Reply by Prime Minister Begin in the Knesset
at the Close of the Debate on the Camp David Agreements
(September 28, 1978)
Most of the political parties in Israel allowed their members freedom in voting and did not impose party discipline. The leader of the opposition, Mr. Peres, criticized the government's conduct of the negotiations, and claimed the price was too high. But, as a responsible opposition, the Labour Alignment decided to support the agreements. In his summation, Mr. Begin said that 90 percent of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty had already been agreed upon. After a long night session, the Knesset approved the agreements by 84 in favour, 19 against (3 Herut, 3 Laam, 3 NRP, 4 Labour, 4 Communists and 1 Poalei Agudat Israel), 17 abstentions (5 Herut, 4 Laam, 2 Labour and 2 others). Commerce and Industry Minister Hurvitz resigned from the cabinet. Excerpts of Mr. Begin's summation:
The circle of wars has been closed - perhaps for five years. Perhaps for ten. Perhaps for fifty. For a generation or two. This is an historic turning point in the fullest sense of the term.
What makes this night different from all other nights. From all the days, evenings, and dawns? In the past there were battles, and then we signed armistices but the state of war continued. We signed interim agreements and yet the state of war with all its implications continued. But on this night we are discussing the signing of a peace treaty which begins with the following words: 'The state of war between Israel and Egypt has come to an end.'
That is the first sentence of every peace treaty.
It is a great privilege to have reached this night. For the first time since the state was established, the two countries will declare before the nations of the world that the state of war between them is over.
For fifty years I have been serving the cause of Zionism and its liberation movement, today I have heard certain voices, and it is my duty to reply.
From this platform Moshe Shamir MK argued that I had steamrollered the Knesset into the vote. Yet he himself participated in the meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee along with other members and heard me say 'I call upon everyone, irrespective of faction, to unite and vote, favour of this motion which spells the beginning of a new era in Israel's history. Not that there are no difficulties no pains, no decisions, no agonies. But the great hope for a fundamental change is what faces us. Let us unite and close our ranks. We must accept the good together with the bad - and I do not say that there are risks or that sacrifices will have to be made, but the main point is the end of the state of belligerency with the largest and strongest of the Arab states. If Egypt steps out of the vicious circle of wars, Syria cannot attack us because she knows that to do so would be tantamount to suicide, and the Hashemite king would lose his crown. The circle of wars has been closed. Who knows - perhaps for five years, perhaps for ten, perhaps for fifty years. A generation or two. That is the historic turning point in the full sense of the term. I told my friends, they are all sitting here as witnesses - to vote as they thought right, in accordance with their conscious. And then, do I have to hear my friends in the Knesset tell me that I have been trying to steamroller the members of the factions to vote like robots?
As to the settlements at Camp David. For twelve nights and days we explained to the U.S. President and his aides how vital these settlements are to us, how great their value in the their moral importance, and how right the previous governments were to initiate them. In one of the nocturnal conversation, President Carter replied as follows: I shall try once more to persuade President Sadat to agree. From this platform I wish to thank President Carter who tried to persuade President Sadat to come and let the settlements remain. But he did not succeed. It was under the influence of our remarks that the U.S. President said that he would make one more attempt. He did so and told me that he had done his utmost, using every possible argument. But he had not succeeded. President Carter said: "What I heard was: I shall not be able to return. The Egyptian people will not accept that. I shall not be able to sign any agreement... That was what the U.S. President said after his second attempt to persuade the President of Egypt on the matter of those settlements.
We held consultations in our team on what to do next. Should we tell the U.S. President - 'If that's the case we agree to remove the settlements'.
Under no circumstances could we do that. First because we believe that they should be left where they are. How could we go against our own convictions? Secondly because to explain also to our American friends the difference between the Presidential regime and the parliamentary regime. and we formulated the approach in an aphorism as follows: We are the servants of the Knesset and not its rulers.
The Knesset has approved a certain Government programme under which the settlements are to remain where they are. We will not be able to move one inch from that policy otherwise how could we say that we had behind us not only a Cabinet decision but also a decision of the Knesset our Parliament when we implement its decisions.
Then we had an alternative possibility - to tell President Carter 'We say no we do not agree to remove the settlements.' But the Camp David Conference would have been disbanded the same day no agreement would have been signed. The Egyptians would have returned to Cairo. We to Jerusalem. The Americans to Washington.
And as Prime Minister, I say to you dear and honored friends and opponents: In my own heart in my self in my conscience with all my soul I knew that this way the Camp David summit would have broken down - the State of Israel could not stand up in the face of this. Not in America not in Europe. Not before American Jewry. Not before the Jews of other lands. We could not have faced this. All blame would have befallen us.
I know how to bear up under pressures. I don't have to boast about anything. Who as you remembers the past nine months between March and the past month in all of Europe there was only one newspaper named "L'Aurore" which occasionally wrote a kind word and in all of the U.S. there was only one provincial newspaper which wrote a kind word. All of the newspapers in the world in all democratic lands not to mention the Communist countries and others, attacks, the hatred, an obstacle to peace, inciting war - and Israeli newspapers - why mention it. Don't we all read them?
