Ken Stein Interview with Dr. Eliyahu Ben Elissar, Jerusalem, Israel, November 13, 1992
L-R Dr. Ben-Elissar, unidentified member of Cairo Jewish community Dan Pattir, inside the Adli-Pacha synagogue in Cairo, December 17, 1977, 1977, on occasion of post Jerusalem visit conference at Mena House, December 1977, Moshe Milner/GPO

Born Eli Gottlieb in Poland, in 1932, Elissar was Director General of Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s office from 1977-1979, when he was appointed Israel’s first ambassador to Egypt. He immigrated to Palestine in 1942, joined the Irgun, and then earned a doctorate in international law in Geneva. In the 1950s he served in the Mossad for European Affairs, then joined the World Zionist Organization in 1965. During Begin’s 1977 campaign for Prime Minister, he was spokesman for the Herut Party articulating with Begin, Israel’s intentions to maintain control of Judea and Samaria if elected to office. With candor he reveals Begin’s opposition to the America’s Brookings Institute Report for resolving matters with the Palestinians because the Herut Party totally rejected any notion that the area of Judea and Samaria could fall out of Israeli/Jewish control and therefore could not be politically available to the Palestinians.  He took the view that the Carter administration greatly opposed Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem because the Egyptian President’s action of seeking bi-lateral understandings with Israel was totally contrary to Carter and Brzezinski who wanted a comprehensive peace with all Arab states; a bi-lateral agreement would negate any possibility of making Judea and Samaria a geographic location for a Palestinian ‘homeland.’  As a loyal confidant of Begin, Elissar attended numerous but not all meetings relating to the negotiations with Egypt. After serving as Ambassador for one year in Egypt, he was elected to the Knesset five times (1981, 1984, 1988, 1992, and 1996). He served a brief term as Israel’s Ambassador to France and then to the US, 1996-1998.  

KWS: Okay. Now tell me what, where were you or what positions you served in the Israeli government. From 1973 to the present.

EB: 1973 to 1977 together with Menachem Begin as spokesman for the party and member of all party institutions and head of information. In 1977, responsible for the information insight and PR during the national campaign, election campaign. 

KWS: Which brought people to office?

EB: 77’ when Begin becomes Prime Minister he nominates me as director general of his office, which is more or less, how do you call it, the chief of staff in the White House. Well and then in 1980, Israel’s first ambassador to Egypt.

KWS: Until…

EB: Until 81’, Knesset ever since.

KWS: So 80’-81’ you spent one year and then what?

EB: I spent a lot more…

KWS: Moshe Sasson and then Shamir succeeded him

EB: Correct. I was the one that started to go to Egypt in 77’. Three weeks after Sadat’s visit here in Jerusalem, I headed to Israel’s first delegation to the Mena House conference. (US, UN, Egypt, Israel, Jordan attending) 

KWS: Did you participate in anything else but Mena House in terms of…

EB: Yeah of course Mena House, Camp David too (1978)…

KWS: Blair House?

EB: No, Blair House party only, Blair House Weizman I mean or Blair House with Begin. 

KWS: Blair House began, October 12, 1978.

EB: No, I wasn’t  there…

KWS: Madison House, Madison Hotel? 

EB: No, neither…

KWS: February of 79’?

EB:  No, February 79’ was (Begin’s visit to the US)  mission, I worked that…

KWS: And then, obviously…

EB: And all the summits, Begin, Sadat

KWS: Ismailia

EB: Everything. I was…except Ismailia because Ismailia, well I was in Mena House. So I was the one who came to Ismailia from Cairo.

KWS: What about ??

EB: No, no. 

KWS: Alright. Let me talk about the 1977, and have you talk to me about 77’ and Begin’s election.  Describe for me if you will Begin’s visit to Washington in July of 77’ and what it is he brought with him that was new or different in terms of ideas. The United States at the time at least during the Rabin visit had said that Israel would have to negotiate with the PLO, the withdrawal would have to be to the 67’ borders with some modifications. Begin came with some new ideas. Just before he arrived, Sadat had spoken to the Egyptian Arab Socialist Union about signing a peace with Israel if Israel of course withdrew, and I’m interested in your impressions of Begins towards Carter and what Begin hoped to accomplish in that visit and subsequently what you can tell me about the period of July of 77’ through Mena House.

EB: Begin knew about Carter’s position, which wasn’t a secret actually. Maybe some angles were a little more confidential. Some angles of the Carter-Rabin March talks but generally everything was quite clear and it was even more clear to Begin himself because before being sworn in as Prime Minister as you know, immediately after election day he met with Sam Lewis. Begin was not yet traveling since Sam Lewis was not an ambassador so both were coming round as they met they actually. Begin had a very precise view of what Carter’s positions were.

KWS: Begin read the protocols of the meeting?

EB: Later, Later. Once we were in the Prime Minister’s office. First, I think it was ah everything I think was in the first day. He read probably Rabin’s talks..

KWS: When Rabin came back from that trip did he brief Begin?

EB: No, he didn’t brief Begin.

KWS: He didn’t talk to him at all?

EB: I don’t think so.

KWS: Dan Patir says he’s not sure but he thinks he did go see Begin and talk to him about it.

EB: I think he did not. Actually, I don’t know about it and it doesn’t mean that if I don’t know it didn’t happen but I would’ve known. I can confirm it to you very quickly.

KWS: Okay. I don’t want to dwell on it too long. 

EB: No trouble at all. In the circumstances that actually…First of all there was not an ongoing relation between Rabin and Begin and this was not the custom then for the Prime Minister to brief the leader of opposition. Then, Begin was very busy was collecting ??, and then preparing a campaign and then getting sick and then being sick and then the campaign itself, I do know that Begin asked for the documents in the ?? office and we were all looking how together so we got them. Obviously, Carter knew about Begin’s positions as well, and he took some with great horror I understand or I understood later, some of Begin’s positions. Maybe this is what made Carter pleasantly surprised when he met with Begin, maybe. If at all this is true, we had some hard impression that something pleasant but something agreeable something workable was going on between Begin and Carter. We didn’t hear it from Carter but we did hear it from Begin. We knew how it was between them immediately after he had that closed meeting with Carter. He came back to Mena House and told us actually.

