70. Telegram From the Embassy in Israel to the Department of State, the Mission to the United Nations, and the White House1

13420. Subject: Begin on Settlements Freeze Controversy. Refs: (A) Tel Aviv 13350 (notal),2 (B) State 245187 (Tosec 1100170),3 (C) Tel Aviv 13295,4 (D) State 245637 (Tosec 110017) (notal).5

1. I had a long meeting with Begin afternoon September 27 at Knesset on side letter concerning freeze on new settlements in West Bank and Gaza. Begin’s aide Yehuhda Avner and Pol Counselor Blackwill were also present and Weizman joined us near the end of the conversation.

2. Begin who had just stepped out from the Knesset debate began with lengthy and emotional description much like that in reftel of political flak he was taking over Camp David Agreements. Especially from his own party (reported septel).6 When he moved to the settlements letter question, he said that after his return to Israel he had consulted with Weizman, Dayan and Barak about the September 16 meeting and [Page 259]was absolutely convinced that he had not committed himself to U.S. formulation.

3. He then said he wanted to read to me a draft letter from him to the President on this dispute and subsequently ask my advice on whether he should send it. The draft letter he read was as follows: Begin text.

Dear Mr. President.

As I promised you, upon my return to Jerusalem I checked with my colleagues, the Foreign Minister and Professor Barak, their recollection as to the contents of our discussions on the matter of the settlements at our evening meeting of September 16, 1978, in which Secretary Vance also participated.

According to the minutes of this meeting, as recorded by Professor Barak, you suggested, in summing up, the following text as a commitment to be undertaken by the Government of Israel:

“after the signing of the Framework and during the negotiations, no new Israeli settlements will be established in the area, unless otherwise agreed. The issue of further Israeli settlements will be decided and agreed by the negotiating parties.”

As recorded in those same minutes by Professor Barak I responded to this proposed text by saying: “I shall think about it and I will write to you tomorrow.” By any standard, such a reaction cannot be construed as an acceptance.

You will perhaps recall, Mr. President, that throughout our lengthy discussions at Camp David I employed a consistent vocabulary, always brief, when acknowledging acceptance of a point of agreement between us. My language of assent was always expressed with the words: “agreed,” or “accepted,” or “all-right.” The lengthiest phrase I was wont to use was: “we accept your proposal.”

In the course of the meeting in question our Foreign Minister remarked that it would be preferable to formulate the issue in positive terms. He gave his opinion that during the negotiations on the establishment of the administrative council,7 and during the five-year transitional period, we would discuss with the Arabs our proposal for the admission of displaced persons within this period, as well as our plans for new settlements, also within this same period.

You will remember, Mr. President, that I discussed with you our plans to establish a number of nahal settlements8 in the course of the [Page 260]next three months, on the Golan Heights, in the vicinity of Beier Sheva and perhaps in the Jordan Valley.

At the close of our meeting, while we were all standing preparatory to our leave-taking, I again reiterated to you my previous statement with regard to your proposed formulation, promising that I would think about it and convey my answer in writing the next day. This, too, is affirmed by Professor Barak’s minutes.

And, indeed, on the following day, Sunday, September 17, 1978, I transmitted my written response through Professor Barak who brought it to your cabin. The text read:

“Dear Mr. President,

“I have the honour to inform you that during the agreed period for negotiations for the conclusion of the peace treaty,9 no new settlements will be established by the Government of Israel in Sinai, in the Gaza district and in the area of Judea and Samaria.”

As shown by the record taken on the spot by Professor Barak, this was the only commitment I assumed at Camp David on behalf of the Government of Israel with reference to the settlement issue.

Respectfully and sincerely,

Menachem Begin

End text.

4. When he had finished, Begin emphatically stressed that he could never have agreed to the U.S. formulation for two reasons. It would have meant an indefinite moratorium on new Israeli settlements on the West Bank and Gaza, and would give Arabs the right to veto Israeli settlement activities in those areas. He would never, never agree to such a thing.

5. Referring to the first phase of this controversy in the U.S. just after Camp David ended, Begin asserted that he had had a “horrible two days” with the media after the U.S. sentences had been given to the press. How did the journalists get those two sentences? Begin believed Doctor Brzezinski’s denial that anyone in the White House was responsible, but someone in the administration had done it. Saying that he was deeply hurt by this, Begin called the leak of the U.S. language unfair and destructive. The ink had not yet dried on the Camp David Agreements before a conflict had arisen between Israel and the United States, a conflict that was unnecessary. The letter to the President which he had just read to me was the complete truth and he would not agree to any other interpretation of what he had said at the September 16 night meeting. Begin then asked for my reaction to his letter.

[Page 261]6. I responded that I had been pondering the problem and I wanted to describe to him the situation as I saw it. The public in both our countries had been promised the text of a letter on a settlements freeze which would be made public. It was obviously important that the Prime Minister’s complete recollection of that evening’s meeting be brought to the attention of the President. However, I had serious doubts whether the letter he had read to me should be made public. If it were, the press in both countries would dissect every word of the message and our differences would become more and not less serious. Further, if Begin sent the President such a letter, and it were made public, the President would surely be compelled to state publicly in a letter to the Prime Minister his conviction that Begin had agreed to the U.S. language. He would doubtless also restate the U.S. position on the settlements freeze, perhaps with much more specificity.

7. I continued that the President’s notes, which the Prime Minister had seen, made no rpt no mention of Begin’s desire to think the matter over until the next morning. The President did not recall that Begin had spoken those words.

8. Moreover, and on the basis of the President’s conviction that the Prime Minister had committed himself to the U.S. formulation, Sadat has signed the Camp David Agreements. Thus, the President’s own credibility with Sadat was at stake.

