Commentary Magazine


How Not to Make Peace in the Middle East

Why did the negotiations for a peaceful settlement between Egypt and Israel break down? Why has the breakdown been so difficult to overcome? The search for an explanation cannot be limited to the negotiations themselves; it can even be hindered by sticking too closely to the day-by-day “peace process.” The issues that led to the breakdown of the negotiations did not arise at Camp David and could not be settled by the negotiations at Camp David.

To get our bearings, we need to step back and view the negotiations from a greater distance. It is necessary to step at least as far back as 1967. For the Six-Day War in June of that year produced the hard territorial problems which the negotiations sought to resolve. What to do with the Sinai? The West Bank? The Gaza Strip? The Golan Heights? The Israeli settlements? These and other questions did not exist before June 1967-How they came to be is the starting point of any serious effort to find answers for them.

Mustafa Amin, a leading Egyptian commentator and confidant of President Sadat, recently provided an additional reason for going back to the 1967 war. The New York Times of December 24, 1978, reported him as having written: “This may be the first instance in history where a thief claims compensation for his own crime.”

Mustafa Amin’s allusion to the Israeli occupation of Arab territory after the 1967 war was not novel or original. It was typical of the steady journalistic diet fed Arab readers for the past decade. If all that had happened were no more than simple thievery and the criminal were so clearly identified, there would be very little more to say about it.

But the matter is hardly so simple. In fact, we now have it on the highest Egyptian authority how unsimple and how double-edged is the charge that a “crime” was committed in 1967.

The Egyptian authority is Anwar el-Sadat. His autobiography, In Search of Identity, appeared in English and other languages last year. In it he tells of the events leading up to the 1967 war. Although he leaves out a good deal, what he includes is enough.

Sadat relates that his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, knew that war with Israel was inevitable if the Straits of Tiran, leading to the Israeli port of Eilat in the south, were closed. The United Nations Emergency Force had been stationed at Sharm el-Sheikh in 1957 for the precise purpose of keeping the Straits open. In May 1967, according to Sadat, Nasser convened a meeting of his top leaders, including Sadat, at which he declared: “Now with our concentrations in Sinai, the chances of war are fifty-fifty. But if we close the Straits, the war will be a 100 per-cent certainty.” Nasser then turned to his Minister of War, Abdel Hakim Amer, and asked whether the Egyptian armed forces were ready. Amer assured him that everything was “in tiptop shape.”

With the Straits closed, Sadat writes, “war became a certainty.” Nasser also knew that the Israelis were going to aim their first blow at the Egyptian air force; he deliberately took that risk because he was assured by the Air Force Commander, General Sidqi Mahmoud, that the Egyptian losses would come to no more than 10 per cent of the air force. Nasser even correctly guessed the exact timing of the Israeli attack. He expected it to come at latest by June 5. He was right.

We have long known all this and more from other sources.1 Yet it is reassuring to have Sadat himself confirm how Egypt decided with calculated premeditation to set up a situation which could only lead to war.

If ever a war was deliberately instigated, it was instigated by Egypt in June 1967. Of this there cannot be the shadow of a doubt—except on the part of the present ranking Middle East expert on the National Security Council.2

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But Sadat hardly told the whole story, or even the most important part of it. What he does not mention in his memoirs is the war aim that Nasser repeatedly and unequivocally announced to the world before the outbreak of hostilities,

On May 26, 1967, Nasser said: “The battle will be a general one and our basic objective will be to destroy Israel.” On May 28, 1967, he said: “Israel’s existence in itself is an aggression.” On June 1, 1967, Ahmad Shukairy, then head of the PLO, at that time subsidized and controlled by Egypt, was asked what would happen to native-born Israelis if the Arab armies were successful. “Those who survive will remain in Palestine,” he replied. “I estimate that none of them will survive.”

It may be contended that Nasser’s words should not have been taken seriously. Nasser’s threats, however, were more restrained than popular Arab propaganda. We will never know whether Nasser would have gone as far as his henchman, Shukairy, but he fired up his armed forces for the battle with the language of the jihad—the holy war of Muslims against non-Muslims, which must end in death, conversion, or submission to Islam. The least that Nasser promised his followers was that the state of Israel would cease to exist in the event of an Egyptian victory.

The war, of course, ended with Israel in possession of the Sinai and the Gaza Strip. That is how Israel became a “thief” and committed the “crime” to which Mustafa Amin referred.

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We also know from the highest Jordanian authority, King Hussein, how Israel happened to occupy the West Bank. Two books, neither of which has been published in the United States, contain his version of how he got into the 1967 war. The story, told largely in Hussein’s own words, is this:

Hussein decided that war was inevitable as soon as Nasser announced the closure of the Gulf of Aqaba on May 22, 1967. It took him only two more days to decide to get into it. Hussein flew to Cairo on May 30 for a reconciliation with Nasser as the prerequisite for joint Egyptian-Jordanian action. Nasser assured Hussein that his forces were superior to the Israelis.’ Hussein’s own words are: “Nasser never appealed to us. We were the ones who appealed to him.”3

On the eve of the outbreak, Israel promised Jordan immunity from the war if it would stay out. One such message was transmitted through then Under Secretary of State Eugene V. Rostow to the Jordanian Ambassador in Washington. But Hussein was tempted by the jackal’s share of the easy victory held out by Nasser. After joining in the attack and getting punished for it, Hussein justified his poor showing on the battlefield by leading Nasser to believe that Jordanian forces had been attacked by hundreds of American war planes.4

And that is how Israel became the “thief” of the West Bank.

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As for Syria, its leaders claimed to be in the vanguard of the struggle to destroy Israel. Hafez al-Assad, then Syrian Defense Minister and now President, was particularly outspoken. He anticipated Nasser by saying early in 1967: “The mere existence of Zionism in Palestine constitutes an aggression, and aggression and peace cannot coexist in the same territory.” In the same speech made to army units, he declared: ‘The people’s revolution has decreed that the enemy shall be humiliated until zero hour strikes, after which no enemy will remain in Palestine.” The Syrians actually attacked Israel on the morning of the first day of the Six-Day War and were, in fact, the only Arab force to stage an abortive raid into Israeli territory during the entire war. The bulk of the Syrian army was stationed on the Golan Heights, from which the Israeli settlements below had long been terrorized. This Syrian force was virtually wiped out in the last two days of the war.

Which was how Israel became the “thief” of the Golan Heights, too.

Without keeping in mind how Israel came to occupy the Sinai area, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights in 1967, the conflict over them becomes a travesty. I do not mean to suggest that the way Israel came to occupy these territories answers the question whether Israel should keep all or any part of them. That is a much more complex problem, involving other factors in past and future Arab-Israeli relationships. But the original basis of the Israeli occupation in a war of self-defense, deliberately provoked by Egypt, cannot be ignored or falsified without making it impossible to understand the events leading up to the Camp David agreement and beyond.

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II

Why were all attempts to get serious negotiations started so futile until Sadat went to Jerusalem in 1977?

One reason stands out. Again we have Sadat to thank for confirming it in one, short sentence in his speech to the Israeli Knesset: “We used to reject you.” Just before making this frank admission, Sadat had said: “You want to live with us, in this part of the world.” Rejection, therefore, had meant that he and his fellow Arabs had not wanted Israel to live in that part of the world. Other rationales, such as Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory or recognition of a new Palestinian state, had been used in diplomatic negotiations or for public consumption. But this one—the survival of Israel—had always gone to the heart of the matter.

When Sadat also said, “We welcome you among us with full security and safety,” he for the first time broke away from the “rejectionist” Arab front to which he had in principle belonged. There was nothing else in Sadat’s speech that differed from the previous Arab negotiating position. Sadat himself recognized where the break had come. Immediately after his word of welcome, he added: “This in itself is a tremendous turning point, one of the landmarks of a decisive historical change.”

It was. But it also cast a lurid light on what the real issue had been from the birth of Israel in 1948 to that 20th of November almost thirty years later. For this reason, the rest of the Arab world responded to Sadat’s initiative with execration. The one thing for which Sadat could not be forgiven was his acceptance of Israel’s existence and survival as a nation, even if that acceptance was not unencumbered.

For Sadat named a price for the “tremendous turning point” and the “decisive historical change.” He went out of his way to stress that he had not come for a separate peace between Egypt and Israel. He spoke of “our land” that could not be the subject of bargaining or even open to argument. He demanded “complete withdrawal from the Arab territories occupied after 1967.” He made the Palestinian Arabs, not the Egyptians, “the crux of the entire problem.” He specified that Israel had to accept a new Palestinian state. On everything but the tolerated existence of pre-June 1967 Israel, his conditions were maximalist. If he had left out his acceptance of Israel’s existence and had not chosen to announce it in Jerusalem, his speech would have been unexceptionable from the point of view of the past Arab position.

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Almost all attention was subsequently paid to Sadat’s concession of Israel’s national survival. This one-sidedness was understandable. The circumstances were so dramatic, not to say theatrical, that no one wished to spoil the effect. One could even believe that if the Egyptian acceptance of Israel was possible, everything else was possible. It was as if the fine print in a contract had been ignored.

