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

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:

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.


[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.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.


1 Reply

Post Reply

Authors’ Response to Jørgen Jensehaugen’s review of Gerald M. Steinberg and Ziv Rubinovitz’s Menachem Begin and the Israel-Egypt Peace Process: Between Ideology and Political Realism

Learning the Lessons of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Process – A rejoinder

Authors’ response by Gerald M. Steinberg, Bar Ilan University, and Ziv Rubinovitz, Sonoma State University

The Israel-Egypt peace treaty of 1979 stands as an exceptional diplomatic success, and remains an anchor of stability, 40 years later. In this time-frame, there are no other cases in which a major international conflict has been ended through negotiation. This unique example is therefore of major importance for scholars and practitioners wishing to learn from and duplicate the positive outcome. In particular, the model of the 1978 Camp David summit, from which the two leaders, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, emerged with a framework agreement, has been studied in detail and applied on numerous occasions since then.[1]

In attempting to draw wider lessons, it is of course essential to get the details right. It is in this framework that we revisited the historical record in our book, Menachem Begin and the Israel-Egypt Peace Process: Between Ideology and Political Realism with a particular emphasis on the extensive documentary material that has recently become available and was not considered in previous analyses. In particular, the opening of the Israeli archives is central to this effort. Unlike the American participants, led by President Jimmy Carter, and to a lesser degree, the Egyptians, Begin did not publish memoirs or leave interviews explaining his perceptions and decision-making considerations. The Israeli documents, including detailed meeting protocols and diplomatic cables fill in many of the details, as noted in Jørgen Jensehaugen’s review of our book, which was published on H-Diplo on October 19, 2019.[2]

Where we differ with Jensehaugen’s position is, first, on the importance of this reexamination, which contrasts sharply with the standard narrative that was largely based on the American version. The unclassified US documentation of this period is very thin, and the various memoirs and edited diary entries, are often inconsistent and problematic.

Instead of a ‘reluctant peace-maker’ and implacable ideologue, as Begin is often portrayed, the Israeli leader is shown in our book to have been committed to seeking a peace treaty with Sadat based on Israel’s fundamental national interest. As early as June 1967, in the immediate aftermath of the war, Begin developed a coherent and realist-based policy based on “land for peace” with respect to Egypt. And from his first day in office ten years later, the Israeli leader sought out third-party messengers and back channels to Sadat, which produced their historic meeting in Jerusalem, on November 19, 1977. Begin and Sadat firmly rejected Carter’s efforts to convene a grand peace conference, to be co-chaired by the Soviets, as naive and counter-productive.

But in the initial talks, the Palestinian dimension became a major obstacle. In addition to the return of Sinai, Sadat wanted progress on the West Bank, which Begin referred to as Judea and Samaria, and here his intense ideological commitment was central. Limited autonomy under Israeli security control was the most he would consider. From this perspective, the negotiation process consisted primarily of reaching an agreement on the bilateral dimensions while rejecting pressures from Carter and Sadat regarding the Palestinians.

In this delicate balancing act, Begin had to contend with the realities of Israeli domestic politics, which are largely neglected in the ‘standard’ histories, memoirs, and analyses.[3] Carter and his advisors related to Begin as a unitary actor, much like the American president and Sadat in Egypt. But the reality was very different – after taking power for the first time in the 1977 elections, Begin headed a fragile coalition in which his right-wing Herut faction was the core. Many of the Members of Knesset (Israel’s Parliament) were uncompromising ideologues, and rejected Begin’s willingness to make pragmatic concessions to Sadat in exchange for peace. After Camp David and again, six months later, after the March 1979 agreement, Begin was subject to intense denunciations and shrill protests from his closest political allies.

The impact of the domestic political and ideological dimensions on the negotiations with Sadat and with Carter is essential in understanding the interstate process (the two-level game in the international relations literature).[4]  Scholars who insist that with more American pressure the negotiations could have also produced an agreement on the Palestinian dimension, including a state, underestimate the power of these basic factors. Without Begin, there would have been no treaty, and he was not going to abandon his core beliefs regarding Judea and Samaria, or destroy his coalition, regardless of American pressure.

These aspects of the negotiation are strongly reflected in the recently declassified Israeli documents, and highlight the omissions and problematic interpretations in many of the previous histories, memoirs and analyses. For current and future negotiators and third-party mediators, it is important to get these points right.

Finally, the review correctly notes that we did not discuss the question of whether Begin would have implemented the plan to grant the Palestinians autonomy.  As there is no documentation of Begin’s thinking on this, scholars can only speculate. In our view, he was serious and would have gone through with it, if the Egyptians and the other relevant actors at the time would have agreed. Our assessment is based on the values he consistently espoused as a Zionist ‘national liberal’ and democrat, and based on the idea of “cultural autonomy” that his mentor, and founder of the Zionist Revisionist movement Zeev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky, wrote about in 1940.[5] Our analysis of Begin’s track record indicates that he would not have presented such a dramatic proposal had he not been willing to implement it. It is also true that his concept of autonomy was far more limited than what Carter and Sadat wanted, and Begin refused to go further to avoid coming close to Palestinian statehood, to which he objected as ideological unacceptable, and as a security risk.

The bottom line, as our book and the documents on which it is based suggest, is that Begin pursued peace based on his perception of Israel’s interests and within the bounds of ideology and domestic political constraints. He and Sadat were successful, and both Israel and Egypt have benefitted greatly from the treaty they reached more than 40 years ago.


Prof. Gerald M. Steinberg, Bar-Ilan University, research interests include diplomacy and negotiation in theory and practice; deterrence and nuclear proliferation; Israeli foreign and security policy; soft power and the politics of human rights. Recent publications: NGO Fact-Finding for IHL Enforcement: In Search of a New Model", Israel Law Review, Cambridge University Press, 51:2 July 2018 , (co-author, Anne Herzberg); "Value Clash: Civil Society, Foreign Funding, and National Sovereignty" Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations 24:1 February 2018 (co-author Becca Wertman; "EU Foreign Policy and the Role of NGOs: The Arab-Israeli Conflict as a Case Study", European Foreign Affairs Review 21:2, 2016.

Dr. Ziv Rubinovitz, Sonoma State University, research interests include US foreign policy, Israeli foreign policy, US-Israel relations. Recent publication: Ziv Rubinovitz and Elai Rettig, “Crude Peace: The Role of Oil Trade in the Israeli-Egyptian Peace Negotiations,” International Studies Quarterly 62, no. 2 (2018): 371-382.


[1] William B. Quandt, Camp David: Peacemaking and Politics (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1986); Kenneth W. Stein, Heroic Diplomacy: Sadat, Kissinger, Carter, Begin, and the Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace (New York: Routledge, 1999); Jacob Bercovitch, “Mediation in International Conflict: An Overview of Theory, a Review of Practice,” in Peacemaking in International Conflict, edited by I. William Zartman and J. Lewis Rasmussen (Washington, DC: United States Institution of Peace Press, 1997), 125–54; Roger Fisher and Willaim Ury. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1981); Louis Kriesberg, “Mediation and the Transformation of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” Journal of Peace Research 38 (2001): 373–92.

[3] Quandt, Camp David; Jimmy Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President (New York: Bantam Books, 1982); Shibley Telhami, Power and Leadership in International Bargaining: The Path to the Camp David Accords. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

[4] Robert D. Putnam, “Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games,” International Organization 42, no. 3 (1988): 427-60.

[5] Vladimir Jabotinsky, The Jewish War Front (London: Allen & Unwin, 1940), ch. 18.