KWS: How did he describe it?

EB: It was a good talk. That’s how he described it. It was a good talk. He presented him, his views about Judea, Samaria, Gaza but maybe Egypt. Maybe Egypt this is where Carter was I think surprised hearing it from because he got already a piece of Begin’s position on Sinai through Vance. There was a previous meeting between Vance and Begin. There was a previous meeting between, who did Carter send to Begin, the morning before they met. It wasn’t Vance it was someone else.

KWS: Brzezinski?

EB: No. Brzezinski is someone, but no it wasn’t him. 

KWS: What was Begin’s position on Egypt, and what…

EB: Actually, he, brought to Carter, a very, he would have it in Carter’s memoirs.  And Dayan’s as well.  But the whole text I think, that is what I remember.  Actually, a new position, on, on Sinai and Egypt., The way, Begin protects could make Carter understand that, and Begin was, –Israel was ready, to accept high-reaching territorial compromise. -Or far reaching compromise including far reaching territorial compromise.  

KWS: In Sinai?

EB: In Sinai, yeah.

KWS: Was it Begin’s intention to wet Carter’s appetite and push him towards the Egyptian direction? Is that the goal of the visit?

EB: I don’t know whether to raise Carter’s appetite with Begin and the Likud coming to power in Israel, Israeli national strategy and orientation actually changed.  It is important to remember that…What I am going to summarize now was not known at that time.  It was not actually, it was not, was not perceived, was not realized, and it was okay with us.  Labor’s or Israeli left and Labor orientation on the Arab world went always through Jordan or the Hashemite, through the Hashemites.  Ben Gurion, in 1947, and ’48, well, gave a thought to the Egyptians as well. Only a thought.  But he sent messages to ??.  And everybody afterwards was working on a valiant(?) Hussein.  Why?  This was very, very integral to Labor’s vision that, if some kind of settlement could be started with the Arab world it would have to go through the Jordanian with whom we had vested common interests in sharing the country, sharing the land. They would need to share the land.  And the others would share the land, so we had an interest.  We were not going to share the land.  We had nothing to do with the Hashemite, with the Jordanians. We couldn’t care less about the Jordanians or the Hashemites.  I mean, Haruchti(?), Rodinsky(?) people, Begin people, Begin himself…We felt Israel had to know, know adversity, or know basic, opposition of interest was Egypt.  I mean, Egypt never claimed any territory, any Palestinian territory, and any Eretz Israeli territory, and we never then had any claim over Egyptian territory.  Sinai was never in the revisionist map, if you like. Trans-Jordan always was and still is.

KWS: Aracha(?)…

EB: Aracha(?) is only one of the expressions-

KWS: No, no.

EB: Sure. See, so we didn’t feel anything against Egypt. We did feel, not against Hussein, but well, who is Hussein.  Action occupied or usurped. This is a basic change Begin brought with him to Israel’s foreign policy and actually, national strategy. This was not understood that time.  So when Begin comes to Carter and is ready and shows Carter that he is ready to go so far with Egypt where Rabin didn’t even start engaging himself into, he thought it was wonderful.  And then Carter, as any other head of state was a practical man.  Wasn’t pragmatist, sure no, no he was practical.  Alright, so let’s try with Egypt, why not?  -If there is an opening here.  Without understanding, actually, that this was a basic change in Israel’s strategy.  Later, of course everybody understood what was the size of it.  Now on the substance of, for Egypt, for, for Begin, for Begin–

KWS: Very interesting–

EB: For Begin, whatever he was ready to do with Egypt had to assure our vision of the, of the rest. For us, the most important thing was, was EretzYisrael. Western Eretz Yisrael. -Western Palestine… Judea and Samaria.  So, to reach a settlement with Egypt actually meant not only reaching a settlement with Egypt which was of course, most important, critically important, but to assure Israel’s presence, if not sovereignty over Judea and Samaria. So actually, I can’t say it on record but a four letter word to Hussein and let’s, let’s, let’s see what we can do with Sadat.

KWS: Sinai had no emotional resistance?

EB: Whatsoever! Much less even. It was not considered, you see there is with Begin who was so, who was always so accurate in his way of putting things and formulating, was always talking of national patrimony, and part of your own land, is a fragile, I can’t say it in English because it sounds corny but, French would say, part of the patrie of your own country,  of your own land, this is Judea and Samaria versus, territories which served as a basis of aggression to that, for that, this was Sinai. Sinai was an aggression basis.  Judea and Samaria is part of your land, part of your country, part of your passion. Here we are now.  So, Carter knew that Begin was ready to a, for a far reaching compromises. After his meeting with Begin, this became obvious.  Very quickly from the American side word was passed to Sadat… And I think it went even by personal letter from Carter to Sadat, but this I am (mumbling) but when Sadat visited with Carter. By the way, the same Begin is the same–first of all, Begin wanted of course to achieve some kind of personal relationship with Carter, which he achieved.

KWS: Rapport.

EB: Yeah, rapport.  Later on, problems and troubles with Carter when he thought that he could have done better with somebody else–alright, that’s fine, but I mean there was a rapport and there was respect, I think.

KWS: Certain, like I know that from my side, I mean I know that…

EB: Yeah, yeah.  But on top of this, Begin did intend using Carter as a, as a dramatic channel to Sadat.  Carter obviously was ready to do it, of course.  Now, without any proportion and size, Begin did the same as Ceausescu in Romania. Actually, Begin he invited himself to Ceausescu knowing very well that there was a very personal relationship between Ceausescu and Sadat.  And he went through Ceausescu. And, convinced Ceausescu of his, of his willingness to reach a settlement with Egypt. And Ceausescu, sure enough, as Sadat, he would have invited Sadat to Bucharest and convey the message and how.  So here Sadat gets a message from Carter, what a message, hey from the United States.  He gets a message from Ceausescu who’s important, but none the less…

KWS: He realized it.

EB: Yup. And there were other channels as well.  Less important.  And there is one direct channel as well, not a direct channel, but a meeting which for the first time Israeli-Egyptian ?? takes place.  Where there is a meeting between two men who are of importance.

