On This Day

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Bob Daugherty/AP
Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin clasp hands on the North Lawn of the White House after signing the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty,
March 26, 1979.

On This Day: Sadat and Begin Sign Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty

March 26, 2011 07:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On March 26, 1979, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty, in which the two countries ended a three-decade state of war and established diplomatic relations.

Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty Signed

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Since its formation in 1948, Israel had not been recognized by any Arab state and did not have diplomatic relations with any of these countries. It was involved in frequent military conflicts with the Arab world, including four wars with Egypt, its neighbor to the west.

In the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel seized the Sinai Peninsula, a large piece of land located on Egypt’s border with Israel. Egypt tried to regain Sinai in an October 1973 surprise attack. Though the Israeli military eventually repulsed the invaders and actually gained territory, it suffered heavy losses. The war damaged the morale of the Israeli public and forced the government to consider a peace settlement with Egypt.

Attempts by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to negotiate a peace through one-on-one meetings with each country were unsuccessful. Upon taking office in 1977, President Jimmy Carter attempted to hold peace talks with Israel and several Arab nations present, but Israel and Egypt were unwilling.

The first step toward peace was made in November 1977, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat agreed to visit Israel and speak before the Knesset (Israeli parliament). His visit, the first by any Arab leader, was an implicit recognition of Israeli sovereignty.

Talks between Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, a hardliner, stalled. In September 1978, Carter invited Sadat and Begin to Camp David, a presidential retreat in Maryland, where the three men negotiated a peace settlement over 12 days. Carter frequently acted as an intermediary between Sadat and Begin, drafting proposals through a series of one-on-one meetings.

The sticking point of the negotiations was the future of Israeli settlements on the Sinai Peninsula. Though Begin steadfastly refused to pull out of Sinai, he relented on the last day of negotiations, allowing for a compromise. On Sept. 17, 1978, Sadat and Begin signed the Camp David Accords.

The accords called for Israel to withdraw its forces and abandon its settlement on the Sinai, and grant some concessions on the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. Egypt agreed to diplomatically recognize the state of Israel and to give Israeli ships access to the Suez Canal.

For their work signing the Camp David Accords, Begin and Sadat received the Nobel Peace Prize for 1978. During his presentation speech, the chairman of the Nobel Committee said, “Never has the Peace Prize expressed a greater or more audacious hope—a hope of peace for the people of Egypt, for the people of Israel, and for all the peoples of the strife-torn and war-ravaged Middle East.”

In March 1979, in a ceremony outside the White House, Sadat and Begin signed a formal peace treaty based on the Camp David Accords. It formally ended the state of war that had existed since 1948 and established “normal and friendly relations.”

Sadat and Begin praised Carter’s role in brokering the peace, but there remained contention between the two men over the future of Jerusalem and the Palestinian people. Begin made two references to Israeli control of Jerusalem “in a context that was likely to prove embarrassing to Mr. Sadat,” wrote The New York Times, while a section of Sadat’s prepared speech that he did not read made mention of a “grave injustice” inflicted upon the Palestinians.

Key Players: President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin

Anwar Sadat
Anwar Sadat was the first leader of an Arab nation to recognize Israel as a legitimate state; this made him popular in the West but was not well regarded by those in the Middle East.

On Oct. 6, 1981, members of the Islamic Egyptian Jihad, who opposed the peace treaty, killed Sadat. The attack occurred during a military parade commemorating the eighth anniversary of the Yom Kippur War.

Menachem Begin
Menachem Begin spent almost 30 years in the Knesset as an opposition leader; in 1977, his center-right coalition, Likud, gained a majority and he became prime minister. His most notable accomplishment in the office was signing the Peace Treaty.

In 1982, he oversaw a controversial attack on Beirut, which damaged his political reputation. In poor health and grieving the death of his wife, Begin resigned from office a year later. He died on March 8, 1992.

Historical Context: Israel’s Founding and the Six-Day War

After World War II, Israel was founded under the auspices of the United Nations. The Arab states did not endorse the UN plan for the creation of a Jewish homeland on what was then known as part of Palestine.

When the British mandate to govern Palestine ended in 1948, Israel declared independence, and five Arab armies attacked the fledging state. During 15 months of fighting, Israel repelled the attackers and, in doing so, took more land than was apportioned by the United Nations. Non-Jewish residents fled from both the original borders of Israel and from the land that had been annexed, becoming the first of the Palestinian refugees.

In 1967, Israel expected an attack was imminent by Egypt when Egypt’s President Gamal Abdul Nasser sent troops into the Sinai, the isthmus of land joining Egypt to Israel, and set up a naval blockade around the Red Sea port town of Eilat. In June of that year, Israel acted preemptively to counter the strike it alleged was being planned by the neighboring Arab states, launching a conflict that would later be known as the Six-Day War.

In responding as it did, Israel won a decisive victory, not only crushing the armed forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, but also occupying territory in the Sinai, the Golan Heights,  Jerusalem and the West Bank.
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