Israel and Egypt Made Peace in 1979 because Their Leaders Wanted to

June 5, 2019 | Gerald Steinberg and Ziv Rubinovitz
About the author:

In the conventional telling of the origins of the 1979 Camp David accords, President Jimmy Carter and his foreign-policy team dragged a reluctant Anwar Sadat and an even more reluctant Menachem Begin to the negotiating table and coaxed them into coming to an agreement. This story primarily emerges, write Gerald Steinberg and Ziv Rubinovitz, from the memoirs of several American officials. But recently declassified Israeli documents paint a very different picture of events, showing among other things that Begin supported peace with Egypt as far back as 1967:

[During Begin’s] stint as a member of the national-unity government created just prior to the June 1967 war, . . . the cabinet, led by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, endorsed the land-for-peace formula for Egypt and Syria, and Begin . . . joined in approving this framework. He repeated this position on numerous occasions, emphasizing the importance of a full treaty, as distinct from partial agreements or non-belligerency, which, he argued, would not bring Israel the full legitimacy that was required. In 1970, Begin resigned from the cabinet and returned to lead the opposition, citing the government’s [abandonment of these condition].

[In the months leading up to Camp David], Carter’s effort to involve the Soviet Union [in negotiations between Egypt and Israel] alienated both leaders, who made common cause in going around Carter. Sadat had recently evicted the Soviet military from Egypt, and Begin’s experience as a prisoner in the Gulag left a lifelong hostility; both viewed Moscow’s potential role as entirely anathema. The two leaders were also concerned that the American effort to solve the entire Middle East conflict, which included bringing in the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and Syria’s President Hafez al-Assad, . . . would fail and also prevent realization of a bilateral peace agreement.

Only after they had made progress in their own negotiations did Cairo and Jerusalem ask for Washington’s assistance in ironing out the details. To Steinberg and Rubinovitz, the lessons for future peacemaking are clear:

Success requires leaders who see peace as a national priority and are willing to take prudent risks in order to achieve this objective. Such leaders and the interests that they share cannot be produced artificially or through outside pressure, and in their absence, efforts to reach agreements have no chance. In Sadat, Begin had a partner who recognized this, and vice-versa, and on this basis they explored the possibilities for agreement.

Read more on Fathom: