194. Memorandum of Conversation1

SUBJECT

  • Summary of Secretary Vance’s Meeting with Prime Minister Begin of Israel

PARTICIPANTS

  • Secretary of State Cyrus Vance
  • Ambassador Samuel Lewis
  • Assistant Secretary of State Alfred L. Atherton, Jr.
  • Assistant Secretary of State Hodding Carter III
  • Harold H. Saunders, Director, INR, Department of State
  • William B. Quandt, NSC Staff
  • Prime Minister Menahem Begin of Israel
  • Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan of Israel
  • Ephraim Evron
  • General Ephraim Poran
  • Dan Pattir
  • Yehiel Kadishai
  • Elyahim Rubinstein

The Prime Minister expressed his great pleasure at receiving a gracious letter from President Carter 2 and welcomed Secretary Vance to Jerusalem. He thanked the Secretary and Ambassador Lewis for their assistance in bringing Egypt and Israel together on the difficult issues of the agenda for the conference. Israel had found the Egyptian proposals unacceptable, and Egypt would not accept Israel’s ideas. The American draft, with the suggestions of Ambassador Lewis, led to the ultimate solution.3

[Page 934]

The Prime Minister noted that Israel had prepared three documents for the conference. First, Israel would table its draft of a peace treaty which had originally been presented in Washington.4 Secondly, Israel would present its plan for Administrative autonomy for Judea, Samaria and Gaza.5 Third, before the sessions begin, Israel will present a third document, which will be a Declaration of Principles. This should be the first order of business.

The Prime Minister proceeded to dwell on content of the third document. He described how at Ismailia he had spoken to President Sadat in private about a draft statement. He had read it to Sadat who had said that it would be all right for the Egyptian people, but that there would be problems with the others in the Arab world. The Prime Minister asked for a counter proposal from President Sadat, which he received in the evening. He and Sadat had already agreed to form the two committees and this was an important step. The Prime Minister also wanted an agreed written declaration. The Egyptians then presented a Declaration of Principles, some of which were agreeable to Israel, and some of which were not at all acceptable. A three-hour debate ensued, and an agreed text was produced which contained the operative parts of Resolution 242, plus an added paragraph on the Palestinians. The following day President Sadat’s advisors said that they could not agree with the Palestinian formulation, so there should be no declaration at all. Sadat wanted to have it, but he did not overrule his advisors. Instead, each side’s position was read in the press conference.6

The Prime Minister continued to describe how he had worked on the Declaration of Principles. Mostly it is based on what was agreed to at Ismailia. The Prime Minister then stated that he had presented Israel’s two peace plans to the President, the Vice President, and to Secretary Vance in Washington. The President had been very gracious. The peace plan had specifically included the problem of settlements in Northern Sinai. The minutes of that meeting indicate that the Prime Minister clearly explained that there would be settlements and that Israeli defense contingents would defend them. (The Prime Minister reads from the Israeli minutes of the meeting.) The Prime Minister then quoted President Carter as having said that there was nothing in these proposals that President Sadat could not accept. He said that they were very reasonable, but that the time frame should be expedited. (The Prime Minister reads the precise quotes from the minutes.) The Prime Minister went on to say that the record showed that the President had said that he thought the Sinai Proposal would be well received by Pres [Page 935] ident Sadat. The official statement issued after the meeting had mentioned a constructive approach, and had talked of a notable contribution. The President himself on December 28 had spoken of a great deal of flexibility and a long step forward, in referring to the Israeli proposals.7

The Prime Minister said that he had many other quotes, but that he did not wish to take more time. These are important statements. The Prime Minister claimed that he had not revealed anything of the discussions, but that he was accurate in saying that the President had referred to the proposals as a fair basis for negotiations. He did not say that he had the support of the United States or that the United States had endorsed the proposals. In the meantime, the Prime Minister had brought these proposals to President Sadat and they had included reference to the settlements in Sinai and to Israeli defense units. It is one of Israel’s principles that there will be no Israeli settlements without Israeli defense units. The Prime Minister had told President Sadat that he would respect Egypt’s principles, but that Egypt should respect Israel’s principles as well, and this is one of Israel’s principles. President Sadat had said nothing against this plan. He did not accept it, but he did not say one word against it.

