Protocols portray tense Jimmy Carter visit to Israel

Just before Obama visit, State Archives release cables, protocols and minutes from Carter's dramatic visit here 34-years ago.

Sadat, Carter, Begin_150 (photo credit: Couretsy the Jimmy Carter Library)
Sadat, Carter, Begin_150
(photo credit: Couretsy the Jimmy Carter Library)
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 1973.
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 saying.
“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 himself.”
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 conclusion.
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 time.
“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 Ayatollah Khomeini.
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 longer.”
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 public.”
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 in 1977.
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 adequate.”
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.
“This is nothing but chutzpah,” Begin fumed, as recorded in the protocols of that meeting released Sunday.
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.”
Carter ended the conversation by saying to Begin, “God bless you and goodbye.”
Twelve days later Begin flew to Washington where he signed the accords with Sadat.