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Interview with Elyakim Rubinstein on the Camp David Accords

‘Begin and Sadat shared a sense of drama’

Interview with Elyakim Rubinstein on the Camp David Accords
Photograph: Thore Schröder

In 1978, Eljakim Rubinstein was a member of the Israeli delegation at Camp David when Sadat and Begin made peace. 40 years later, the former diplomat is still impressed by the willingness to compromise – and the last-minute efforts to save the deal.

zenith: 40 years ago, Israel made peace with Egypt. But today, it is a mere cold peace. Would you still regard the Camp David Accords as a success?
Elyakim Rubinstein: Definitely. The reason is simple: Between 1948 and 1977, there were five wars between Israel, the Egyptians and other Arabs: 1948, 1956, 1967, the War of Attrition, 1973. Since 1977, there were no more wars, only a few very sad boundary occurrences in which lives were taken, but no wars. The “No more war” slogan proclaimed by President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin was achieved.


Did you feel triumphant at the time?
No, we did not feel triumphant. We felt satisfied. There was happiness of course. But it was not a small price which we had to pay: the Sinai settlements, the airport, the security notion. But we did celebrate, because it was a major historical change, peace with the biggest Arab country. After five wars.


Who deserves the most praise for it?
All of the leaders. When we were first thinking about negotiations, we did not think of Sadat’s visit. Sadat did it and then Begin understood immediately what it meant and was willing to pay more than he had earlier anticipated. The whole Sinai. So he made a big leap. And Carter deserves the credit to have invested so much.


But it is a peace between states, not peoples. Was this outcome predictable?
No. We were hoping for normalization. And in the following years, I was very much involved in the so-called normalization agreements. There were 50 or so memoranda. We were hoping that they would be implemented across different fields like culture, transportation, trade–you name it. But only part of it was implemented. We were hoping it would take off, but it took off only very partially.


Why was the success so limited?
Because Egypt wanted to limit the relations to the minimum, for political reasons.


How did the political constellations at that time make Camp David possible?
Sadat in 1973 had tried to reclaim the Sinai Peninsula–a surprise attack that had caused losses on our side. But at the end of the war, we stood 101 kilometres from Cairo. So he realized that he wouldn’t succeed by war. And Moshe Dayan then took into consideration that Sadat was investing in the canal cities Ismailiyya and Port Said after the 1975 interim agreement. Dayan concluded that he would not do that if he wanted another war. In a war, these cities would be ruined in half a day. Sadat seems to have felt that the right way to get Sinai back was the path of peace. He decided to try that. Then came his visit to Jerusalem which the Arab world, of course, did not like. They threw out the Egyptian ambassadors.


And on the Israeli side?
After the Yom Kippur war and all the losses, the time was ripe.


When you heard of the invitation to Camp David, to such an unusual summit, what were your thoughts?
We thought that if we would stay there for four days and if we came out without being blamed for failure and if the process would continue, that would be good enough. When we started, we did not think that this would last for 13 days and would lead to an agreement.


Was there a moment when you realized: This could well turn out to be a success?
Only on the last day. There were ups and downs. We were dealing with two subjects: the peace with Egypt and Palestinian autonomy. At the time, a Palestinian state was out of question for Israel. But some of us thought that the autonomy that we reached may one day become a first step towards a Palestinian state.


What about the peace talks with Egypt?
The main concern for Israel was peace with Egypt, although the Palestinian issue was important. And the notion of achieving that was high. There had been five wars, thousands of casualties. Now there presented itself an opportunity to stop these hostilities. That is why Begin agreed to the deal on Sinai, subject to Knesset approval. For Egypt, the main concern was getting Sinai back. For the US, it was the Palestinian issue. But they were all interwoven.


