What Israeli, U.S. leaders of 1977 hoped would be Jerusalem's fate
A previously unpublished transcript of a meeting between Israeli and U.S. leaders in Washington on December 17, 1977, offers a surprising revelation: Prime Minister Begin's suggestion that autonomous international religious councils would oversee Jerusalem's holy places.
A Jewish legend from the Middle Ages tells about a great rabbi, named Amnon. Rich, handsome and of distinguished lineage, he lived in Magenza (now Mainz, Germany). According to the story, which is probably apocryphal, the city's archbishop and other officials pressed Rabbi Amnon to forsake his religion and convert, but were rebuffed time after time. But one day, the tale goes, he could no longer withstand the pressure: In order to get them off his back, he said yes - but asked for a three-day extension to consult and consider the matter. Barely had the rabbi finished speaking when he grasped the depth of his sin. He went home tormented and abashed. "Because of this I shall descend to the netherworld," he apparently told his confidants, whereupon he wept and began to fast.
Three days went by, but the rabbi did not come to the archbishop's quarters, as he had promised. When cajoling and threats did not help, he was brought there by force. What is it, Amnon, asked the archbishop. Why didn't you come to me? To which the rabbi replied: I should have my tongue cut out for not having refused to do so immediately.
But the bishop thought otherwise. In his view, the rabbi's tongue had spoken well, but his legs, which had not arrived at the appointed time, were fated to be cut off. The bishop ordered first that each of the rabbi's toes be cut off at the joint; each time, his torturers asked whether he was now ready to convert. But even at the last toe, Rabbi Amnon clung to his faith.
Not long afterward, on Rosh Hashanah eve, the bleeding rabbi asked his assistants to carry him to the synagogue, and before the shofar was sounded said he wished to recite a prayer. With his last remaining strength, Rabbi Amnon uttered what is known as "Unetaneh tokef" ("Let us tell how overwhelming is the holiness of this day") - and died. Since then, this prayer has been central to the liturgy of the Days of Awe and is recited in the afternoon prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
A few weeks before Rosh Hashanah in September 1978, the legend of Rabbi Amnon from Mainz apparently acquired renewed significance. All the biographies of Prime Minister Menachem Begin relate how, during the negotiations that took place then over the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty at Camp David, he told the story of Rabbi Amnon to U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
According to his biographies, Begin was reacting to the pressure that Carter was exerting on him about the future status of Jerusalem. In testimony to the Begin Heritage Center, Yehiel Kadishai, who was Begin's personal aide and his bureau chief as prime minister, stated that Carter later told the legend to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. "After that story, no one talked to him about Jerusalem again," Kadishai said, adding unequivocally: "The subject did not come up for discussion."
Begin's ideological followers and politicians who see themselves as his successors claim that the mention of the legend of Rabbi Amnon demonstrated to President Carter that Begin was unshakable when it came to the status of unified Jerusalem as Israel's capital and that the subject, now as then, was not negotiable. In the Knesset session held in November 2007 to mark the 30th anniversary of Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, MK Gideon Sa'ar (Likud ) told the story anew. This was at the time of the Annapolis peace conference. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had put forward a secret and far-reaching plan for the internationalization of the holy places in Jerusalem, and MK Sa'ar, who was then in the opposition, saw fit to draw a connection between the two episodes. Concluding his remarks linking Rabbi Amnon and Begin, Sa'ar said, "There is a moral to the story: When you espouse a worldview, with 'red lines' and values, the other side respects them and knows that there are things you cannot be induced to forgo."
In fact, Begin's decision to use this legend in order to rebuff American pressure about Jerusalem is not self-evident. Begin was known as a wizard with words and images, a master of rhetoric and dialectic. He had a deep knowledge of Judaism, of the legends of the Jewish sages and Hasidic tales. According to Shlomo Nakdimon, who was Begin's media adviser at the time, the Americans dubbed him "the preacher" because of his frequent recourse to biblical imagery.
So it's not clear why Begin chose a story that was intended as inspiration for acts of martyrdom by German Jews during the Crusades; a story that deals mainly with regret for words of heresy, with soul-searching and matters that undermine faith. The premier could easily have come up with better examples to illustrate the strength of the Jewish people's bond to the holy city. He certainly could have found more potent allegories to demonstrate his firmness of resolve on this issue.
Some Begin biographies say that he related the legend only because Carter asked him to think about the matter and give him an answer in three days. This is not supported by the testimonies given over the years by some of those present during the talks. Indeed, several of them rejected this theory outright in interviews for this article.
A top secret document that was recently uncovered in the Israel State Archives raises a different possibility: The transcript of a conversation held between Prime Minister Begin and President Carter a few months before the Camp David meeting raises the possibility that Begin's choice of the legend of Rabbi Amnon was highly relevant - and perhaps better suited to subsequent developments than any other story.
On November 9, 1977, President Anwar Sadat stunned the Egyptian People's Assembly when he announced he was ready to go to Jerusalem and discuss the terms of a peace treaty with Israel. No less stunned were the leaders of Israel and the United States, who had been looking for ways to narrow the gulf between the sides, ahead of a planned international peace conference at Geneva. Sadat's sensational visit to Jerusalem took place 10 days later. The two sides decided to launch direct negotiations, and Israel was invited to send a delegation to Ismailia for the start of the talks.
This unexpected development first prompted an urgent visit to the Middle East by Secretary of State Vance. Shuttling between Cairo and Jerusalem, he heard the leaders' impressions from the historic meeting, and offered Washington's help in advancing the peace process. In a report to President Carter summing up his meetings with Sadat and Begin, he wrote that Israel would have to moderate its positions, notably on the future of the West Bank, and with respect to the Palestinian issue.
In Vance's opinion, Begin's approach was largely unacceptable to the Egyptians. Carter was not surprised. He was well aware of the abyss that separated the sides and was concerned that the embryonic peace process would be aborted. At a meeting with Vance in Jerusalem on December 12, 1977, Begin surprisingly suggested that he visit Washington urgently in order to present to Carter new ideas which he had formulated as part of an Israel plan. The Ismailia talks were scheduled to start a week later and the Israeli leader needed American support. Vance went on to Amman, where he briefed King Hussein about this optimistic development. The American media noted this was the first time in a long while that movement toward compromise had been felt in Jerusalem.
Begin's trip to Washington was kept secret for three days, during which the prime minister held marathon meetings with cabinet ministers and advisers to formulate the Israeli blueprint for negotiations. Rumors spread rapidly after the Prime Minister's Bureau canceled Begin's participation in a number of events he had been scheduled to attend later in the week. There were also reports that Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan had held a secret meeting in a foreign country. The Prime Minister's Bureau kept mum even after the foreign media reported Begin's impending visit to Washington. On the day of his departure, December 15, 1977, the headline in Haaretz was, "Begin off to U.S. this morning; likely to meet with Sadat."
Carter tried to dampen expectations. In his previous meeting with Begin, four months earlier, he had detected no sign of compromise in the then-newly elected prime minister. At a press conference he held a day prior to the premier's arrival in Washington, Carter said that if Begin's proposals "should be far short of what I think President Sadat could accept without very serious political consequences and serious disappointment in Egypt, and the rest of the world, I would have no reticence about telling Prime Minister Begin privately, 'I just don't think this goes far enough.'" Carter added, "I have no idea what proposals, if any, Prime Minister Begin will bring to me tomorrow morning" - but noted that the prime minister had requested the meeting, so he assumed there was an important reason for it.
Haaretz wrote the next day, "Spokesmen of the White House and the State Department put an end to the persistent rumors that Mr. Begin was actually coming for a summit meeting with Sadat. But in a period of abundant surprises, no one takes denials at face value."
A senior Israeli diplomat who was part of the Begin entourage noted in his diary, "December 16, 1977: Prime minister concerned that passengers flying to New York arrive before the Sabbath."
Because of the suddenness of the visit and the tight timetable, the diplomat wrote, Begin and his entourage took a regular El Al flight to New York. The plane landed first in Washington, and only afterward, very late and very close to Shabbat, proceeded to New York with the regular passengers.
Begin arrived in Washington on the morning of Friday, December 16. Carter's diary states that after a reception held at 7:46 [A.M.] the two met privately for 53 minutes in the Oval Office. Afterward, an hour-long meeting was held with the aides of both leaders in the Cabinet Room.
Begin declared his intention to execute a withdrawal in Sinai. He was vague about the future of the settlements there, and also offered no definitive answer about his stance regarding Sharm el Sheikh, which Israel considered a strategic site. He proposed the establishment of a civil autonomy regime in the West Bank, in stages that would take place over a number of years. He also had some surprising comments about the Gaza Strip.
Following the meeting, short statements were given to the media. The messages were positive. The atmosphere was optimistic. President Carter's diary notes that an hour later, he held a four-minute phone conversation with President Sadat.
Modeled on the Vatican?
The delegations met again the next day, immediately after the end of the Sabbath. According to the transcript of that meeting - which is being made public here for the first time - Carter began by noting that the public response to the previous day's declarations had been enthusiastic. He told Begin that Sadat, too, had expressed satisfaction in the brief conversation they'd had.
Begin opened his remarks by congratulating Carter in Hebrew on the occasion of his wedding anniversary that day. Carter thanked him, and the prime minister went on to relate that he had met with a number of senators, who were pleased by the progress in the negotiations. He added that support for the peace process had also come from the Jewish community in the U.S., even from Rabbi Alexander Schindler, a leader of Reform Judaism, whom Begin said espoused dovish views. Carter replied jokingly that Begin apparently saw the rabbi from a very different angle than the Americans did. Similarly good-natured banter followed in the next few minutes.
The transcript indicates that the atmosphere was simultaneously pleasant and very constructive. There were also some sarcastic remarks. At the same time, the impression is that the leaders chose their words carefully. The positions were explicated clearly. "It was diplomacy at the height of its glory," recalls one Foreign Ministry official who attended several such meetings.
Begin soon got down to business. He said he had consulted by phone with Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, and wanted to add some new ideas to the plan he had put forward the previous day. According to the Jewish tradition, the premier explained, anyone who makes a declaration and quotes its sources brings redemption to the world. He then mentioned, on Dayan's behalf, two procedural issues.
But before going on to discuss his own plan, Begin - without any preliminaries or any connection to what had been talked about - said out of the blue: "Our paper made no mention of Jerusalem but, of course, we have been considering it. We didn't overlook it at all. The matter refers to the holy shrines of the Muslim, Christian and the Jewish world. Indeed, it is of interest to the whole world.
"My idea, and I wish to emphasize that is still only an idea - I still, of course, have to discuss it with my colleagues - is to have an international religious council that would take care of the holy shrines of each of the respective religions. Thus, with regard to the Muslim shrines, I would suggest that a council be set up of our neighbors: Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and, in addition, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Morocco, which is very friendly. Such a committee would take care of the shrines in complete autonomy, and of course there would be free access for everybody. There are, of course, other problems which we need to dwell upon now.
"With respect to the Christians' holy shrines, the same principle would apply: an international committee composed of the Vatican, the Pravoslavs, and the Protestants, including [he added jokingly] the Baptists."
President Carter (jocularly ): Mr. Prime Minister, I am hardly inviting you to name a chairman. [Laughter]
Prime Minister Begin: With regard to the Jewish shrines, the committee would be headed by our Chief Rabbinate and also sages from the Diaspora.
Carter: Would it be patterned after the Vatican?
Begin: It is not for me to say, Mr. President. I am a Jew.
Ambassador Dinitz: The president means will it be modeled on the pattern of the Vatican.
Begin: We will have to consider it; what I mean is that each denomination would take care of its shrines.
Secretary Vance: Would there be three different groups?
Begin: That is correct.
Vance: Would there be interchange, exchange, liaison between them?
