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Two Weeks at Camp David

There was no love lost between Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin. But at the very brink of failure, they found a way to reach agreement

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Begin's credentials as a peacemaker were as improbable as Sadat's. He was born in 1913 in the Polish city of Brest-Litovsk, then part of the Russian Empire. In later years he would say that his first memory was of a Polish soldier beating a Jew. Thin and frail, Begin studied law in Warsaw. But he never practiced. He was a disciple of Revisionist Zionism, a movement that advocated establishing a Jewish state immediately and not leaving the decision up to Britain, which, in 1922, had been given a mandate by the League of Nations to oversee Palestine. The Zionist faction favored establishing the state either by settling an overwhelming number of Jews in Palestine or taking it by force.

In World War II, Begin reached Palestine as a soldier in a Polish Army detachment. His parents, a brother and other relatives all perished in the Holocaust. Begin was haunted by their memories. "The sighs of the condemned press in from afar and interrupt one's slumber," he once wrote, adding: "In these inescapable moments, every Jew in the country feels unwell because he is well."

Begin became the leader of a Jewish guerrilla group called Irgun Zvai Leumi. In 1944, he ordered the bombing of Jerusalem's KingDavidHotel, headquarters of the British military in Palestine. The explosion killed 91 people, among them 42 Arabs, 28 Britons and 17 Jews. He rejected allegations that the attack was terrorism; the hotel was a military target, he maintained, and the Irgun had phoned a warning to the British eight minutes before the bomb went off. Begin expressed regret only for the death of the 17 Jews.

The incident made Begin something of a pariah to Israel's founders. David Ben-Gurion, then the chairman of the Jewish Agency, a precursor of Israel's government, called the Irgun "dissidents and terrorists." After Israel achieved independence and Ben-Gurion became prime minister in 1949, he refused to refer to Begin by name, even after Begin had entered the Knesset, or Israeli parliament, as the leader of a small, right-wing party that same year.

Through seven failed campaigns for prime minister, Begin stuck to his Revisionist Zionism, which advocated a much larger homeland than that recognized by the United Nations in 1947 when it delineated Israel's borders. Begin's slogan after the 1967 war was "not one inch"—the amount of West Bank land he thought Israel should return to the Arabs.

Begin's political fortunes rose after a financial scandal involved leaders of the Labor Party in May 1977. He was by then leader of a right-wing coalition called Likud, which had won a national election, making him prime minister in June. Begin believed the majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza should be satisfied with limited autonomy under Israeli control. "He felt that Israel, with its sophisticated democratic philosophy, could . . . have a benign relationship [with the Palestinians]," Harold Saunders, assistant secretary of state for the Middle East at the time of Camp David, recalled to me.

"I don't think he ever met a Palestinian," Samuel Lewis, the U.S. ambassador to Israel from 1977 to 1985, said in an interview. "If he ever met one, he certainly never had much of a conversation with him."

Carter, 53 at the time of Camp David, had a strong interest in the Middle East, rooted in his Baptist faith. Carter read a chapter from the Bible every evening (in Spanish), steeping himself in the region's history of conflict. Preparing for the summit, he referred in his notes to the possibility of the first peace between Egypt and the Jews in 2,600 years.

Within four months of taking office, the new president had held summit meetings with the leaders of Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia. He had sounded them out about their opinions and sharpened his own. He thought that Israel, in exchange for peace, would have to give back the territory it had acquired in 1967, except for minor border modifications to enhance security. He spoke of a homeland, though not necessarily a state, for the Palestinians.

Carter hoped that Camp David's informal, sylvan setting would encourage the leaders and their delegations to mix, to see one another in human terms, to begin to trust each other, to compromise. Accordingly, Carter ordered that the attendees remain sequestered: the only news from the summit would come from daily briefings by Carter's press secretary, Jody Powell. "If you got into a situation in which both sides were playing to their constituencies back home, that would substantially diminish the chances of success," Powell recalled. "You'd get a dynamic where reporters are looking for the sexiest quote they can get, and one of the best ways to do that is to bait one side with a paraphrase or quote from someone on the other side. Before you know it, the public debate is escalating and people get themselves boxed in."

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