All of us without exception we bore up during these nine months under a perhaps unprecedented pressure, international and internal as well. I need not boast. It's a natural position. One should know how to bear up under pressures and after this experience I say to you ladies and gentlemen: Had the Camp David Conference agreed on everything and broken up just because of the settlements, Israel would not have been able to stand up all of Israel in no way before the Western world. On such a day or in the future it would have had no choice but to announce surrender. This is my estimation. This is my belief. This is my view without hesitation.
For this reason it was my responsibility and I proposed a third way to my two colleagues: Not to say yes not to say no. Since we can say this is a Knesset decision we cannot say to it - break up the Camp David talks. In this way we have a third option: We'll announce that we'll go before the Knesset and it will decide since it has decided in favour and now it will have to decide one way or the other. And then in Camp David the idea was born for a free vote. Everyone according to his conscience. First we'll vote on the two agreements. I had no doubt that the decisive majority of the Knesset would raise its hands in favour and afterwards separately we'll vote on the settlements. Everyone according to his conscience and the decision of the Knesset will be carried out. And I said to the American President: We'll put it before the Knesset and you should know that if the Knesset decides to hold on to the settlements they'll be held on to no matter what. We accept the decision of the Knesset. This is the story of Camp David.
There's a small addendum: On our way to President Carter, I said to my friend Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan: I have another idea: I'll say to President Carter that it's desirable that the impression not be formed that I'm trying to influence the Members of the Knesset. Maybe I won't even participate in the deliberation. The Foreign Minister said to me: It's not right. if you tell the American President that you won't participate in the deliberation. How can a Prime Minister not participate in such a deliberation? I took his advice after we finished a night conversation with President Carter we told him:
We can in no way accept the responsibility for taking apart the settlements. We are obliged to bring this matter to the Knesset for a decision. We worked out a decision-formulation written that the Knesset will decide on the withdrawal of the settlements. We said: No, the small and big word 'NO'. Because it wasn't only written that the Knesset will decide on the withdrawal of the settlements. We already hinted at the contents of the decision. He proposed that we write it in the future tense: We again said no. This is also a hint though more veiled with regard to the settlements. We agreed that it should be written 'The problem will be decided by the Knesset'.
After we decided this it was already midnight. The President asked us. He asked me a very interesting question namely: Maybe, Mr. Prime Minister you won't participate in the deliberation. Then Dayan and I almost broke out in laughter. He asked - why are you laughing? - Then Dayan told him the story: This initiative came from the Prime Minister but I told him: No. It's not possible. The Prime Minister must participate in the deliberations. This was how it was and if this idea would have been accepted in Israel we would have two votes. One on the two agreements signed in the White House and the second separate entirely on the settlements. (The Prime Minister here describes how the idea was cancelled).
And now I want to say to the Knesset Members on this side of opponents and to this side on which I have both -supporters and opponents. I already spelled everything out. For all sides of the House. I'll say very simple things to you on the Government's responsibility and also according to what I said then. You remember MK Rabin after Entebbe about that additional iota of responsibility of the Prime Minister.
The choice is one. The responsibilities. Two, in the past session someone interrupted my remarks saying it was an ultimatum to the Knesset. It never was. I'm just explaining reality to you we're not taking a sharp clear-cut decision today that is not in any doubt. If the peace negotiations don't start everything that was decided in Camp David is null and void. This isn't my expression. This isn't my formulation. It's written: This is what's written: The talks will not start. This is the choice.
And there is no third choice. This is not an ultimatum. My friends this is an explaining reality. Every MK must know not to fool himself so I asked myself: Can you accept responsibility on yourself and impose it on your colleagues? To take a decision today and not decide on the settlements or decide on their remaining, knowing that no negotiations would start and that all our labours during the twelve days and twelve nights of Camp David would go up in smoke would fall into an abyss or - take the responsibility. Take up the load hear words of denigration hear stinging and damning and repulsive words in this House and outside it. Accept everything gracefully because this is the love for its own sake that is part of the Jewish tradition. Take the responsibility and say to the Knesset and say to the People: This is the most practical chance to reach a Peace Treaty for the first time in thirty years. The Peace Treaty is practically ready. What has been agreed on the bilateral relations between Egypt and Israel is almost the entire Peace Treaty. All that's required is to copy it over and add a few things a few paragraphs that do not arouse any differences of opinion at all and this problem and we have a Peace Agreement maybe in the coming two-three months.
And everything I've said here has already been reached. Is within reach. It's not November. This isn't December in Ismailiya. This isn't Leeds. It's Camp David. We've practically achieved the entire contents of the Peace Treaty. How will you decide? How will you determine? To say all this and throw everything away? To say: Our settlements remain? and I want to tell you something about the settlements. How dear they are to me. I don't separate between parties and settlements everyone knows I love every settler and every pioneer. When I was a member of the United National Government the Kibbutzim of Mapam invited me for lectures and they heard and they saw and they knew love from the heart. All my life you haven't realised this. Maybe you didn't want to read: Ze'ev Jabotinsky and his disciples also said that the pioneering enterprise of nobles and in '48 when we went from bondage to freedom I called to the members of the Irgun: The war is over. Let's go and cultivate the land of our homeland. And the settlements were founded then. I love them all. All from the heart. Deep inside it's true there are three Beitar settlements in the Rafiah Salient. Young people. Youths. This is relatively a sizable proportion. They come to me also as a Beitarist who joined this movement at age 16 and they say their part of course how the heart pains and aches.
