Israel’s founding generation gathered on May 14, 1948, in the Tel Aviv Museum to proclaim a state. A lodestone of Israel’s Declaration of Independence was the United Nations General Assembly vote of Nov. 29, 1947, approving the partition of the Palestine Mandate into Jewish and Arab states.
Immediately after the U.N. vote, the Arab world from within and without the Palestine Mandate sought to extinguish the nascent Jewish state. Nevertheless, the declaration held out a peace offer promising that “[w]e extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness …”
Seven decades later — slowly and in fits and starts but hopefully inexorably — this tender has evolved from chimerical to fundamental with peace treaties with Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994) — building upon U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338 — and growing accommodation with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The Egypt-Israel peace treaty was the first pillar to slide into place in large measure due to the successive efforts of the Nixon and Carter administrations. In the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy secured direct Egyptian-Israeli negotiations.
After Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s transformative November 1977 journey from Cairo to Jerusalem, President Jimmy Carter spared no effort to transform the transient euphoria of the visit into a gateway for regional peace or as it evolved: a treaty between Egypt and Israel.
Here the influence of a Minnesota statesman — Vice President Walter Mondale — enters this story of high-stakes international deliberations.
Carter gambled in September 1978. He brought Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Sadat together under American auspices at Camp David. A breakthrough was necessary to sustain the progress represented by the Sadat visit and warm Israeli welcome but endangered by increasing recriminations between Egyptians and Israelis.
Failure would compromise American leadership in the Middle East and perhaps globally — with fighting the Cold War still the essence of American foreign policy.
Rocky negotiations ensued. Impasse seemed the likely outcome of this huge investment of American prestige and push. The substantive issues of the details were enormous for two countries that had fought four wars in a generation. Two days before agreement was reached, the talks were on the verge of collapse, with Sadat literally packing his bags.
Vice President Mondale was indispensable to the Carter presidency. Mondale — with his access to the president and the levers of executive branch authority — brought to Camp David his roles in “Trouble-Shooting,” “Arbitration,” “Foreign Representation” and “Congressional Relations” as outlined in his famous December 1976 memorandum to Carter that reshaped the vice presidency.
Interviewing Mondale and highly respected Middle East diplomat and author Ambassador Dennis Ross helped crystallize Mondale’s role at Camp David.
Broadly speaking, Mondale’s 12 years in the Senate as a staunch advocate for civil rights and strong supporter of Israel made him a much-admired elected official in the American Jewish community. In particular, Ezer Weizman — Israel’s defense minister and a key Camp David participant — deeply trusted Mondale, who understood the feelings of the American Jewish community and was seen as a counterweight to the more realpolitik viewpoints of Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
At the cinch, it was Mondale assisting Weizman in his counseling of Begin to cross his red lines of not withdrawing the Israeli settlements and Israeli Air Force bases from the Sinai. Begin’s courageous national-security concession removed a substantial obstacle to the negotiation of the Camp David Accords.
As Ross opined about the importance of Mondale’s efforts at Camp David: “Carter was the great hero of Camp David, and Mondale was his partner in all things, including the Camp David negotiations.”
The Egypt-Israel peace treaty created the Multinational Force & Observers (MFO) with peacekeeping responsibilities in the Sinai.
Fittingly, given the Minnesota connection to the treaty, more than 200 soldiers from the Minnesota National Guard’s Second Battalion, 135th Infantry Regiment were deployed in the Sinai from July 2016 to June 2017 in support of the MFO far from their southern Minnesota home communities of Mankato, Rochester and Winona.
At Israel’s 70th anniversary, the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty is foundational for American foreign policy and Middle East peace, which includes Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Walter Mondale — to borrow a phrase from Dean Acheson — was “present at the creation,” and our Minnesota National Guard men and women help keep the peace in the Sinai.
Steve Hunegs is the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, and James Cohen is the CEO of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation. Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Day of Independence) is being commemorated April 18-19 this year.