The Problem of Rafah: Prime Menachem Begin’s Letter to Shlomo Goren
Four years before their dispute over Rafah, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Shlomo Goren blesses Prime Minister Menachem Begin upon his return from Egypt as Chief Sephardi Rabbi Ovadia Yosef watches at Ben Gurion Airport in December 1977. (credit: Ya’acov Sa’ar, Israeli Government Press Office, CC BY-SA 3.0)

(August 17, 1981)


Menachem Begin argued for placement of Rafah into Egyptian hands; Rabbi Goren believed it is the part of the land of Israel. Begin’s view is upheld, knowing that fulfillment of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Treaty was in part dependent on Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai settlements and the Rafah arear. If Begin could have had his way, he would have kept both, but the strategic importance of the Treaty to Israel overtook even his personal and political preferences at the time.

Of all the places in Gaza, none has caused as many disputes throughout the past half-century as the strip’s southernmost city, Rafah. This dusty border town owes its power to provoke to its sensitive location. Straddling the border between Egypt and Israel, Rafah is one city under two jurisdictions, its southern half a part of Egypt since April 1982, its northern half a possession of Hamas from June to 2007 to May 2024. 

Throughout its 17 years under the terrorist group’s control, Rafah had been the beating heart of Hamas-run Gaza because dozens of cross-border tunnels–through which the flow of weapons into the strip had been constant–were the lifeblood of Hamas’ rule. Rafah’s centrality to the “circulatory system” and, thus, the survival of Hamas had made the city’s capture by the IDF in the 2023-2024 Israel-Hamas war a strategic necessity. But the Biden administration, fearing a high civilian death toll, opposed an Israeli offensive into the city. Nevertheless, Israel, after three months of increasingly public clashes with its American ally, moved on Rafah on May 7, 2024, seizing its most crucial part, a narrow belt of borderland known as the Philadelphi Corridor. 

Israel and the United States’ early 2024 clash over what to do with Rafah was not the first time the city’s role in Israeli and Egyptian interests raised bi-lateral tensions.  In 2005, on the eve of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, the governments of President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wrangled over the latter’s demand that Israel retain the Philadelphia Corridor. Israel ultimately yielded to American pressure and relinquished its control over all the territory it had held in Gaza, including the Philadelphi Corridor.

Long before they were at odds with the Americans over Rafah in 2024 and 2005, Israelis had also clashed over the city with the Egyptians.. In 1978-1979, as Israel and Egypt negotiated their peace treaty, the talks snagged on Menachem Begin’s insistence that Israel hold onto a bloc of about a dozen settlements on the Egyptian side of the border. Throughout the 1970s, Israel had built this chain of settlements around Egyptian Rafah (a settlement bloc known as the Rafah Salient) to serve as a buffer zone with Egypt. In insisting that Israel retain the Rafah Salient, Begin was not only speaking for himself, but he was also speaking for some of his ideological opposites–high officials in the Labor Party (e.g., Ezer Weizmann, Moshe Dayan, Shimon Peres) under whose leadership the settlements had originally been built. One of these Laborites–namely, Yigal Allon–had called the Rafah Salient “a keystone of our political struggle to create a defensible border.” 

But since Sadat wouldn’t budge, Begin had to, and the Israeli prime minister grudgingly agreed to cede the Rafah Salient to Egypt and abandon the settlements there. Not all Israelis were pleased with Begin’s concession. Whereas Begin and the Labor leaders had wanted to retain the Rafah Salient for reasons of national security, the religious nationalists had another rationale and were disgruntled for another reason: they insisted that Egyptian Rafah was an extension of the Land of Israel and was, therefore, the inalienable inheritance of the Jewish people. 

One such religious nationalist was Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren, best known as the rabbi who blew the shofar at the Western Wall after Israel conquered Jerusalem’s Old City in the Six-Day War. Rabbi Goren had addressed a letter to Begin on August 3 decrying the prime minister’s relinquishment of the Rafah Salient and declaring part of the Land of Israel. The following letter is Begin’s reply two weeks later. The prime minister begins by contending, albeit with characteristic courtesy, that Rabbi Goren had reversed himself because he had earlier stated, both publicly and privately, that the Rafah Salient lay outside the borders of the Land of Israel. Begin goes on to explain that he had no choice but to respect the will of the Israeli legislature and give up the Rafah Salient. For this, he faults the Labor Party for forcing on the Knesset a single all-or-nothing vote to accept or reject the peace treaty as a whole. 