Thus one important implication of Sadat’s approach was by and large overlooked in the general euphoria. To take Sadat’s speech seriously meant accepting him as the representative of the entire Arab world. He spoke as if he was not worried about what he could get for Egypt and even knew what he could expect to get. He devoted most of his speech to what he wanted for the other Arab states and interests. This assumption by him of Arab leadership was something of a tour de force. He asked to be accepted by Israel as the representative of the entire Arab world in the very act of breaking with that world on what it considered to be the essence of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

That Sadat had this representative role very much in mind was soon confirmed by Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Sadat, he related, told him in Ismailia, where they met in December 1977, that he “represents the Arab cause and he would like to see a solution to the problem of the Palestinian Arabs.” Begin accepted Sadat as just such a representative. The future negotiations were mortgaged to this understanding.

It was a peculiar understanding. Sadat did not have a mandate to negotiate for any other state than Egypt. He had, in fact, mortally offended the other Arab leaders by going to Jerusalem without consulting them,5 by offering a deal with Israel for which they vilified him and even threatened his life, and by appointing himself to negotiate for them. It was a wonderful trick, if he could get away with it.

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Sadat evidently calculated that the other Arab states would have to come in with him sooner or later. This calculation was by virtue of Sadat’s strategy hardly more than a possibility. Sadat set up a situation which made it most humiliating for Assad of Syria to follow along meekly in the Egyptian leader’s footsteps. The PLO would have had to violate the dictates of its own “Covenant,” something it had stubbornly refused to do despite all sorts of bribes and blandishments in the past. Sadat had not consulted his paymasters in Saudi Arabia, for the good and sufficient reason that they would not have countenanced his initiative. Jordan’s Hussein, seeing all choices as dangerous, had become a perennial fence-sitter. The more extreme “rejectionists,” such as Iraq and Libya, were certain to cry out for revenge.

In any event, Sadat’s strategy of pulling off a diplomatic coup by himself and somehow imposing it on the other Arab states left him vulnerable to their disapproval and retaliation. If all of them, including the Palestinian Arabs, refused to go along, he faced the prospect of going back to the other Arabs or going forward with Israel, in which case, whatever the appearance, he would have the separate peace he had renounced. When Sadat, inferentially, volunteered to represent all Arab interests at Jerusalem and did so outrightly at Ismailia, he presented no credentials for assuming this role other than the vision in his own head of what an Arab peace with Israel could or should look like.

Sadat’s offer to Israel sought to hold in tandem Egypt’s national interest and Egypt’s interests in the Arab world. A separate peace with Israel would substantially serve Egypt’s national interest but only by risking the sacrifice of Egypt’s putative role as leader of the Arab world. Sadat clearly assumed, with good reason, that he could have a separate peace for the asking. He rejected that prospect in his Jerusalem speech with such dispatch and finality that he was obviously determined to emphasize that he was not ready to give up Egypt’s pan-Arab calling. All he was ready to do was to work it out in a different way; yet the difference was so hazardous that it could jeopardize both of his objectives—the Egyptian and the Arab.

Some observers could not believe that Sadat was aiming at anything other than a separate peace, suitably camouflaged. Israelis hotly debated whether Sadat merely wanted to have a “fig leaf” for his separate peace. Meanwhile Sadat had one inestimable advantage if there was to be any negotiation at all. There was no one else for the Israelis to bargain with.

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III

Begin’s response to Sadat’s challenge also broke with the past. The Israeli counter-proposals never received the appreciation they deserved. They were virtually taken for granted, even though they were, in fact, startling, most of all in Israel itself.

At their meeting in Ismailia in December 1977, one month after the Jerusalem visit, Begin offered Sadat at one stroke the return to Egyptian sovereignty of all occupied Egyptian territory in the Sinai, including the key post at Sharm el-Sheikh, guarding the entrance to the Straits of Tiran, the immediate casus belli of the 1967 war. There was one qualification—that the Israeli settlements in the so-called Rafiah area, representing no more than 1 per cent of the Sinai, should be linked to Israeli administration and defended by an Israeli military force. This qualification was withdrawn, despite a great deal of embarrassment and anguish in Israel, when Sadat announced that he would not permit “one square centimeter” of Israeli settlement within Egypt’s international borders. In the end, Egypt was offered the return of its entire territory and everything in it.

This offer was not something that should have been taken for granted. No such flat, unconditional offer had ever been made or even contemplated by any Israeli government before. Sadat did not even have to enter into negotiations to get back the whole of Egyptian territory. By holding out for the Sinai unconditionally, Sadat was able to get Israel to throw in three strategically important airfields in eastern Sinai, the major naval base at Sharm el-Sheikh, the oilfields which Israel had developed and which supplied it with 20 per cent of its oil needs, and ultimately the dismantlement of the Israeli settlements on the eastern coast adjoining Gaza. Begin and his chief lieutenants, Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman, considered the move to be their most original and imaginative achievement. They boasted that their Labor-party predecessors would never have dared to make it. Indeed, it was widely criticized in Israel as premature and unnecessarily generous.

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It is well to recall once more how Egypt had lost the Sinai to Israel. It had been lost in 1967 in a war deliberately provoked by Egypt with the open aim of extinguishing the Jewish state. The Egyptians had started a second war in 1973 to get it back and had nearly succeeded before they were turned around, narrowly avoiding total military disaster, thanks in part to pressure exerted on Israel by the United States. The issue was not merely that it was Egyptian territory that had been lost; it was also how Egypt had lost it.

Again, I am not suggesting that it is wise or necessary for Israel to hold on to the Sinai or any other part of the occupied territories in perpetuity just because they were won in a demonstrably defensive war. But I am concerned that this Israeli offer should not have been taken for granted, as if all past history were not full of countless examples of the opposite, including in the relatively recent past the vast territory acquired by the Soviet Union as a result of World War II and the even more recent seizure by force of almost half of Cyprus by Turkey.

The brute fact is that Begin was offering Sadat the fruit of war without war. Such an offer may well have been ultimately advantageous for both sides, but that is no reason for disregarding or discounting the rich prize freely tendered to the Egyptian side.

If Begin expected gratitude from Sadat for the offer of virtually total withdrawal from the Sinai, he received none. Sadat responded in the spirit of his Jerusalem speech—that he was not interested in a separate peace and that his responsibility for representing all other Arab interests took precedence over or was indistinguishable from Egypt’s national interest. As a result, Begin might have saved himself the trouble of offering to give back the Sinai in advance of any serious negotiation on all other aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In effect, Sadat forced the issue of the Palestinian Arabs to the forefront. Here also Begin and especially Dayan thought that they had something new and original to offer.

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IV

Compared with previous Israeli positions, the so-called Begin plan for the West Bank and Gaza Strip presented in late December 1977 was new and original.

Labor governments had proposed a “compromise” solution. Their compromise, however, was “territorial.” It implied some sort of division of the West Bank, generally between Israel and Jordan, leaving the heavily populated areas under Arab sovereignty with an outlying, peripheral area going to Israel. Most Israeli settlements had been set down in this latter area. The emphasis in this plan was on “security.”

Begin’s old position had made Israeli withdrawal from Sinai and the Golan Heights negotiable but not withdrawal from the West Bank, which he always referred to as Judea and Samaria to emphasize the area’s Jewish origins. “I believe that Judea and Samaria are an integral part of our sovereignty,” Begin said as late as May 22, 1977, six months before Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. “It’s our land.” In principle, this was Begin’s “hardline” position. In reality, he made very little change in day-to-day conduct on the West Bank, except for authorizing a handful of new settlements by Israeli extremists. The emphasis in this approach, however, was on “sovereignty.”

As long as Begin claimed the West Bank totally for Israel, the Laborite position could appear to be “dovish” because it entailed keeping only a part of the West Bank. In fact, neither conception had the slightest chance with the Arabs and amounted to little more than the Israelis talking to themselves. The West Bank’s administration was actually a peculiar kind of tacit Israeli-Jordanian admixture, with security entirely in Israeli hands while Jordanian books were used in the schools, Jordanian law prevailed in the courts, and Jordan’s old retainers in the West Bank received their accustomed stipends.

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Begin’s new plan did not fall into either of these two previous categories. It is worth more attention than it has received because parts of it later reappeared in different form in the Camp David agreement. In essence, the Begin government separated “administration” from “security.” Under administration it included everything from education and finance to the administration of justice and supervision of local police forces. While the Israeli military government was to be abolished, Israeli armed forces were still to remain in charge of security.

To this extent, the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza were to be given control over their own affairs with the exception of the armed forces. On all other matters, however, the plan pointed in the direction of Jordan.

One provision, curiously, permitted residents of the West Bank and Gaza to choose either Israeli or Jordanian citizenship. Those who opted for Jordan could be elected to the Jordanian parliament, sitting in Amman. Negotiations between Israel and Jordan were provided for to settle questions arising from the vote to the Jordanian parliament by West Bank-Gaza residents, and other matters into which Jordan was to be drawn. Israeli citizens were to be allowed to acquire land and settle in the West Bank and Gaza, but only those Arabs who opted for Israeli citizenship could acquire land and settle in Israel.

Finally, the plan addressed itself directly to the question of “sovereignty.” At this point, too, Begin backed down from his previous hard, fixed position. His proposal declared that Israel stood by its right and claim to sovereignty over Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza district. But it recognized that other claims also existed. To reach agreement, it proposed to leave open the question of sovereignty and to review the entire matter after a five-year period.