The Prime Minister went on to describe the developments of the past two or three weeks. He defended his proposals for Sinai as far-reaching, offering no change in the international border and only having settlements on three percent of all the Sinai Peninsula. He quoted from an earlier discussion between Dr. Brzezinski and Ambassador Dinitz in which Dr. Brzezinski said that minor rectifications in the border might be possible and that Israel could demand up to fifteen kilometers in the Sinai. But Israel did not do this, and yet it is now being called adamant and extremist. The Prime Minister said that he found this astonishing. He is not surprised that the Egyptians may say this, but even some people in the United States are inclined to say this. They think that Israel should go further. Congressman Zablocki also said this, as if he were speaking on behalf of the Arabs. He said that Israel had not been responsive to Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem.

The Prime Minister said that he wanted to ask Secretary Vance to let the Egyptians know about the American attitude toward his peace plan as defined in Washington. The Americans should let the Egyptians know during the Jerusalem conference of their attitude. If the Egyp[Page 936]tians have the impression that the United States will pressure Israel to give more, it will make them intransigent. The Prime Minister said that he already had many problems because he was willing to give up too much, and that his best friends, as well as the settlers, and of course, the opposition leaders, were all attacking him. He had met with the settlers. He had been interrupted in the midst of a meeting of his own Herut party. No one in Israel can agree to dismantle settlements. Such a government would be overthrown in no time. Egypt should not have the impression from the talks in Jerusalem that the United States will try to change the Israeli position. Israel has already made a sweeping peace proposal. Some of these proposals are absolutely vital for Israeli security. The United States should repeat what was said in Washington about how these proposals would contribute to peace. The Egyptians should know that they cannot count on American pressure. Israel will never destroy the homes of its settlers. There is no reason for them to leave. They have turned the desert into gardens.

Secretary Vance stated that he was pleased to see the Prime Minister again and that the United States and Israel enjoyed close ties of friendship. He said that he would look forward to receiving Israel’s draft Declaration of Principles.

Turning to the discussions in Washington, the Secretary said that his clear recollection was that the President had said that he could accept the proposals on Sinai as a fair basis for negotiations and that he thought that they would be well received. Apparently, he was incorrect in his judgment concerning some points. There were also some statements in the press that implied that the President had endorsed the Israeli proposals, and he, of course, did not use that word. He did say that they were a fair basis for negotiation. The United States has stuck to that line. But we have had to say that we do not endorse the proposals. As a fair basis for negotiations, the proposals can be responded to by the other side putting forward proposals which may lead to some changes. Concerning the West Bank proposals, there were some changes in the draft of the document presented in Washington. The Prime Minister said that he had been obliged to submit the document to the Cabinet and to make some amendments.

Secretary Vance said that some of these amendments changed the thrust of the plan. He would nonetheless be willing to say here in Jerusalem that the plan offers a fair basis for negotiation. Nonetheless, the United States and Israel do differ on settlements. But if the United States is asked for an endorsement, it will not agree, since this has a different connotation.

Foreign Minister Dayan intervened to ask where we could go from here. The next day the conference would convene and the agenda would be confirmed and there would be speeches in the opening ses[Page 937]sion. The first item would deal with the Declaration of Principles. Israel would present its proposal. The Egyptians would probably not accept it. They will have a draft of their own. What procedure should then be used? Secretary Vance said that he assumed that until Egypt and Israel had put forward their proposals on the principles, it would be inappropriate for the United States to do anything on the first day. Basically, Egypt and Israel should negotiate with one another. The United States will then study the drafts, and then later we can put forward a view of our own about the proposals. If there are differences, we may help to bridge them. We want to remain flexible. We will not put anything of our own on the table.

Dayan said that a subcommittee might be formed to work out the principles. The Secretary said that he thought this would be very useful and that our own thinking was going along these lines. Prime Minister Begin suggested that a special subcommittee be set up to work on the peace treaty since that was primarily a legal problem. The Secretary agreed that this was the easiest of the items. He asked about how the second agenda item on guidelines for the West Bank and Gaza should be dealt with.

Foreign Minister Dayan suggested that we deal with the items in sequence, and perhaps form a subcommittee at some time on this topic. Secretary Vance suggested that working groups might take the proposals and come back at the end of the second day to review the situation. Then on the third day we would see if we could bridge the differences. All three items could be discussed at the same time. Prime Minister Begin suggested that we start with the easiest and then move to the harder problems. The third topic on the agenda is the peace treaties. That will require the work of lawyers and jurists and should be the first item to be disposed of. A subcommittee should work on drafts of peace treaties. This will take lots of time, perhaps weeks. Then there will only be two items to deal with. Dayan said that this was all right with him, but he was not sure that the others would agree. The third item is already on the agenda, but Egypt wants to start with the first item, the Declaration of Principles.

