Jensehaugen on Steinberg and Rubinovitz, 'Menachem Begin and the Israel-Egypt Peace Process: Between Ideology and Political Realism'

Author: 
Gerald M. Steinberg, Ziv Rubinovitz
Reviewer: 
Jørgen Jensehaugen

Gerald M. Steinberg, Ziv Rubinovitz. Menachem Begin and the Israel-Egypt Peace Process: Between Ideology and Political Realism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019. 378 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-253-03952-1.

Reviewed by Jørgen Jensehaugen (Peace Research Institute Oslo) Published on H-Diplo (October, 2019) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54200

The 1978 Camp David Accords and the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty stand as the first real diplomatic breakthrough in the Arab-Israeli conflict. They were the result of a concentrated diplomatic endeavor from three very different statesmen who worked vigorously to achieve their goals: US president Jimmy Carter; Egyptian president Anwar Sadat; and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin.

While Carter also tried, but failed, to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace, the success of the peace between Israel and Egypt stands as one of his greatest achievements. Despite everything the peace still holds today. With forty years having passed since these momentous events, it is high time to revisit how they came about. Not only does the timing itself make such research relevant, but the recent declassification of archival material in the United States and Israel enables researchers to get primary access to the decision-making processes. The focus of Gerald M. Steinberg and Ziv Rubinovitz’s book is on the principle actor on the Israeli side, Menachem Begin. This sets their work apart from some of the other recent analyses of the negotiations.

Coming out as the last in a series of recent books on these negotiations places the authors at a disadvantage. Finding space amongst the existing and ever-expanding literature is always challenging, but there is room to be found. To summarize the focus of three of the most recent works in question: Seth Anziska’s Preventing Palestine (2018) investigates how a Palestinian state was prevented as a result of Israeli and US policies starting with Begin-Carter, but going up until the Yitzhak Rabin-Bill Clinton era; Daniel Strieff’s Jimmy Carter and the Middle East (2015) focuses on how US domestic politics constrained Carter’s Middle East policies; and my own Arab-Israeli Diplomacy under Carter (2018) analyzes Carter’s failed attempt to include the Palestinians in his broader Arab-Israeli diplomacy. Thematically then, there is room for an account such as this, which places Begin center stage in the diplomatic arena. 

As compared to most academic accounts Steinberg and Rubinovitz present a more sympathetic account of Begin. In part this stems from the fact that they focus more on the Egyptian-Israeli part of the negotiations, which was successfully concluded due to Begin’s compromises, and less on the Palestinian aspects of the negotiations, which were successfully undermined by Begin. Their more positive focus further stems from the fact that they analyze the domestic pressure Begin was under, in particular from his more ideologically extreme rivals on the right. Compared to the Herut activists who called him a traitor for making peace with Egypt, Begin comes out looking like a dove. He also comes out in a more positive light because the authors undercommunicate the harshness of Begin’s rhetoric and the consequences of his settlement expansion policies. For instance, while they discuss how his autonomy proposal laid the conceptual groundwork for Oslo, I find that they do not adequately reflect on the fact that the settlement expansion, which accelerated massively under Begin, simultaneously ensured that such autonomy would never have adequate depth. Their only real mention of the impact of the settlements on the autonomy negotiations after the peace treaty was signed is that they “irritated” the Americans (p. 222). Furthermore, while they do mention Begin’s extreme rhetoric vis-à-vis the Palestinians—rejecting the term “Palestinian,” calling the PLO Nazis, etc.—this is really only discussed for the period prior to his premiership. Begin did not tone this down when he became prime minister despite the fact that 1977 was a year when the PLO period of moderation was at its peak.[1]   

Steinberg and Rubinovitz are at their best when they analyze Begin’s domestic political environment and the diplomatic room for maneuver he had as a result. The first three chapters, focusing on Begin’s political life prior to becoming prime minister, and chapter 6, titled “The Domestic Political Struggle over the Camp David Accords: September 1978,” are the most concentrated examples of this, but the theme is dispersed throughout the rest of the book as well. Particularly the first three chapters show how there was an evolution in Begin’s ideology, a fact often missed in more snapshot accounts of his political life. The book would have benefited from including more on Israeli domestic politics in the chapters dealing with the negotiations, as this is where the book stands out as adding empirical depth to a story well told in other works.[2]

The authors make a good case when they argue that the Americans failed to understand both Israeli domestic politics in general and Begin’s deep-rooted ideological position in particular. We get a deeper understanding of how difficult it was for him to give up the Sinai and we get a clearer picture of how he absolutely refused to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza.

The account is less convincing when the authors discuss Carter’s attempts to pressure Begin. This is chiefly because they overstate that pressure. Some examples are in order. For one, they write that Carter worked toward the goal of establishing a Palestinian state. This is simply not true. Carter would use vague phrases such as “homeland,” but he never talked about independent Palestinian statehood.[3] Begin might well have seen that on the horizon if indeed Carter’s vague idea of a “homeland” for the Palestinians and full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza had come into fruition, but the authors do not make a distinction between what Carter aimed for and what Begin feared as a consequence. Second, the authors state that Carter’s pressure increased after Camp David but prior to the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt. They call this a period of “Negotiation by Attrition.” While it is true that there were harsh verbal exchanges between Carter and Begin in this period, the real pressure was lacking, a fact that the authors even admit (p. 208). This explains how Begin was able to stand firm against the US president without facing any consequences. Begin knew that the Israeli relationship with the US was a stable one and that if push came to shove, he could wait Carter out. This, in the end, was exactly what he did when it came to the autonomy negotiations.  

There are central questions left unanswered by the authors. For instance, based on what transpired after the peace treaty with Egypt was signed, how convinced are they that Begin really was willing to grant the Palestinians autonomy? My research indicates that he was not willing to grant them such status and I was looking forward to reading their judgement on the matter.[4] They suggest that the concept was put forth as a real concession, and that it was later used as a model for Oslo, but they do not adequately comment on how Begin saw the concept moving forward given that it never came to fruition. What, in their opinion, stopped Begin from pushing to implement autonomy?

The book also suffers from placing more weight on memoirs and existing literature than on the primary archive material the authors investigated. As mentioned, the book is also disadvantaged by being the last in a series of historical reexaminations. It does not help that many of the books that preceded it relied more on in-depth archival studies. All in all, though, the book is a useful Israel-centered counterweight to the existing, mostly US-centered literature.

Notes

[1]. For an example of such harsh Begin rhetoric, see Statement by Prime Minister Begin to the Zionist General Council, 23 June 1977, in Meron Medzini, Israel’s Foreign Relations: Selected Documents, 1977-1982 (Jerusalem: Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1981), 10–11. The PLO moderation of 1977 refers to the 1977 PNC which built on the 1974 ten-point program implicitly indicating acceptance of a two-state solution. Jørgen Jensehaugen, Arab–Israeli Diplomacy under Carter: The U.S., Israel and the Palestinians (London: I.B.Tauris, 2018), 46.

[2]. In addition to the accounts mentioned above, the most important works are Lawrence Wright, Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014); William B. Quandt, Camp David: Peacemaking and Politics (Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1986); Shibley Telhami, Power and Leadership in International Bargaining: The Path to the Camp David Accords (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990); Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov, Israel and the Peace Process, 1977-1982: In Search of Legitimacy for Peace (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994); Ilan Peleg, Begin’s Foreign Policy, 1977-83: Israel’s Move to the Right (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987); and Kenneth W. Stein, Heroic Diplomacy: Sadat, Kissinger, Carter, Begin and the Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace (London: Routledge, 1999). A long series of articles has also appeared over the last decade.

[3]. Jørgen Jensehaugen, Arab-Israeli Diplomacy under Carter, 5, 57, 61, 122, 177, 183; Craig Daigle, “Beyond Camp David: Jimmy Carter, Palestinian Self-Determination, and Human Rights,” Diplomatic History 42, no. 5 (2018): 802–30; and Jeremy Pressman, “Explaining the Carter Administration’s Israeli–Palestinian Solution,” Diplomatic History 37, no. 5 (2013): 1117–47.

[4]. Jensehaugen, Jørgen, “Smokescreen Diplomacy: Excluding the Palestinians by Self-Rule,” The Middle East Journal 73, no. 2 (2019): 224–41.

Jørgen Jensehaugen is a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). He holds a PhD in history from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). In 2018 he published his first book, Arab-Israeli Diplomacy under Carter: The U.S., Israel and the Palestinians (I.B.Tauris). He has also published a series of academic articles, most recently “A Palestinian window of opportunity? The PLO, the US and the Iranian hostage crisis” in the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies.

Citation: Jørgen Jensehaugen. Review of Steinberg, Gerald M.; Rubinovitz, Ziv, Menachem Begin and the Israel-Egypt Peace Process: Between Ideology and Political Realism. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. October, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54200

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