What Bush and Olmert Forgot About Begin and Sadat: Part II

Categories: Letters From Leadership

What Bush and Olmert Forgot About Begin and Sadat:  Part II 

What lessons can we glean from the first successful Arab-Israeli peace initiative thirty years ago to guide us through the minefields of today’s battle for peace between Israel and the Palestinians?  In Part II, the author reminds us how the United States has succeeded in helping Israel and its Arab neighbors overcome some of the greatest hurdles to peace by judiciously applying carefully calibrated diplomatic pressure at key points during a peace effort.

In reality, the Israeli government, a coalition of parties and factions within parties, is often a house divided against itself.   Pressure from its U.S. ally, carefully applied at crucial moments, can help the moderates in the Israeli government influence the decision-making of a prime minister who may be unduly rigid on an issue vital to peace, whether for reasons ideological or political.  U.S. prodding can provide that 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 by applying American heat.   Understanding the history of several past successful Mideast peace efforts, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, brings us to a recognition of the vital role played by American leaders who were prepared to hold Israeli and Arab leaders’ feet to the fire when it most mattered.  

·End the cycle of hope and despair with a decisive U.S. role.

Those who say the U.S. cannot risk brokering peace talks today because Palestinian and Israeli positions are too far apart display political amnesia.  When Egypt and Israel went to Camp David, Begin expected the conference to end in failure, the gap between the two sides was so wide, the Egyptian-Israeli diplomatic gulf so deep.  The desire for peace had brought Israel and Egypt to the negotiating table, but the history of conflict and its web of mistrust proved too great to disentangle without the aid of assertive US diplomacy.

At Camp David I, the Israeli leadership was divided over the issue of the Sinai settlements.Begin refused to relinquish them, while Dayan and Weizmann recognized that dismantling them and restoring the Sinai to Egyptian sovereignty was the only viable basis for a peace deal with Sadat.  The Sinai settlements were the sole remaining issue standing in the way of a historic Egyptian-Israeli peace accord, and the success of the summit.  While Begin was thinking at Camp David about how to avoid being blamed for the expected blowout, Dayan, Weizmann and Aharon Barak (later Israel’s Chief Justice) urged the U.S. to offer a proposal of its own, believing that the two sides could advance no further towards an agreement without American help.   Other prominent Israeli leaders back home, and a majority of Israelis and Knesset Members, also backed Dayan and Weizmann’s stance.  At the 11th hour, Weizmann orchestrated a pivotal call to Begin from Ariel Sharon, the architect of the settlements, in which he informed the Prime Minister that he favored evacuating the Sinai settlements if that was the last remaining obstacle to a peace treaty.

Finally, President Jimmy Carter reminded Begin of the overwhelming support in Israel for conceding on the settlements.  He also warned Begin that if he refused to relinquish the Sinai settlements, it would be “difficult for him to support Israel’s requests for political, economic and military support.”  Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Gerald Ford had done much the same just a few years before during Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s first term of office, using a “reassessment” of US military deliveries to Israel to encourage him to agree to the Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreement after the Yom Kippur War.

In the early nineties, President George H. W. Bush held up billions of dollars in loan guarantees to Israel when Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir refused to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank.  Shamir’s clash with the U.S. over settlements turned many Israelis to favor Rabin in the next election, leading to his victory, enabling Rabin’s pursuit of peace with the Palestinians under the Oslo Accords.  At Camp David I in 1978, Carter had told Dayan that the failure of the talks would be “catastrophic for relations between Israel and the United States,” and that he would have no choice but “to report to Congress that Israel was not prepared to take the necessary steps to achieve peace.”  Begin relented and the Camp David Peace Accords were signed.

But Carter applied significant pressure on both sides to bring them both to their common goal.  When Sadat threatened to leave Camp David in exasperation over the summit’s prolonged failure to close the gaps, Carter pointedly told him that if he left, it would be the end of his relationship with the United States and the end of the peace process.  Sadat, understanding the score, stayed until agreement was reached.

Today, one still hears many American Jews and their leaders talk as if U.S. pressure on the Israeli government, and on the Palestinian and Arab leadership, is a cardinal sin.  Of course, American Jews are happy to countenance U.S. pressure on Palestinians and other Arabs, but imagine that Israel is a righteous victim which must be “protected” from US influence to make the concessions necessary to achieve peace.   In the real world, even the Bush Administration pressures Israel, as it did when it forbade the Olmert government from making exploratory peace overtures to Syria.   Nary a Jewish leader protested US pressure then.  For such Jews, the Israeli government should have absolute freedom to do as it wishes, no matter how it affects the United States, the rest of the world and Israel itself, except when what Israel wishes breaks with some unstated dogma.

In reality, the Israeli government, a coalition of parties and factions within parties, is often a house divided against itself.   Pressure from its U.S. ally, judiciously applied at crucial moments in a peace effort, can help the moderates in the Israeli government influence the decision-making of a prime minister who may be unduly rigid on an issue vital to peace, whether for reasons ideological or political.  U.S. prodding can provide that leader the political cover he needs to align with and empower the more conciliatory factions in his own party and in his government.

