68. Telegram From the Embassy in Israel to the Department of State1

13295. For the Secretary from the Ambassador. Amman for Ambassador Atherton. Subject: Dayan on “Settlements Freeze” Controversy. Ref: A) Tel Aviv 13095,2 B) Tel Aviv 12849.3

1. I met with Dayan midday September 26 to discuss unresolved side letter4 concerning freeze on new settlements in West Bank and Gaza. Ciechanover, Rosenne, Rubinstein and Blackwill were also present.

[Page 253]2. Noting Prime Minister’s unbending statement on this issue at yesterday’s Knesset debate (septel),5 I asked Dayan to explain Israeli position. Dayan said he had spoken to Begin this morning, and letter to the President had been drafted but had not yet been signed. It would be sent today or tomorrow. After his return from the U.S., Begin had checked carefully with Barak and was now “absolutely determined” that he had agreed at Camp David only to a freeze on settlements during the three months of the negotiations for the peace treaty with Egypt. According to Barak’s notes on the night meeting September 16, Begin had twice, once in the middle of the conversation and again at its conclusion, said that he wanted to think about the President’s formulation overnight. Dayan said that the next day Begin had sent his letter to the President via Barak with the language which contained his position—a three-month freeze on settlements during the Sinai negotiation. The Prime Minister felt strongly that his memory was correct, Dayan continued, and Barak’s notes confirmed it. Therefore, Begin would in his letter to the President commit himself at this time to nothing further than a three-month freeze on West Bank/Gaza settlements.

3. More than somewhat taken aback, I said I had the clear impression from earlier conversations that both he and Barak agreed that the negotiations referred to in Begin’s talk with the President concerned the West Bank and Gaza and that the only difference between the Israeli record and our own was the reference to Begin’s saying he would have to think about our language overnight. I said I had thought Dayan and Barak had agreed that the settlements freeze had not been mentioned in context of Sinai negotiations.

4. Not answering me directly, and obviously trying to put the best face on Begin’s position, Dayan argued that in practical terms it made little difference whether the freeze was tied to the Sinai or the West Bank/Gaza negotiations. He said that the latter talks should last no more than three months. In any event, he stressed, Begin had certainly made no commitment to freeze settlements for the five-year interim period.

5. I then repeated to Dayan what I had told him several times since my return to Israel. It was the President’s strong conviction that the [Page 254]Prime Minister had agreed at Camp David to the American language on a settlements freeze. On that basis, the President had conveyed the GOI position to Sadat, who had in turn agreed to sign the Camp David Agreements. The President was thus left in an extremely awkward position, and I had no doubt that this Israeli interpretation would cause real problems in Washington.

6. Admitting he realized how badly this would go down in Washington, Dayan indicated he was extremely relieved that it was Barak who had made their record of the meeting. The President would certainly not doubt Barak’s honesty, and his notes show clearly that Begin’s memory of that evening was correct. Rosenne then read from Barak’s notes a sentence in which Begin said, “I shall think about it and I will write to you tomorrow.” According to Barak’s memcon, Begin repeated at the end of the meeting that he would consider the President’s proposal and convey his response in writing the next day. That response, in the form of a letter6 to the President, indicated the Prime Minister’s agreement only to a freeze on settlements during the Sinai negotiations.

7. I reminded Dayan that the President, having received that letter, wrote his language back in and returned it to Begin via Barak. There was no question that the President thought he had Begin’s agreement to the U.S. formulation and had acted with Sadat in good faith.

8. Dayan then speculated on the roots of the misunderstanding. He said that there had been whispering during the meeting in question and separate conversations between the principals from time to time. He did not doubt that the President believed his language had been accepted, but, Dayan repeated, that was simply not the case. The Israelis regretted the misunderstanding, but the Prime Minister’s letter to the President would commit the GOI to a settlement freeze for only the three months of the Sinai negotiation. Again trying to find a silver lining, Dayan stressed that after the three-month period, the issue of an extension of the settlement freeze would come up and “then we shall see.” But, the argument over whether the freeze was tied to Sinai or the West Bank was inconsequential since both negotiations should last no longer than three months. Rosenne said that Sadat has now publicly referred on three occasions since Camp David to Begin’s commitment for a three-month freeze on settlements. Therefore, he argued, Sadat can be under no misapprehension.