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The Begin plan presented such a complex set of conditions that sovereignty might ultimately go to the local Palestinian Arabs as an outgrowth of their “administrative” responsibilities, to an Israeli-Jordanian condominium, or to the Israelis alone. Yet, despite all the possible combinations and permutations, it was held together by a basic conception of the future of the Jewish and Arab inhabitants of Palestine.

This conception is chiefly identified with Dayan, who first put it forward in the early 1970’s when he was still a Laborite in good standing. The main idea behind it is that Jews and Arabs should “live together” from the Mediterranean to the Jordan. It differs from the Laborite conception of a territorial division of the West Bank between Israel and Jordan in some manner that would leave a formal border between them. It also differs from what may be called the Egyptian conception—to create a formal border between pre-June 1967 Israel and a new Palestinian state or some autonomous Palestinian “entity” within Jordan. It differs from both of them by putting the main emphasis on some way of “living together” rather than on some way of living separately. Begin was apparently won over to this approach, judging from an interview on December 18, 1977, in which he said that “we should live together”—Dayan’s favorite slogan.

In an interview on April 30, 1978, Dayan himself explained what he had in mind:

So now this time we come forward with an absolutely different concept about it, not dividing the West Bank between Jordan and Israel, but living together, both the Arabs and Israelis living in the West Bank, the way we live in Jerusalem now (and no one really is now recommending dividing Jerusalem) so we say the same thing about the entire West Bank.

Dayan’s analogy with Jerusalem left something to be desired. Jerusalem is under total Israeli sovereignty, as the West Bank might or might not be. As anyone who visits Jerusalem can see, the city is united juridically, not socially. There was some movement toward “living together” after the 1967 war, but it was reversed after 1973. Nevertheless, Dayan’s aim of “living together” may well be as good a definition of peace in Palestine as is possible, for tomorrow or the day after if not for today. His conception, at any rate, helps to explain some of the complexity of the so-called Begin plan for Palestinian “self-rule” of late December 1977.

It was, from an Israeli point of view, a genuine innovation. It avoided both the Laborite formula of dividing the West Bank and Begin’s old dogma that the West Bank belonged by ancient prescription to Israel. It was so unconventional that it succeeded in throwing the “hawk-dove” lineup in Israeli politics into disarray. Some former Laborite doves now began to attack Begin for having given away too much. Begin’s hawkish followers began to feel the ground under them slipping away because the Palestinian Arabs were offered too much autonomy, while Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza would be moot for five years. Begin himself became temporarily unclassifiable as he alternately resorted to old-time Beginisms and anti-Beginisms. “Our preoccupation, our worry, is security,” he told the Knesset on July 2, 1978, just the way Laborites used to talk. On July 23, 1978, he attacked the Laborite leader, Shimon Peres, on the ground that the latter was ready to give up parts of Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip. “I am not,” Begin protested, while his critics were shouting and wailing that he was ready to give up practically everything.

From the Arab point of view, Begin’s plan never had a chance. In June 1978, Sadat presented his own plan for the West Bank and Gaza. Like Begin’s, it provided for a five-year “transitional period.” But whereas Begin had merely stipulated a review of the entire procedure after five years, Sadat demanded that “the Palestinian people will be able to determine their own future” after a maximum of five years. Sadat also injected Jordan into his plan by proposing that the future would be decided by representatives of Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Arabs. Begin’s plan would not have touched the existing Israeli settlements or Israeli armed forces. Sadat required them to be removed at the very beginning of the transitional period, during which Jordan would supervise the administration of the West Bank and Egypt of the Gaza Strip. Jordan and Egypt would thus have had five years of administering the two areas before the final adjudication.

Sadat’s plan never had a chance with the Israelis. It was followed by the stalemate broken three months later at Camp David. Still, both the Begin and Sadat plans had elements which could be juggled or compromised. Most noteworthy in view of later developments was the agreement on a five-year transitional period before a final decision on sovereignty. Jordan was brought into both schemes. The inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza were drawn into varying degrees of immediate management of their own affairs. There were plenty of significant differences, but they were the stuff of which diplomatic compromises are made.

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V

All during this period, the initiative belonged to Sadat. He had seized it in Jerusalem, and he held on to it with skill and tenacity.

His trump card throughout was U.S. policy. The relationship of forces in the Arab world vis-à-vis Israel was such that Sadat could not hope to prevail without the backing of Washington. By going to Jerusalem on his own, Sadat had found himself almost totally isolated in the Arab world. Egypt alone was in no position to enforce its demands on Israel. Egypt plus the United States was something else. Every move by Sadat was calculated primarily with an eye on the United States.

Sadat himself said as much repeatedly with disarming candor. Sometimes he said that the United States held 100 per cent of the cards. Sometimes he reduced the figure to a mere 99 per cent. The implication of this favorite observation was clear. If the United States held 100 per cent or 99 per cent of the cards and Israel none or 1 per cent, Sadat was inferentially negotiating with the party that held all those cards, not with the party without them. Thus Sadat’s strategy was to get the United States to make up for what Egypt lacked. He set up and worked within a triangle—Egypt-Israel-United States. His success or failure was made to depend on his manipulation of the United States. This schema was designed as if all that mattered were American “leverage” on Israel. It left out of the account Egypt’s leverage on the other Arab states.

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Of greatest interest to Sadat must have been President Carter’s choice of Zbigniew Brzezinski as his National Security Adviser.

Brzezinski is no exception to the rule that political intellectuals give literary hostages to fortune before they reap political rewards for their intellectual labors. In his case, efforts to find out what he had in mind for the Middle East before he took office have focused on the report issued by a Brookings Institution Study Group, of which he was a prominent member, in December 1975. But it was signed by fifteen others, some of whom did not agree with him on everything. For Brzezinski’s position on the Arab-Israeli conflict before it became advisable for him to watch his words for their immediate political effect, it is necessary to turn to an article, “Peace In An International Framework,” which he—together with François Duchêne of England and Kiichi Saeki of Japan—published in the Summer 1975 issue of Foreign Policy. This article put Brzezinski on record as advocating, among other things, that:

  1. The United States should overtly take the initiative to present the substance of an international framework for an eventual settlement.
  2. The solution had to “treat the whole problem” at once, not piecemeal.
  3. Israel should trade occupied territories for Arab acceptance of the pre-June 1967 borders.
  4. The result of such a trade-off would most likely be a PLO-dominated state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Such a state was seen on one page of the article as coming “probably” and on another page “almost certainly.”
  5. The Soviet Union must be drawn into the negotiations. It was needed to provide a “joint guarantee by the superpowers” of any territorial settlement. No peace treaty was feasible without Soviet participation.

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One more tenet was perhaps the most revealing of all. It appeared in this form:

But the United States is also keenly aware that its relations with the Arab world impinge on its status as a superpower, and its support of Israel cuts across American raisons d’état.

This oracular pronouncement must be understood in terms of a longstanding argument in American policy-making circles about where the true American raisons d’etat are located—in Israel, the Arab states, or some combination of both. The article by Brzezinski et al. shifted them sharply over to the Arab side. The Arabs were said really to matter so far as America’s “status as a superpower” was concerned; Israel cut across American raisons d’etat. The implication was inescapable—we may sympathize with Israel but we must in the final analysis support the Arabs, or at least get their support. This assessment was slipped in unostentatiously, though its implications informed the entire argument. With the exception of the stress on Soviet participation, there was nothing in the article that Sadat could not accept.

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Despite this open manifesto on how to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict only a year before the presidential campaign and his choice of Jimmy Carter as his standard-bearer, Brzezinski’s views were conspicuously absent from candidate Carter’s campaign commitments in 1976. Carter denounced the Ford administration for having “tried to make Israel the scapegoat for the problems in the Middle East.” He came out for “defensible borders,” the Israeli code term for substantial changes. He rejected a Soviet-American imposed settlement. He told the Israelis that he himself would not relinquish direct control of the Golan Heights or Old Jerusalem. He advised them not to deal with the PLO. He put almost the entire onus for peace on the Arabs, from whom he demanded recognition of Israel, diplomatic relations, and a peace treaty as the “heart” of the matter.

After the election, most of these professions of deeply held convictions were consigned to the famous “dust heap of history,” which in American politics receives another delivery in only as much time as it takes to get from the campaign to the election, All through 1977, the Middle East policy of the Carter administration moved in directions suspiciously similar to those which Brzezinski had charted in 1975.

