Behind Humphrey’s Letter to Begin
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Behind Humphrey’s Letter to Begin

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Media reports that the late Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, in a letter dated Jan. II to Premier Menachem Begin, sought to convince the Israeli leader to be more flexible toward the Egyptian view regarding a Sinai settlement, has been described by Humphrey’s intimate political associates as “unfair” and “misleading.” The associates, in discussing the letter with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, asked not to be identified. Humphrey’s letter, written two days before his death, first appeared publicly in truncated form in The New York Times Jan. 25. The Israelis were upset by this because it seemed to show that Humphrey, an old friend of the Jewish State, was leaning on Israel.

Humphrey’s associate said the Humphrey letter was not trying to pressure Begin to do what he did not want to do but to strengthen his hand in the face of the opposition to his views within his own Herut Party. In addition, JTA was told, Humphrey disagreed with President Carter in a telephone conversation in which the President was critical of Begin’s views.

The media reports did not accurately reflect the letter, JTA was informed, because they claimed in one major instance as having Humphrey urging Begin alone to show “tolerance” when, in fact, the letter urged “all parties to show tolerance” in the Mideast negotiations.


Another mistaken impression circulated was that Humphrey did not write to President Anwar Sadat of Egypt but only to Begin and that this, therefore, was “significant.” An associate noted that interpretation was decidedly beside the point of the Humphrey letter’s purpose. Sadat, the associate observed, is in a position to make his own decisions in Egypt while Begin, in a democratic society, faces severe opposition in his own party.

According to one associate, Carter telephoned Humphrey in Waverly, Minn., on Jan. 9, four days before the Senator died, and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance telephoned him on Jan. 11, the date of the letter by Humphrey. Carter, the JTA was told, wanted Humphrey to get in touch by letter with Begin because it appeared that the Premier’s political opponents in Herut were having an impact upon him that would harden his position in the negotiations with Sadat. Vance reportedly made the same points. According to this version of the events, both Carter and Vance were reportedly not trying to put pressure on Begin to take a course to which he objected.

However, another associate directly involved with the letter said Carter told Humphrey that Israel was “potentially the stumbling block” in the Sinai negotiations. Humphrey, this associate said, disagreed with the President and said he would not interject his views regarding what the Israelis should or should not offer to Egypt. It would have been uncharacteristic of him to have done so, the associate emphasized.

In fact, it was said by a friend of Humphrey, Begin had fully discussed the question of Sinai with both Carter and Vance during his December visit to Washington before the Christmas weekend Ismailia meeting and they had indicated to him that his position was not unreasonable. Humphrey also said the same about Begin’s idea. It was only after Carter met with Sadat at Aswan earlier this month that Carter objected strenuously to the settlements, the associate said. In his conversation with Carter–their last–Humphrey refused to say that Begin’s view was “unreasonable.”

Some doubt has also been cast that Humphrey in fact actually dictated the entire letter that was sent to Begin. According to a Humphrey associate, he dictated the substance of his thoughts to his Washington office by telephone Jan. 11 and his office drafted it “probably with the assistance of the State Department.” However, before it was issued to the Israeli Embassy an advisor suggested changes to Humphrey and he accepted them. One was that Egypt should have “sovereignty” and not “control” over Sinai.


Following is an extract of Humphrey’s letter: “I want to take this opportunity to compliment you on your courage and leadership in the current initiatives in the Middle East. I also want to pay tribute to the people of Israel who have opened up their arms to Anwar Sadat in a magnificent gesture of peace and honor.

“However, my friend, we cannot let this cup pass from our lips without doing what needs to be done. As you have said on numerous occasions in the past, everything is negotiable. As you know, nobody appreciates the concerns Israel has over her security better than I. A reasonable man like President Sadat must also understand security requirements as being a fundamental element of any nation’s sovereignty. Above all, our government understands your security requirements.

“This brings me to the issue of the existing Israeli settlements in the Sinai. I realize these settlements are important within the context of Israel’s present security needs. However, there must be some way to work out a program for governing these settlements during a transition period to eventual, full Egyptian sovereignty much as there should be a palatable and workable solution for the West Bank.

“In the case of the latter, maybe what there needs to be is a formula in which we give the Palestinians some time to work out their own difficulties. It is absolutely clear that we are not accepting an independent and potentially antagonistic Palestinian state, nor will any of Israel’s neighbors. There is an obvious danger in the ultimate political objectives of such an entity. Those who want to see these difficult issues resolved recognize that it is going to take time and ‘give’ on the part of all parties, even beyond existing stated positions.

“I write this letter only after giving these matters considerable thought, and I also believe that key members of the American Jewish community would share my views on these issues….These are my views, and I offer them not only as a sincere and devoted friend of Israel, but as your good friend as well….”


(In New York, Burton M. Joseph, national chairman of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, said that a news story in Friday’s Maariv linking him with the Humphrey letter “is a complete and total fabrication.”

(Joseph, in a letter of protest to Shalom Rosenfeld, editor of Maariv, which he made available to the JTA, also asserted: “There is absolutely no foundation to your report that I was asked by President Carter or any member of the Administration staff to intervene with the late Senator. Mr. Humphrey was a cherished friend. But he did not consult with me as your story alleges in connection with this letter nor did I have any prior knowledge that such a letter was being written.”

(He concluded by stating that the Maariv story “is made up of whole cloth” and “does me and the Jewish community in America great injury and disservice.”

(The Maariv article claimed that its correspondent had asked Joseph whether he was a partner in the preparation of the Humphrey letter and Joseph said he would neither confirm nor deny this.)

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