The New York Times reported last week that “Some Israeli officials say Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will actually need public American pressure to silence critics at home who will undoubtedly complain that he is giving away the store.   The U.S. ‘hasn’t even pushed them as far as they want to be pushed,’ said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli negotiator.’   A smart American administration understands that this is very difficult for an Israeli prime minister,’ Mr. Levy said, ‘and sometimes they need to be able to say, ‘Washington is holding my feet to the fire on this.'”

Then Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh (Labor) told political analyst Dan Fleshler last year that “he believed U.S. pressure on Israel was justified when Israel was not living up to its obligations to the U.S. ‘Israelis don’t want to be `freyers’ [Hebrew for `suckers’]. To be a freyer is a fate worse than death to most Israelis. And they understand that Americans don’t want to be freyers either.’ Therefore, he said, Israelis would support or at least not object too strongly if the U.S. prodded Israel to keep the promises made in the road map.”

· The US should help both sides cut a fair and final deal on the Israeli-Palestinian problem

One of the obstacles to final agreement between Egypt and Israel was the issue of Palestinian political self-determination.   Israel’s Camp David recognition, for the first time, of the “legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and their just requirements” laid the groundwork for Madrid, Oslo and now Annapolis.  It was in the Camp David Accords of thirty years ago where Israel first agreed to the establishment of Palestinian “autonomy” and self-government.

The Camp David Accords also laid out the framework of a five-year “interim period,” by the third year of which negotiations over the final status of the West Bank and Gaza and the rights of the Palestinians and Israelis would commence.  They stipulated the establishment of a “strong” Palestinian police force to be responsible for internal security, and liaison with Israeli, Egyptian and Jordanian security forces, under the self-governing Palestinian authority.  Oslo was, it is now clear, Camp David reprised, for better and for worse.  Autonomy was never envisioned, either in the Camp David or the Oslo Accords, as an end in itself, but as a stage on the way to a permanent resolution of the conflict.

President Sadat reminded us in the Knesset thirty years ago:  “As for the Palestinians cause, nobody can deny that it is the crux of the entire problem. Nobody in the world can accept, today, slogans propagated here in Israel, ignoring the existence of the Palestinian People, and questioning their whereabouts. The cause of the Palestinian People and their legitimate rights are no longer ignored or denied today by anybody. Rather, nobody who has the ability of judgement can deny or ignore it…”

“Even the United States, your first ally which is absolutely committed to safeguard Israel’s security and existence, and which offered and still offers Israel every moral, material and military support – I say – even the United States has opted to face up to reality and facts, and admit that the Palestinian People are entitled to legitimate rights and that the Palestinian problem is the core and essence of the conflict and that, so long as it continues to be unresolved, the conflict will continue to aggravate, reaching new dimensions. In all sincerity, I tell you that there can be no peace without the Palestinians. It is a grave error of unpredictable consequences to overlook or brush aside this cause…”

Sadat issued this invitation to us from the rostrum of the Knesset:  “Conceive with me a peace agreement in Geneva that we would herald to a world thirsty for peace, a peace agreement based on the following points:

“First: ending the Israeli occupation of the Arab territories occupied in 1967.

“Second: achievement of the fundamental rights of the Palestinian People and their right to self-determination, including their right to establish their own state.

“Third: the right of all states in the area to live in peace within their boundaries, which will be secure and guaranteed through procedures to be agreed upon, which provide appropriate security to international boundaries, in addition to appropriate international guarantees.

“Fourth: commitment of all states in the region to administer the relations among them in accordance with the objectives and principles of the United Nations Charter, particularly the principles concerning the non-resort to force and the solution of differences among them by peaceful means.

“Fifth: ending the state of belligerency in the region.

“….What is peace for Israel? It means that Israel lives in the region with her Arab neighbors, in security and safety. To such logic, I say yes. It means that Israel lives within her borders, secure against any aggression. To such logic, I say yes. It means that Israel obtains all kinds of guarantees that ensure those two factors. To this demand, I say yes. More than that: we declare that we accept all the international guarantees you envisage and accept.

“You want to live with us in this part of the world. In all sincerity, I tell you, we welcome you among us, with full security and safety. This, in itself, is a tremendous turning point; one of the landmarks of a decisive historical change.We used to reject you. We had our reasons and our claims, yes. We used to brand you as “so-called” Israel, yes. We were together in international conferences and organizations and our representatives did not, and still do not, exchange greetings, yes. This has happened and is still happening.

“It is also true that we used to set, as a precondition for any negotiations with you, a mediator who would meet separately with each party. Through this procedure, the talks of the first and second disengagement agreements took place.Our delegates met in the first Geneva Conference without exchanging a direct word. Yes, this has happened.Yet, today I tell you, and declare it to the whole world, that we accept to live with you in permanent peace based on justice…”

Never has it been more clear that Israeli and Palestinian leaders need help to reach the goal first outlined by Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin.   A giant leap forward towards peace requires an America devoted to doing what it takes to escort both sides to the finish line.

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