  1. The United States decided to adopt a more overt, operative role leading to a settlement. “We are not just an idle bystander,” said President Carter on September 16, 1977. “We are not just an uninterested intermediary or mediator.” A few days later came word from Brzezinski that the United States had “the legitimate right to exercise its own leverage” and was not “just an interested bystander, not even a benevolent mediator.”6
  2. The United States was committed to an all-inclusive “comprehensive” settlement, extending from Egypt to Syria. President Assad was persistently wooed; systematic efforts were made to find out what would be acceptable to him. As late as July 5, 1978, Carter called Assad “a major force for peace in the Middle East for many years.”
  3. Israel’s “defensible borders” turned out to be just what they had been in the previous Nixon and Ford administrations. On March 9, 1977, Carter came out for “some minor adjustments in the 1967 borders.” (A “minor adjustment” is understood to be something on the order of the reunification of a village cut in half by the 1949 armistice lines, which are all that the 1967 borders are based on.)
  4. On a PLO-dominated state in the West Bank and Gaza the official policy began to move by degrees toward Brzezinski’s 1975 prescription. On March 16, 1977, the President for the first time came out for a Palestinian “homeland.” On September 16, he endorsed a Palestinian “entity,” preferably associated with Jordan. Repeated efforts were also made to get the PLO to say the right words or even to pretend that they had done so in order to gain admittance for them at a reconvened Geneva conference.
  5. The climax of all this American activity was the Soviet-American statement of October 1, 1977. It anthologized almost every important recommendation in Brzezinski’s 1975 article. It called for a “comprehensive” settlement “incorporating all parties concerned and all questions.” It recommended joint Soviet-American “guarantees” of any settlement. It maintained that a reconvened Geneva conference, no later than December 1977, was the only way to achieve a solution. It edged even closer to the PLO by employing the Arab formula of “the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.”7

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In large part, this statement followed the line that had been urged by George W. Ball, Professor Stanley Hoffmann, and Nahum Goldmann as well as by the Brzezinski-Duchêne-Saeki article and the Brookings Report. What they had in common was the premise that the United States and the Soviet Union had to arrive at a prior agreement on the terms of a settlement in order to make an agreement by the parties themselves feasible.8

Not only that. The Soviet-American statement came as close to imposing a settlement on the interested parties as could be conceived of in the circumstances, despite official protestations to the contrary. The logic behind it had been worked out in the 1975 article by Brzezinski et al. It had envisaged a statement negotiated by the United States and the Soviet Union to provide a joint guarantee for a return to the pre-June 1967 borders. Such a statement, it had delicately hinted, “would put great pressure on the Arabs and the Israelis, especially if it were then endorsed by Western Europe and Japan” (p. 16). The United States and the Soviet Union did not have to present their statement as an imposed settlement; their “great pressure” was expected to do it for them.

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Instead of great pressure, there was great shock in Egypt, Israel, and not least the United States.

The Soviet-American statement of October 1 was negotiated so secretively that neither Sadat nor Begin had been taken into Washington’s confidence. Sadat let it be known that he was appalled by American sponsorship of Soviet intervention in a matter which primarily concerned Egypt without full Egyptian cognizance of what had been afoot. Israel was infuriated because the Carter administration had issued the statement with no advance consultation, in flagrant violation of a previous commitment dating from September 1, 1975, to consult fully and to seek to concert position and strategy with Israel in advance of any effort to reconvene the Geneva conference. Begin and Dayan were permitted to see the statement only twenty-four hours before it was issued. Congressional opinion, also taken by surprise, reflected incredulity and hostility. The most enthusiastic public support for the statement came from Syria and the PLO.

This diplomatic coup was the culmination of months of policy planning and weeks of diplomatic negotiations—“long weeks,” President Carter later said. It could not possibly be attributed to a fit of absent-mindedness. Anyone who wants to know what the original Carter-Brzezinski-Vance policy for settling the Arab-Israeli conflict really was need only read this statement; the Soviets astutely recognized that that policy was good enough for them and their Arab clients. If such a coup was worth pulling off at all, however, it should have been followed by an exhibition of that “great pressure” which a Soviet-American statement was supposed to generate.

Pressure there was, but in the end it was not great enough. The Israelis protested bitterly and succeeded in getting some minor concessions. They were told that they did not have to accept the Soviet-American statement in advance of a reconvened Geneva conference. They obtained some nominal changes in the PLO’s presence at the conference. But the Carter administration would not budge on essentials; the President still insisted at the end of October that the Soviet-American statement was a “major move in the right direction.” American policy was hell-bent on going to Geneva and working in conjunction with the Soviet Union, with or without Egyptian and Israeli approval and cooperation.

One surprise begat another. While Washington was preparing to go to Geneva in December, Israel and Egypt quietly began to put out feelers to each other. Sadat’s bolt-out-of-the-blue bid on November 9 for an invitation to Jerusalem was his way of rejecting Geneva. Begin’s invitation and Sadat’s speech in the Knesset—all within eleven days-came so quickly that all control of events was lost by Washington, which was reduced to watching them unfold on television. As significant as anything that was said in Jerusalem was what was unsaid—that the road to peace led from Cairo to Jerusalem, not from Washington to Moscow.

The effect of Sadat’s Jerusalem speech was almost magical. The Soviet-American statement was put in cold storage. The new Geneva conference was indefinitely postponed. The plan to bring a recalcitrant Syria, an immobile Jordan, and a disinfected PLO into early, all-inclusive negotiations was sidetracked. The Soviets were again relegated to the sidelines.

Thus was a year of American policy-making for the Middle East undone. The only thing our policy-makers and planners could take credit for was that they had unwittingly helped to send Sadat to Jerusalem.

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The first reaction in Washington to Sadat’s visit was compounded of bewilderment, embarrassment, and hesitation. But it would be a mistake to think that the American-Soviet statement was simply written off. It represented too great an investment and too deliberate a decision to be permanently abandoned. Instead, after a suitable period of recuperation and reflection, a determined effort was made to recover the ground lost without direct reference to the statement itself.

The most ambitious effort along these lines was made by Brzezinski, who now introduced the concept of three concentric circles. In the first, the United States supported an Egyptian-Israeli settlement. In the second, the “moderate” Palestinian Arabs and Jordan would be brought in. And the third was reserved for Syria and the Soviet Union, preferably at a comprehensive, reconvened Geneva conference. What the Soviet-American statement had contemplated achieving at one stroke, Sadat’s visit was now supposed to accomplish in three stages.

Another way to achieve the same end was to make Sadat the negotiator for all the other Arab states. As we have already seen, Sadat had assigned this role to himself, and Begin had gone along with him. Now Carter also associated himself with it. In an interview on January 6, 1978, after meeting with Sadat, Hussein, and King Khalid of Saudi Arabia, Carter asserted that he—and Hussein—felt “that Sadat is adequately representing the Arab position.” Hussein and Khalid allegedly supported Sadat “unequivocally.” Even more, Sadat was “almost uniquely trusted” not only by his own people but by the rest of the world, including “to a substantial degree” the Israelis. Only Syria was still inscrutable. But if Sadat could adequately represent the Arab position, we were in effect returning to the long sought “comprehensive” agreement.

Unfortunately, Hussein did not say that Sadat represented him. Khalid did not say that Sadat represented him. Carter said it for them. It remained to be seen how right the President was or how gullible he had been.

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At about the same time, Sadat was given the opportunity to find out where the real “leverage” was.

The Begin plan for Palestinian “self-rule” had been submitted to the United States before it was made public at the end of December 1977. Carter told Begin, according to the latter, that he considered the plan “a fair basis for negotiation to achieve peace.” Publicly, Carter confirmed that he had been decidedly encouraging. In an interview on December 28, he agreed that Begin’s plan “certainly is a realistic negotiating position” and declared that Begin “already has shown a great deal of flexibility.” Begin had every reason to think that the Americans would back the Israeli proposals as a basis of negotiation with Egypt.

The test of American “leverage” came when Sadat categorically rejected the Israeli plan. Thereupon the Americans also discarded it. The lesson was not lost—that Sadat’s “leverage” upon American policy was greater than American “leverage” upon Sadat’s policy, and that Sadat’s “leverage” on American policy set in motion American “leverage” upon Begin’s policy. The 100 or 99 per cent of the cards that the Americans held, according to Sadat, was apparently to be played only in games between the United States and Israel.

Another example of how this “leverage” worked was given in a speech on April 5, 1978, by Alfred L. Atherton, Jr., who had just been appointed U.S. special negotiator for the Middle East. Atherton was discussing the provision in Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967, which was to assure Israel of secure and recognized borders. Atherton explained why such borders were not achievable:

But borders that might give Israel the greatest sense of security in geographic and military terms are not those acceptable to Israel’s neighbors. They could not, therefore, provide true security.

This reasoning was an American version of a familiar Arab argument. The Israelis might get a greater sense of security if their borders were substantially changed, but it would not be true security unless the Arabs decided what those borders should be. Inasmuch as the Arabs at best wanted no change from the pre-June 1967 borders, the Israelis therefore could not get a greater sense of security in geographic and military terms. Thus the United States had to accept the Arab demand for Israeli “withdrawal”—not qualified on this occasion by “substantial” or any other adjective—to the pre-June 1967 borders. There may be good reasons why Israel should agree to a total withdrawal, or to something substantially or insubstantially less, but this reason is surely not among them. It is, in effect, a rationale for giving the Arabs a veto power over both Israeli and American policy. Yet it was seriously propounded by the leading State Department official in direct charge of Middle East affairs.

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By mid-1978, American “leverage” was demonstrated in still another way. It concerned Begin’s proposal of December 1977 for Palestinian “self-rule”—still the official Israeli position. By this time, Israelis and Egyptians were deadlocked over, among other things, the outcome of the transition period. Was the decision on Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza to be left open after the five-year period, as the Israelis proposed, or were the Palestinian Arabs to decide the issue at the end of this period, as the Egyptians urged?