The prime minister then turned to a different subject; the issue of Jerusalem did not come up again at the meeting.
'I'm in shock'
Reactions to the transcript of the December 17 meeting from people who were close to Begin 34 years ago range from "Check the text again," to "That is a total surprise." The most stunned among them declared, "I am in shock," at Begin's idea of establishing autonomous international religious councils to look after the holy places in Jerusalem.
Yehuda Avner, who was present at the meeting, says he does not remember this proposal. All the other members of Begin's bureau from that period, and from the period of the Camp David Accords less than a year later - Shlomo Nakdimon, Dan Pattir, Dan Meridor and Aryeh Naor - also say they have no recollection of any such suggestion or anything close to it being made by Begin. Benny Begin, the son of the late prime minister and currently a cabinet minister in the Netanyahu government, says he too never heard the idea; like most of the others, he declined to comment on it or offer an interpretation.
A senior diplomatic figure who was a member of Begin's bureau during those years says, "That was apparently one of the discussions whose minutes were destroyed." He explains that all of Begin's meetings during the negotiations were documented meticulously, "either by stenographers or by recordings which were later transcribed ... At least six copies of every transcript were kept and classified top secret. However, in regard to a small number of conversations, in which extremely sensitive matters were raised, an order was issued to destroy the stenographic copies and only one copy was kept, in the Prime Minister's Bureau."
This may explain why Begin's proposal about the holy places in Jerusalem remained unknown.
In response to a query from Haaretz on this subject, President Carter replied that he remembers the proposal, and added, "I was surprised that he initiated the subject of Jerusalem and, in effect, proposed that all the holy places - Jewish, Muslim and Christian - would in effect be autonomous and with free access for worshippers."
Begin's suggestion is general and vague, and does not touch on fundamental issues such as the sovereign status of Jerusalem or the civil status of the city's inhabitants. Nor does he clarify the character of the proposed committees, their legal status or territorial jurisdiction. He refers to them as an "international religious council," "committee," or "international committee"; furthermore, it is not clear whether the idea was for the three different religious bodies to be headed by a single, supreme one.
Even though Begin starts by citing reservations, it is apparent that he was not speaking spontaneously: The principles he mentions attest to profound thought and factual analysis. For example, Morocco is mentioned as a potential member of the council overseeing Muslim shrines - but not because it is a "very friendly" country, as Begin put it. The king of Morocco then headed a body called the Jerusalem Committee, which acted via the Arab League and Islamic organizations to preserve the welfare of the shrines in the city holy to Muslims. Saudi Arabia, too, was not a random choice, since it was then one of the main countries opposed to the Israeli peace agreement with Egypt.
According to a Begin confidant from that period, "Aharon Barak appears to have had a hand in this. There is a structure here that resembles a legal model...Begin, a lawyer by training, found plenty of common ground with Barak on that basis. They held lengthy discussions, and to me it sounds like an idea which could only have emerged from the encounter between the two."
In response, retired Supreme Court president Barak said he does not give interviews about the peace process.
Another Begin aide linked the idea to Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan who, he said, had spoken "in a similar vein a number of times about the future of Jerusalem." Dayan, this source noted, "conducted the [talks on the] cease-fire agreements with the Jordanians in the city after the War of Independence. He was well acquainted with the legal sensitivities in connection with Jerusalem, and always looked for pragmatic solutions. Moreover, unlike Begin, he had no interest in the city's holiness."
Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, who was an adviser to Dayan and his bureau chief during this period, said in response, "I have no recollection of these specific matters from that time."
Origins in Etzel?
Another, and more surprising possibility, is suggested by current Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor. Meridor, himself raised in a Revisionist and Herut home, recalls the "declaration of revolt" by Etzel (the pre-state underground group headed by Begin; also known as the Irgun ). In January 1944, when the war in Europe seemed to have reached a turning point, Begin declared a revolt against the British Mandate administration. In practice, this meant the end of the restraint Etzel had shown in its operations against the British forces in Palestine, so as not to interfere with the war against Nazi Germany.
