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Peace Between Egypt and Israel in Jeopardy: The Return of Sinai

In 1979, Israel and Egypt signed a historic peace agreement committing to diplomatic and commercial ties. Peace seemed imminent for these two countries in conflict, but one issue remained in place for the next three years––the Sinai peninsula. The matters of contention revolved around a settlement that was then occupied by Israeli and American extremists, as well as the ownership of the resorts in the Sinai town of Taba.

           
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin acknowledge applause during a Joint Session of Congress after President Jimmy Carter announced the results of the Camp David Accords | U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection | 1978
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin acknowledge applause during a Joint Session of Congress after President Jimmy Carter announced the results of the Camp David Accords | U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection | 1978

As a small resort town located in the South of Sinai, Taba’s ownership was a very contentious issue, generating nationalistic responses from both Egypt and Israel. Both sides presented their arguments for ownership, but in the end, an international arbitration panel awarded Egypt sovereignty. In February of 1982, Egypt and Israel signed an agreement for the handover of Taba that included $37 million in compensation for the former Israeli owner of Taba’s main hotel, The Sonesta.

The United States coordinated a negotiation team to resolve the conflict between Egypt and Israel. Originally Israeli Prime Minister demanded that they be led by Secretary of State Al Haig, but he was occupied with resolving the disputed Falkland Islands. Ultimately, the team included Foreign Service Officers Robert M. Perito and Walter Stoessel, amongst others. Perito, in particular, proved integral to resolving issues over Taba’s sovereignty, the demarcation of boundaries, as well as the claims of Egypt’s violation of its peace agreement with Israel.

There were additional components to addressing peace negotiations between Egypt and Israel––one of these issues was the extreme response of those people refusing to leave the settlements. The Israelis had left one settlement in the region intact; and once their citizens were withdrawn, these settlements had immediately become inhabited by young Israeli and American extremists. The majority of them were college students, some even threatening to commit mass suicide to prevent Sinai’s return to Egypt.

Mark Perito’s role on the negotiation team helped support the process for peace between Egypt and Israel. In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, we see that the United States’ diplomatic team was integral to securing peace and stability between these two countires. To learn more about the peace process between Egypt and Israel and contested issues, please read Robert M. Perito’s interview with ADST.

Robert M. Perito’s interview was conducted by Tom Dunnigan on July 30, 2002.

Read Robert M. Perito’s full oral history HERE.
Read more about the Taba resort HERE.
For a moment on the Israel-Egypt peace agreement click HERE.

Drafted by Nathaniel Schochet

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Excerpts:

“Sorry, but Al Haig’s trying to prevent war between England and Argentina at the moment and is too busy to come and prevent war between Israel and Egypt . . . .”

Starting without Al Haig: . . . . The Argentine army went ashore in the Falkland Islands. The Argentines believed that if there were no British casualties, the British wouldn’t retaliate. The British resisted and Argentines took casualties, but didn’t fire on the British. There were few British troops on the island and the Argentines overwhelmed them. They disarmed the British forces, packed them up, and sent them home. The Argentines were in control of the Falklands.

Q: But they hadn’t met Mrs. Thatcher.

Mrs. Thatcher wasn’t going to accept an Argentine takeover of the Falklands. As the British armada sailed toward Argentina, Secretary Haig engaged in shuttle diplomacy flying between London and Buenos Aires trying to avert war. At this point, the Department received an urgent message from Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin demanding that Secretary Haig immediately come to Israel. Begin said the Egyptians were violating the Middle East Peace Agreement by moving troops into the Sinai and preparing to attack Israel. Middle East peace was in jeopardy; the upcoming scheduled handover of the Sinai was not going to happen. Begin demanded that Secretary Haig come immediately to Israel to deal with the crisis. A message went back saying in effect, “Sorry, but Al Haig’s trying to prevent war between England and Argentina at the moment and is too busy to come and prevent war between Israel and Egypt,” Begin persisted, cables kept coming, and finally it was decided that Walter Stoessel should go to the Middle East.

“Stoessel had never been involved in Middle East diplomacy, but he took the assignment.”