9. I responded that, given the complications of getting the Palestinians and the Jordanians to participate in the talks, three months was an extremely short period to conclude negotiations concerning the mo[Page 255]dalities for setting up the self-governing authority. Dayan disagreed, and said that if the others don’t come in, Egypt will not wish to go into great detail relating to the West Bank and Gaza. Instead, Sadat would devote himself to principles which would govern West Bank/Gaza arrangements and then turn the negotiations over to the Palestinians and the Jordanians. This first phase of the negotiations might take no more than one month to conclude. In Dayan’s judgment, Sadat would want to have launched the “modalities” concerning the West Bank and Gaza authority before he signed his peace treaty with Israel over Sinai, and that would propel the former talks forward at considerable speed.

10. I then stressed to Dayan that you and the President understood “negotiations” as used in our formulation to refer to the period of discussion leading to agreement on setting up the self-governing authority. The second U.S. sentence dealt with the subsequent period, and future new settlements would be the subject of negotiations and agreement among the four parties, and not the three. Rosenne confirmed that both U.S. sentences were indeed in Barak’s notes, but he repeated yet again that Begin had only agreed to think about this formulation overnight.

11. In concluding, I said that I would report what Dayan had told me and would, of course, transmit the Prime Minister’s letter when it was received. But this news would be very badly received in Washington. Dayan got in the last word by saying that despite this disagreement, he was optimistic that once the issue of settlement freeze was out of the headlines, it could be dealt with practically. But the issue had to be treated quietly. Could I imagine, Dayan queried, what Geula Cohen would do “if we had made a mistake at Camp David and now had to agree to the U.S. proposal. The summit agreements would be rejected by the Knesset.” (sic)

12. Comment: As indicated in reftels, Dayan, since his return from Washington, has been optimistic that he and others in the Cabinet could prevail on Begin to modify his position on cessation of settlement activity in a way that would be acceptable to the U.S. I cannot be sure why Begin has stuck to his guns, but several possibilities come to mind. He may simply be sure that his recollection of the meeting with the President is the right one. If that is the case, Barak’s notes are a handy, indeed indispensable, buttress for that position. Another explanation is that Begin, emotional and exhausted, did not understand what he was agreeing to at Camp David. Finally, Dayan’s remark about Geula Cohen raises the possibility that Begin did understand the U.S. formulation and accepted it, but in the cold light of day, and especially now that he is in the midst of an agonizing domestic debate about the Sinai settlements, decided that he had gone several steps too far and proceeded to backtrack. Whatever the reason for Begin’s rigidity on this [Page 256]issue, I left Dayan in no doubt about how this conversation [garble—would?] be judged by the President and by you. Dayan did his best to minimize the disagreement, but I am sure he realizes what damage Begin’s adamant position can cause to his relationship with the administration. On the other hand, Begin is feeling extremely beleaguered by Gush Emunim demonstrators and the desertion of his oldest personal allies. He is very unlikely to budge at this moment of political hypertension.

Lewis
  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P840153–2629. Secret; Niact Immediate; Exdis Handle as Nodis. Sent for information Immediate to the White House, Amman, Cairo, and Jerusalem.
  2. Telegram 13095 from Tel Aviv, September 23. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P840153–2623)
  3. See footnote 4, Document 65.
  4. See Documents 54 and 57.
  5. On September 25, Begin stated to the Knesset: “As regards Judea, Samaria and Gaza, I had no doubts whatsoever: I promised President Carter that during the period of the negotiations for the signing of a peace treaty; . . . during the estimated three-month period we [Israel] would not establish new civilian settlements.” “This matter,” Begin continued, “caused misunderstanding. Therefore, even though I had absolutely no doubts concerning the substance of this assurance (and this was the only one given), on Saturday night, we examined, with the Foreign Minister, the Defense Minister and Prof. Barak, all the notes and documents, and they showed that this is how it was.” The full text of this statement is in telegram 13271 from Tel Aviv, September 26. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780393–0491)
  6. See Document 70.