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Interview

How Jimmy Carter vetoed the first Israeli envoy requested by Sadat

Ties with peripheral countries in the Middle East enabled Israel to make peace with Egypt, claims x-Mossad man Yossi Alpher in new book

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, US president Jimmy Carter, center, and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin clasp hands on the north lawn of the White House as they sign the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, March 26, 1979. (AP/Bob Daugherty)
Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, US president Jimmy Carter, center, and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin clasp hands on the north lawn of the White House as they sign the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, March 26, 1979. (AP/Bob Daugherty)

It was just before midnight on November 30, 1977, when Yossi Alpher, then a young Mossad officer celebrating his birthday, received an urgent phone call from the office of director Yitzhak Hofi, asking him to come immediately to Mossad headquarters in Tel Aviv.

“He said, ‘Sit down, I’m going to tell you something that will cause you not to sleep tonight,'” Alpher recalled in a recent conversation with The Times of Israel. “‘We want to send you to Egypt,’ Hofi continued in his typical dry, emotionless tone. ‘Get your affairs in order, by noon tomorrow I’m taking you to Begin.'”

Just 11 days earlier, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat had dazzled Israel by landing at Ben Gurion Airport and spending three days meeting with Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, visiting Yad Vashem, speaking at the Knesset, and praying at al-Aqsa Mosque. But no mechanism was put into place to sustain bilateral contact with Egypt following Sadat’s departure.

At Hofi’s office, Alpher learned that Sadat had requested that an Israeli representative be placed at the American Embassy in Cairo, under cover as a diplomat. According to the plan, only the US ambassador would know that the new arrival was, in fact, working for Israel.

“Hofi and I both smiled. We knew that, at that point in time, there were only two people in the Mossad who could pass as Americans, and the other was a bit loony,” recalled the Washington, DC native who emigrated to Israel as a 20-year-old in 1962. “Hofi laughed and said, ‘But you’re really the right guy for the job.'”

Egyptian president Anwar Sadat addresses the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem, November 20, 1977 (photo credit: Flash90)
Egyptian president Anwar Sadat addresses the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem, November 20, 1977. (photo credit: Flash90)

After a sleepless night, Alpher and his wife met with an attorney to draw up a will and a power of attorney in case he never returned from his mission. “I’m headed for the biggest Arab country, still an enemy, and I have absolutely no idea for how long or what sort of contact I can possibly have with my family. I told my wife: ‘I hate to do this to you, but it’s for a good cause, for peace.”

At noon, Alpher returned to Hofi’s office, only to hear him say, “Wait.” That word, he said, would characterize every day of the following week.

“Finally he said, ‘You’re not going, Carter wouldn’t agree.'”

Although Alpher was not to travel to Egypt, the wheels of history could not be reversed. A few days later, Israeli TV reporter Ehud Yaari flew from Athens to Cairo on an Israeli passport and was let in, soon broadcasting footage from Egypt to an astounded Israeli public. On December 25, 1977, Begin reciprocated Sadat’s gesture and traveled to Ismailia, Egypt, holding a summit meeting with the Egyptian president. A diplomatic process was set in motion leading to the Camp David summit the following summer, and eventually to the signing of a historic peace treaty with Egypt in March 1979.

“I told my wife: ‘I hate to do this to you, but it’s for a good cause. For peace'”

“Had I gone, I would have been there for a week or two. There would have been no need for me, because soon you could go back and forth easily. But of course, at that point in time nobody knew,” Alpher said.

So why did Carter, who would soon become the patron of the Camp David negotiations, refuse to allow the budding Egyptian-Israeli relations to take form in late 1977? The former US president did not respond to a request for clarification sent by The Times of Israel to the Carter Center in Atlanta. Hofi died last September at the age of 87.

Alpher never spoke to Carter subsequently; nor did he discover why or how exactly the Sadat initiative was vetoed. But, soon transferred to the Iran desk at the Mossad, he is confident he knows what stood at the root of Carter’s opposition to the move.

“Carter was on a trip of internationalizing the Arab-Israeli conflict, and doing this together with the Soviets, which is what Sadat didn’t want,” Alpher said. “Sadat was finished with the Soviets. He wanted this to be an American peace, because he wanted American money and American arms, which he eventually got.”

Former Mossad officer Yossi Alpher (photo credit: Courtesy Yossi Alpher)
Former Mossad officer Yossi Alpher (photo credit: Courtesy Yossi Alpher)

“It took over a month for the Carter administration to give any sort of blessing to the Sadat initiative, which was never coordinated with the Americans,” he added. “The Carter administration was astounded by it.”

“The periphery helped usher in the peace with Egypt. Sadat knew we were in Iran; he sent his messages via the shah. He knew we were in Morocco; he sent his messages via the king”

Sadat’s willingness to come to Israel did not come out of the blue, however, argues Alpher in his new book, Periphery: Israel’s Search for Middle East Allies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). It was facilitated through alliances forged by Israel with Morocco under King Hassan II and with Iran under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi years earlier. A meeting between Mossad director Hofi and King Hassan in the summer of 1976 led to a secret rendezvous between Hassan and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, disguised in a blond wig to enter Morocco incognito. Rabin left Hassan a series of questions for Sadat regarding Egypt’s willingness to sign a treaty with Israel. Secret meetings followed between Israeli and Egyptian leaders: First Hofi met Sadat’s deputy Hassan Tohami; later Tohami met Moshe Dayan, then foreign minister in the Begin cabinet.

Some of the interviewees in Alpher’s book, like former Israeli ambassador to Egypt Shimon Shamir, were skeptical of Israel’s Middle East periphery doctrine. By vying for alliances with distant countries, they argued, Israel was neglecting — or even impeding — realistic prospects of peace with its neighbors. But Alpher said his research found no evidence to that effect.

“The periphery helped usher in the peace with Egypt. Sadat knew we were in Iran; he sent his messages via the shah. He knew we were in Morocco; he sent his messages via the king. He knew to turn to the periphery looking for an indirect address [to Israel] in the Middle East.”

President Anwar Sadat (right) hosts the shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, at Kubbeh Republican Palace in Cairo, Egypt, on January 9, 1975. (photo credit: AP/Ahmed Tayeb)
President Anwar Sadat (right) hosts the shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, at Kubbeh Republican Palace in Cairo, Egypt, on January 9, 1975. (photo credit: AP/Ahmed Tayeb)

Ironically, Alpher noted, peace with Egypt also ended Israel’s reliance on the Middle Eastern periphery, which included both states (such as Sudan, Turkey, Ethiopia, Iran and Morocco) and ethnic minorities (such as the Kurds in Iraq or the Christian Maronites in Lebanon).

“The minute you have peace with your neighbor, the biggest and most powerful Arab country, you don’t have the same need for the periphery that you had before,” he concluded. “Peace with an Arab country is a thousand times more important for Israel’s overall well-being than peace with a periphery country. Peace with Egypt was the beginning of the end of the periphery doctrine, and for good reason.”

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