KWS: Who initiated the Touhami-Dayan meeting?  And this of course happened after Dayan, after Dayan met with King Hassan. Is King Hassan in early September?

EB: It was, it was the King of Morocco.  But, the King of Morocco…

KWS: Is it true that at that point Touhami was even thinking about a direct Begin-Sadat meeting?

EB: No. No. Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Touhami didn’t think about it, nobody thought about it. I mean, maybe that on our side there were such…

KWS: Dayan’s memoirs report that there was a desire on the part of King Hassan to promote the direct Begin-Sadat visit and Dayan said this is not the time. If King Hassan promoted it, did it come from Sadat is what I really want to know and no ones been able to answer that question. 

EB: Well if Hassan…

KWS: If Hassan promoted it…Did the request for the meeting come from Sadat to King Hassan…

EB: I don’t know it.

KWS: Okay.

EB: Actually, the only one who knows the whole truth is Hassan himself, but I’m not sure that he will present the whole truth without willing to make a profit. A personal profit, which is legitimate 15 years later. Why not make his role a little more important? Though his role is important enough ??. Not that it wouldn’t have happened without him. Since both men wanted to embark upon a new road. Both Sadat and Begin. But Hassan without knowing it had godsend Muslim luck to be the right man in the right place. He tried it before and he tried it later. It didn’t succeed. So how did this moment actually strike. 

KWS: Thank you.

EB: Hassan wanted it. We wanted it. Sadat wanted it. I understand how important this moment is for a historian. I don’t have an accurate timetable answer though I have the impression or if I had to choose between timetables I would say that Sadat sent a message, sorry, that Hassan sent a message to Sadat and Sadat to Hassan. Telling him most likely look my brother something was happening. This is the moment that should be explored. Who does Sadat send? And then whom he trusts. There is a little bit…

KWS: Fickle?

EB: What is that? I don’t know the word.

KWS: Fickle is someone who changes his personality, not chameleon like, but sometimes he’s extraordinarily ebullient and sometimes he’s cold, sometimes he’s highly intelligent and sometimes you don’t know who you are dealing with.

EB: Correct. Exactly. A man that could be very easily, whose words could be very easily denied or you could manipulate him…

KWS: Ashraf, Hassan, Fahmi. All of them for the life of them don’t know why Sadat chose Touhami. To this day they ask each other that question. Why in god’s name of all the people in the world? 

EB: Knowing both of them, Sadat and Touhami, personally not very well but, and having asked this question myself, I never got an answer. And I never got an intelligent answer. I have the impression that Sadat chose him because he needed for this task, he needed some kind of…

KWS: Plausible deniability is the term we use. 

EB: I don’t want to use it on record but almost the clown of the village. 

KWS: I think Ashraf was even worse when he said this man was stupid.

EB: So what? Look, he was, who should I send on the fire line and he would start dancing. Either he dances true or he doesn’t dance true. For us it was enough.

KWS: What did Dayan bring back to Begin? 

EB: That something new had opened that there could be another meeting there is a new channel. There is a new serial level channel between Israel and Egypt that they want Sinai back, (mumbling) Dayan was not very optimistic but he was not pessimistic either. No that’s not the right word. He wasn’t euphoric but he was, then he was more optimistic than later to be precise. Dayan thought that this would go on. Begin who had to suffice himself with reports coming from Sam Lewis coming from Dayan even from Romania as well, was by far more optimistic. He was by far more optimistic. 

KWS: Begin was far more optimistic?

EB: Begin thought that his policy was or his policy which was a new approach on the part of Israel was…

KWS: A policy that was taking shape was already being vindicated at a very early age

EB: You could put it this way. These were more than seeds. These seeds were going, were already going through

KWS: In other words, he saw positive responses to the soundings to the buoys that he put out there with Carter. He put out there with Ceausescu. He now had got back from…

EB: Absolutely. Which doesn’t mean that he was not surprised when Sadat declared that he was going to go to Jerusalem.

KWS: Did Begin trust Dayan’s judgment? On these matters I mean if you brought him into the cabinet…

EB: Yes. He trusted with a grain of salt. Begin was a man with great experience with great personal experience. Begin was a man who was his ?? who had to deal with the KGB (mumbling). He was a fellow who trusted his own instincts and senses more than anything else. A common man would call this suspicion or a suspicious type. University people don’t call leaders suspicious fellows, but this is how it should be. So I without ever having heard it from Begin, I would not be surprised if Begin always took Dayan’s reports with some grain of salt.

KWS: Because it was also his nature. It was Begin’s nature…

EB: It was Begin’s nature no doubt. Begin was aware that Dayan sometimes drew the blanket to more to cover his legs, Dayan’s legs. 

KWS: Interesting term. Were now in September. The Americans are now running full speed for comprehensive in Geneva and the procedures and agenda. Tell me what all this, Begin’s initial soundings as incipient leanings towards Sadat hearing positive responses and he has the Americans with Vance out here in August worrying about the procedure on this and that. How did the two mesh in Begin’s?

EB: Begin, as Israel’s generally by the way was a label of Likud, has become very suspicious. And it was the same way Rabin was. So again the Americans are going to spoil the surprise because I don’t know because I don’t understand. Because I don’t know about the Middle East. Because of (mumbling). You know the whole story… And Carter and his people with their idealistic way of seeing the world and how it should look brighter and this was present.

KWS: Brookings paper was staring you in the face and Brzezinski wanted the Palestinians…

EB: (mumbling) We had fights over these things. I always remember that Begin used to read everything in the U.S. He was reading and he’d go down in the morning and he started to read so he knew all of this. Rabin was not such a great reader. Today he is not, but nonetheless he knows enough to be suspicious. Now this did have weight or I can’t say that it was not present it was present and it was present in Begin’s mind as well and when Dayan was in America negotiating with Vance at Washington and New York. Begin didn’t like very much what the Americans were presenting and he did not like very much what Dayan was presenting. 

KWS: That seems clear from even Dayan’s memoir. 

EB: And I remember even the once this was then at the end of September when Begin was in hospital in Tel Aviv…

KWS: This was before the US-Soviet communiqué?