But when I fulfill the function of Prime Minister, I'm obliged to think of the consequences of a decision when I know that a Peace Treaty is within hand's grasp. Then knowing this. I can as their colleague think of their children should they remain. The Peace Treaty will slip out of our grasp. That which we can grasp and their sons will fall in battle should a war break out. Perish the thought. Is the Prime Minister allowed to think of the welfare of the children of these settlements or not? Even if they tell me: Don't worry about us. We the fathers we the mothers: We worry about our sons even if they say this. The obligation is still with the Prime Minister to see to it that no more war breaks out that there be no more destruction that there be no more orphans that there be no more bereaved ones. Because this is the striving during all the tens of years of serving this people not from 1977 nor from '67 but from November 30th 1947.
Four and a half years we fought against the British authorities. Not one Arab lifted his hand against a Jew. Total peace between Arabs and Jews. After the U.N. decision the morning after. The first bullets the first deaths the first killed immediately.
There is not a person in Israel who desires peace more than I. This is an effusion of the soul.
As much as I - all of you more than I. Not a soul.
31 years a man stands and dreams of peace with the Arabs. He honours the Arabs. He extends his hand to them and calls to them: Come let us build this land together for the world to exalt and it can be exalted to the world but let us stop the bloodshed and now the chance is practically in our hands. Really the contents are already agreed on. All we have to do is sit for several more days several more weeks in order to finish to sign and draw Egypt out of the cycle of wars. Who knows perhaps we will be privileged again to see the calm land for forty years in a symbolic way.
Is the Prime Minister obligated to see to this or not? since we-hate the shedding of blood since we want peace for us and the Arabs. Since we want to live with them together in mutual respect in freedom and justice and humanity and for this reason. I had no choice maybe the honourable opponents have a choice. I had no choice. I had to decide together with my colleagues.
Here are the scales. Here are the two problems and I think that if we put the Peace Treaty here - and here - the decision in favour of the settlements, the scales according to the moral imperatives I believe in will be this way. There is no other way with the pain and the insults with the outrage no other way. This I believe and will believe until my final day - that this is the right choice.
But of course people will err. This decision is not carried out in a day. After a month we write into our decision: The period shall be determined according to the agreement between the two sides after signing a peace treaty of between 3 to 9 months we have to withdraw our forces to the Ras Muhammad - El Arish line and this lasts for another 2 months.
We still have time to think everything over. To do everything. But one thing must remain clear: This is a clear-cut decision and we take it upon ourselves. We shall fool no one - and if the Knesset takes this decision it will be carried out but in an orderly way. Arik Sharon took it upon himself to deal with settlement anew. If the people desire it these people when the time comes we'll deal with every family. No family will be neglected everything according to their wishes nothing will be imposed on them by force by decree. But every family will be dealt with until the problem is solved when the time comes. Now I've explained to you ladies and gentlemen the choice that stands before us. You can accept it or reject it but I have the right to say one thing to you: Have you understood? Is what I said clear? There is no negligence here no avoiding responsibility. There is a full burden of responsibilities and you decide.
And now I want especially to turn to the other side of the House: You decide and vote as you desire as I told you at the meeting of our faction and there are those among you who wish to abstain... (the Prime Ministers here had exchanges with MK's then continued).
What is the meaning of abstaining? Ezer Weizman. Ariel Sharon. Begin must do the work and decide for the removal of settlements and every abstainer can say: I saved my own soul. I didn't take part in this. This is work I'm not prepared to do, they'll do it and they are I. Is this to your liking? Decide and after you've heard me out, vote as you wish... (after additional exchanges the Prime Minister said):
If there will be no clear-cut decision today I suspect and in all openness, I'm not sure but I suspect that someone will use either intentionally or because this is their evaluation a pretext and the negotiations will not begin as is written in the document. And then and this is my greatest fear don't we all want negotiations? There will be need for a special Knesset session to nullify this decision. Don't do this. A clear-cut decision is needed today... An absolutely clear-cut decision is needed today. This way or that way so that we can announce that the negotiations can start and maybe even next week... and I advise the MK's not to wait, not to put it off, to do the job at maximum speed for reasons I think it better not to mention. For this reason. I ask the Knesset today to make clear decision, unequivocal as the Cabinet has proposed.
Let us unite around the chances for peace. Let us accept the proposal. We'll begin the deliberations maybe. God willing in the coming year in the year drawing near. After Rosh Hashana we'll be able to say. The year of peace has arrived. Peace on Israel."
Source: Israeli Foreign Ministry