Sadat and Begin Receive the Nobel Peace Prize

Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat paved the road to peace in the Middle East and were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. Unfortunately, peace negotiations staggered in the following years.

Summary of Event

The cultures of the Middle East are diverse, and the economic interests of the Middle East, positioned as it is at the junction of Asia, Europe, and Africa, have long been entangled. Thus, its countries are ravaged by schisms and have faced a nearly continuous succession of foreign invaders and wars. In this cradle of civilization lie Israel and Egypt. The countries’ geographic proximity to the birthplaces of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity makes some people consider the soil of both countries as divinely established birthright. Nobel Peace Prize;Anwar el-Sadat[Sadat]
Nobel Peace Prize;Menachem Begin[Begin]
Arab-Israeli relations[Arab Israeli relations]
Israeli-Arab relations[Israeli Arab relations]
Peace negotiations;Middle East
[kw]Sadat and Begin Receive the Nobel Peace Prize (Dec. 10, 1978)
[kw]Begin Receive the Nobel Peace Prize, Sadat and (Dec. 10, 1978)
[kw]Nobel Peace Prize, Sadat and Begin Receive the (Dec. 10, 1978)
[kw]Peace Prize, Sadat and Begin Receive the Nobel (Dec. 10, 1978)
[kw]Prize, Sadat and Begin Receive the Nobel Peace (Dec. 10, 1978)
Nobel Peace Prize;Anwar el-Sadat[Sadat]
Nobel Peace Prize;Menachem Begin[Begin]
Arab-Israeli relations[Arab Israeli relations]
Israeli-Arab relations[Israeli Arab relations]
Peace negotiations;Middle East
[g]Europe;Dec. 10, 1978: Sadat and Begin Receive the Nobel Peace Prize[03450]
[g]Norway;Dec. 10, 1978: Sadat and Begin Receive the Nobel Peace Prize[03450]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Dec. 10, 1978: Sadat and Begin Receive the Nobel Peace Prize[03450]
[c]Human rights;Dec. 10, 1978: Sadat and Begin Receive the Nobel Peace Prize[03450]
Begin, Menachem
Sadat, Anwar el-
Carter, Jimmy
[p]Carter, Jimmy;Middle East diplomacy
Dayan, Moshe
Arafat, Yasir
Mubārak, Hosnī

Congress applauds Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat (center left) and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin as U.S. president Jimmy Carter announces the outcome of the Camp David Accords in 1978. The two leaders received the Nobel Peace Prize for that year.

(Library of Congress)

From an early age, both Anwar el-Sadat and Menachem Begin were motivated by a deep love for their countries. As early as 1939, Sadat became devoted to freeing Egypt from foreign domination. Begin, based on persecution he observed early in life, crystallized his determination to see the ancient Jewish homeland restored.

In 1948, with the help of the United Nations, the state of Israel was founded. As a result of the creation of this new state, four wars were fought between the Jews and Arabs in the 1947-1973 period, including the first war, which began as a civil conflict between Palestinian Jews and Arabs following the United Nations recommendation of November 29, 1947, to partition Palestine, the Suez Canal crisis in 1956, the Six-Day War in 1967, and the Yom Kippur War in 1973. It was the Six-Day War, approved by Israeli minister of defense Moshe Dayan, which resulted in increased Israeli territorial control, including occupation of Sinai, Gaza, Arab Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Golan Heights. The Six-Day War brought more than 1.5 million Palestinian Arabs under Israeli control.

Perhaps the one issue that has caused the most strife in the Middle East between Israel and its Arab neighbors is the plight of the Palestinian Arab refugees displaced as a result of the establishment of Israel and the ensuing wars. A small number of these refugees were integrated gradually into the nearby Arab states, but the majority, unable or unwilling to assimilate, were lodged in camps—particularly in Jordan, Syria, and the Gaza Strip—and, with their descendants, created a major irritation in the Middle East.

Although the Israeli government put forth a concerted effort after 1948 to improve standards of living for the Arabs, providing government health facilities and rural development plans that resulted in modern services (including running water, electricity, and classrooms) appearing in almost all Arab villages, the government’s attitude toward the Arab minority was most often one of wary paternalism. Thus, even though the Arabs were better off in material terms, psychologically they were a minority in their own homeland. Their political and social life was restricted by the Israelis to their own communities.