Secretary Vance said that the third item might be turned over to a working group because it is more technical than political. The political level should discuss the first two items. The Prime Minister said this was a sound suggestion. Secretary Vance said that it should be discussed with Foreign Minister Kamel. Foreign Minister Dayan suggested that the first two items be dealt with at the same time.

Prime Minister Begin then returned to his opening remarks. He said that he had never used the words that the President endorsed the proposals. He had said that the President agreed that his proposals offered a fair basis for negotiations. He did say that Israel had the support of [Page 938] United States and Britain, but then Ambassador Eilts was told to say to Sadat that the United States did not endorse Israel’s views on settlements. But the President had, in fact, said that Israel’s proposal was very reasonable and this came very close to an endorsement. Israel is not trying to use American support against Egypt, but when President Sadat hears that the United States does not endorse Israel’s views, this hurts. The Prime Minister again read the quotations of President Carter’s statements, especially from his press conference of December 28th. His statements imply that Sadat should accept the proposals because they are very reasonable. This was an objective statement, but now there is an impression that Israel’s proposals demonstrate intransigence, and that Israel has not given Sadat enough. This is an untrue impression of the actual American view. There has been no expression of adamancy or extremism. This impression should be corrected in the political committee. The United States should say that the Israeli proposals are very reasonable.

Secretary Vance said again that he was prepared to say that the proposals offered a fair basis for negotiations, but that he did not want to deceive the Prime Minister. The American position on settlements is different concerning their legality. We will not deceive the Prime Minister on this position. The Prime Minister then left the room to get some papers. Upon returning, he noted that when he had first visited the White House in July,8 the President had made a distinction between new settlements and the addition of settlers to existing settlements. The Secretary queried whether the President had approved the latter approach or had simply said that it was less objectionable. The Prime Minister then reviewed the exchange concerning settlers going to military camps. The Secretary said that he did not want to argue over the distinction between military camps and civilian settlements. The United States was opposed to both, but had less problem with the idea of military camps. The Prime Minister agreed that the American interpretation on this point was consistent, but the President had said in public that he had no objection to adding settlers to existing settlements. During his July visit, this was said. Secretary Vance said we object to both, and our basic objection remains. The Prime Minister then quoted again from the President’s meeting with former Prime Minister Rabin on March 8, 1977.9 He noted that the President had said that he had looked at the map and had seen where the settlements in Gaza were located and he could see that they had strategic significance. Dr. Brzezinski had talked [Page 939] to Ambassador Dinitz on March 18, 1977,10 and had said that peace would entail substantial withdrawals, but that 15 or 20 kilometers in the Sinai could constitute a minor adjustment in the border, and that this would be consistent with Resolution 242. When the United States says that all of the settlements are illegal, this strengthens the Egyptian demand to remove the settlements. When the President says that the settlements are illegal, then Sadat is encouraged to cry out against them. The Prime Minister again requested that the United States use the phrase that his proposals are a fair basis for negotiations and are very reasonable.

The Secretary stated again that the President had viewed the overall proposal for Sinai as very reasonable but he had not singled out the settlements issue in particular. The Prime Minister argued that the settlements were included in the proposal. The Secretary said that there is no question of bad faith concerning this difference of opinion, but there has been some misunderstanding. The Secretary would state that the proposal as a whole was a fair basis for negotiation, but this does not change the American position on the illegality of settlements. Israel has a different position on this, but if the United States is asked, it will repeat its well-known position. The Prime Minister said that he could not go on with the discussion, but that he must say that there is some sadness about this development. He had left Washington with so many positive adjectives about his peace proposals from the President, the Vice President, Dr. Brzezinski, the Senators with whom he met, the great Senator Hubert Humphrey, and all of the adjectives were positive, and these were factual statements. He quoted again that the President had termed them very reasonable. The Secretary agreed that this was a characterization of the overall proposals, but that our position on settlements remained the same. The Prime Minister argued again that he had mentioned the settlements, and that the President had expressed his view on the proposals right after hearing about the settlements. Israel believes that the settlements are legal and they were brought to the attention of the President and he said just after that that there was nothing in the proposal which Sadat would reject. He did not want to repeat the record, but the United States had said that this was a fair basis for negotiation.

