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Behind the Headlines a Fine Balance of Compromises

Now that the dust has settled a little behind “Air force One and the leaks have disclosed, little by little, virtually everything that was agreed upon during President Carter’s dramatic mission to the Middle East, it is possible to make on accounting of who conceded what to whom.

The bottom line turns out to be that there was a delicate balance of compromises, mostly proposed by the United States, and accepted by the parties under the intense psychological pressure engendered by the President’s massive personal involvement.

The Carter trip to Cairo and Jerusalem must be viewed together with Premier Menachem Begin’s visit to Washington a week earlier. Together they comprise the final phase of the 16 month peace process. The final phase began with five issues unresolved These were Article VI, paragraph 2, Article VI, paragraph 5 the linkage side-letter the oil issue and the exchange of ambassadors question.

NEW FORMULATIONS PROPOSED

For three days, nothing moved at the White House talks between Carter and Begin But on Sunday only hours after each leader had made a public statement saying there was no progress, the U.S. Proposed new formulations on the Article VI issues and on the side-letter Begin immediately seized upon them, telling the President that he would submit them to his Cabinet at once and implying that he would add his strong positive recommendations

On the side-letter, the U.S. Proposal was that the “target date” of 12 months apply only to the parties attempts to reach agreement between them on autonomy, not, as heretofore proposed, to the actual holding of the autonomy elections. The elections, the U.S. proposal said were to be held as soon as possible thereafter with no specific forget date set.

For Begin, this was a distinct advance His consistent argument against a forget date for holding elections had been that it would make the peace treaty contingent upon the cooperation of the Palestinians, the people who are to vote in the elections. Now, with the forget date applicable only to Israel-Egyptian negotiations on autonomy, this objection was removed.

AN ‘ AGREED MINUTE’ PROPOSED

On Article VI Paragraphs 2 and 5, the U.S. proposed, in place of the various letters and interpretative notes that had been drafted during the past two months, a single “agreed minute” that would read as follows:

“The Provisions of Article VI shall not be construed in contradiction to the provisions of the Framework for Peace in the Middle East agreed at Camp David. The foregoing does not derogate from the provisions of Article VI (2) which reads as follows: The parties agree to fulfill in good faith their obligations under this treaty, without regard to action or inaction of any other party, and independently of any in argument external to this treaty’

The agreed minute ” Continued; ” It is agreed by the parties that there is no assertion the this treaty prevails over other treaties of agreements, or that other treaties or agreements prevail over this treaty. The foregoing does not derogate from the provisions of Article VI (5) which reads as follows ‘Subject to article 103 of the UN Charter, in the event of a conflict between the obligations of the parties under the present treaty and any of their other obligations the obligations under this treaty will be binding and implemented’

THE ‘AGREED MINUTE’ WEAKENED

In Cairo, Carter found a basic Egyptian willingness to accept these formulations in principle But the Egyptian officials insisted on small but significant changes. In the side-letter, they demanded only that the holding of elections be set to take place “expeditiously.” On Article VI they demanded that the words “does not derogate from” be replaced, in both sections of the “agreed minute,” With the words “shall not be construed as contravening.”

This small amendment clearly does a great deal to weaken the effectiveness of the “agreed minute” from Israel’s standpoint; “Does not derogate from” means clearly that the Article VI (2) or VI (5) as the case may be, is not to be weakened or superseded by the statement made in the “agreed minute. “Shall not be construed as contravening” is the classic phrase used in international agreements to blur over a case of clash or conflict between provisions.

Carter, in Jerusalem, pressed Israel to accept the Egyptian amendments. The Cabinet spent hours arguing over “does not derogate” and “shall not be construed as contravening” Legal officials carefully explained to the non-expert ministers what was at stake here.

In the event, five ministers abstained when Begin put the issue to a vote, attaching his own positive recommendation The identities of the five is instructive; three were the consistent hardliners Haim Landau; Zevulun Hammer and Yitzhak Modai The other two were Shouel Tamir and Moshe Nissim, the only professional lawyers in the Cabinet. Both men had led the long fight over Article VI and they were not entirely happy with the solution that was being proffered.

After the vote, Israeli sources maintained that the amended formula still gave Israel its minimal requirement: the ability to argue in the event that either paragraph is called into question, that the peace treaty is not legally linked to the Camp David framework (Article VI -2) or that the peace treaty takes priority over Egypt’s inter-Arab commitments (Article VI – 5)

But they conceded that beyond that the “agreed minute” as finally formulated restored the vagueness and ambiguity that were inherent in the original drafting of the two paragraphs.

FOCUS ON OTHER ISSUES

Having obtained Israel’s agreement to the Egyptian amendments on the side-letter and Article VI, Carter focussed all his attention on the oil and the ambassadors issues. As it turned out, the exchange of ambassadors, 10 months after the treaty signing, was linked in Cairo’s thinking to the issue of the “phased withdrawal” from Sinai, i.e., Israel’s

A third unresolved issue that threatened to torpedo the talks at the 11th hour was Egypt’s demand for a “liaison presence” in the Gaza Strip.

On this last point, Carter believed — rightly — that he had made significant headway when, in Washington the week before, Begin had indicated to him that Israel would, after all, be willing to cooperate in the establishment of the proposed Palestinian autonomy in Gaza as a first stage, prior to its eventual establishment on the West Bank This was not, yet, a formal Israeli Cabinet position But the President knew that if Begin had aired it, it would be backed by the majority of his ministers.

This was true, but did not mean, as the President apparently hoped, that Israel would agree to an Egyptian “liaison presence” in the Strip. Begin and the ministers flatly opposed this, maintaining that it was the this end of the wedge and would bring about an eventual return of full Egyptian control of the strategically important Strip.

During the Cabinet session that lasted through Monday night into Tuesday morning, there was a detectable softening on the “phased with drawl “But the position on the oil and the “liaison” remained frozen when the President and the Premier set down to breakfast Tuesday morning.

BEGIN TAKES CRUCIAL STEP

It was then that Begin took final stock of the situation, with all its overwhelming strategic and political cruciality, and resolved to offer a concession on the oil in exchange for Egypt’s dropping of the “liaison in Gaza” demand Israel would accept, he told Carter, a specific undertaking, attached to the treaty protocols, that Egypt would regard it as a regular oil customer, under normal market conditions.

Since that fateful day last Tuesday, there has already been a good deal of “rewriting history” here in Jerusalem, with several of the players seeking to arrogate unto themselves larger roles than they actually had in the drama. Perhaps these various individualistic versions are to be expected when so many ministers were involved in the negotiations.

But they should not be allowed to contravene — or derogate from — the fundamental fact that Begin took his political future in his hands and at the critical moment, offered the required concession, going beyond established Cabinet positions which made the treaty a reality. It was Begin who conducted these negotiations — and therefore the credit — and the blame, if there is to be any — go to him.

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