In his declaration, Begin called for the establishment of a provisional Jewish government to replace the British authorities, and added nine more basic principles that would underlie the nascent state. The ninth said that the government "shall confer extraterritorial status on the holy places of the Christian and Muslim religions."
In the view of Prof. Aryeh Naor, who was Begin's secretary: "Begin might have been influenced by the doctrine formulated by Ze'ev Jabotinsky...which contained a very similar idea about the future of Jerusalem. In a document listing 'main points for a provisional plan of government in the Land of Israel,' Jabotinsky stipulated that the city would be headed by a 'special international committee.'"
Also in the background was the 1947 United Nations partition plan. It declared Jerusalem a separate body under a special international regime that it would administer. Ben-Gurion accepted this idea and therefore made no mention of Jerusalem in the Declaration of Independence. Begin rejected the idea, but in the meantime the disputed status of Jerusalem allowed the Etzel forces under his command to continue operating there autonomously for more than 10 months after Israel declared independence.
Beyond the difficulties concerning the proposal's ideological underpinnings, Begin's aides are still perplexed by some of the ideas raised in the meeting by President Carter and Secretary of State Vance: The possibility that the Vatican would serve as a model - and that there would be close relations between the religious committees - these accord Begin's proposal unprecedented implications.
"He meant what he said," asserts one source, who was close to the premier for many years. "If he raised the idea, he meant it. Begin was not a man of 'spins.' He possessed rare political integrity."
Begin's other close aides express similar opinions and find it difficult to explain the Jerusalem proposal.
Begin's short trip to Washington in December 1977 was relatively successful. The Americans backed part of his peace plan. They had reservations about certain points, notably in connection with his ideas about the solution of the Palestinian question. Carter told the media that Begin's suggestions constituted a positive basis for the continuation of talks. Sadat said he had been optimistic since his visit to Jerusalem, but that after the phone call he received from President Carter, he was "more optimistic" than ever.
Ze'ev Schiff, reporting for Haaretz from Cairo, wrote that large crowds in Ismailia were shouting "Long live Begin." On the day Begin returned, 120,000 people gathered in what is now Rabin Square in Tel Aviv "for an evening of the 'Song of Peace'" on December 18. According to press reports, police reinforcements were called in to control the large and unruly crowd. Several people were injured.
As far as is known, Begin's proposal for the future of Jerusalem was not raised again during the peace negotiations with Egypt. In his recent response to Haaretz, Carter says: "I made a similar proposal at Camp David that was accepted by both Begin and Sadat for a few days. In effect, the holy places would be administered autonomously by each religion, there would be unimpeded access by worshippers, and that Jerusalem would be undivided and its secular issues would be decided by a central governing body. This would relate to transportation, water, waste disposal, electricity, etc. During the final drafting stage, however, all three of us decided it was too politically sensitive for consideration on a global basis."
After this, Begin refused to discuss Jerusalem again and hardened his position on the subject. "For a while," recall some members of the entourage, "this was the most complex issue [under discussion] in the peace process."
The 1979 peace treaty was ultimately accompanied by letters concerning the city's status: Begin declared that Jerusalem would not be divided and would remain Israel's capital; Sadat stated that Arab Jerusalem is part of the West Bank and must be restored to Arab sovereignty.
A year and a half after these events, Begin supported the Basic Law on Jerusalem, which stipulates, "Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel." In 2000, amendments were made to that law, declaring that the city's boundaries would incorporate its eastern section, and that, "No authority that is stipulated in the law of the State of Israel or of the Jerusalem municipality may be transferred either permanently or for an allotted period of time to a foreign body, whether political, governmental or to any other similar type of foreign body."
In 2007, the Knesset passed another amendment, which stipulates that a majority of at least 80 MKs will be required to cede officially any territory or jurisdiction in Jerusalem. A motion recently submitted by MK Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi ) to amend the law yet again in order to stipulate that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and of the Jewish people is still pending on the government agenda. Also in the works is a bill prohibiting negotiations to be held on the city's future.