In June 1978, the United States virtually took over the negotiations. It sent a questionnaire to Jerusalem, the nub of which was the question whether Israel would be willing to negotiate a final status for the occupied territories after a five-year transitional period. The response reiterated the original Israeli position—that “the nature of future relations between the parties will be considered and agreed upon” at the end of the period. The Carter administration clearly intended its question as a signal to the Israeli cabinet that only an affirmative answer would be considered satisfactory. No other supposition can account for the reaction in Washington to the Israeli reply. The State Department spokesman publicly expressed “regret that the Israeli replies did not fully respond to our questions.” In a news conference on June 26, President Carter censured the Israeli responses as “very disappointing.” He was clearly incensed.

On this occasion the Carter administration might just as well have issued instructions to Jerusalem on how to respond. The trouble with the Israeli response was that it was fully responsive but not according to Washington’s intention or liking. In fact, the Israeli response would not have been so “disappointing” if it had been less responsive. Another peculiar aspect of this diplomatic exchange was the way it was flaunted in public. A request for information between governments is usually made discreetly. This incident was played up as if the Carter administration were determined to humiliate the Israeli government by getting it to reverse itself upon American demand or face a public dressing-down by the combined disciplinarians in the State Department and the White House.

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If this sort of American “leverage” upon Israel had worked, there would have been no need for the command performance at Camp David in September. Not that the United States was without leverage; it was merely without sufficient leverage to make Israel give up what it considered a vital interest. The distinction was critical to the success—and later breakdown—of the agreements reached at Camp David. The basic reasons for both went back to Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem.

In his speech almost a year before, Sadat had anticipated no trouble reaching agreement between Egypt and Israel, which, he said, was not the problem. He proved to be right. The Egyptians correctly surmised that the Israelis would not permit their few settlements in the Sinai to stand in the way of an Egyptian-Israeli peace, however painful it might be to remove them. But most of Sadat’s Jerusalem speech had been spent on his role as representative of the entire Arab world in its disputes with Israel, and the Camp David negotiations hinged on this aspect of Egyptian policy. Thus the “Framework for Peace in the Middle East” was three times as long as the “Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty Between Egypt and Israel.” The presupposition of the former was that Egypt did or could represent the Arab states and interests in the Middle East. Without this presupposition, the agreement made little sense.

The Middle East framework made no secret of this assumption of pan-Arab representation on the part of Sadat. It was intended, the text said, “to constitute a basis for peace not only between Egypt and Israel, but also between Israel and each of its other neighbors which is prepared to negotiate with Israel on this basis.” To make sure that no one missed the point, the document reiterated: “Egypt and Israel state that the principles and provisions described below should apply to peace treaties between Israel and each of its neighbors—Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.” And once more, the framework invited “the other parties to the conflict” to negotiate peace treaties simultaneously with Egypt and Israel “with a view to achieving a comprehensive peace in the area.” One can imagine Sadat’s reaction if Assad of Syria or Hussein of Jordan had made a deal with Israel and told Egypt to go and do likewise.

The most troublesome part of the Middle East framework, dealing with the Palestinian Arabs, had Sadat implicitly negotiating not only for the Palestinian Arabs but for Jordan. Sadat’s ostensible aim had been to gain recognition for “the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people”—and this language was incorporated in the framework. Sadat had also held out for a determination—not merely a review—of the final status of the West Bank and Gaza within a transitional period not exceeding five years. Begin’s greatest concession came at this point, though he could claim that he had not promised any particular outcome of this determination. The entire process was, however, to be controlled from the outside—by Egypt, Israel, and Jordan. The three, according to the document, first had to agree on the “modalities for establishing an elected self-governing authority in the West Bank and Gaza,” defined in the next paragraph as merely an “administrative council.” The Egyptian and Jordanian delegations might—not would—include Palestinian Arabs. Jordan was brought into the exercise at every opportunity. After the “modalities” were agreed on, the next step was to be negotiations to determine the “final status” of the Palestinian Arabs. These negotiations were again to be carried on by Egypt, Israel, and Jordan, this time joined by the elected representatives of the West Bank and Gaza. Arab immigration into the West Bank during the transitional period was also to be decided by this quadrumvirate.

Nothing in the Palestinian framework committed Israel—or any other party—to any particular outcome or “final status.” Nothing in the Egyptian-Israeli peace framework referred to the Palestinian framework or to Egyptian treaties with other Arab states. The peace framework was so worked out that it concerned Egypt and Israel only, and therefore could be controlled and carried out by them. The Palestinian Arab framework was so put together that it had to have the cooperation of at least two other parties—Jordan and the Palestinian Arabs. If Sadat was not really representing them, that framework was bound to come apart at the seams.

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There was reason for this singular solicitude for Jordan on the part of Egypt, Israel, and the United States. However much they differed, the three of them agreed on one thing—that the new Palestinian Arab homeland or entity or self-governing authority should in some way be linked to Jordan. This was the only kind of “linkage” actually built into the West Bank-Gaza framework. And all the while, Hussein could not make up his mind whether to say yes or no. The autocratic Jordanian state could easily be disrupted by permitting an “authority” in Palestine to be “self-governing,” and Palestinian Arab “self-government” could easily end up without much authority by linking itself to the autocracy in Amman.

Egypt, Israel, and the United States wanted the Jordanian link as a form of insurance against a PLO-controlled Palestinian state. Israel wanted this link the most, but Sadat had also resorted to the double-talk of an “independent” Palestinian state “linked with Jordan.” Carter had never gone further than a Palestinian homeland or entity “in a very strong federation or confederation with Jordan.” Meanwhile, no one had heard from Jordan how much independence it was willing or able to grant a state or entity which was also a constituent part of itself. At the same time, the Camp David formulas had, without Jordan’s approval, assumed Jordan’s participation in the determination of the Palestine Arabs’ “final status.”

The Jordanian link in the Camp David framework again put Sadat’s representative function to the test. If he had had a prior understanding with Hussein, or could count on his support without it, the framework might not have crumbled so quickly. But Hussein had been sulking all the while, as decisions were made for him thousands of miles away. He finally asserted himself by publicly posing fifteen querulous questions about the Camp David agreement.

One would imagine that the answers should have come from Sadat, who, after all, signed the agreements and supposedly represented the Arab side. But no, Assistant Secretary of State Harold Saunders rushed off to Amman to answer the King’s questions. Saunders succeeded only in making a bad situation worse. He failed to satisfy Hussein, and he infuriated Begin. The Israeli Prime Minister understood Saunders’s answers to imply that the Camp David framework was tantamount to a commitment to establish Arab sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza after the five-year transition period. Begin had given way on the issue, but not that much; he had agreed that the “final status” would be determined within five years, not what that status would be. And so Begin sent off a letter to Washington protesting that Saunders had distorted the plain language of the agreement. Saunders’s indiscretion strengthened the already disturbing suspicion that the American side had never been wholly happy with the Camp David agreements and was trying ex post facto to smuggle into them more of what the Egyptians had originally demanded.

In effect, the Palestinian framework of the Camp David agreements was a self-destructive diplomatic instrument. It needed little help from the outside to explode from within. Once Jordan and the Palestinian Arabs let it be known that they would not play their allotted roles, the framework fell of its own weight. Only those who had not read the fine print could imagine that Egypt, Israel, and the United States were enough to make it stand up without Jordan or the Palestinian Arabs, not to mention Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. The verdict was in even as President Carter’s standing in the public-opinion polls shot up for his seeming diplomatic triumph and Prime Minister Begin went to Stockholm to receive a peace prize he had not earned.

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VI

And yet, there was something about the Camp David agreements that let a glimmer of reality into the murk of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The glimmer came through the crack between the Israeli-Egyptian framework and the West Bank-Gaza framework. The separation of the two frameworks was itself a decision of utmost significance. It implied that the negotiators formally distinguished between what was binding and what was contingent. A separation between the two frameworks did not mean that they were unrelated. It meant that they were not necessarily related. They were related, if only because Israel was central to both of them, and one could help the other to succeed. But Israel was not central to both in the same way, and one could also hurt the other. If they had been necessarily related, there would have been no need for the two frameworks at all, or there would have been a built-in connection between them. In the latter case, the Camp David agreements would have been only as strong as their weakest link. The only way out of this predicament was to separate the two.

This move was clearly understood by the Americans at Camp David. A “senior White House official,” whose disguise deceived no informed reader, told reporters that each of the frameworks “stands on its own.” President Carter clearly distinguished between the legal and the psychological relationships when he said: “The two discussions on the Sinai, which relate to Egypt and Israel only on the one hand, and the West Bank-Gaza Strip discussions on the other, are not legally interconnected, but I think throughout the Camp David talks and in the minds of myself, Prime Minister Begin, and President Sadat, they are interrelated.” In agreements of this sort, there is a world of difference between what is legally interconnected and what is mentally interrelated.