EB: Yeah before that was October 1st. This was before the communiqué. Begin was in his room in his hospital Ichilov, Tel Aviv, and three men were out there in that room. Yehiel Kadishai who was always with him. Yehiel who you should see if Yehiel Kadishai is here he could answer you about some of your questions especially the one about Rabin and the report. Yehiel and Ephraim Evron, Eppie Evron, who was the Director General of the Administrative Office and I was there. And Begin was mad at Dayan about the formulation of one of the points, mad and he wanted to ask him to come back. Such an extent and Dayan was very smart and sensed that this was the case, and he told Begin on the phone that he is ready to come back that it would be construed and interpreted in such a way etc. Wasn’t easy…

KWS: (laughing) You guys play so many games. 

EB: Yeah.

KWS: They’re masters.

EB: Great masters. Actors in a great game. 

KWS: Did Begin trust Eppie’s judgment?

EB: Yes or lets put it this way, he trusted Eppie’s evaluations. 

KWS: That’s a good distinction.

EB: And then made his own judgments.

KWS: How did Begin make his decisions? How did he go about doing it? Took all the information and he could and just sort of digested it?

EB: It was Begin who always to remember that he always knew what he wanted. 

KWS: In other words he knew what the goal was.

EB: He knew what he wanted. Actually, it was a decision forting(?) a decision. Which was not always very good. It’s not the right way, but this was the man. And then he had a decision had to be taken from the decision. So it was, I know it was tough it was very tough.

KWS: Did he have any inclination about listening to Carter about this Geneva Conference thing? I mean did he dismiss it out of hand or did he just say well if it works it works. Fine if not I’ll go my own route. It’s very difficult for me to get anyone to tell me exactly how he felt about it.

EB: Begin, Begin hated Geneva.

KWS: The idea of Geneva.

EB: Of course. First of all, this reminded him, this was a physiological infrastructure. Geneva reminded Begin of an election trick, an election gimmick, it was given to the Labor Party in 73’ after Yom Kippur War or during Yom Kippur War by the Americans in order to save Labor. 

KWS: That’s how we viewed Geneva.

EB: Sure. This was true. And not that they could have lost elections but almost Geneva was one of the reasons that they did not lose elections. Maybe not. The main reason, the only reason, or one of the reasons. One thing. Second thing, if you wish, I know that historians never compare situations for sure not ones that happened later but to understand…

KWS: Of course we do.

EB: Since I consider myself to be a little bit of a historian. I would never dare do it but just to present the context. Take Shamir’s approach or Begin’s for this purpose to the International Conference with the United Nations with Russia, the Soviet Union. And take Geneva this is an international conference. Why don’t we, we revisionists, why don’t we want an international conference? Not that we don’t want peace. We want peace but we don’t believe that we can get peace on our terms or something on terms which we could live with at an international conference. Because international conferences are always, always being not even, not even even handed and will be even handed with the Arabs and not even handed with us. Will always go with the Arab side and not with us. Let alone when you see the United Nations and the Soviets and all the Arabs united inside. Everybody’s there. So who are we? Even the Americans will go with them. So why do you want Begin to want Geneva? 

KWS: Well Dayan is…

EB: He didn’t want it. All he actually agreed to later on because he…

KWS: Then Dayan was stringing the Americans along by this long discussion on the 21st with Vance about procedures and he would come out here and he would talk to them. The dance you guys were running around them.

EB: (mumbling)

KWS: I’m pressing you because of the concentration on Geneva

EB: Yeah this whole thing can’t work so that’s it. For Begin, accepting 242 as a proof of continuity of policy and government was enough. Why Geneva? So there is one point where he had, threw a bone to Sadat and this was after Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. Sadat wanted to give some ??? in his own words. To reconvene Geneva Conference so this is how the Cairo Conference, the Mena House Conference was convened as a framework of the Geneva Conference… So Dayan didn’t want him as any man of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs goes and he didn’t want to send Evron. Because he didn’t want him to touch it. He was a threat of touching it. Begin knew who to choose to deal with Geneva Conference. No problem. He sent me there and that was that. 

KWS: You and Meir Rosenne and Dan Patir. 

EB: I took Meir Rosenne. First of all, because he is a friend and then I knew exactly what Meir could do. Meir Rosenne is an internationalist. He is excellent in international law and you tell him how long you wanted to speak and then he would speak. He is the best man for any conference, for any head of a delegation at a conference. 

KWS: Jimmy Carter never liked him. 

EB: I can well know why. 

KWS: (laughing)

EB: This is exactly why I like him. Besides… 

KWS: I’ve interviewed Meir for the book and he’s told me. He said I know why Eli took me to Mena House. How did Begin receive the October 1st declaration? Communiqué? I mean besides his response what went through his head about why the Americans did it?

EB: He considered them without designating to somebody, putting it on somebody, not traitors but almost. He didn’t use the word. This was an act of delusion. By now you are dealing with us, you are trying to lead us somewhere and we are ready somehow to do something together with you and you know already what has happened between us and the Egyptians because by then don’t forget they knew already. They didn’t know about it when it happened. To Dayan. But they knew about it by then.

KWS: Dayan told Vance when he went to Washington. 

EB: Not when it happened. He told them but alright they knew already that something was going on. There was a pass that could be worked through. Why to go…

KWS: For your information it was Atherton who drafted it with Stenyenko(?) at the request of Vance. Brzezinski saw the last draft as did Carter, and Vance did not see it as something that would derail the small little fledgling light that was working between Egypt and Israel. Vance’s calculation was, we need to bring the Soviets in if we are to reconvene Geneva this will be our way like Kissinger’s way of controlling the Soviets. That’s how Brzezinski read it as well. 

EB: Again, again Israelis ?? assuming …

KWS: I talked to ?? 2 weeks ago precisely about this. 

EB: Assuming the Americans don’t understand the Middle East. That’s all. They misunderstood both Egyptians and Israelis.

