"We shall take the book with us," Menachem Begin told me in an interview on the eve of his departure for talks with Jimmy Carter this week. "The book" he has in mind is not the Bible. It is the complete record of the Camp David talks that led up to the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.
Begin belives that all the difficulties that have cropped up in negotiating autonomy for Palestine arise out of "deviations" from the original Camp David accords. He thinks that by getting back to first principles in his talks with Carter, he can move the peace process forward now, and after the target date of May 26.
The list of "deviations" compiled by Begin starts with the "nature of autonomy" for the Palestinians living on the Israeli-occupied territory west of the Jordan River and in the Gaza Strip. Begin claims the Camp David accords provide that the Palestinians shall have only a narrow "administrative council." He says the Egyptians are now plumping for a legislative council that would name an executive and a judiciary. He rejects that as a "Palestinian state in all but name."
Jewish settlement on the West Bank comes next on the list of "deviations."
Begin points out that the Camp David accords do not mention settlements, and he says that if they had "we would not have signed the agreement." In view of that background, he insists that Egyptian and American pressure not to build more settlements represents an "incomprehensible attitude."
Jerusalem is the third "deviation." Begin points out that Jerusalem is not even mentioned in the Camp David accords. He says that while Israel was prepared to accept an American draft stipulating the indivisibility of the city, Egypt refused. He says the Egyptians are now insisting that the Arab citizens of Jerusalem be allowed to vote for the "autonomy authority." "That," he says, "amounts to the redivision of Jerusalem."
Securtiy is the final big "deviation" on the Begin roster. He insists the original Camp David accords gave Israel the right to move its forces around on the West Bank in accordance with its security needs. He says the Egyptians now seek to make the movement of Israeli forces subject to the wishes of the "autonomy authority." In that he sees a "Palestinian state in all but name."
The possibility that he might be wrong seemed not to cross his mind. It is my understanding that -- despite urgings to the contrary by his most important cabinet colleagues -- Begin has not even prepared fallback positions for his Washington talks.
Nor does he acknowledge that sometimes the evolution of events transcends the written word of contract. At one point, for example, I raised with him the terrible international fuss stirred by the move of the Israeli cabinet to build a religious school amidst the Arab population of the West Bank city of Hebron. I asserted sarcastically that Begin had achieved a "public relations miracle." I said, "You have enabled a tiny little event like Hebron to rival Afghanistan and Iran on the front pages."
"That's impressionism," Begin shot back. He said the Hebron story had been "overplayed and misunderstood in the United States and Europe." "That impressionism," he said, "does not make an impression on me."
Later, I pointed out that politics in the Arab states was being radicalized and that many Europeans and Americans were becoming impatient with Israel. Begin said the development in the Arab world created openings for Moscow. He said, "Israel should be strengthened, not weakened . . . . Israel is the real ally of the free world in this region."
If direct confrontation with Begin yields nothing, however, concessions on principle may well bring compromise in practice. Once Israel's right to be secure is acknowledged, for example, Begin may well be willing to leave negotiations on security in the West Bank to two officials known for their rapport -- Israel's Defense Minister Ezer Weizman and Egyptian Defense Minister Hassan Ali. If no big deal is made on a deadline, Begin seems prepared to make a special effort to move forward rapidly on the "autonomy" talks now.
For Begin shares the interests of President Carter and Anwar Sadat in making the current round of Washington talks succeed. He has everything invested in the peace treaty with Egypt. He knows that depends on the "autonomy talks." He claims that autonomy was "our idea, not an Egyptian idea." "There is nothing I want more," he says, "than to have the autonomy plan brought to realization.
"But that means," he adds, "we are all faithful to Camp David."