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One word has bedeviled this subject. It is “comprehensive.” Sadat, Begin, and Carter have all paid tribute or lip-service to this shibboleth, which Carter seems to cherish the most. The term lends itself to different interpretations in different circumstances, so that it is hard to know just what is meant by it. The Egyptian-Israeli framework was a comprehensive peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, but not comprehensive enough to take in the West Bank and Gaza. The other framework was designed to be comprehensive for the West Bank and Gaza, but still left out Syria. A truly comprehensive settlement of the conflict would have to embrace all the neighboring states and perhaps even get the blessings of Saudi Arabia. Such a settlement is not considered possible in present circumstances even by the most wild-eyed advocates of comprehensiveness à outrance. In practice, no one expects a truly comprehensive agreement by all interested parties at one stroke; all that is immediately attainable are degrees of comprehensiveness—which is the same as degrees of non-comprehensiveness.

The trouble with a fully comprehensive agreement in these circumstances is that it is illusory in practice, not that it is wrong in principle. The more comprehensive an agreement sets out to be, the more it has to take in Arab states that are the most intransigent. Comprehensiveness thus negates itself. What is important here is not how comprehensive an agreement is, but how effectively an agreement can be carried out within its own terms.

The French saying that “the best is the enemy of the good” may be reworded in the Arab-Israeli context as “the impossible is the enemy of the possible.” The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was possible because the issues were not intractable and, above all, because Sadat had a mandate to negotiate them. The West Bank-Gaza treaty was not possible at this time because the issues were much less tractable and, above all, because Sadat did not have a mandate to negotiate them. Yet in order to get the negotiations started at all, it was necessary to assume or to pretend that Sadat represented the Arab and not merely the Egyptian side.

But Sadat did not and could not represent the Arab side. His self-appointment as representative of the other interested Arab states inevitably excited their resentment and hostility. Hussein spoke for them rancorously in an interview which appeared in the New York Times on January 12, 1979. Sadat had to understand, Hussein told Christopher S. Wren, that “it is not a situation where Egypt is a shepherd and the rest are a herd that can be moved in any direction without question.” The implications of Sadat’s representative role were never clearly understood, or at least never made understandable to the wider public. For Sadat was not merely reaching agreements with Israel, whether for a peace with Egypt or disposition of the West Bank and Gaza issues. He was not merely protecting his Arab flanks. He was doing both, but he could not do them both without at the same time imposing Egyptian leadership on Arab states, which were put in the position of taking or leaving an agreement which he had negotiated for them.

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The intractability of the non-Egyptian issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict is not merely the result of willfulness or pettiness. With the best will in the world on all sides, the issues would still be cruel and painful. Words cannot make them go away, and good intentions cannot change the realities on the ground. One of the greatest obstacles to a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict is the assumption that all such differences are amenable to rational, practical arrangements. This sort of remote-control optimism makes a settlement all the harder by making agreement seem too easy and by encouraging a susceptibility to gimmicks and shortcuts.

Take the pre-June 1967 borders of Israel, which are so much in dispute. They are merely the armistice lines of 1949, where the opposing armies happened to come to a halt. The West Bank was taken by Jordan by force of arms. The Jordanians had invaded the West Bank in 1948 in defiance of the UN partition plan in order to prevent the emergence of an independent Palestinian Arab state called for by the plan. In all the years since then, only two states, Great Britain and Pakistan, and no other Arab state, had ever recognized Jordanian sovereignty over the West Bank. On July 29, 1977, Secretary of State Vance acknowledged that it is “an open question as to who has legal right to the West Bank.” Legally, then, the position of the West Bank could not be more ill-defined. If forcible occupation is illegal, Jordan had no more right to it than has Israel—and Israel at least has the justification of having occupied it in a war of self-defense.

The geopolitical aspect of the pre-June 1967 borders also resists easy manipulation. The hardest strategic nut to crack is the fact that the 1949 armistice lines left Israel with a waist about ten miles wide at the narrowest point between Arab territory and the Mediterranean sea. Israel’s largest city, Tel Aviv, was only about fifteen miles from the Arab lines. The Gaza Strip under Egyptian military control—never legitimized as part of Egypt—was situated at the tip of the traditional southern invasion route into Palestine. The Golan Heights provided the Syrians with a fortress-sanctuary from which to harass the Israeli settlements below. None of these strategic monstrosities left by the 1949 armistice lines can be ameliorated by “insubstantial” territorial changes. But if the changes are “substantial,” they must cut into territory that Arabs inhabit or consider their own.

Anyone who has ever set foot on the Golan Heights knows how little leeway they permit. From one direction on a clear day one can see the Israeli city of Haifa on the Mediterranean coast; from the opposite direction, the Syrian capital of Damascus. The plains below on both sides of the Heights are virtually defenseless, or at least desperately difficult to defend against an enemy entrenched overhead. Both sides have too little space at their disposal. The space factor in any Arab-Israeli conflict governs the time factor; there is just too little room for taking risks or making serious compromises so long as tensions remain high.

The most frequent suggestion by outsiders of a way out of this impasse has been “guarantees” by the superpowers. Unfortunately, Israel’s position is such that guarantees would not be worth the paper they were written on. Among other reasons, the time factor in any Arab-Israeli war is against them. Israel won the 1967 war in the first two days and almost lost the 1973 war in the first three days. An effective guarantee would have to go into effect immediately, which would be possible only if the guarantor’s protective forces were in place in sufficient numbers with sufficient arms on all fronts before the outbreak of hostilities. Israel, in effect, would give up responsibility for its own self-defense, and American soldiers would conceivably have to die instead of Israeli soldiers (it is too great a strain on the imagination to see Soviet soldiers dying to save Israel). Any threat to the guarantee would set off an international hubbub over who was to blame, whether and how to make the guarantee work, and what sort of resolution to pass in the United Nations. Those who advocate a guarantee make no provisions for enforcing it, want foreign soldiers to swarm all over the area, or assume that it would not have to be enforced.9

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The problem of Israeli settlements in the West Bank is another vexing dilemma. At the heart of it is a question which is rarely considered: should there be any Jews in the West Bank? And if so, where and how?

There are about 500,000 Arabs in Israel itself out of a population of about 3,500,000. If the same proportion of one-seventh of the population of about 700,000 in the West Bank were permitted for Jews, the latter would number about 100,000. This figure is so unrealistic that no one gives it a thought, for which very reason the imbalance in any proposed distribution of Arabs and Jews in Israel and the West Bank is all the more glaring.

The Jewish communities in the West Bank happened to be the oldest in Palestine. The oldest of all Jewish communities was situated at Hebron, south of Jerusalem, where David was first anointed King of Judah. It survived the destruction of both Temples but not Arab violence in 1929 and 1936. Only one Jewish family remained in Hebron when Jordan took over in 1948 and made the entire West Bank Judenrein. The Jewish return to a suburb of Hebron, now called Kiryat Arba (the older name of Hebron), with a population of a few hundred, came after the June 1967 war. Kiryat Arba is atypical in that it is a relatively large Jewish community owing to its biblical associations for the Orthodox; it is typical in that it is still a small, self-enclosed Jewish enclave in a hostile Arab environment.

What constitutes historical justice here? Who is to say?

A few of the other Israeli settlements in the West Bank are like Kiryat Arba—a return to places where Jews lived before 1948. But many are not real settlements by long-term homesteaders; they are military-farming outposts for young people organized by “Nahal,” a youth branch of the Israeli army. Others are civilian settlements of various political colorations. At latest count, there were 48 Jewish settlements in the West Bank with a total population of about 4,500, most of whose support comes from those who work in Israel and commute morning and evening. Gush Emunim, the extremist religious faction, claims 15 of these settlements, few of whose residents work in them and some of whom merely spend the weekend there. If the number of existing settlements and settlers were doubled, the result would still be nothing but small, barbed-wire-enclosed Israeli enclaves drawing their sustenance from Israel itself and numbering fewer than 10,000 Jews. Meanwhile, Israelis worry about the natural increase of the Arab population in the Galilee and the reluctance of Jewish immigrants to settle in that part of Israel in sufficient numbers to offset the growing Arab concentrations.

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The tenacity with which these settlements are espoused by many Israelis and opposed by most Arabs tells us something else about this problem. It is not altogether amenable to ordinary diplomacy or practical politics. Its roots are too deeply historical, religious, and in some cases irrational. In present circumstances, isolated settlements are the only way for Jews to live in the West Bank, which also happens to be the Judea and Samaria that constituted the original Jewish homeland. The only way is, however, more symbolic than real. In the 1973 war, the settlements on the Golan Heights demonstrated the difference between symbols and realities, when the hard-pressed Israeli army had to deflect soldiers desperately needed elsewhere to pull out the settlers at the first sign of danger.

Whatever one has in one’s head, the reality is paradoxical on the ground. If the West Bank is Jewish territory, it is a peculiar kind of Jewish territory on which Arabs live and will continue to live almost exclusively. If it is Arab territory, it is a peculiar kind of Arab territory which was previously denuded of Jews by coercion and violence, was lost in a war provoked by Arabs, and is so situated that in the wrong hands it could mortally endanger both Jordan and Israel. The worst thing about the problem of the West Bank is that it is so tormentingly intractable; it would be much easier to resolve if it were only the product of ill-will or stupidity.

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What, one may ask, has all this to do with the Camp David agreements? The answer is that it has everything to do with them.

As I have tried to show, one of those agreements, dealing with the future of the West Bank-Gaza area, was fatally flawed. But its faults should not blind us to its chief virtue. It recognized that this problem was one that had to be dealt with circumspectly and experimented with in order for there to be a chance of finding a solution with which all interested parties could live.