In 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organization Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was formed as an umbrella organization for several Palestinian Arab guerrilla groups whose sole purpose was to liberate all or part of Palestine from Israeli control. Yasir Arafat, chairman of the PLO, delivered a plea to the United Nations General Assembly in 1974 for the establishment of an independent Palestinian nation. The PLO claimed to speak for all Palestinians of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank of the Jordan River, as well as for others displaced by the Middle Eastern conflicts.

After Sadat’s sudden Yom Kippur War against Israel in 1973 Yom Kippur War (1973) and the subsequent cease-fire, Egypt began an ambitious program of building, reconstructing, and changing the country’s economic path from total isolation to an open-door policy. Although peace seemed a remote possibility, Sadat sent a message to Prime Minister Begin of Israel expressing a desire to deliver an address to the Israeli Knesset (parliament). As newly elected prime minister of Israel, Begin declared peace to be the main goal of his government and called for direct talks with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Begin also expressed hope for stronger ties with the United States, France, and the Soviet Union. Begin accepted Sadat’s offer and immediately invited the leader of Israel’s ancient archenemy to speak before the Knesset. Sadat startled the world, including the Egyptian people, with his unprecedented trip to Jerusalem. His decision to accept Begin’s invitation of November 17, 1977, to attend an Israeli parliamentary meeting on November 19 was an act of great courage, breaking away from the vicious cycle of warfare at a time when prospects for peace seemed elusive.

Begin and Sadat created a new diplomatic climate and set the stage for future cooperation. Another important leader was U.S. president Jimmy Carter, who made it possible for these two onetime enemies to meet at Camp David in September, 1978. At Camp David, two major peace documents were created—A Framework for Peace in the Middle East and A Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty Between Egypt and Israel—together known as the Camp David Accords. Camp David Peace Accords (1978) These established general areas of compromise and made arrangements for difficult areas of disagreement to be settled in the future. For the first time since the establishment of Israel as a modern state in 1948, an agreement was reached, on a long-term basis, providing a genuine opportunity for peace. One difficult area left for future negotiations was the status of Israeli-occupied territories of the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights.

The two leaders were nominated for the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize not because peace had been attained in the Middle East, but because the Nobel nomination committee believed that the path leading to peace had been paved. Unfortunately, finalization of negotiations did not occur by the December 17 deadline set in the Camp David Accords. Thus, by the time the Nobel Prize ceremony took place, there were still two issues unresolved: Israel insisted that the Camp David agreements should take precedence over Egypt’s obligations to other Arab countries in time of conflict, and Sadat demanded that the treaty be linked to the proposed negotiations over the West Bank and Gaza, a connection to which he and President Carter believed Prime Minister Begin had agreed at the Camp David summit.

Two days before the Nobel awards were announced, Begin, in an effort to appease right-wing enthusiasts in Jerusalem’s ruling Likud coalition who believed that Begin had given away too much at Camp David, announced that Israel was launching a $29 million program to beef up five Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza. According to President Carter, the only real controversy that resulted from Camp David concerned the length of time over which Israelis had agreed to refrain from building more settlements. Carter said that the moratorium was supposed to have been for five years; Begin later claimed that he had agreed to discontinue settlement building for only the expected three-month period of negotiations.

Although the Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo had been planned for Begin and Sadat, Begin attended alone under tight security. Sadat sent a representative to collect his half of the Nobel Peace Prize. Members of his own political coalition begged Begin not to attend the Nobel ceremonies. As Israeli journalist Amos Keinan put it, Begin’s attendance at a peace celebration without a peace was “like celebrating the brith mila (Jewish circumcision ritual) while the baby is not yet born.”


Although Anwar el-Sadat’s achievements toward peace were lauded by the Nobel Peace Committee and by much of the world, he was becoming dangerously isolated from the Arab world. The Sudan was one of the few Arab nations to support Camp David and the resulting formal treaty, signed on March 26, 1979, which outlined both a schedule for phased Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai and Palestinian elections. By 1981, Egyptian-Israeli negotiations over Palestinian autonomy were abandoned. Israel continued to tighten its political and military grip on the remaining occupied territories. Even while negotiations were taking place with Egypt, Israel gradually became more involved in military activities to the north. The Israelis found themselves with triple-digit inflation, a stalemate in the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, ethnic polarization, and low morale.