9. Begin then said that it was not necessary to publish the lengthy letter he had read to me earlier, although he stressed it was important that the President be personally aware of the way he remembered the September 16 conversation and of the “minutes” of the conversation kept by Barak. Instead, a shorter message to the President could be sent and published which simply stated the Israeli position on the settlements freeze. Pulling another piece of paper from a stack in front of him he read me the following draft language: Begin text

Dear Mr. President

I have the honor to inform you that during the agreed period of negotiations (three months) for the conclusion of the peace treaty no new settlements will be established in the area by the Government of Israel.

Sincerely yours,

Menachem Begin

End text.

10. I told Begin that language got nowhere near solving our mutual problem. Something had to be said about the period after the three month freeze. I told Begin I had written out some language in the car on the way up to Jerusalem which I wanted to try out on him although it had no status whatever in Washington. Could he agree to the following two sentences being added to the one sentence he had just read me. Begin text: It is my hope and expectation that, during this same period [Page 262]of three months, agreement will be reached on the modalities for establishing the elected self-governing authority in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip. Thereafter, the course of future settlement activity in those areas will be the subject of negotiations among the parties, including the representatives of the elected self-governing authority. End text.10

11. With only a moment’s hesitation, Begin indicated he could agree to my first sentence but that the second one was totally unacceptable. It meant that Arabs could veto Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria which were Israel’s inalienable right. Jews had as much right to live in Hebron as in Tel Aviv. Under no circumstances would he commit himself to a freeze beyond three months. If the Sinai negotiations lasted six months, his commitment to no new settlements remained only for three months.

12. Was there no way, I asked, that the Prime Minister could state his readiness at least to discuss the future settlements issue with the parties after the three month period? Begin said no.11 He believed with all his heart that Israel had a right to settle in Judea and Samaria and he would agree to no language which prejudiced that right.

13. Weizman, who had joined us a few moments earlier, then said that in his judgment it was a gross mistake for the US to press the Prime Minister on this issue at a moment when the party he had led for so many years was in open revolt against him. Vigorously picking up this point, Begin contended that if he were to do what Washington was asking, “there would be a revolution in my own party”.

14. Winding up the conversation, I suggested to Begin that I transmit his long letter as a private oral message to the President. In that way, he could honestly say to the press if asked that he had not sent a letter to the President. I would also send the text of his short message although it had no status since it had not been signed. I urged him to do nothing more with either of his messages until I had an opportunity to report this conversation and to get Washington’s reaction. Begin agreed and said he was willing to send the long letter and make it private or public, send the short letter and make it private or public, send both letters and make them private or public, or send no letters at all. He was sure his memory of the September 16 conversation was correct. He had not agreed to the US formulation, and Professor Barak’s notes proved him right.

15. Comment: Throughout the conversation Begin was intense and emotional but always in control. He listened carefully to what I had to [Page 263]say and I think is genuinely desirous of avoiding a major row with the US over this issue. However, despite my best efforts, there was absolutely no give in his position as to what had happened that evening at Camp David, nor any sign of a willingness now to compromise. I am afraid that whatever chance we might have had to change his mind was blown away in the Knesset in the course of today and tonight when his friends of thirty years, his “blood and flesh” as Weizman put it, got on their feet and accused Begin of betraying his and their dream of Eretz Yisrael at the Camp David Summit.

16. Ref D with the President’s oral message for Begin arrived after I had returned to Tel Aviv. I will deliver it at the right moment; however, my view is that it needs some elaboration and modification in light of this conversation and Begin’s own “oral message” herein.12

  1. Source: Carter Library, Brzezinski Donated Material, Geographic File, Box 14, Middle East—Negotiations: (9/77–12/78). Secret; Niact Immediate; Exdis Distribute as Nodis. Sent for information Immediate to Cairo, Amman, and Jerusalem. Printed from a copy that indicates the original was received in the White House Situation Room. Drafted by Korn; cleared by Quandt and Stanislaus R.P. Valerga (S/S–O); approved by Saunders. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P840156–2116) At the top of the telegram Carter wrote: “Zbig. Compromise may be based on no new settlements during ‘self-government’ negotiations. Time cannot be tied to Sinai negotiations. Work on it. J.” Under Carter’s note, Brzezinski wrote in the margin of the document: “#’s 10–12 indicate clearly why Begin so adamant; he wants the right to build, no matter what the ‘autonomous’ Arabs may think. ZB.”
  2. Telegram 13350 from Tel Aviv, September 27, summarized a telephone conversation between Lewis and Begin the night before. Begin, “in a great state of emotion and personal anguish,” related to Lewis the political problems he was facing as a result of the Camp David Accords. Begin stated that, in accordance with Carter’s request that he “say as little as possible in public” about the details of the negotiations, he had delivered his September 25 speech before the Knesset on Camp David in “as low-key and non-controversial fashion as was possible,” but that he had been confronted with demonstrations, accusations of treason, and threats from as much as half of his own Herut Party to vote against the Accords. Lewis assured Begin he would convey to Vance his feelings and recommended to the Secretary that Carter issue a “personal message of support and commendation” to Begin. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P850027–2838)
  3. Telegram Tosec 110010 / 245187 to Tel Aviv, September 27. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P840156–2108)
  4. See Document 68.
  5. See Document 69.
  6. See footnote 2 above.
  7. Carter underlined “during the negotiations on the establishment of the administrative council.”
  8. See Document 63 for a description of the different types of Israeli settlements.
  9. Carter underlined “during the agreed period for negotiations for the conclusion of the peace treaty” and wrote “which peace treaty” in the right-hand margin.
  10. Brzezinski wrote in the right-hand margin next to this text: “I suggested this to Lewis.”
  11. Brzezinski underlined this sentence.
  12. See footnote 3, Document 69.