The old Labor-party compromise of partition could never work because it was totally unacceptable to the Arabs and made no provision for anything but an Israeli-Jordanian future for the Palestinian Arabs. The Camp David arrangement was a different type of compromise. It was based on the provisional distinction between Palestinian Arab civil autonomy and Israeli security, the former very broad in scope, including a strong local police force, the latter limited to a thinned-out Israeli military deployment—numbering only 6,000 soldiers—within specified security locations. For such a compromise, the five-year transition period was minimally indispensable. It would have given all sides an opportunity to move toward a new relationship without feeling totally hedged in. The negotiations for a final status were set to begin almost midway through the transition period—no later than three years. If “peace process” has any meaning, this arrangement was just such a process.

It was, moreover, a genuine compromise. It was especially a compromise on the part of Prime Minister Begin. He was the one who gave away the most. How much he gave away can be seen by comparing the open-ended Camp David agreement with the 1977 election platform of Begin’s electoral Likud bloc, which called for “Jewish sovereignty alone between the sea and Jordan.” Not a single one of Begin’s chief lieutenants in his own party went along with him in favor of the Camp David agreements; several of those who had been closest to him attacked him the most savagely; he was put in the curious position of being saved from defeat by the opposition. Sadat compromised by agreeing to leave some Israeli security forces in place in the West Bank for the time being, to postpone the final status for up to five years, and to exclude the disposition of East Jerusalem, on which the sides were too far apart. But the compromise was uneven. What the Israelis gave up, they actually had; what the Egyptians gave up, they had merely wanted.

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We may now come back to Dayan’s formula of “living together.” It can be misused, as it is misused when it is applied to the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. These settlements are evidence of just the opposite. They are in the West Bank only in a geographic sense; socially, they might just as well be in Israel; their inhabitants live farther apart from their Arab neighbors than Jews and Arabs live apart in Israel.

Yet the ultimate validity of the idea cannot be rejected. Whatever the juridical arrangements, Jews and Arabs can have peace in the small, cramped space of Palestine only by “living together” in some manner. There is no other way to make any arrangement work, and any peaceful arrangement must finally be judged by how it contributes to living together, not by largely unrealizable abstractions—whether Israeli or Arab—about sovereignty in the West Bank.

Can Jews and Arabs live together some day in the whole of Palestine? In this matter, optimism is futile, pessimism fatal. When it comes to staying alive, people do what they must—not always, but often enough to give some hope for the survival of the human race. The Camp David framework for the West Bank and Gaza, shorn of its flaws, offered some hope for a peaceful future for Jews and Arabs in Palestine. That much cannot be said for the all-or-nothing proposals for an Arab-Israeli settlement.

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VII

The first loser as a result of the breakdown of the Camp David agreements was Egypt.

It was a classical case of giving up a bird in the hand by chasing a bird in the bush. The bird in the hand was the Egyptian-Israeli peace settlement. It would have been no mean feat of diplomacy to regain all that Egyptian territory without war. But the bird in the bush lured Sadat into an effort to bulldoze his way to a West Bank-Gaza settlement without assured cooperation from the Palestinian Arabs, Jordan, or any other Arab state. That Begin and Carter played along with Sadat in his pretense that he could represent all Arab states and interests does not make him any less responsible for putting himself and them in that position.

That Sadat chose to reopen the Camp David negotiations at all was far more important than the grounds he gave for reopening them. These grounds, moreover, undermined the most realistic aspects of the agreements and magnified the most illusory.

The necessarily loose connection between the Egyptian-Israeli framework and the West Bank-Gaza framework was undercut by the demand for a rigidly set, time-bound linkage between the two. To make matters worse, another linkage was proposed making the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty subject to the vicissitudes of Egypt’s treaties with other Arab powers, which have never repudiated the political doctrine enunciated in 1967 by Nasser and Assad, the latter with far more power today, that the very existence of Israel in itself is an “aggression.”

The West Bank-Gaza framework had been built around the basic design of a five-year transitional period, which was to proceed by stages with Jordanian and Palestine-Arab cooperation. All previous proposals, Egyptian as well as Israeli, had provided for a five-year interval. When Sadat insisted on rushing ahead with the elections for the West Bank-Gaza administrative council—the first Egyptian proposal made the intervening period as short as three months, then altered it to six, and finally to nine—without Jordan and with no sign of support by the Palestinian Arabs, he was short-circuiting the transition period to the point of ensuring that nothing of lasting value could come out of it.

Sadat did not need the oppositionist Baghdad summit meeting of Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and Jordan, on November 2-5, 1978, to tell him that he had lost his gamble at Camp David. The West Bank-Gaza framework had been so constructed that it could not work without prior agreement with, or almost immediate acquiescence by, Jordan and the Palestinian Arabs. When they refused to go along, before the Baghdad meeting, the framework fell apart. What the Baghdad meeting did, by uniting “extremists” and “moderates” against Sadat, was to serve notice that Egypt had to be humiliated and punished for breaking ranks, attempting to serve its own interest, and presuming at the same time to represent the Arab world. The message of the meeting was not that Sadat’s version of peace with Israel is wrong; it was that any peace with Israel is wrong. It was not merely a verdict on the past; it was also a mobilization for the future. For that mobilization, Egypt was told that it could no longer count on being the dominant factor, as it had liked to think of itself. The point of the exercise was to confront Egypt with the choice of having peace with Israel or peace with the other Arab states, but not with both. It is too often forgotten that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not the only one going on in the Middle East; there is also an inter-Arab conflict, sometimes reflected in the jockeying for position against Israel, sometimes quite apart from Israel.

Sadat’s greatest problem is that his policy tends to outstrip his power. He seeks to manipulate forces much greater than those at his disposal. Ironically, he has found it much easier to manipulate the United States than his Arab brethren.

_____________

 

The second loser as a result of the breakdown of the Camp David agreements was the United States.

The American performance was not one to be proud of. Nothing could have been more embarrassing than the outcome of the policy consecrated in the Soviet-American statement of October 1977. To make a deal with the Soviet Union that neither Egypt nor Israel nor much of the U.S. Congress could tolerate must set some sort of record for wrong-headedness. After Sadat’s end run to Jerusalem, the Carter administration had to limp along after him. When Sadat’s momentum finally gave out after Camp David, the chief executive of the United States completely lost his bearings. By saying that the Egyptian-Israeli differences over Sadat’s new demands were nothing more than “tiny technicalities, phrasing of ideas, legalisms” which had “absolutely no historical significance,” President Carter unwittingly confessed that the full meaning of Sadat’s turnabout had eluded him.

In its initial spasm of disappointment, the Carter administration turned the full force of its wrath on the Israeli government. After recovering from shock, the masterminds of U.S. policy came up with a “compromise”—they stretched Egypt’s new demand for nine months between treaty signing and West Bank-Gaza elections to twelve months, as if they did not understand what the real issue was. Mechanically tacking on another three months could make no difference so long as Jordan and the Palestinian Arabs refused to cooperate. Without one or the other, and probably both, a hasty election imposed by Egypt, Israel, and the United States was sure to make the existing confusion worse.

The Carter administration would have been better advised to expend some of its wrath on Jordan. If any Arab country is beholden to the United States, it is Jordan.10 The Camp David framework was composed as if there were good reason to believe that Jordan could be counted on. Yet Hussein had burned his fingers so often that he could least afford to take chances. His reflexive disposition is to stay on the fence or join forces with the prospective winner. Hussein’s defection to the anti-Sadat camp did more to undermine the Camp David agreements than any other single action or inaction. It was at the same time a stunning defeat for and blatant affront to the United States. That Hussein can get away with this ambidexterity without the slightest sign of official disapproval or a whimper of protest from the American press suggests that some American leverage has been misdirected.11 Now that Hussein has been flirting with Syria and even the PLO, one wonders how much longer he can count on American indulgence. To be sure, he has not always guessed right. He jumped the wrong way in 1967; he may be jumping the wrong way again.

The fundamental problem facing American policy in the Arab-Israeli conflict is whether, as Brzezinski thought, “Israel cuts across American raisons d’état.” The State Department’s Middle East specialists tried to prevent American recognition of Israel in 1948 with essentially the same argument, and the attitude has survived underground or above ground ever since.12 The upheaval in Iran should especially bring this thesis into question. The resurgence of militant Islamic orthodoxy on the Iranian model threatens the raisons d’état of the United States in the entire region more than any other single force. It cannot be held back by the movement of an American battle fleet toward the Persian Gulf (recalled) or a visitation by F-15’s to Saudi Arabia (unarmed). The reaction of the Saudi rulers to the events in Iran should be most disturbing in Washington. If all the Saudi rulers could think of was to blame the United States for the Shah’s debacle, they have not begun to understand the social and political conditions which can also erupt in Saudi Arabia and have shown how ready they are to turn on the United States for an alibi. In comparison to most Islamic states, Israel stands out in the area as a rock of steadfastness. I do not mean to propose that Israel should be the only state in the Middle East befriended by the United States. I mean that it is self-defeating to befriend other states at the expense of Israel rather than in addition to Israel.

_____________

 

The third loser was Israel.