Do you remember a particularly decisive moment during the talks?
On the last Sunday, in the morning, it seemed like we were there. But the Americans suddenly started coming up with Jerusalem, so we were told to pack and go home. I am not sure if that was a tactical move by Begin. But the subject of Jerusalem was vital for him. He would not accept anything on Jerusalem at that point. And there was another crisis later, after Camp David, regarding the freezing of settlement construction, as to what Begin had promised Carter during the summit. Begin insisted rightly that he had promised only three months, which then became six months, during the negotiations for the peace treaty. But not until the Palestinian issue would be resolved, which is what Carter thought.


What was the atmosphere like in Camp David between the leaders and the delegations?
Unlike what happened later, with the Jordanians and the Palestinians even, the atmosphere at Camp David was polite, but not warm. The delegations, as well as the leaders, were separated. It was too early for friendship. We already knew some members of the other side from the Sadat visit which had taken place nine months earlier. But the atmosphere was still business-like, polite, correct, not warm. Most of the time the leaders did not meet in person, but went rather through Carter. Also, Sadat met a few of our people privately. But I should add that on the last day, after everything was finalized, very cordial meetings between Sadat and Begin took place. There were mutual visits and the pictures from then show of a lot of smiles. That was on the last evening before we flew to Washington to sign. I was present during Sadat’s visit to Begin’s cabin; it was very cordial, very nice. They showed each other pictures of their grandchildren. But this was after the agreement had already been reached.


Can you describe their differences in character and manner?
They were totally different. But they had one thing in common: They both had a sense of drama. That showed in their respective visits, to Israel and to Egypt. Begin was a lawyer. While he also knew the big picture, he was interested in texts. He was a man of the written word. Sadat was more interested in the big picture but not in the written details. Carter on the other side was an engineer, and as such was also interested in details. While we have a lot of criticism for him regarding his attitude towards our country over the years, one cannot take the credit for Camp David away from him. He was invested during those 13 days, and almost permanently. During a time when he was facing this crisis with Iran. He deserves the credit for that effort, and for the result.


Did the events in Iran influence the talks in any way?
These events were floating around somehow, without having immediate effects. But I remember that the atmosphere was worrisome. Iran was a factor.


Was this a looming threat that brought you further together?
Not that I remember. But the events in Iran were bad and Carter was dealing with it. So it was there in the air. But never in the negotiations, if my recollection is accurate.


What was your role and that of your superior, Moshe Dayan?
I was the most junior member of the delegation, I was only 31 years old. So let us rather speak of Dayan. He was a creative person which was important in the negotiations. He contributed a lot, he was generating ideas all the time to overcome problems. I was his assistant, I was a lawyer. And there were two more senior lawyers. Aharon Barak, who played a very important role in the last few days. Because that was when Carter took Barak and the Egyptian Osama Al-Baz to sit down with him and they were reporting back to their delegations. And there was Meir Rosenne. So I was number three. But Begin was very democratic. He would convene with us every day at least three times to discuss language and ideas. And he let everyone speak, also me as the junior member. He did like me personally. So I did try to contribute.


Where exactly was Dayan’s input instrumental?
On all levels. It may have been his idea to include the agreement to withdraw from Sinai subject to Knesset approval, but I am not sure. Begin decided to go to the Knesset.


In your long career, how important was and is Camp David to you?
I always speak about the Sadat visit as a major highlight. Back then, Dayan called me and asked me if I wanted to be at the airport. I should not have been there by my protocol rank. It then became a very moving moment which I will never forget. Camp David is surely one of the important milestones of my government service. Personally, I regard as very important chairing the delegation during the peace negotiations with Jordan which took place from 1991 until 1994. Because as a chair you can contribute more, you can be more creative when you have leeway.


Would this outcome have been possible one or two years later? Or was this a unique window of opportunity back in 1978 and 1979?
“If” is not a term in history. But Camp David was a gamble, Carter took a gamble. Camp David took place ten months after Sadat’s visit. There were nine months in which there was a lot of efforts and meetings, but it did not move ahead. We were meeting in Jerusalem, then Ismailiyya, another time in Jerusalem, we had Salzburg, we had Leeds Castle in Britain. And all of it did not help. Then Carter decided that he could not let it go and gambled on this conference. It was very unusual. When we arrived, we did not know how long it would take, what would happen. 13 days and twelve nights. Begin used to say “13 days and 13 nights” (mimics his voice). So the answer is: It surely was a window of opportunity, but I cannot say that it was the only one.