KWS: I think it took the US State Department and Carter and Vance and Brzezinski about 3 or 4 months to understand how different Begin was then Rabin. I don’t think that they absorbed it into their intellectual system, and I think they therefore continued on this policy and then all of the sudden abruptly they had to stop and when they abruptly stop Sadat’s on his way to Jerusalem and that is one of the reasons why they give this meager or lain endorsement or slow response to the trip because they’re caught in the middle. They’re whole 9 or 10 months in Geneva and comprehensive have all fallen flat and they don’t know where to turn or what to do. They didn’t know for example whether to endorse at the end of November, Sadat’s decision to ask you guys to come to Mena House. They were heeing and hawing, and should Vance go to the region? I mean you hear Carter and Vance and Brzezinski talk about it and they say you know we didn’t know what to do, and they admit it. We just didn’t know what to do. 

EB: You’re absolutely right. You are so right. Absolutely. This is exactly like it was and by the way then Vance came to the region. Then Vance came…

KWS: December 3rd or 4th

EB: Yeah and Begin told him that he wanted to see Carter. And this is when Begin and Vance agreed that Begin would go to see President Carter and present him with a proposal on the Palestinian issue.

KWS: Where did that come from? What were its origins, intellectually or philosophically? Was it autonomy?

EB: Autonomy, this is a different story. Why then, because Begin understood that something should be done with the Palestinian side as well otherwise there would be no progress possible with the Egyptians. Don’t forget that this stage things were perceived as being stuck but it was still very early but things were already stuck and the euphoric…Sadat was right in his wish to give some food to the process as he called it “momentum” and Begin knew that this was important on his side Begin wanted to give some momentum to it as well. So he knew that something has to be done on the Palestinian issue and this is what he wanted to present to Carter. Why talk Geneva? Don’t forget at that time we agreed already to hold the conference in Cairo under the framework of Geneva.

KWS: You accepted the invitation through the UN.

EB: So why to go on the Geneva path while we are willing to go on another path? So here Begin is going to divert the Geneva path into the path he considered right. The autonomy was presented first and to actually get Carter’s agreement or get Carter’s green light to this. Now how did this sort of autonomy actually how was it born? That’s a long story that will have to summarize it. Since this land belongs to us and since we know very well that Arab population has to be permitted to live here together with us and since we cant give them independence because the land belongs to us and since we don’t want to be occupiers because we don’t want to be occupiers. We cant be occupiers on our own land and since we cannot extend our sovereignty over Judea, Samaria, and Gaza because had we extended our sovereignty we would have had to give the Arabs full equality rights including Israeli citizenship. We can’t do it because of the world. We can’t do it because the Arabs don’t want it. We can’t do it because there’s not a majority inside Israel to do it. So how to solve this complicated problem without jeopardizing our defense in the future.

KWS: Separate the land from the people.

EB: Separate the land from the people exactly. Not all or put it differently not try to solve at this stage the question of sovereignty or of territory. Let us try and solve the problem of population of its plight of its conditions and not of the territory. And this fitted perfectly both Begin and Dayan. Begin because Begin can’t be an occupier first of all because he can’t be an occupier. For sure, he can’t be an occupier in his own land. Then he’s in favor of giving full equality of life to the Arabs because he doesn’t see any distinction between an Arab and a Jew. But the land is Jewish. 

KWS: And the majority Jewish state must prevail.

EB: And the majority Jewish state must prevail. How to do it? Autonomy was always in his mind because this is something that, in a different form though, that was considered as a possible solution to the miserable conditions of some Jewish communities and some other lands, which were not there of course. This is something, which was raised by Jabotinsky again different context, different conditions, different autonomy. But it fitted somehow; it fitted Begins base intellectual formation.

KWS: Why didn’t he bring it to Washington in July?

EB: It fitted Dayan because Dayan was in favor of the functional solution. All right, why didn’t he bring it in July? Because…

KWS: I mean he must have already been thinking about it while he was out of office. 

EB: Sure. Of course he was thinking about it already in the beginning. He was thinking about it every…

KWS: I mean has he ever articulated between 73’ and 77’ that this was the way to solve the West Bank problem or the Judea and Samaria issue?

EB: No.

KWS: You never heard him talk about it?

EB: No. But I never heard him talk about it but I can tell you that in 1977, wait why didn’t I hear him talk about it, because he was always talking on this is our land. It belongs to us we will extend our sovereignty over it 

KWS: But he must’ve said something about…

EB: We will extend our…full equality of rights between Arabs and Jews and the…

KWS: But he never articulated how…

EB: There will be immigration, there will be aliyah, there will always be a Jewish…

KWS: But he never said…

EB: Just to close this. It reminds me of something. I didn’t hear him talk about what you’re asking about autonomy. I always heard him about the quality of rights we were all talking about the quality of rights between Jews and Arabs. Never the less I wont forget it once in 1977 during the election campaign I went together with Yitzhak Shamir and to Haifa and there in the chapter of Herut. I spoke and Shamir spoke or Shamir spoke and I spoke. I spoke still before Shamir because he was of course more important than I was and I said, and we will win this election and we will form the government and when we form the government don’t expect the government of Israel under Begin to immediately extend our sovereignty over Judea and Samaria and Gaza. It will take time. It’s not easy. You know to say this in a Herut chapter in 1977 was blasphemy. I said it it wasn’t important here because no one paid attention to what Herut people were saying. Shamir was with me in the car on the (mumbling)?? We will not extend our sovereignty to Judea and Samaria. What did you say? How did you dare? So I said, Yitzhak (mumbling) this is what I believe and I said it we have to tell it these are our people. Let us not raise expectations, we wont be able to do it. If I dared saying it and Shamir never returned to it Begin definitely got report of it. Didn’t say a word. If I dared saying it and believe me I was then considered and am still considered as one of the staunchest revisionists. It means that somehow in my system without having heard it I saw that this was what was going to happen. So I give you a plastical description of the environment of Begin. Had it been with Carter, I would say well one of his men who was close enough to know what Carters opinions and positions were, said this and that. How would you constrict? How would you interpret? Because I do it now with myself.

KWS: That’s a very interesting point.