The process: The first week was spent talking to the Israelis in the morning, meeting with Menachem Begin, getting on the airplane at noon with a group of Israeli diplomats, flying to Cairo and spending the afternoon in Cairo negotiating with the Egyptians, who were wonderfully gracious, and then flying back in the evening, going to bed at two or three in the morning in Jerusalem, then getting up and repeating the day. During that week a number of things became clear. First, [t]he Egyptians weren’t violating the agreement. Ariel Sharon, the Defense Minister, attempted to manipulate the crisis to his own advantage by claiming the Egyptians were in violation. The Egyptians were terrified they were going to be attacked by Israel. Second, there was a crisis. The Israelis had left one of the settlements in the Sinai intact. They had withdrawn the settlers, but the buildings had been immediately occupied by young people, mostly college students, some Americans, and Israeli extremists who were threatening to commit mass suicide rather than let the Sinai return to Egypt. Third, there was a hot shooting war going on between Israel and the Palestinians, who controlled southern Lebanon. There were constant rocket attacks and firing on the border; the Israelis were bombing all the way to Beirut

“It was a highly emotional time.”

Showing appreciation for history and culture: During that week, a couple of things happened. Immediately after our arrival—this was Stoessel’s idea—we visited the Holocaust Museum. Stoessel, with his background in Poland, was intimately familiar with what had happened to the Jews in Eastern Europe. Stoessel knew Begin was Polish and that it was important to signal Begin that we understood that part of his history. Our visit was on the day commemorating the holocaust in Israel, and there was television news coverage of our visit to the museum

“Begin said he couldn’t remember having said that, and so we went back to square one.”

Confusion: It was a highly emotional time. The people occupying the settlements in Sinai were threatening to kill themselves, claiming it was the holocaust all over again. We met with Begin midweek. We had a conversation in which he appeared to make a major concession. Then he began to talk about his nephew, a 19-year-old Israeli army lieutenant who was killed the previous day in Lebanon. As Begin talked about his nephew he began to cry. He broke down and sobbed. When he regained his composure, Stoessel ended the meeting thinking that he had the concession in hand. We flew to Egypt to explain it to the Egyptians, who were very enthused. The next morning we saw Begin. Stoessel recapped the previous day conversation noting the concession. Begin said he couldn’t remember having said that, and so we went back to square one. Neither Stoessel nor anyone on our team could figure out whether Begin had forgotten for political reasons or whether he had been so overcome with the emotion of the moment that he lost track of the conversation. Anyway—fast forward to the end of the tape—Stoessel convinced both parties that an agreement was possible and achieved it.

“The article said Walter Stoessel got the plane Haig rejected . . . . They adopted us because we had accepted them when Haig turned them down.”

The Aircraft: Also during the first week, an article appeared in Newsweek saying that Alexander Haig had delayed the start of the Falkland Islands shuttle because he didn’t like the plane that he was offered. He waited in Washington for ten hours until he got a better airplane. The article said Walter Stoessel got the plane Haig rejected. The Air Force crew of our plane read the article and was incensed. They adopted us because we had accepted them when Haig turned them down. They became the Stoessel team; they called other plane the Haig team . . . . When we boarded our aircraft at the end of the mission, the crew had put up a sign. It was like a scoreboard and it said, “Stoessel 2, Haig 0,” and then there was a line at the bottom that read, “Larry Eagleburger, Eat your heart out.” We received an Egyptian invitation to visit the Valley of the Kings on our way back to Washington. We flew to Cairo, picked up the Egyptian negotiators that we had worked with, flew to the Valley of the Kings on our U.S. Air Force aircraft, and were given a deluxe tour of the Valley of the Kings, an extraordinary experience. We flew back to Cairo and dropped off the Egyptians. After the plane took off, we were invited to the cockpit where we watched as the plane flew over the Pyramids at about 200 feet, an amazing sight.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA in International Relations, University of Denver 1960–1964
International Affairs, Columbia University 1964–1965
Joined the Foreign Service 1967
Washington, D.C.—Operations Center, Senior Watch Officer 1976–1977
Geneva, Switzerland—UNHCR Liaison Officer 1983–1985
Washington, D.C.—International Criminal Justice, Director 1994–1995