As Israelis go to the polls on September 17, it marks the 41st anniversary of the signing of the Camp David Accords in Washington, DC. Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin and Jimmy Carter were the principals. The agreements, between Egypt and Israel, with the United States as intermediary, formed the framework of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty six months later. The treaty, though derided as a “cold peace,” has held. In fact, the two countries cooperate in many areas.
On this momentous anniversary, let us reflect on a historic event that, to many today, seems to have occurred in a distant era and a different world. Yet those of us alive at the time who followed the twists and turns of that “peace process” appreciate the courage and foresight it took to end the state of war with Egypt, Israel’s primary enemy. On Yom Kippur, 1977, a year before the accords, I witnessed in Tzfat, the emotional Yizkor service during which the chazzan read the names of the fallen of the Yom Kippur War, the surprise attack Sadat had launched just four years earlier.
In retrospect, we know Sadat started the war as a path to peace. Sadat had been derided as Nasser’s lackey. However, he was keenly aware of the morass into which his country had descended. Sadat understood that reviving his nation’s fortunes rested on two elements. The United States, not the Soviet Union, held the key. The Egyptian people needed to feel confident in order to accept peace and not view opening relations with Israel as surrender.
Sadat put his plan in place. He ejected the Soviets and went to war. The Egyptian Army won the early battles of the Yom Kippur War. With the Soviets out, the US filled the vacuum diplomatically. With its citizens tasting initial victories (though later reversed), Egypt could proceed to make peace according to Sadat’s plan.
Who knew that at the time? Indeed, Prime Minister Golda Meir had rejected peace overtures from President Sadat before the Yom Kippur War and did not trust him as a peace partner. The Labor government had nibbled around the edges of interim ceasefires, far short of a comprehensive peace treaty. Prime Minister Menachem Begin took office in June, 1977. The former Irgun revolutionary, whom David Ben-Gurion called a terrorist, took up Sadat’s challenge. The man who had run since 1949 on a platform of not yielding one inch of Greater Israel, invited the enemy to Jerusalem and pursued diplomacy.
Years later, an Israeli diplomat in the Washington DC Embassy said that, from the start of his tenure as prime minister, Begin had intended to make peace with Egypt. “נעשה שלום — אני בטוח בזה,” (“We will make peace, I am sure of it,”) the Prime Minister had told the diplomat in the summer of 1977.
Begin was more the idealist than the ideologue, it turned out. He followed the rule of law as interpreted by the Supreme Court. He was a great student of history and history has judged his greatest achievement was making peace.