Foreign Minister Dayan returned to the question of the proposed agenda. He said that Israel had suggested that the question of civilian settlements should be on the agenda for the political group, but it is not on the agenda. Israel will not bring the settlements up in the discussions. The Egyptians did not want it included on the agenda. So the agenda now has no reference to settlements. Within the discussion of [Page 940] principles, they may raise the question. Otherwise, it will not be there. As far as Israel is concerned, there is no need to touch the subject. They may raise the question in the military committees. Israel will not raise it. Israel can do without the discussion. The settlements are there, and if they are not discussed, the settlements will stay there.

The Prime Minister stressed that Israel cannot remove those settlements. No one can do it. This is the objective situation. No Israeli government can do it. Now Israel is even asked why no change is being made in the international border. The Prime Minister said that he had told Sadat that his demand for total withdrawal would only be acceptable to five out of 120 members in the Knesset. Secretary Vance said that he would be glad to discuss these points with President Sadat, but he was not sure if the question of settlements was a political or security issue. The Prime Minister said it was absolutely a security issue. He asked Foreign Minister Dayan to explain the security considerations.

Foreign Minister Dayan said that he would present the Israeli view on settlements in northeastern Sinai. This is part of the comprehensive plan and the individual parts cannot be judged alone. Israel presented its plan for Sinai based on two principles. The desert should be a buffer between Egypt and Israel, and Egypt could keep some of its forces in Sinai. Israeli forces would be withdrawn to the international border and the area in between would be either demilitarized or would be limited force zones. There could be some warning stations. On the border near Israel, Israel wants it to be under the control of Israelis. Israeli experience with Egypt has proved a necessity for this. Israel wants control from Sharm al-Shaikh to Rafah. This seemed to pose problems of reaching an agreement with Egypt after the Sadat visit. But there had been problems in the past about infiltrations from Gaza, with as many as 1500 casualties in the 1954 to 1955 period. The area along the Israeli border, in the Sinai, in the area from al-Arish to Sharm al-Shaikh, should be under the UN flag, but with Israeli civilians there and with Israeli airfields there. There is literally no substitute for the one airfield near Eilat. The others will be expensive to move. So this is the Israeli concept. If Israel is to withdraw all of its forces from Sinai and recognize Egyptian sovereignty over all of Sinai, with no border changes, then practically speaking there should be Israelis there under the UN flag from Sharm al-Shaikh up to the north. This is one alternative which can take care of Israeli security. The other approach is the more conventional Israeli concept of not going back to the old border. The previous Israeli governments insisted on annexing a belt along the border from Sharm al-Shaikh to the Mediterranean. Because of Sadat’s move, Israel thought that to insist on a change in the international border would be too much for Sadat. But what Israel has offered to Egypt includes a UN presence and settlements in the UN zone and at Sharm al-Shaikh. If [Page 941] there are settlements, they must be connected to Israel. They now get their water from Israel and they market their goods in Israel. They must have some kind of Israeli force protecting them, not necessarily a military force, but police forces, perhaps under a UN flag.

The Foreign Minister said that he had discussed this with Tuhami twice and that the second time he had put it in writing. At the time, he had the impression that Tuhami did not reject the idea. He was so impressed by Israel’s willingness to cede sovereignty over all of Sinai, that he did not react particularly to the settlements, but then he got used to the proposal and it is now taken for granted that Israel will go back to the international border, but if Israel cannot keep the settlements, we will have to return to the old position, and we will have to look for changes in the border for our security. We have a record of thirty years of dealing with Egypt, and we cannot just rely on Sadat’s promise to provide us with security. We can’t rely on him for security. If the last war had started from an international boundary, we don’t know what would have happened. We must assume our responsibilities. Either Sadat accepts changes in the international border, or we keep our settlements.

Prime Minister Begin, responding to Dayan’s suggestion that perhaps there could be an exchange of territory, said that Sadat had rejected that in his October interview.11 Secretary Vance asked if the Prime Minister was opposed to the idea. Prime Minister Begin said that Israel had made no such suggestion. If Egypt were to suggest such an idea, then Israel might consider it. Israel could not make such a proposal.