The Camp David agreement was extremely costly to the Israeli political system. It tore up each party and left wounds that may be difficult to heal. Begin suffered a major ideological split in his own party and gave up a lifetime of political consistency. In the opposition, the former dovish spokesman, Yigal Allon, turned hawkish, and only the critical support of the Labor-party leader, Shimon Peres, saved the Camp David agreements from parliamentary disaster. The Gush Emunim fanatics and their fellow-travelers resorted to actions and language that amounted to civil disobedience.

The political turmoil which the Camp David agreements provoked might have been a cheap price to pay for a peace with Egypt and a transition period in the West Bank and Gaza with a reasonable chance of success. But when they were quickly frustrated by Sadat’s equivocations, the damage to Israeli political institutions was not matched by any equivalent reward.

The U.S.-Israeli relationship was also subjected to unprecedented strain. Sadat’s entire strategy was based on the 100 or 99 per cent of the cards that the United States was supposed to hold against Israel. On this account, he could always make the United States responsible for anything he did not get from Israel; the Carter administration tried its best not to disappoint him and, in any case, considered that it had far more “leverage” to move Israel than to influence Egypt. As a result, Israeli resistance to Egyptian demands could be translated into Israeli defiance of American desires, and Egypt could sometimes exercise a virtual veto power over American policies. The classic instance in the first case was Israel’s rejection on the same grounds of both Egypt’s nine months and America’s twelve months for the West Bank-Gaza electoral timetable. In the second case, a classic example was Carter’s initial praise for Begin’s West Bank-Gaza self-rule plan of December 1977 as “a long step forward” and then his backing away as soon as the Egyptians made known their refusal to consider it.

Because, at times of hard bargaining, Israel was not negotiating with Egypt alone but rather with Egypt backstopped by the United States, the future Israeli negotiating position may have been seriously compromised. Prospective negotiations as a result tend to start from what Israel has already conceded and turn on what more Egypt wants. Made-in-America “compromises” usually give the Egyptians much or most of what they want and thereby raise the level of Israeli concessions to only a little lower than the original Egyptian demands. All the post-Camp David demands by Egypt were designed to provide Egypt with escape clauses for scaling down Egyptian obligations without any compensatory way out for Israel. So long as this type of bazaar diplomacy goes on, with tacit and sometimes open U.S. connivance, the end for Israel is never in sight.

The paradox in the Israeli position is that it may well be true that only Begin could have made the concessions necessary for the Camp David agreements and that Begin could make them only by acting as if he were his old political enemy, David Ben-Gurion. The tension between David Begin and Menachem Ben-Gurion is so great, however, that it may not be able to stand the strain of much more pulling and hauling.

_____________

 

We may yet look back at the Camp David agreements as having been in essence the most that Israel could give and the least that Arabs could accept. If so, sturdier frameworks for peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors need a better understanding of what was right and what went wrong at Camp David.


Footnotes

1 I dealt with these sources in detail in my article, “From 1967 to 1973: The Arab-Israeli Wars,” COMMENTARY, December 1973, pp. 33-35.

2 In his book, Decade of Decisions (University of California Press, 1977), William B. Quandt criticizes American policy-makers in 1967 for having been “ultimately insensitive to the danger that war might break out at Israel's instigation” (p. 39). The book was completed just before Quandt was chosen by National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski for the Middle East post on the National Security Council.

3 Hussein de Jordanie: Ma “Guerre” avec Israël by Vick Vance and Pierre Lauer (Albin Michel, Paris, 1968); Hussein by Peter Snow (Barrie & Jenkins, London, 1972).

4 Who misled whom still needs some clarification. A telephone conversation between Nasser and Hussein intercepted by the Israelis made it appear that Nasser may have suggested to Hussein that they should blame the United States and Great Britain for aiding Israel. But this conversation was obviously garbled and fragmentary in transcription. Nasser later, in a speech on July 23, 1967, related that Hussein had phoned him on the evening of June 7, 1967, and had told him that Jordan had been attacked by 400 aircraft. Nasser implied that the planes could only have come from the United States.

5 Before going to Jerusalem, Sadat had merely informed Assad of his intention.

6 Brzezinski liked the term “leverage”, so much that he repeated it at the Overseas Writers' Club on October 18, 1977. The term was not original with him. It had been used twice by George W. Ball in his article, “How to Save Israel in Spite of Herself,” in Foreign Affairs, April 1977, pp. 454, 459. Ball had made clear just what “leverage” meant—that “America's continued involvement in the area depends upon acceptance by both sides of the terms it prescribes” (p. 459).

7 Brzezinski for one could not have failed to understand what this term was supposed to mean. The 1975 article had noted that the “commitment [of the Arabs] to the ‘legitimate rights of the Palestinian people’ would under the traditional interpretation mean the demise of Israel . . .” (P. 9).

8 With varying degrees of emphasis and discretion, this premise may be found in the articles in Foreign Affairs by George W. Ball, April 1977, especially p. 468; Stanley Hoffmann, April 1975, especially pp. 421-422; Nahum Goldmann, October 1975, especially p. 124.

The origin of this statement is somewhat confusing. Reporters were first told that it was a Soviet idea and that the final text was based on a Soviet draft. Then the story was changed so that Secretary Vance had conceived the idea two months earlier but the Soviets had submitted a draft which had been modified by both sides. In any case, it must have been clear to the Soviets from previous articles and statements by leading officials in the Carter administration what they could expect and how far they could go.

9 George W. Ball provides a good example of how a guarantee can be bandied about without giving the slightest hint of what it would entail (Foreign Affairs, April 1977, p. 461).

Professor Stanley Hoffmann would have had foreign troops, not excluding the possibility of Soviet and American soldiers, stationed in the Sinai, at Sharm el-Sheikh, the Golan Heights, and those portions of the West Bank closest to the Mediterranean “for a long period.” His “guarantee” would have virtually amounted to a foreign military occupation by an international conglomeration under the aegis of the United Nations, whose tender mercies toward Israel are so well known. Professor Hoffmann thought of guarding against “the tragic experience of UNEF in 1967” through an agreement “against the arbitrary dismissal of the peace forces by one of the countries in which they are stationed, or the arbitrary removal of a national contingent by the country of origin.” Apart from the fact that all these agreements would hinge on the interpretation of the term “arbitrary,” and every participating country would interpret it as it pleased, Hoffmann chose to ignore the larger problem—that such a UN force would ultimately be controllable by the Arab bloc and its allies, and a good part of it would have to be contributed by countries which do not recognize Israel, do not see fit to have diplomatic relations with Israel, or are subject to Arab oil blackmail (Foreign Affairs, April 1975, p. 425).

Professor Richard H. Ullman has proposed a plan for guarantees, the effect of which “would be to make it exceedingly unlikely that those forces would ever be involved in combat” (Foreign Policy, Summer 1975, p. 26).

10 Someone ought to remind Hussein of what happened to him in 1970. When Jordan was invaded by Syria in support of the PLO in September of that year, Hussein frantically called for U.S. help. The U.S. in turn, having no other immediate way to help Jordan, turned to Israel for assistance. Hussein himself urged Israel to engage in ground action against Syria. Then Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger worked out a plan for Israel to send 200 tanks into Syria; President Nixon finally approved an Israeli plan for an Israeli air strike and, if necessary, tank attack against Syrian forces in Jordan. As the present Middle East expert on the National Security Council tells the story: “Hussein, with the assurance that Israel and the United States were behind him, finally ordered his own small air force to attack the Syrian tanks around Irbid, which it did with satisfactory results” (William B. Quandt, Decade of Decisions, pp. 116-19). Faced with evidence that Hussein had recovered his nerve and with the threat of U.S.-Israeli intervention, the Syrians withdrew.

11 The responsibility of the American press and especially television for this sorry state of affairs is, I believe, considerable. The personal favoritism and political myopia exhibited by the media have been flagrant. I have seen interviewers fawn on Sadat and badger Begin or Dayan. The Egyptians could not demand too much and the Israelis give up too much to please most of them. Sadat could say, with a straight face, “We have given Israel everything,” without being challenged to name anything in particular that he proposed to give Israel beyond what it already had, without his help, within the pre-June 1967 armistice lines. I can well understand that American correspondents and interviewers should find Sadat's personality more beguiling than Begin's or Dayan's. But even Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizman received the same prosecutorial treatment. I have watched an interview with Weizman by Barbara Walters in which she dropped the mask of interviewer midway through the program and openly announced that she was going to adopt the role of antagonist. The television bias was so flagrant that it seemed to be competitive.

12 One who should know from his personal experience as deputy in the Middle East office of the National Security Council staff from 1972 to 1974 described this view as follows: “The conventional wisdom, especially in the State Department, was that American support for Israel was an impediment to U.S.-Arab relations. By granting economic and military aid to the enemy of the Arabs, the United States was providing the Soviet Union with an opportunity to extend its influence in the Middle East. Although few questioned that Israel's existence should be defended by the United States in an extreme case, many felt that an ‘even-handed’ policy, whereby the United States would not always align itself with Israel and would not become her primary arms supplier, was the best guarantee of the United States interests in the region. In this view, Israel was more of an embarrassment for the United States policy than a strategic asset. Even if Israel was an impressive military power, that power could be used only to defend Israel, not to advance American interests elsewhere in the region” (William B. Quandt, Decade of Decisions, p. 120).

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