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Twenty-five years ago, President Jimmy Carter smiled for the cameras as he proclaimed to the entire Middle East that peace had come. The Muslim world was well aware that Mr. Carter’s goals were much more ambitious than peace between Israel and Egypt. The date was March 26.
Just four days later on the 30th, an ayatollah by the name of Khomeini united 90 percent of the population of Iran – the Shiites – and birthed an Islamic state. Khomeini made his announcement on April 1 – April Fools’ Day. He called it “The first day of God’s government.”
With Mr. Carter’s support, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat addressed the European Common Market in Luxemburg, which had issued declarations to the effect that the PLO should be recognized in the negotiations with Israel, and the Palestinians right to self-determination was as valid as Israel’s right to exist. From Luxemburg, Sadat moved to France, which agreed, in principal, to sell Egypt its first nuclear power reactor.
Instead of Sadat realizing his goal of establishing a democratic nation in Egypt, he incurred the wrath of Khomeini-type Islamic fanatics, the Muslim Brotherhood. They were responsible for Sadat’s assassination.
To this day, the majority of the secular media report that an agreement between Mr. Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (thanks to President Jimmy Carter) was the basis for agreeing to a Palestinian state, the recognition of the PLO, and relinquishing Judea and Samaria.
In a private meeting shortly after the Camp David Accords were signed, I asked Prime Minister Begin to speak to these media-promoted misconceptions. He responded, “We were in the Cabinet Room, and President Carter asked me a question. In that question, he made a statement that was very negative. He said that the settlements were illegal. I had prepared a counter-question I wanted to pose to him. It was a ‘prepared improvisation.'”
Mr. Begin continued, “I asked our Israeli Embassy in Washington to prepare a list of American cities that were named after cities in the Bible, i.e., Bethlehem, Hebron, Shiloh, Bethel. I showed President Carter my very long list. The American people love the Bible, and I asked him if he could imagine the governor of Pennsylvania proclaiming that anyone could live in the city of Bethlehem, Penn., except Jews. President Carter agreed that if a man did such a thing, he would be guilty of racism. Why? Because Bethlehem, Penn., is in the U.S., and the U.S. is a free country. So, I pointed out that I was the governor of a state in which the original Bethlehem, Jericho and Shiloh were located.
“‘Do you expect me,” Mr. Begin asked, “to say that everyone could live in those cities except Jews? Of course, he didn’t; it would be absurd. Jews must have the right to settle in these places as much as anyone else. We have a right to Judea and Samaria, and we will live there. That does not mean we want to evict even one Arab from his village or town. Without Jewish settlements in those hills, the PLO could easily hide in them and descend into the plain to kill our people, wherever they like. The Arabs have 21 states, why should they have 22, and the Jews have none?”
Prime Minister Begin related, “President Carter told me he was opposed to a Palestinian state, but some European countries are so thirsty for oil and petro dollars, they would rather surrender. It would not be the first time they surrendered to pressure. It happened in the ’30s and brought disaster to the world. Do we want to repeat that disaster?
“A Palestinian state is a moral danger to Israel, and a great peril to the free world. We never agreed to a Palestinian state at Camp David. We agreed to autonomy as a way to solve the problem of the Palestinian Arabs. Under no circumstances did we agree that the PLO could ever participate in the peace process or reside in Judea and Samaria. It is out of the question! If it happened, peace would be murdered, and there would be permanent bloodshed.”
Mr. Begin said, “When I came to Camp David, Jimmy Carter told me the government of the United States does not recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. I had to answer, ‘Whether you do or don’t, Jerusalem is still the capital of Israel.’ On the 17th of March at Camp David, I wrote a letter to President Carter stating this fact: Since 1967, Jerusalem is one city, indivisible, the capital of Israel. I told him that if Jerusalem was not our capital, where is it?”
On April 1, 1980, the Egyptian Peoples’ Assembly (their parliament) issued a statement determining that “East Jerusalem was sovereign Arab territory, and that it was an integral part of the West Bank, which had been occupied by armed forces.” All the steps that had been taken by Israel since the Six-day War were proclaimed “illegal, null and void, and non-binding.” The Egyptian Assembly called for an establishment of Jerusalem as the seat of the Palestinian autonomous authority.
The fact is no country in the world could fail to react in the strongest terms to such provocative interventions in its affairs. Israel was compelled to rise to the challenge, and to act to protect and clarify its rights. This is the reason for the Knesset’s basic law of Jerusalem, which originated as a private member’s bill submitted to the House for the first time on May 14, 1980. This was in the wake of, and as its reaction to, the anti-Jerusalem campaign that had been mounted in the preceding months.
While Mr. Carter’s passionate commitment to the Middle East peace process helped to surmount some roadblocks, he was liable for numerous problems. The lack of experience in the Carter White House created an air of hostility between Mr. Carter and Mr. Begin that resulted in a strained relationship, and could have resulted in complete failure.
President Carter’s inexperience in dealing with the demands of the PLO allowed him to think, erroneously, that he could be a major player in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. His na?vet? led him to speak openly of a Palestinian “homeland” and to press on this issue throughout the negotiations between Sadat and Begin.
Sadly, Mr. Carter failed to understand Prime Minister Begin. He tried, rather simplistically, to compare his U.S. civil-rights experiences with those of the Middle East Arab-Israeli struggles. Carter stressed what he defined as “the deprivation of Palestinian rights, which was contrary to the basic moral and ethical principles of both our countries.”
Mr. Carter carried the comparison even further by viewing the key to peace as a form of civil rights for the Palestinians. This included “the right to assembly and to debate the issues that affected their lives …”
Based on Jimmy Carter’s deep religious conviction, Prime Minister Begin assumed he would immediately comprehend the vulnerability of Israel, and the moral justice of her responses. Mr. Begin was convinced that Mr. Carter should be focused not on the Palestinian question, but rather on the suffering of the Jewish people in Israel.
Palestinian self-determination under the leadership of the PLO and Yasser Arafat, in Begin’s view, was equivalent to opening the door for the destruction of Israel’s sovereignty, and the annihilation of the Jewish people. Mr. Begin tried time and again to explain to Mr. Carter that the Arab-Israeli conflict could never be compared to the U.S. civil-rights movement, and the attempt to create comparisons was deceptive and morally wrong.