Secretary Vance asked how many settlements there are in the Sinai. He asked about the relationship of Israeli law to the settlements. The Prime Minister said that Israeli law does cover the settlements. He referred to Yamit, and 8 to 10 other agricultural settlements. The total population was 3000. The Secretary asked if this included those in Rafah and those on the coast toward Sharm al-Shaikh as well. Foreign Minister Dayan said it included both places, that there are settlements in the north and some on the gulf. There are none in between, with perhaps one exception. They will have to be part of the Israeli community. Sharon has suggested that the zone might have a relationship with Egypt, but within the zone daily life would be regulated by Israelis. There would be someone for the zone who would deal with Egypt to pay taxes and to deal with the Egyptians, but the individuals within the zone would be governed by Israeli law. Tuhami had said that if there [Page 942] were problems between two Israelis, the problem should go to an Israeli court, but the area should remain under Egyptian law.

Secretary Vance asked what the settlements could do for Israeli security that demilitarized zones and watch stations could not do better. Foreign Minister Dayan said that if the settlements were not there, in peacetime Arabs would settle in the area. Once Israel leaves, the Bedouin and others from al-Arish will take over the area. The whole area from al-Arish to Gaza will be inhabited by Arabs. Only by having Israeli citizens in that area can there be a buffer between Gaza and its 400,000 inhabitants and the 40 million Arabs in Egypt. The UN cannot do anything. The Secretary asked what effect the settlements had on early warning and on military deployments. The Foreign Minister replied that if there was a continuous Arab population from Egypt to Gaza, there would be a renewal of the threat of terrorism. At one time, Israel had placed barbed wire around all of Gaza. Now Gaza is open and there are no checks on who will go in and out of Gaza. If this whole area from al-Arish to Gaza were to return to Arab control, and if extremists were to come to power, then there would be problems inside Israel and Israel would have to go back in to control the area.

The Secretary asked if it was clearly Israeli policy not to establish any new settlements in Sinai. Prime Minister Begin said that the answer was positive. The Government had decided only to enlarge the arable area for the existing settlements and to enlarge the population at Yamit. But there will be no new settlements. The Prime Minister had written to the President about this.12 He believes that the settlers should stay. Otherwise, there will be a lowering of morale and, if population is not added, it will be very difficult. In the near future, there is no reason to have new settlements. It is hard to get new arable land.

Foreign Minister Dayan said that there might be a problem of some settlements planned by the previous government. These were not the present government’s decision, but some construction work had begun. These were not new settlements, but some construction work began six months ago. The present government may want to look at these settlements again. In response to the Secretary’s question, the Prime Minister said that there were three or four of these settlements.

The Foreign Minister explained that this did not involve anything other than placing some settlements between those that already existed. The building was already half done. When the Egyptians were here, Israel thought about taking them to see the settlements, but concluded it might not be a good idea. When Israel came to the area after 1967, there was only one area that was uninhabited and where there [Page 943] was no water. Then Israel brought water from the Jordan to build up the area. There is little problem now in Gaza with terrorism. When Israel came, Gaza was full of PLO. Now everyone in Gaza is working. If Israel leaves, it would be necessary to close off the border again around the West Bank and Gaza. We would have to have some place for a check point to see who comes and goes. Secretary Vance said that he understood the situation. He also confirmed that he would speak to Foreign Minister Kamel and to President Sadat.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East File, Subject File, Box 2, Arab-Israeli Peace Negotiations 1978: Volume II [I]. Secret; Nodis. The meeting took place in the Prime Minister’s office. Vance visited Jerusalem from January 16 to January 20 to attend the opening session of the Egyptian-Israeli Political Committee.
  2. Document 193.
  3. The draft agenda was not found.
  4. See Document 100.
  5. See the Attachment to Document 177 and footnote 14, Document 180.
  6. See footnote 9, Document 180.
  7. On December 28, Bob Schieffer of CBS News, Barbara Walters of ABC News, Tom Brokaw of NBC News, and Robert MacNeil of PBS jointly interviewed Carter about several issues. During a discussion about the Middle East, Carter volunteered that “Prime Minister Begin has taken a long step forward in offering to President Sadat, and indirectly to the Palestinians, self-rule.” A full transcript of the interview is in Public Papers: Carter, 1977, Book II, pp. 2187–2202.
  8. See Documents 52 and 57.
  9. See Document 20.
  10. No memorandum of conversation has been found.
  11. The interview, which appeared in the Egyptian news magazine October, was first reported in the New York Times on January 8. (“Sadat Bars Israelis as Sinai Settlers,” p. 6) A more complete report of appeared in the January 15 edition. (“Sadat Voices Doubt on Peace Endeavors,” p. 6)
  12. See Document 188.