EB: Why did he bring it in July? First of all not to mix. He didn’t want to mix. Though you have a lot of ideas conveyed into the air on the Palestinian issue even then even in July. I remember…

KWS: There was also some leaks from the Foreign Affairs and Defense committee. Aarons was the chairman. People were talking about what is this notion of giving the Palestinian an opportunity for themselves and what does that mean about Likud’s philosophy and you can read it in Davar you can read it in Ma’ariv you can read it in Yedioth. I’ve done it. 

EB: Okay. Okay. But remember at the same time Begin asked Shmuel Katz at this big meeting with Carter to describe our position about the Palestinians. 

KWS: In July?

EB: In July. So Begin intentionally presented this Palestinian issue in July on a classical Begin line. Showing a new approach on the Egyptians. You don’t try to ride two horses at one time. You will fall off both of them so why should I?

KWS: Tell me about Mena House. Tell me about how you got there, what you saw, when you got there, what your expectations were, what Begin hoped to have you accomplish.

EB: All Begin was actually interested in is first to give some satisfaction to Sadat. He wanted to let him get it. He didn’t want him to not let him get it, no Mena House conference. Begin didn’t want it but…since we have it that the Egyptians be ready to start studying reading discussing a text of a peace treaty. We brought with us a text of the peace treaty. 

KWS: Yes but you provided Vance with one earlier and the Egyptians had provided Vance with one earlier. 

EB: Exactly. Now the Egyptians had our text…

KWS: At Mena House?

EB: Sure. They had it before as well I mean it wasn’t new. It wasn’t new to the Americans to the Egyptians but it was not officially presented. With us it was official presented to them by us and it wasn’t till Israelis and Egyptians. 

KWS: So you used this opportunity to present it to them.

EB: (mumbling) It was the first time an Israeli and Egyptian delegation meets in Cairo. This alone was enough. I was not with Begin in Washington because I was in Cairo. But I could tell you that for instance he was my good friends were accompanying Begin told me later how was he considered my mission in Cairo. He was watching TV all the time to see how this was going on. 

KWS: How you were being perceived.

EB: At one stage, which I will never forget myself. It just so happens that we arrived on Tuesday and you know good Jews so I immediately told my Egyptian host that I have, I want to go with the delegation to the synagogue. “Oh you want to go to the synagogue? Friday night is Shabbat.” Alright. Why not of course we will open a synagogue for you. Then somebody told me look be careful because it is 15 kilometers away, and I didn’t listen to the reservation. 10 miles away which means that we could drive there, but we will have to walk back because I was not going without ?? yet ??? (laughing) drive back from shul. 

KWS: So like the planes are arriving late for Rabin. 

EB: I was careful. So I said no no all right we will do it. We wont do it Friday night. We will do it on Saturday night. Outcome of Shabbat. Motze Shabbat, Havdalah. And this was that. I don’t have to tell you what happened just tell you the newsreels from then because for the first time Israeli officials come to the big synagogue in Cairo. Sha’ar Hashamayim, Adly Street. All televisions, there were 2000 journalists there in Cairo for this occasion, all TVs and the whole thing but the love of the Egyptians. Egyptian crowd massed around the synagogue. Thousands and thousands of people to see for the first time with their own eyes Israelis. Full of police full of security. And here our limousine drives in and I got out of the limousine and you know as a candidate to the Presidents in Cairo I go out and start shaking hands with the Egyptians. (laughing) There was a crowd. Get into the crowd.

KWS: You worked the crowd. 

EB: And how? And the Egyptian police they are fainting and security everyone is fainting. It’s terrible. What I saw myself in photographs was myself in the midst of the Egyptian crowd I almost fainted. 

KWS: You’re amazed that you did it. Right, in hindsight.

EB: Begin was watching this, and he was in New York at the Waldorf. And he caught his head and said “Al Kiddush Hashem, ein li al Kiddush Hashem.” Which is nice you see this is Begin. Ein li al Kiddush Hashem. So this I know in his eyes was already an achievement and it was an achievement I mean.

KWS: You know if I were Begin and I was sitting there I would’ve said god I just brought this idea to Washington in July and look at us now.

EB: I could have made their (mumbling) maybe and what came out from it was beautiful photographs and beautiful reporting about the Israelis and Egyptians…

KWS: Did you discuss anything substantive like the meaning of 242?

EB: Actually no. The real work was not being done there. 

KWS: Esmat Abdel-Meguid, Abdel Rauof Al-Reedy, Amr Moussa. The basic Egyptian…

EB: Also Osama.

KWS: And Osama.

EB: Osama yeah…but it was of course was behind but these were all present. I had then created personal very nice relationships with each I did, each remain till today. Today, I’m out of touch here and out of touch there because of my position but very personal very nice. 

KWS: For your information one man brought Osama, Abdel Raouf, and Amr Moussa into the Foreign Ministry. One man was responsible for their three appointments and you find a common ideology amongst the three of them. I mean its very noticeable. Fahmi told me they are my disciples, and when you think about what they’ve done and it’s important to understand I mean Amr Moussa is now the guy who’s on one side of the…

EB: So this was, no this was a beautiful demonstration of what peace could achieve. 

KWS: What was the stuff about the PLO flag in front of the Mena House when you get there, when you got in on the tables the PLO nametags, were there or something. Tell me about this. I’ve only got bits and pieces of this 

EB: No, I’ll tell you the story very precisely no problem. The conference was to open in the morning. 11 o’clock. I sent down somebody to ?? to the conference to watch if everything was kosher and by nature I’m a prudent man a careful man that’s all, kosher. No flags, no material, no chairs, no surprises. It was going to be an international…

KWS: But you know the Syrians, the PLO, the Soviets, the Jordanians, the Americans, and the UN were invited.

EB: I knew that they were invited. I knew that they would come.

KWS: There was a UN observer

EB: Yes. Of course. 

KWS: And Atherton.

EB: And Atherton. Sure. (mumbling) I wanted to know exactly what was going on. I didn’t know anything about outside. Then the gentleman came back and said yes there are flags yes. I didn’t get dressed, and I went out sport dressed sport like nobody saw me and this is what we came for nobody was probably going to wait in a short time. And then I think that this ?? somebody to ask if everything was alright and I told him no nothing was alright and I told him to come down. Why, because I understand that there are too many chairs and some unknown material that l…

KWS: Is that how you labeled it, unknown material?

