What Bush and Olmert Could Learn from Begin and Sadat: Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle Op-Ed

Categories: Letters From Leadership

  Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, December 20, 2007


Gidon D. Remba

As the Annapolis Arab-Israeli peace summit unfolded last month, many failed to notice that it fell just days after the 30th anniversary of the dramatic event which launched the very first Arab-Israeli peace effort:the visit to Jerusalem of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.  Thirty years ago, I stood in the Knesset in Jerusalem, charged by the Government of Israel with translating the historic speech of President Sadat, and the responses of Israeli leaders Menachem Begin, Moshe Dayan, Ezer Weizman and Shimon Peres, for the world press.  What lessons does the first successful peace initiative between Arabs and Israelis hold for President Bush and Prime Minister Olmert to guide them through the minefields of today’s battle for peace between Israel and the Palestinians?     (There are lessons too for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but that would take another piece.)

Sadat is widely thought to have been the main initiator of the breakthrough Egyptian-Israeli peace talks.  To be sure, Sadat was a remarkably courageous leader, whose actions were unprecedented.  A tragic hero, he was assassinated by the Muslim Brotherhood for making peace with Israel.  But by conferring on Sadat more credit than he deserved, we miss the pivotal role played by Israeli leaders—particularly Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan—which made Sadat’s bold move possible.

Before Sadat issued his public offer to talk peace with Israel in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Begin sent messages to Sadat through a variety of secret channels via President Carter and Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu, indicating that Israel was prepared to make major territorial concessions in return for a full peace treaty, and inviting Sadat to meet Begin.   Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan traveled incognito to Morocco to meet Sadat’s deputy prime minister, Hasan Tuhami.Through his meeting with Tuhami, Dayan led Sadat to believe that Israel would agree to a complete withdrawal from the Sinai in exchange for full peace.   Late in life, Begin acknowledged this in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharanot.Begin further acknowledged that he made an explicit commitment to withdraw from the entire Sinai Peninsula during Sadat’s Jerusalem visit.

Israel took the initiative to build the trust and confidence which enabled Sadat to take the extraordinary risks that he did, breaking through the Arab wall of enmity which had surrounded the Jewish state for the previous three decades since its birth.By the same token, a far-reaching Israeli peace initiative is needed today, offering Israel’s Palestinian partners, President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the tools they need to build their power base and make significant concessions on issues of greatest concern to Israel:providing security against terrorism and reaching an agreed resolution to the refugee issue.

Since the dawn of the Arab-Israeli peace process three decades ago, Israeli construction of settlements in the West Bank has been a fractious bone of contention between the Arabs, Israel and the United States.  Had Begin persisted in his refusal to temporarily freeze construction, ignoring the appeals of his Foreign Minister, Moshe Dayan, and his Defense Minister, Ezer Weizman, the first Camp David summit might well have ended in failure.  If Israel and the Palestinians reach a final status accord marking the final borders between a Palestinian state and Israel, incorporating an agreed swath of settlements near the 1967 line, with equal land swaps, the Jewish state will be free to build settlements, both new and existing.  No one could object that Jews were illegally settling in “occupied territory” or obstructing a two-state solution to the conflict.  They would be building within the internationally recognized final boundaries of Israel–boundaries accepted not only by the world, but by the Palestinians and all Arab states.

A cycle of initial hope and prolonged despair is common to both the peace processes of the seventies and the period from Oslo to Annapolis.Following Sadat’s Jerusalem visit, the early optimism for reaching an Egyptian-Israeli accommodation was dashed by a stalemate in the negotiations which lasted the better part of a year.  The PLO, fearing that Sadat was planning a separate peace and betraying Palestinian aspirations, escalated its violence, perpetrating some of its most deadly terrorist attacks.

The collapse of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks at Camp David II and the eruption of the Second Intifada, coupled with continued Israeli expansion of settlements, dashed hopes on both sides for realizing a secure and peaceful two-state solution, undermining mutual trust.  Then, as now, Israel’s military leaders believed that the failure to fulfill the hope of peace could lead to renewed war.  As deadlock set in, Defense Minister Weizman prepared the Israeli army for a possible conflagration with Egypt, much as his contemporary counterparts have warned of a third intifada, or a regional war with Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

The cycle of despair and hope was broken thirty years ago.  It can be broken again now.  The United States has succeeded in helping Israel and its Arab neighbors overcome some of the highest hurdles to peace by judiciously applying carefully calibrated diplomatic pressure on both sides at key points during a peace effort.  It’s time to give up myths about the “taboo” of American diplomatic heat.

In reality, the Israeli government, a coalition of parties and factions within parties, is often a house divided against itself.   U.S. prodding can provide an Israeli leader the political cover he needs to align with and empower the more moderate factions in his own party and in his government.  Arab decision-making has been similarly influenced.

The history of several past successful Mideast peace efforts, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, suggests that a vital role was played by American leaders who were prepared to hold Israeli and Arab leaders’ feet to the fire when it most mattered, a tale worth revisiting in a future column.   Both sides need a crash course in tough love to spur them across the threshold of peace.

Read Part II here

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