40 years of peace: How Begin made a crucial contribution

Begin saw peace with Egypt as not only a possibility, but as a priority.

THEN-PRIME MINISTER Menachem Begin, with Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, visit Congress in 1978 (photo credit: REUTERS)
THEN-PRIME MINISTER Menachem Begin, with Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, visit Congress in 1978
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Menachem Begin has been invoked by a number of politicians from different parties already this election season. Like any historical figure, his legacy will be debated – and interpreted differently by different people with different agendas. On this day, however, all of Israel can remember an unarguably historic achievement by Israel’s sixth prime minster.
On March 26, 1979, on the White House lawn, Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed a peace agreement, ending the state of war between the two countries that began in 1948, when Egypt joined with four other Arab states to attempt to extirpate the reborn Jewish sovereign state.
Many books written about the path to peace paint an unflattering picture of Begin and his role in proceedings. Not incidentally, the hero of these accounts tends to be former US President Jimmy Carter, host and mediator at the Camp David negotiations, and – according to his own retelling of events – instrumental in persuading and cajoling an intransigent Begin over the finish line. (Where Israel is concerned, humility is not something President Carter tends to employ. Prof. Kenneth Stein, a former Carter confidant who resigned as Middle East Fellow at the Carter Center in protest at the former president’s one-sided book on the conflict, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, has written that “Carter possesses missionary zeal. He believes that had he won reelection, he would have succeeded in ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”)
Fortunately, we now have a painstakingly researched and nuanced examination of Begin’s contribution to the success of the peace talks: Menachem Begin and the Israel-Egypt Peace Process: Between Ideology and Political Realism, by Prof. Gerald Steinberg and Dr. Ziv Rubinovitz. It is a long title, but within it lies the clue to Begin’s unique character, and what made him the right man for that historic moment.
Begin was elected prime minister in that shock result of 1977, the Mahapach, the rise of the Likud after 30 years of rule by the labor Zionists. This dramatic changing of the guards was greeted with a great deal of concern, both in Israel and abroad. To many, Begin was an uncompromising ideologue. The reality was more nuanced; he was indeed a man of deep, emotion-laden convictions, but he also saw the grand historical picture, and was capable of working pragmatically to seize the moment.
Begin saw peace with Egypt as not only a possibility, but as a priority. Contrary to the idea that he was somehow reluctantly pushed into peace by Sadat and Carter, from Day One of his premiership he sought to build on the tentative feelers put out by Egypt in the last months of the previous Yitzhak Rabin-led government. He was proactive from the get-go, traveling to Romania – one of the few countries with friendly relations with both Israel and Egypt – to ask Nicolae Ceausescu to assure Sadat of his sincere wish for peace. He sent his foreign minister, Moshe Dayan, to meet with senior Egyptian officials secretly in Morocco. (The recruitment of Dayan, Ben-Gurion’s protégé, to his center-right government was partly with Egypt in mind. He knew that a foreign minister with international connections and gravitas would be critical in such high-stakes diplomacy.)
Sadat’s historic visit to the Knesset in November 1977 shocked the world, but the wheels had been set in motion by Begin months prior to that.
AS THE new book by Steinberg and Rubinovitz reveals, as early as 1967, as a minister in the Six Day War unity government, Begin began to formulate the conception of a land-for-peace deal with Egypt. He drew a clear distinction between the newly-acquired territories of Judea and Samaria, part of the historic Land of Israel and therefore not up for negotiation; and Sinai, strategically significant real estate that nevertheless could be traded back to Egypt in return for a real peace. And he was very clear that it would have to be a real peace. He was not interested in agreements of non-belligerence, nor in clandestine arrangements. He would be prepared to make territorial concessions to Egypt, only in return for a full, formal, public, internationally-recognized peace; with full diplomatic relations established between the two countries and the exchange of ambassadors. Ultimately, this is exactly what would be signed at that Washington, DC, ceremony 40 years ago today.
For all of Carter’s subsequent grumbling about Begin’s stubbornness, the Israeli leader did in fact row back from a position he had entered the negotiations with. He had wanted to keep hold of a small portion of the Sinai, containing both Israeli military installations and civilian settlements. Begin had even said he and his wife Aliza planned to retire to the Sinai once his career in public life was over. Eventually he gave in to the maximalist demands of the Egyptians: the complete return of the peninsula and the evacuation of several thousand Israeli citizens.
As grueling as the negotiations with Sadat were, Begin’s toughest battles were back at home, where many of his closest and oldest political confidants, some of whom had fought under his command in the Irgun in the 1940s, attacked him for giving up the Sinai – and for agreeing to evacuate the settlements in particular. These breaks with former brothers-in-arms were incredibly painful for Begin, but Carter was unmoved by the prime minister’s personal sacrifices, instead scolding him for refusing to contemplate the division of Jerusalem and the creation of “Palestinian homeland” in Judea and Samaria. In the Israel of 1978, Begin’s views on both matters were shared by the vast majority of Israeli citizens and their representatives in the Knesset, but more pertinently, neither issue was germane to an Israeli-Egyptian deal beyond the myth of “Arab unity” – which was supposed to mean that Sadat would be deeply committed to the Arab Muslim goals of wresting the holy sites of Jerusalem from the Jews and of creating an independent Palestinian state (never mind that Egypt had kept Palestinians in impoverished refugee camps during its 18-year rule of the Gaza Strip before Israel conquered the territory in 1967). The reality is that Sadat wanted peace with Israel and the return of the Sinai; it was Carter who pushed these extraneous issues, not the Egyptian president.
Menachem Begin described peace as “the advancement of man, the victory of a just cause, the triumph of truth.” In its pursuit, he demonstrated pragmatism and flexibility, yet would not bend on the redlines that defined what he saw as the vital interests of Israel and the Jewish people. We should hope for future Israeli leadership that follows Begin’s example.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem.