Israel State Archives declassifies 1970s Egypt-Israel peace docs that read like today’s headlines

Analysis: The iconic picture of Begin, Sadat and Carter grasping hands at the White House does little to reveal the tension, frustration and political machinations that preceded that image.

Sadat, Carter, Begin_150 (photo credit: Couretsy the Jimmy Carter Library)
Sadat, Carter, Begin_150
(photo credit: Couretsy the Jimmy Carter Library)
Bad blood with the Americans over settlements, talk of a US compromise proposal so Israel and the Arabs don’t have to make compromises to each other, creative proposals for ensuring Israeli security after an agreement is signed... It all sounds so familiar, like something culled from the headlines last week, or last month.
But it isn’t. Rather, this is all taken from a trove of documents the Israel State Archives released on Wednesday marking 35 years to the signing on the White House lawn of the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt in 1979.
The iconic picture of Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and US president Jimmy Carter grasping hands at the White House does little to reveal the tension, frustration and political machinations that preceded that image, and which followed Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977. The 67 documents (18 of them in English), including telegrams, letters, records of conversations and meetings – have been declassified and are available on the archives website.
“Many books and articles have described events at Camp David, but until now no original documents have been published to give the public a firsthand impression of the twists and turns of the negotiations,” the archives wrote in introducing the documents. “The documents illustrate the doubts, dramas and personal relations among the participants.”
For instance, on September 6, 1978, just a day after arriving in Camp David, Begin met with his foreign minister, Moshe Dayan, and defense minister, Ezer Weizman, and discussed the developments.
“We did not come to delude ourselves,” Begin said, in notes written by Elyakim Rubinstein, currently a Supreme Court judge, then a Foreign Ministry adviser to Dayan. “There is a huge gap between us and the Egyptians. I do not hesitate to say chasm. What they want, we can’t give.
The question is whether we can reach any agreement.”
The conversation then shifted to Sadat’s support for the Nazis in the 1940s, with Dayan saying that he read that Sadat hoped with all his heart for a Nazi victory.
Weizman, who developed a unique chemistry among Israeli leaders with Sadat, said dismissively that some “35 years have passed” in the interim.
The cache of documents shows how close the talks were to blowing up, with Begin at first refusing to talk about withdrawing settlements from Sinai or fully withdrawing Israeli forces from there, and Sadat demanding a complete withdrawal as well as a far-reaching agreement on the Palestinian issue.
In an indication of just how the issues have remained so much the same, even as the years pass, Weizman at one point said that not all settlements have the same importance. “The Jewish settlement at Sharm e-Sheikh,” he said, was “less important than settlements around Jerusalem.”
Avraham Tamir, then director of the IDF’s planning branch, said that in exchange for peace he would be willing to evacuate all the settlements from Sinai.
“They have no security value. Those wanting to stay could do so under Egyptian administration,” he said.
Begin, at another discussion with the Israeli delegation, reported on a meeting he had had with Sadat and Carter.
Sadat, according to Begin, told of the unprecedented gesture he made in 1977, going against the entire Arab world and flying to Jerusalem.
“I want a new era,” Sadat said. “No airfields.”
The Egyptian president was referring to an Israeli demand that it not withdraw all airfields from the Sinai.
Begin thanked Sadat for his gesture of coming to Jerusalem, reminded him that he was greeted warmly in Jerusalem, and added that a full withdrawal from Sinai and a Palestinian state were out of the question.
“The Egyptian people are a good people, 7,000 years of civilization,” Sadat said. “I cannot say to that good people that there will be Israeli settlements on my land.”