarrely, at the book’s end, when discussing the outcome and implementation of the accords, the authors mention the assassination of Sadat by Islamists, and the reasons Carter was not re-elected, and then, “by 1982, Begin showed signs of fatigue; he announced his intention to resign on August 28, 1983 (saying, ‘I can no longer continue’),” without mentioning a single word about the effect that the death of his wife or the rising Lebanon War casualties had on him. A strange treatment for the main character of the book.
The authors faced a notable challenge from the beginning: Begin did not keep a diary or write memoirs, so much of the book is based on the accounts of others. Relying on the resources they did have, Steinberg and Rubinovitz’s book might have some dense moments, but they did end up creating a worthwhile guide for those hoping to study the Camp David Accords.