The Peace Process
The international climate at the time of Begin's rise to power in May 1977 leaned strongly toward some type of superpowersanctioned settlement to the Arab-Israeli dispute. New United States president Jimmy Carter and Soviet leader Brezhnev both advocated a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement that would include autonomy for the Palestinians. On October 1, 1977, in preparation for a reconvened Geneva conference, the United States and the Soviet Union issued a joint statement committing themselves to a comprehensive settlement incorporating all parties concerned and all questions.
Nevertheless, the idea of a Geneva conference on the Middle East was actively opposed and eventually defeated by a constellation of Israeli, Egyptian, and powerful private American interests. Begin proclaimed that he would never accept the authority of an international forum to dictate how Israel should deal with its territory, especially because, aside from Washington, the Israelis would lack allies at such a meeting. Inside the United States, the Jewish lobby and anti-Soviet political groups vehemently opposed the Geneva conference idea. Sadat also opposed a Geneva conference, seeing it as a way for Syria, supported by the Soviet Union, to gain leverage in an Arab-Israeli settlement. Sadat realized that if an international conference were held, Egypt's recovery of Sinai, which was his primary objective in dealing with Israel, would be secondary to the Palestinian issue and the return of the Golan Heights to Syria.
To stave off an international conference and to save Egypt's rapidly collapsing economy, Sadat made the boldest of diplomatic moves: he offered to address the Knesset. Begin consented, and in November 1977 Sadat made his historic journey to Jerusalem, opening a new era in Egyptian-Israeli relations. Although Sadat expressed his commitment to the settlement of the Palestinian issue and to that issue's centrality in Arab-Israeli relations, his main interest remained Israel's return of Egyptian territory. Begin's acceptance of the Egyptian initiative was based on the premise that Sinai, but not the West Bank, was negotiable. He foresaw that exchanging Sinai for a peace treaty with Egypt would remove Egypt from the Arab-Israeli military balance and relieve pressure on Israel to make territorial concessions on the West Bank. President Carter, who had been a major advocate of a Geneva conference, was forced by the momentum of Sadat's initiative to drop the international conference idea. Subsequently, he played a crucial role in facilitating an Egyptian-Israeli peace settlement.
Following nearly a year of stalled negotiations, Begin, Sadat, and Carter met at Camp David near Washington, D.C., for two weeks in September 1978. The crux of the problem at Camp David was that Begin, the old-time Revisionist who had opposed territorial concessions to the Arabs for so many years, was reluctant to dismantle existing Sinai settlements. Finally, on September 17 he consented, and the Camp David Accords were signed. On the following day, Begin obtained Knesset approval of the accords.
The Camp David Accords consisted of two agreements: one dealt with the future of the West Bank and the other with the return of Sinai. The sections on the West Bank were vague and open to various interpretations. They called for Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and "the representatives of the Palestinian people to negotiate about the future of the West Bank and Gaza." A five-year period of "transitional autonomy" was called for "to ensure a peaceful and orderly transfer of authority." The agreement also called for peace talks between Israel and its other Arab neighbors, namely Syria. The other part of the accords was more specific. It provided for "the full exercise of Egyptian sovereignty up to the internationally recognized border," as well as for the Israeli right of free passage through the Strait of Tiran and the Suez Canal. The agreements were accompanied by letters. A letter from Begin to Carter promised that the removal of settlers from Sinai would be put to Knesset vote. A letter from Sadat to Carter stated that if the settlers were not withdrawn from Sinai, there would be no peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. It was also understood that to make the agreement more palatable the United States would significantly increase aid to both countries.
Begin's limited view of Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank became apparent almost immediately after the agreement known as the Treaty of Peace Between Egypt and Israel was signed in March 1979. The following month his government approved two new settlements between Ram Allah and Nabulus. The military government established civilian regional councils for the Jewish settlements. Finally, and most provocative, autonomy plans were prepared in which Israel would keep exclusive control over the West Bank's water, communications, roads, public order, and immigration.
In effect, the acceleration of settlements, the growth of an increasingly militaristic Jewish settler movement, and Israel's stated desire to retain complete control over resources in the territories precluded the participation in the peace process of either moderate Palestinians, such as the newly formed National Guidance Committee composed of West Bank mayors (the PLO refused from the beginning to participate in the peace process) or King Hussein of Jordan. No Arab leader could accept Begin's truncated version of autonomy. Hussein, who had initially withheld judgment on the accords, joined hands with the Arab radicals in a meeting in Baghdad that denounced the Camp David Accords and the peace treaty and ostracized Egypt. Sadat protested Israeli actions in the occupied territories, but he was unwilling to change his course for fear that doing so would leave Sinai permanently in Israeli hands. President Carter objected to the new settlements but was unable to force the Begin government to change its settlement policy. Although ambassadors were exchanged; commercial, trade, and cultural ties were established; and Sinai was returned in May 1982, relations between Israel and Egypt remained chilly.
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