40 YEARS SINCE CAMP DAVID I told Begin: pyramids not Israelite deed
THE ISRAEL-EGYPTIAN peace process started with a Carmel College graduate and his colleagues taking the trip of a lifetime.
Robbie Sabel landed in Cairo in 1977 and, in his downtime from negotiating, toured the city with the head of the Shin Bet intelligence service and went to see the pyramids. “It was the most exciting part of my life,” he says.
They had “no idea” about the security situation for Israelis because they were the very first to visit, so they
“just walked through the streets of Cairo.”
Dr Sabel, who was born in
Robbie Sabel England and educated at Carmel College until 1959, recalls giving Prime Minister Menachem Begin a history lesson upon his return to Jerusalem. “We had to convince Begin that the pyramids were not built by the Israelites.” As Deputy Legal Adviser to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time of the Camp David Accords, he made numerous trips to Cairo and helped to organise President Anwar Sadat’s November 1977 visit to Israel. “When I was first given notice to prepare a possible itinerary I said: ‘Don’t be stupid’.”
During that first Cairo visit, despite the excitement, “it felt futile”.
He recalls: “Our instruction at the time was that we could not withdraw from the whole of Sinai. We were getting nowhere.”
But he says that Mr Begin was determined, even beyond the expectations of the Americans who were driving the process. “The Americans told us that we can reach something called non-belligerence, meaning no fighting, but you can’t get a full peace treaty.” So what factors helped his team to make a breakthrough and strike a final deal? Dr Sabel cites a strong feeling that each side was making a major gain but not getting eve- rything they wanted. He also refers to the feeling that Israelis were reassured about their security as a significant piece of the Sinai was declared demilitarised.
Between the negotiations for the historic accords, Dr Sabel went on a very personal journey. “My father had served in Egypt in the British army in the Second World War and I went back to visit the places, including the cafes, he went to visit in Cairo.” He picked up local sugared almonds, one of his father’s local favourites, for him.
Four decades on and now law professor at Hebrew University, Dr Sabel reflects on the part of the Camp David Accords that was not fulfilled: Palestinians were not given self-governance straight afterwards. But he thinks that Camp David served as a foundation for the peace process that began in the 1990s. “Parts of Oslo are taken almost verbatim from Camp David,” he says.
He also thinks that Oslo negotiations were able to work on the assumption that their ideas would be easier to get approved, given that Begin had agreed to concessions.
As for the Israel-Egyptian peace, his team had hoped to see a warmer relationship, but at least the security relationship has proved solid and sturdier, beyond the expectations of some.
“We foresaw good trade relations and cultural relations, yet [in this area] nothing happened. But we have security.”
Begin was determined beyond even the Americans
Begin in front of the Giza pyramids in April 1979