EB: Yes, yes. It was something flags no I didn’t say flags. Some material I don’t know what purpose or what it was and then they came up and said there was a problem and they understood that we understood that there was a problem and it started actually a negation. 

KWS: On?

EB: On to take out flags and to leave the chairs, to leave the chairs or take out the chairs and leave the flags that something will be…

KWS: Changed.

EB: If there is something anything to do with the PLO, they will not see Israel there. They can resume the conference as they wish and we will simply leave. It went on for a few minutes it wasn’t very long this whole story, but I remember very well that I gave an order to, I was there with a group of only certain people. The delegation sent was very small. Meir Rosenne was number two. Avraham Tamir was number three and Eppie was number four.

KWS: Patir was there too. 

EB: Hmm. 

KWS: Dan Patir.

EB: Yeah ?? was there, Patir was there, Hefetz(?) was there, press, and security, and assistance. (mumbling) (talking in Hebrew) and then I gave them an order to start preparing departure.

KWS: Really?

EB: Nobody started packing but they put out the message that we might need our plane. That’s all and this was an open end and then the flag disappeared and then the other flags disappeared and there were no flags, no flags at all. Everyone knew that Israel…(talking in Hebrew to somebody) All the flags disappeared. All right, everybody knew who everybody was. No flags. There were chairs. No chairs. I don’t, no flags, no chairs, there was no PLO. This was what was important. By the way, I didn’t tell them that had they left the Syrians and Jordanians (mumbling). Now the truth is that I didn’t know and nobody knew how the flag of the PLO looked like. Can I tell you the truth? Because this is the truth. And then the conference opened and then everybody was televised…

KWS: Now each of you started with your own little speech or something?

EB: Sure. We asked to lead the chairman because he’s in the host country and then all right the first speeches were published in the New York Times.

KWS: Yes, I’ve read them. 

EB: And then we and then this was all it was (mumbling) it was probably 2 o’clock or something like that and we went to go have lunch at the Mena House and then someone came in and told me look there is a flag outside I think I don’t know but I think it might be the PLO’s. So I said, “What?” This is how the first, I had a sign that something was going on something was wrong something outside…

KWS: Something was amiss.

EB: And we didn’t know about this thing outside so I sent out somebody else from already where we were eating lunch to give a look at that flag and a journalist this was I think either Ze’ev Schiff or Ehud Yaari. Please go out and give a look at this flag and come back quickly and tell me what flag it is. Either Ze’ev Schiff or Ehud came back and said yes this is the symbol. The symbol it is the PLO. So then I called one of our people call up home right away and ask what are the colors of the PLO flag and how does it look like. Took three minutes and then he came back and said yes this is the flag. Alright so then I asked I told my assistant alright go please to the protocol and tell them that I am not happy with this hotel and I want to move to another hotel. (pause) Why what’s wrong? There is some kind of flag outside which I don’t want to be in the hotel where there is this flag outside so I want you to (mumbling) without with no flag. So this is far form the beginning to the end. 

KWS: You stayed in Mena House how long? I mean you stayed in Egypt for almost 10 days. 

EB: 15 days it was two weeks. We arrived on the 13th as far as I can remember. Ismailia was on the 25th. We went to Ismailia from Cairo and it lasted two days, 25th, 26th. I told Begin I think that I have nothing to do anymore in Cairo. He said right come back. On the next day we were back 27th.

KWS: What happened at Ismailia?

EB: In Ismailia, Begin presented his paper two parts one part on Sinai and the other part on autonomy. You asked me about autonomy earlier. The 26 points if I remember well the autonomy of the region the autonomy plan which Begin presented to President Carter. He dictated with his mouth in the Prime Minister’s room in the Knesset to Yehiel Kadishai on a pad of paper, who was writing it on a pad of paper. This is how the autonomy plan was…

KWS: After he came back from Washington?

EB: No, no, before. And then it was printed, it was dated, this is how they do it. And this paper this half second half was presented to Sadat in Ismailia. 

KWS: Was it the same version that had been presented to Carter?

EB: Yeah, yeah.

KWS: Because Carter said it was not the same version.

EB: Same version.

KWS: Carter said it was altered by the cabinet when Begin came back and Carter felt that Begin was selling him one set of 26 points and that the…

EB: Well this can be very easily, I don’t…

KWS: And he felt that Sadat didn’t understand after Ismailia why Carter would’ve endorsed some of the points of the autonomy when they clearly from Sadat’s point of view Carter would’ve known that they would be objectionable and Carter later on found out at least this is how he explains it.

EB: That there were two versions? 

KWS: There were two versions and when Begin came back from Washington he brought it before the cabinet and the cabinet made some emendations but those emendations were never relayed back to Washington and Carter felt that this now, he was dealing with a man who wasn’t exactly being honest all the time. 

EB: Really?

KWS: Yes, and this is one of the first beginnings of Carter’s second-guessing of Begin’s honesty and it came out of this. Now whether it’s invented, misinterpreted…

EB: I simply, I’m not aware of this point. It may be because I was not always…

KWS: Brzezinski says it, Vance says it

EB: Because I was in Cairo maybe but I simply don’t know about it. But this is so easy to…

KWS: I understand but my point, the reason I raise it this is how…

EB: This is how it started…

KWS: This is how misimpressions are create

EB: I will have to check myself I simply don’t know about it. Meyer knows about it. Meyer should know about it but it’s easy to, I simply don’t know. I’m learning something new here.

KWS: Okay. Now as February moves forward, Geneva’s dead, I mean as 78’ moves forward, Geneva’s essentially dead, comprehensive peace has died, what is it that makes Sadat frustrated with Begin? What do you suspect, I mean later on you end up being ambassador to Egypt so you must have asked the question or it must have been discussed with you. 

EB: Yeah, Sadat wanted to move fast. He…

KWS: He wanted Begin’s response to be faster.

EB: Yeah the whole thing to go fast. He thought that this is why he made this dramatic act and decision and showed the whole world and Israel and Begin that he meant business in Jerusalem and then there was no other point response from Begin’s side and that Begin was a liar, a legalist and this was not his way. This is how in one sentence and its true. This is how he was disappointed, he was disappointed. 

