In the words of Jimmy Carter, the personalities of Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat “were totally incompatible”; they were two men with nothing in common. The president’s characterization interpretation of the two leaders, widely accepted both now and at the time of the 1978 Camp David negotiations, inflated Carter’s own image as heroic peacemaker. But, argues Martin Kramer, Begin and Sadat actually had very similar backgrounds and career trajectories—and these similarities might have made possible their success at achieving a compromise:
One obvious similarity is [that] both entered politics through the back door, as conspirators who planned political violence and were steeled by long stints in political prison. Sadat, as a young revolutionary, immersed himself in conspiratorial plots, both against the British (who then controlled Egypt) as well as against Egyptian leaders he regarded as collaborators. As a result, he found himself in and out of prison. . . .
Menachem Begin had the more famous “underground” career. He was first sent to prison during World War II by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. . . . By then, he too had been initiated into a life of clandestine conspiracy—methods of operation he would bring with him to Palestine in the last days of the British Mandate. . . .
Both men [later] spent many years on the political margins, overshadowed by domineering leaders who had a stronger grip on the imaginations of their peoples, . . . [and] who issued the declarations of independence of their countries. (David Ben-Gurion actually declared Israel’s independence in 1948, and Gamal Abdel Nasser effectively declared Egypt’s independence by nationalizing the Suez Canal in 1956.) But neither of these giants had managed to bring peace to their peoples. . . .
[T]he parallels in the lives of Sadat and Begin may have worked, in ways subtle but strong, in favor of an agreement. Here were two men forged by prison and violence into believers in their own destiny, but who had been written off politically for decades. By the time they came to power, they were in a hurry to achieve something that would transcend the legacies of their celebrated predecessors. Here were two men who believed their peoples were fated to struggle alone, but who were prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to cement relations with the U.S., in the interests of their peoples but also in order to shut the Soviet Union out of the Middle East. Here were two men who did not shy away from the bold gamble, and who saw a greater risk in inaction.
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