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

10418. For the Secretary, Atherton and Saunders from Ambassador. Subject: Some Thoughts on Camp David Strategy.

1. The big problem at Camp David will be to get Begin to agree to certain phrases in a declaration of principles which will be like castor oil for him. Dayan and many others are skeptical that he will bring himself to swallow the medicine, since he would have to walk away from a lifetime conviction about Israel’s right to rule over the West Bank. But there is a chance he will rise to the historic moment, which he knows may be his last and best chance to become the Prime Minister who brought peace to Israel.

2. To have any hope of bringing Begin around will require far more than just another vague indication that with “satisfactory” language about the West Bank and Gaza in hand, Sadat would then go to Hussein to seek his participation, and if refused, might then shoulder the Palestinian problem himself. Begin will need much more than that to show for abandoning his ideological position, especially with his associates in Herut.

3. Put another way, the GOI will be asking what Israel will get from Sadat for acquiescing publicly on the principle of withdrawal. (Explicitly promising eventual Arab sovereignty is, I think, out of the question for Begin.) To get from Begin what Sadat needs will require him to make concrete certain understandings at which he has only hinted to the Israelis thus far. The goal should be a mutually agreed, specific framework coming out of the summit for a final, if phased, settlement in Sinai. Less from Sadat will bring less from Begin. Sadat’s seriousness about peace will be judged here by his seriousness about a concrete agreement over Sinai, whatever is said about the West Bank and Gaza.

4. Nobody knows how far Begin is willing to go to reach an agreement with Sadat, probably not even Begin himself. What I am sure of is that the Prime Minister’s final fallback will not emerge unless Sadat shows flexibility that has been notably absent from recent Egyptian statements, both public and private. In order to leave his past behind, Begin will have to be sure that Sadat will make a deal—not just talk [Page 27]about one, but eventually make one. Thus, we will no doubt be faced in the September meeting with Begin and Sadat each waiting for the other to blink. That of course is where our own ideas come in. But in my view, we must take great care not [garble] through our own intervention the stark clarity of Begin’s own choice.

5. His first interest will be to blame stalemate, if it occurs, on Sadat’s inflexibility. In that case, it will not be enough for us to argue that Sadat was prepared rpt prepared to be flexible in private rpt private. The Israelis have heard that song before, and most do not now believe it. If Camp David were to fail, then it would be critically important for the subsequent political debate here and in the U.S. that Begin be seen as rejecting Sadat’s clear, forthcoming and public offer, or Sadat’s acceptance of U.S. compromise proposals. If Begin adheres to his previous position, if Sadat does pretty much the same, and if the U.S. puts forward ideas to bridge the gap which neither side accepts, Begin will return to Israel generally applauding the President’s effort and specifically blaming the failure on Anwar Sadat. Most Israelis will believe him.

6. As far as is possible, we must seek in the Camp David talks to avoid giving Begin this way out. The choice for Begin, and for Israel should be as clear as we can make it. And that will require at Camp David a still flexible Anwar Sadat, ready to further moderate his positions, and recognizable as such by the majority of people in Israel.

7. Since moments of such clarity are as rare in international politics as anywhere else, we may not be able to pull this off. But we should try, and in the first instance that means the President should talk to Sadat along these lines at the outset. I recognize such a course will surely cause Sadat serious problems with his Arab brothers. In compensation, the U.S.-Egyptian relationship would be reinforced for the foreseeable future, a not inconsiderable achievement for him as well as for us. But if Sadat holds back at Camp David, his Jerusalem initiative will be dead and buried as far as Israelis are concerned, and that includes those most critical of the Begin government’s present policy.2

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, Files of Alfred L. Atherton, Lot 80D166, Box 5, Preparations for Camp David Summit—August 1978. Secret; Immediate; Exdis Distribute as Nodis. Sent for information Immediate to Cairo and the White House.
  2. Lewis sent a second telegram on August 17, in which he observed that Sadat’s “flexibility” in the negotiations would mean agreement to a deferred resolution of the sovereignty issue until after a five year interim period, a “border rectification” on the West Bank “measured in kilometers and not in meters,” an Israeli security presence on the West Bank beyond the interim period, and agreement to negotiate an agreement on the West Bank and Gaza if Hussein refused to participate. (Telegram 10589 from Tel Aviv, August 17; National Archives, RG 59, Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, Files of Alfred L. Atherton, Lot 80D166, Box 5, Preparations for Camp David Summit—August 1978)