An excerpt from Hero of the Crossing: How Anwar Sadat and the 1973 War Changed the World (January 2015, Potomac Books) by Thomas W. Lippman.
The Separate Peace
Pressure Mounts on Sadat
To the handful of American journalists who were giving these developments their full attention and had good access to Sadat’s policy advisers and to diplomats at the U.S. embassy, it was apparent by the time of the abortive Cairo Conference that Sadat’s resistance to the idea of an agreement negotiated only with Israel was eroding; the triple pressures of Israel’s immovability, the refusal of other Arab states to participate, and his own need to collect some return on his gamble, were forcing his hand. Neither Sadat nor anyone on his staff was prepared to say such a thing in public, and Sadat would continue to reject the idea of a straight bilateral deal that contained nothing for the Palestinians in any form; he hoped for an agreement under which Israel would at least agree in principle to “land for peace,” with details on fronts other than Sinai to be negotiated by other Arabs. If, for example, he could persuade the Israelis to acknowledge that they were obliged in principle to surrender the Golan Heights, then it would be up to Syria’s Assad, not Sadat, to negotiate the terms. But in the absence of any such commitment by Israel, Sadat’s options were narrowing.
A few weeks after Sadat went to Jerusalem, State Department intelligence analysts calculated that “Sadat is continuing to receive strong support at home,” but warned that “should Sadat feel compelled to abandon the quest for a comprehensive settlement and seek instead a separate deal with Israel, the public mood could change abruptly.” If Sadat could extract “concessions from Israel that are meaningful in a pan-Arab context” and the other Arabs rejected the agreement anyway, the analysts said, he could make the case that he had achieved what they could not and they were foolish to disdain it. In the absence of such meaningful movement by Israel, Sadat could face trouble at home, especially from the armed forces, which “would be torn between the prospects of recovering the Sinai without war for which they are ill-prepared, and being held up to the charge of abandoning he wider Arab struggle.”9
In a way this assessment and others like it only stated the obvious: Sadat had given Israel quite a bit, and if he failed to bring back an acceptable outcome it could be politically fatal. His army might turn against him, his financial backers in Saudi Arabia might abandon him. But those were not Israel’s primary concerns.
Begin went to Washington in mid-December 1977 to offer his version of what a peace deal would look like. Israel would indeed withdraw to the 1967 lines in Sinai, to which it had no biblical or historic claim, but would keep some troops in a buffer zone for three to five years. Diplomatic relations would be established with Egypt when the withdrawal was complete. For the Palestinians of the West Bank, Israel would grant administrative autonomy under an elected council—the right to manage their own affairs—and would suspend its own claim of sovereignty for five years. This was to be self-rule for the Arabs who lived there, but not control of the land. Israel would retain a “security border” in the Jordan Valley.
When President Carter asked him about implementing Resolution 242, Begin restated his argument that “Resolution 242 does not oblige Israel to total withdrawal.” To Israel, he said, the important part of 242 was that it called for “secure boundaries,” and there was no way to create those along the 1967 borders. “If we withdraw to the 1967 lines, there will be permanent bloodshed,” he said.10
In Vance’s estimation, this proposal “fell far short of what we believed necessary for an interim solution,” because it would leave Israel in control of Arab immigration and it provided no negotiating role for Syria and Jordan. The one positive note was that Begin at least acknowledged the existence of a “Palestinian problem” and offered a basis for negotiations about it.11
The Cairo Conference debacle began a period of several months in which there was no fundamental movement on the issues. The only difference between this period and the frustrating year before the Jerusalem trip was that now Egypt and Israel were talking directly to each other, rather than exclusively through the Americans. This bilateral dialogue began when Begin made his first visit to Egypt, in December 1977, to meet with Sadat at Ismailia, on the Suez Canal. The meeting took place on Christmas Day; the schedule disrupted the family lives of Western diplomats and journalists but that was of little concern to the Jews of the Israeli delegation or to Sadat and his fellow Muslims.
The Ismailia meeting was remarkable for the circumstances that surrounded it—an Israeli prime minister landing in Egypt in an El Al jetliner, along with a large entourage of Israeli journalists seeing the land of their longtime enemy for the first time and receiving a generous welcome. Several of these journalists made their first visits to Cairo after the session in Ismailia. The manager of the Mena House Hotel, near the Pyramids, even sought out Jews in Cairo’s American community and press corps to find out what the Israeli guests would eat. The symbolism was unmistakable, but in terms of negotiating progress, Ismailia achieved little. Sadat and Begin could not even agree on wording for a joint communiqué and issued separate statements. The only firm point of agreement was that negotiations would continue in the form of two committees: military, headed by the defense ministers, to meet in Cairo to discuss security matters such as troop levels; and political, headed by the foreign ministers, to meet in Jerusalem to discuss the Palestinian question. The two leaders were unable to agree on whether the objective was “self-rule” or “self-determination” for the Palestinians, so they omitted mention of the concept. Begin did agree to accept the pre-1967 line as a permanent border with Egypt only, but asked that Israeli settlements in Sinai be permitted to remain. Sadat refused. The Israeli military team at the meeting asked that Israel be allowed to keep two airfields in Sinai; Sadat responded that they should be “plowed up.”12
Begin and Sadat tried to put the best face on it at a joint news conference. Begin, who had achieved the previously unthinkable just by landing in Egypt and being received as a peace negotiator, said he had “arrived as hopeful prime minister and I am leaving as a happy man.” Sadat said there was “no going back” to the days of war. But he also said that peace must be based on full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, to which Begin responded, as always, “Resolution 242 doesn’t commit Israel to total withdrawal and therefore this is a matter for negotiation, to establish those secure and recognized boundaries which are mentioned in the second paragraph.”13
- Documents at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Atlanta, Georgia: including Camp David history and papers and other files. Online at http://www.ibiblio.org/sullivan/CampDavid-Accords-tour.html. Cited as Carter Papers. Much of the Carter file has not yet been digitized.
- Frontline Diplomacy: a compilation of oral histories of U.S. diplomats overseas, sorted by country. Compiled by and available on compact disc from the Academy for Diplomatic Studies and Training, Arlington, Virginia. Cited as ADST Oral Histories.
- Anwar Sadat Archives, University of Maryland: speeches and writings by Sadat, and related documents. Online at http://sadat.umd.edu/archives/index.htm. Cited as um Sadat Archive.
- National Archives of the United States, College Park, Maryland: sorted by records group, as in RG 59, General Records of the Department of State. Cited as National Archives RG.
- National Archives, Central Foreign Policy Files: a separate collection of declassified documents and files from the 1970s. Posted online in 2013 at http://aad.archives.gov/aad/series-description.jsp?s=4073. Cited as NA Central Foreign Policy Files.