Summit meetings between heads of conflicting governments are stressful affairs and in recent history, often did not go well. In 1961, during the height of the Cold War, the Kennedy-Khrushchev meeting in Vienna was a disaster. The Soviet leader’s image of the young American as weak and inexperienced set the stage for the Cuban Missile crisis, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster.
In contrast, when Egypt’s President Sadat came to Jerusalem to meet Israeli Prime Minister Begin in November 1977, they created the foundations for the peace treaty, signed less than two years later.
The Begin-Sadat summit can provide a guide, of sorts, to the meeting between the American and North Korean leaders. There are basic similarities — the 1977 breakthrough followed three decades of conflict, characterized by major wars in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973, and painful battles, including the War of Attrition, in between. Egyptian officials would routinely and often rudely walk out of meetings at the United Nations when Israelis took the podium.
The change began after the 1973 Yom Kippur War — the bitterest of the collisions — which was devastating for both sides, and ended in a stalemate. Israeli and Egyptian leaders harbored massive distrust of each other, but the ceasefire talks brokered by Henry Kissinger created channels of communication. Separation of forces agreements in 1974 and 1975 constituted confidence building measures, and opened a path that potentially could move from war to peace.
But the process stalled until July 1977, when, after leading the Likud to its first election victory, Menachem Begin became prime minister. Begin recognized the potential for a breakthrough, and paid careful attention to the signals that Sadat seemed to be sending for a fundamental change in the relationship.
Begin wanted more than another separation of forces agreement non-belligerency framework with Egypt — these partial measures would not end the core hostility. When he sent the head of the Mossad for secret preliminary meetings with Sadat’s emissary, and then Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, they informed the Egyptians that the only acceptable outcome for Begin would be a formal peace treaty.
For Sadat, Begin was a new type of Israeli leader, and he presented an opportunity to go beyond the cautious “negotiation by committee” approach of his predecessors. Pressed by a severe economic crisis at home, the Egyptian leader decided to take the risk of going to Jerusalem and talk to Begin face to face. Getting Sinai back by force had failed, but if a treaty could achieve this result, Sadat would have a historic achievement. He calculated that an agreement would serve both his own political interests and Egypt’s national interest, allowing resources to be transferred from the military to sorely needed economic development.
When Sadat indicated that he was prepared to come to Jerusalem, Begin immediately issued a formal invitation and a date was set. Critics on both sides frantically warned against holding the meeting. In Jerusalem, IDF Chief of Staff Motta Gur warned that Sadat might be preparing a surprise attack, and that his plane could carry special forces to kill the entire Israeli leadership waiting to greet the Egyptian president. To guard against this scenario, journalists reported that the IDF had placed snipers on the rooftops, just in case. In Egypt, a number of Sadat’s ministers and advisers resigned, and throughout the Arab world, Sadat was warned against making a unilateral peace with Israel.
Both leaders ignored the warnings and on Saturday night, November 19, Sadat arrived, and traveled with Begin from the airport to Jerusalem. The summit was a success on its own terms — the atmosphere was cordial, and when the two leaders appeared together at the Knesset, the fact that they did not agree on everything was less important than the image of the two of them exchanging views.
The summit marked a beginning of what turned into 18 months of often difficult negotiations, including periodic crisis (in part due to President Carter’s efforts to force a “solution” to the Palestinian dimension). But eventually, the details of security and peace were agreed and the peace treaty was signed. It has lasted for almost 40 years, and survived difficult tests. The risks that Sadat and Begin took, each for his own reason, brought rich rewards for their countries.
How much of this history is useful for analyzing the Kim-Trump summit is difficult to judge. The personalities are very different, to understate the case. Before, during and after their first meetings in Jerusalem, Begin and Sadat carefully considered interests and potential benefits of a breakthrough, as well as the risks. They developed and stuck to an overall strategy, at times revising the details when a preferred course did not work. They did not allow emotional factors, such as an angry outburst at a meeting, or outside pressures from players with different interests (such as Jimmy Carter) to take them off course.
If there is one successful model of a summit and of negotiating peace that the American and North Korean leader should learn and emulate to the extent possible, it the example set by Begin and Sadat. Whether either is capable of following this path remains to be seen.
Gerald Steinberg’s book, “Menachem Begin and the Israel-Egypt Peace Process: Between Ideology and Political Realism” co-authored with Ziv Rubinovitz, is scheduled to be published by Indiana University Press in early 2019.