Would this summit have been possible without Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977?
That was the trigger, the beginning. It was a major surprise. We had contacts with Egypt before that through Morocco and others. But when he announced that he would come, we did not look at it like it was really going to happen. But after a few days that changed and Begin seized the opportunity. It was a major, major step. As I said, I was at the airport to welcome him and it was like the wings of history were flapping. The airplane which brought him: those were the wings of history.


Carter, Sadat and Begin represented the three monotheistic religions and were very pious. What role did religion play in the process?
I am sure that in their minds they were all praying. Begin was very traditional. I remember him bringing Carter and all the delegation on Friday night to a traditional dinner. We all participated in the Jewish Shabbat ceremony. And he would say “thank God” and “with the help of the Almighty”. But this was not part of the negotiations.


Was the question of Sadat’s or the Egyptian state’s anti-Semitism raised?
I have no recollection of that. But later, as a cabinet secretary in the late 1980s, I established the government monitoring of anti-Semitism. The Egyptian media was looming high in this respect. I was talking to the Egyptian ambassador all the time about it.


Were there any similar land-for-peace considerations vis-à-vis Syria at the time? For instance, did you compare the Sinai with the Golan?
This was not looming high at the time. Not in the talks in Camp David. When we met Al-Tohamy, the Egyptian emissary, in December 1977 in Morocco we submitted a peace proposal to him which included a paragraph on Syria. He cut that part out and gave it back to us, saying: “This you do with them, not with us.”


What did you generally expect to happen in the region after the peace treaty? Were you hoping for a domino effect?
I would not speak in those terms, but we were hoping that Jordan, for instance, would join. We thought this was vital to implement the agreement properly concerning the Palestinian issue. But the Kingdom did not join.


Which role did the Palestinians play?
You have to distinguish: This was important for the Egyptians, but most important for them was to get Sinai back, that was their priority. For Carter it was the other way around. He was almost messianic on the Palestinian issue. But he understood that this would not move ahead without peace between the two countries. So he worked on both.


How do you assess the relations between Egypt and Israel today?
I understand the strategic part is reasonable, for the benefit of both sides. As for the bilateral relations, I do not think it is blooming, but I am not involved in it any more.


At the time of the signing, how long did you assume this agreement would last?
Personally, I was optimistic. It was in the interest of both sides. It is true that the Egyptians were not enthusiastic about the normalization project. But they wanted to make sure that the withdrawal from Sinai would take place. They did not want to be blamed for not fulfilling their obligations. With respect to the bilateral relations part at least, there was great optimism, we thought this was going to last. The normalization part has been only partially implemented, though.


And what did you believe when Sadat was assassinated in 1981?
I remember the last conversation I had with Dayan. It was two days after Sadat was killed and eight days before he himself died. We talked on the phone about how to preserve the peace. Since Sadat was killed by fundamentalists, Dayan was afraid of a Khomeneization of Egypt. This was only six months before we had to evacuate Sinai. Now think about the fundamentalists which are in Sinai today, like Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis. So Dayan thought we could involve the Americans more in the evacuation process, maybe securing airfields. He said we should be very keen on the implementation of the normalization process. Yes, our last conversation was about the preservation of peace.

Elyakim Rubinstein (71), has had a long career in law and diplomacy. He was born shortly before the founding of Israel in Tel Aviv, studied law in Jerusalem and began his career in Israel's Foreign Ministry in 1977, shortly before Sadat's visit. After Camp David, he held various top diplomatic positions, including at the embassy in Washington and as chairman of the delegation negotiating the peace deal with Jordan in 1994. In 1997, Rubinstein was appointed Attorney General. From 2004 on, served as a judge at the Supreme Court, since 2015 as deputy president. In 2017, on his 70th birthday, he retired.

Thore Schröder