KWS: This immediately came out in January and February.

EB: Yeah it came out after Ismailia. Ismailia was still something in between.

KWS: To break down political committee talks that were assigned. Nothing was now…

EB: Sadat was not ready to be working at another pace than he thought was the right pace. Sadat was man who had to get used to some negotiating process, which eh didn’t expect which he didn’t know that existed and didn’t want.

KWS: Someone who described him as a modern day political pharaoh was not going to be patient. 

EB: No he was not patient, and if you look today in retrospect and see how quickly it went how short everything was. Don’t forget Jerusalem November 77’, Camp David September 78’, Peace Treaty March 79

KWS: 18 months

EB: Come on everything runs, rushes but this was then considered not only slow but obstructive…

KWS: He was stalling, and it was seen as intentional. How did Begin respond to the fact that Sadat was now becoming more public about his disgust with Begin his distress that he had not his grand gesture had not been met with equal fashion. How did Begin respond to him?

EB: Begin knew that this was Sadat’s view. No, he didn’t. Begin knew to be tough. He was ready to be…

KWS: Yes, but there was a process and a momentum that was also in Begin’s interest now to continue. 

EB: But Begin, Begin wanted to achieve something. 

KWS: How did he propose to do that? 

EB: He wanted to, he was genuine in not ready yet to give away the whole Sinai. He wanted to save the settlements. 

KWS: Now did he have reservations from his first suggestions to Carter I mean the way you started…

EB: No, no.

KWS: The way you started it earlier, you said he was willing to make a territorial…

EB: Far reaching. I didn’t say everything. Far reaching.

KWS: So even when he went in July, Begin in the back of his head still had this thing about the settlements in Sinai

EB: Even more. When he went to Carter he had in mind maybe we could save something like the El Arish-Sharm el-Sheikh line. ?? Maybe settlements for sure there was more to that then the settlements there was the strategic assets like the air force bases, Sharm el-Sheikh…

KWS: Oil.

EB: Maybe oil was less important but maybe…

KWS: When did Dayan make his famous statement about I’d rather have… 

EB: Sharm el Sheikh than peace. (speaking in Hebrew) I don’t remember but I don’t think it was after Begin after 77’ I think it was before 77’. 

KWS: Okay. You didn’t go to Leeds?

EB: No I did not.

KWS: Now Atherton’s coming out here in March and April and May. He comes in April at least. He comes one time again. What was the dynamic? The Americans were trying to refine the transitional period they were trying to refine the autonomy to 9 points, which now come out of the 26. There’s all sorts of winnowing and discussing.

EB: In grosso modo what the ?? were trying to do is actually to give the Egyptians what Carter had announced you know that should be given to the Egyptians. (mumbling) which Israel did not accept to remain, it has never accepted to this date. This was the point. This whole thing actually is this and by then I imagine Carter knew that Sadat would not renounce 1 inch of Sinai and he did not think at this stage at least that Begin was ready to give away the whole of Sinai.

KWS: Carter? 

EB: Yeah, that Begin would be ready to give away the whole Sinai. This is how we go to  actually to Camp David. Camp David was somehow intended by the Americans we did know about Camp David. We didn’t know about Sadat. We didn’t know about either. Somehow construed in effort to put it today to give the whole length of our peace. This wasn’t going to tell you then but today…

KWS: What did Begin expect, I mean what did he think when he got this invitation from Vance in early August about you know I’d like you and President Sadat to join me. This date. We don’t know much about Begin’s response. We know how Sadat responded and we know why Carter did it. What did Begin think was going to happen at this?

EB: Begin didn’t dislike it. He didn’t dislike it. Again, there was more suspicion towards the Americans than towards the Egyptians. He expected more of the Americans. He knew what the Egyptians wanted, but he didn’t dislike it. He didn’t dislike the idea. 

KWS: He didn’t dislike the idea that the Americans were now jumping back in and playing this mediation role that they had tried the first part of 77’, hadn’t succeeded.

EB: Yeah, yeah.

KWS: And its because…

EB: I can’t say that he liked it but…

KWS: But he also knew the Americans had to be there

EB: Exactly. 

KWS: I mean he wasn’t naïve. He knew that it was a necessary, excuse the word, evil. 

EB: Yeah and he knew exactly what the position was the one of Dayan and what position was Weitzman’s and you see that they took them to Camp David knowing very well who he was taking. He knew very well. He went to Camp David with open arms. Knowing very well that what might come out of Camp David is not exactly what with what he came into it with.

KWS: He knew that he would have to make some compromises. Did he know to what degree he would have to compromise? I mean did he…

EB: Basically…

KWS: I mean he didn’t want Camp David to fail obviously.

EB: No, he did not want Camp David to fail. Obviously, he by then he was ready actually to go back to the international frontier with the hope that something would be done about the settlements. Not on the Israeli settlements. Lets try let’s do our best. 

KWS: Did Begin believe that the things that he was doing in Sinai would have a precedent setting nature for what would happen in…

EB: He did everything in order this not to have a precedent…absolutely so absolutely so and that’s why for instance he did not accept to the drawing of the map around Gaza with the same way that the international frontier between Israel and Egypt was drawn under the same sights, which was a difference. 

KWS: Who was most helpful at Camp David in persuading Begin to accept the formulations as they were drafted?

EB: I don’t know.

KWS: And why was Barak successful?

EB: Because he was successful. Ugh why. Begin trusted Barak. Barak had this approach of the ?? psychologists, and then I’ll tell you something I don’t believe that Begin would have accepted something he really didn’t wanted to accept. Because finally when he was convinced to accept something this means that somehow in his mind this was a fall back position doesn’t mean that he told us that it was so no but in his intellectual system made out of that some kind of a fall back position and Barak knew what for Begin was (Hebrew) and what was not. What could have been considered as a second fallback position that being stated as such and what was not.

KWS: You know Barak really understood Begin.

EB: Sure, sure. 

KWS: When did that relationship evolve? 

EB: Simple, working together since Begin became Prime Minister and then Barak then was in the State Attorney and that’s how he…