Unfortunately, Sadat’s pursuit of permanent peace between Israel and Egypt and a peaceful solution to age-old conflicts in the Middle East was thwarted when he was assassinated on October 6, 1981, by members of a violent fundamentalist Muslim sect. Sadat’s successor, Hosnī Mubārak, honored the peace treaty with Israel but criticized the lack of progress on the Palestinian issue. Mubārak strengthened ties with other Arab nations, resumed diplomatic relations with Jordan, and gained Egypt’s readmittance to the Islamic Conference Organization. His popularity began to decline, however, because of economic deterioration and increased Muslim fundamentalism.

In September, 1982, Israel rejected a peace plan announced by U.S. president Ronald Reagan Reagan, Ronald calling for Palestinian self-government in association with Jordan. Most Arab governments also opposed the plan, however, and Egypt withdrew its ambassador to Israel, leaving only a “cold peace” in effect between these two former antagonists. The future of the West Bank continued to roil U.S.-Israeli relations. By 1984, the Likud government had more than doubled, to more than one hundred, the number of Israeli settlements and had greatly increased the number of Jewish settlers in those areas to more than thirty thousand, not counting an additional eighty thousand or so in East Jerusalem.

Begin resigned as prime minister in September, 1983. His successor, Yitzhak Shamir, Shamir, Yitzhak a compromise choice, was unable to improve Israel’s economic situation or to keep the coalition’s splinter parties in line. Israel’s internal stability remained threatened by continued demands for Palestinian self-determination and by increasing unrest in the occupied territories.

In 1987, Palestinians began the Intifada, Intifada or uprising, against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel, faced with violence in the form of riots, armed assaults, murder, and terrorism, set up a dual system of governance: Israeli law for Israeli settlers in the occupied territories and military occupation law for the Palestinians. Under this dual system, Palestinians were not treated as favorably as Israelis regarding the rights to due process, residency, freedom of movement, sale of crops and goods, land and water use, and access to health and social services. Later diplomatic success under the Oslo Accords of 1993 Oslo Accords (1993) promised improvement in Israeli-Palestinian relations, but negotiations over division of the West Bank broke down in 1998, and a second intifada ensued from September of 2000 to 2005. Yasir Arafat’s death in 2005 ushered in a hopeful but short period of improved Arab-Israeli relations that ended with the election in early 2006 of the radical Hamas Hamas party, resulting in its control of the Palestinian National Authority Palestinian National Authority and a predictable deterioration of relations. Nobel Peace Prize;Anwar el-Sadat[Sadat]
Nobel Peace Prize;Menachem Begin[Begin]
Arab-Israeli relations[Arab Israeli relations]
Israeli-Arab relations[Israeli Arab relations]
Peace negotiations;Middle East

Further Reading

  • Carter, Jimmy. The Blood of Abraham: Insights into the Middle East. Reprint. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1993. A vision of peace for Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Introduces the Middle East situation in view of biblical history and the past wars and debates. Illuminates and explores the central political, religious, and ethnic issues from numerous points of view. Each country’s perspective and involvement are explored historically and within current contexts. Chronology, maps, appendixes, and index.
  • Dayan, Moshe. Breakthrough: A Personal Account of the Egypt-Israel Peace Negotiations. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981. An intimate, detailed account of Dayan’s role as Menachem Begin’s foreign minister from the time of his appointment in 1977 until his resignation. Colorful insights into personal events surrounding the peace negotiations. Includes appendixes containing the texts of the Camp David agreements, the peace treaty with Egypt, and other documents. Maps and index.
  • Finklestone, Joe. Anwar Sadat: Visionary Who Dared. New York: Routledge, 1996. A compassionate, highly favorable biography of the Egyptian president.
  • Hammond, Paul Y., and Sidney Alexander, eds. Political Dynamics in the Middle East. New York: Elsevier, 1972. Examines political and social factors governing the stability of the region from Morocco to Iran. Three political levels are discussed: the internal policies of individual nations, relations between nations within the area, and the role of nations outside the region. Objective and clear academic presentation. Includes tables, subject index, and bibliography.
  • Hurwitz, Zvi Harry. Begin: His Life, Words and Deeds. Hewlett, N.Y.: Gefen Books, 2004. Like Finklestone’s work (cited above), this biography is very sympathetic to its subject.
  • Quandt, William B. Camp David: Peacemaking and Politics. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1986. Detailed account of the Carter administration’s goals in helping Israel and Egypt achieve peace. Begins with an analysis of the U.S. political cycle and its impact on policy making. Reconstructs in detail the events leading to the Camp David summit in September, 1978, and eventually to the negotiated peace between Egypt and Israel the following spring. A scholarly account, excellent for experts or novices. Appendixes, chronology, bibliography, and index.

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