Scott Abramson, May 24, 2024 

The Problem of Rafah: Prime Menachem Begin’s Letter to Shlomo Goren

(August 17, 1981)

August 17, 1981,

To the Honorable Rabbi Shlomo Goren

Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel

Heichal Shlomo


Our exalted teacher and master, I thank his honor for his important letter on the matter of the Land of Israel and Sinai. 

I have never told anyone that his honor placed the Rafah Salient beyond the borders of the Land of Israel. Even if his honor had personally told me alone that in his opinion, the Sinai Desert does not belong to the Land of Israel, I would not, under any circumstances, repeat his private pronouncement. However, as his honor will remember, he said publicly, at the time, that Sinai is not the Land of Israel, and he defended his remarks, repeating them both verbally and in his letter to me. The pronouncement, then, was common knowledge. It was also, incidentally, published in a number of newspapers, as far as I remember. I could therefore say to anybody in Israel that his honor, the chief rabbi, told me such and such. I also repeated his honor’s pronouncement because, in this matter, he is at variance with our eminent rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, who claims to this day, as I observed recently, that all of the Sinai Peninsula is part of the Land of Israel. 

As his honor is aware, I did not alter so much as a single word of what his honor had announced publicly and said to me [privately]. 

As for the Rafah Salient, as even a Torah ignoramus like me is aware, there is a debate among the sages, especially as regards the interpretation of the Nahal of Egypt. But I will not venture out of my depth. My duty is merely to tell his honor what occurred at Camp David and in the Knesset:

Until the very end, I fought at Camp David to keep our settlements in the Rafah Salient by providing a Hebrew defense force to the residents. One night I persuaded President Carter of the justice of this position, and he promised me he would try to convince President Sadat. He came back and told me that he did not succeed in doing so. Then I told him: My colleagues and I have no authority to tell anyone that we will evacuate the settlers from the Rafah Salient. We will leave the matter to the Knesset to decide, and whatever the Knesset decides will come to pass. Knesset members are given the freedom to vote without regard to party discipline. President Carter repeated these words in his speech to the US Congress, and, knowing my position was not held in bad faith, he asked me if I would refrain from taking part in the debate on this subject. I replied, “I will think about it.” At his own initiative, one of my colleagues said, “It is impossible for the prime minister not to speak about this issue.”

On returning home, I proposed that there be two votes in the Knesset, one on the Camp David Accords and the other on the problem of the settlements in the Rafah Salient. Knesset members in the Alignment stood up and cried out: “What? People will say that Begin brought peace, while we brought down the settlements in Sinai. This cannot be. The vote must be combined.” At that point, there was no other way; the whole government had decided on it–to hold one vote in the Knesset. 

It was clear to everyone that we were voting for the agreement that led to the peace treaty between us and Egypt. Certainly there were differences of opinion on this matter in the Knesset, and also within our own faction. Everyone was given the freedom to vote, even though the matter was clearly political, not at all one of conscience. Those who supported a path that led to a peace treaty could not but vote “aye.”

If the Alignment had agreed to accept my proposal and hold two separate votes, and the majority in the Knesset had decided, as it could have, in a completely free vote, that the settlements should not be removed in the Rafah Salient, the outcome would have been–I would have been willing to accept it myself–to inform President Carter that because this is the will of the Israeli legislature, it is my duty as prime minister to take its will into account without reservation. I would also have informed President Sadat of this, telling him explicitly: “If you are not prepared to sign a peace treaty under these conditions, we can conduct negotiations again [but] on terms related to this.” 

His honor, then, sees how we were in fact obliged to agree, by a joint vote in the Knesset, not at Camp David, that the settlers in the Rafah Salient would be resettled in the Land of Israel. 

The matter is too painful for me to make an issue of, even in a discussion in a limited circle. In the whole election campaign, I did not say even a single word about this unfortunate move of the Alignment. But these are the facts, and it was my duty to bring them to his honor’s attention.

With regards and much respect,

M. Begin