In Search of Moderate Egyptians
The recent breakdown of Secretary of State Kissinger's step-by-step negotiations in the Middle East was immediately followed by what seems to have been a carefully planned if private effort on the part of American officials to blame the failure of the mission on Israeli “intransigence” and lack of “flexibility.” Implied in this view, which was attributed to both President Ford and Secretary Kissinger, and quickly made its way into newspapers and radio and television reporting, is the notion that on the Egyptian side, a new willingness has been shown to deal with Israel as an established fact and to take steps that might eventually lead to normal relations between the two countries—a process now allegedly jeopardized by Israel's “stubbornness.” The Egyptians, in other words, according to this scenario, have changed; they no longer demand the destruction or disappearance of Israel; they have become moderate, while Israel has become inflexible and belligerent.
Even before the fighting ended in the 1973 war, reports had begun to circulate in the West about the new “reasonableness” in Egypt. Many Arabists argued that the restoration of Arab pride on the battlefield would permit Egypt to reach a peace with Israel. After the cease-fire, when Egyptians met Israelis for disengagement negotiations at Kilometer 101 in the Sinai, they did so in the presence of a Finnish UN observer force and to the acclamation of an army of nine hundred journalists. These hopeful beginnings were accompanied by a new kind of rhetoric emanating from Egyptian officialdom in which the old bellicosity and threats of throwing Israel into the sea were replaced by announcements of a readiness and a desire for peace.
For this change of rhetoric President Sadat was hailed by Time and Newsweek as “that most moderate of Arab leaders”; recently Egypt has been seen as synonymous with moderation. Editorials in the New York Times and other important newspapers around the country have seen “clear signs that Egypt . . . has already come around to accepting the desirability of coexistence with Israel.” The Times's Henry Tanner, just four months after the October war-, reported with elation that he had seen a book on self-taught Hebrew in a Cairo display-window, an “illustration of the psychological and political transformation that Cairo has undergone since the war under Anwar el-Sadat's Presidency.” Tanner in his reports from Cairo has consistently stressed what he sees as the “psychological trend in the Arab world toward accepting the existence of Israel.” In a piece headed, “Why Egypt's No Threat Now,” the syndicated columnist Rowland Evans spoke of Sadat's “no-war policy” and cited the example of Egypt's “vast investment” in the reconstruction of cities on the Suez Canal. Sadat, according to Evans, was “trying hard,” as the lone voice of “moderation,” to reach for a settlement with Israel. Thomas Ross of the Chicago Sun-Times Washington bureau reported that if Israel cooperated in the “delivery of the Sinai passes and oilfields,” Sadat would “negotiate for a full peace . . . at Geneva.” Jesse Zel Lurie wrote in the New Leader that he, as editor of Hadassah magazine, could talk politics openly with an Egyptian in the Cairo Hilton coffee shop: “Under Nasser, such a meeting would have been reported to Egyptian secret police.” In the New York Times Magazine, Trudy Rubin indicated that, although some Egyptians could not be “friendly” with Israelis, at least not in this generation, the Egyptians she met “are tired of this war and willing to accept Israel's existence as the price for getting out of the quagmire and on with their living.”
Recently I went to Cairo on journalistic assignment. Before setting out, I immersed myself in the literature attesting to the positive change in Egyptian attitudes toward Israel, including an essay in these pages by Nadav Safran, “Conversations in Cairo” (December 1974). To my amazement, once in Egypt I found virtually no evidence of such a change, although I interviewed as representative a cross-section of Egyptians as I could find—government officials, writers, academics, scientists, demographers, doctors, architects, engineers, housewives, shopkeepers, students, soldiers, salesmen, cab drivers, waiters, women's-rights activists, secretaries, carpenters, travel agents; Communists, leftists, nationalists, and right-wing conservatives. The consensus that emerged from these interviews, so far from conforming to the current Western perception of Egypt, seemed rather to suggest its opposite. Vehement anti Israeli—and, what is more, anti-Jewish—sentiments continue to be the norm in Egypt, and are characteristic of government officials at the highest levels no less than of the man in the street.
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I had applied for a visa at the Egyptian embassy in Washington, which entailed a short interview. “Which side are you on?” The side of peace, of course. Had I ever been to Israel? I had. Was the Byzantine coin I wore as a ring a religious symbol? No. The aide took my passport and a couple of articles I'd written on the Middle East conflict, and told me my visa would be ready the next morning. The passport was clean—I'd just had it renewed; he laughed as he leafed through it, commenting that many journalists seemed to feel the need of a passport without an Israeli visa in it. He insisted it made no difference, although I'd been told the contrary by at least half-a-dozen writers, some of whom had made unsuccessful attempts to get to Egypt with an Israeli-stamped passport. The next morning I got the visa and my articles were returned, with a word of welcome from the aide who said Egypt made no demand that I see things from her side, only that I be fair and balanced. The foreign ministry in Cairo had been called regarding my arrival, and would do everything possible to assist me.
Thanks to the friend of a friend, I had a room confirmed and waiting for me at the Cairo Hilton—which, I found upon arrival, I could have sold for four figures, so crowded was the hotel. Through mutual contacts I called Dr. Maksoud,1 an engineer, and was graciously invited to lunch. Dr. Maksoud is engaged in the redevelopment of the port town of Ismailia. Over vermouth aperitif, spaghetti and filet mignon, and demitasse, the Maksoud family conversed about politics. Dr. Maksoud denounced Leninism as counter to the Muslim and Christian religions, and vigorously disavowed leftists of all sorts. Yet his daughter, Zenab, an architect, had spent four years in Cuba, “studying.” Zenab and her fiancé, a physics professor at Cairo's American University, seemed indifferent to the discussion—they giggled a great deal—until suddenly Zenab began to speak fiercely about Israeli stubbornness. “They won't deal with the Arabs. Every initiative the Arabs have made has been refused by Israel.” Her fiance joined in, “They want more land—and more land. The Palestinians want their land back—they were expelled by Israel.” Mrs. Maksoud began hesitantly, “The Jews were also expelled from Egypt in 1956 . . .” but her entire family broke in at once, “They left-they weren't expelled—50 to 60 percent of Egypt's economy was in Jewish hands before '48—there was a Jew finance minister.” Why should Jews have a separate state, they wanted to know. “We're not anti-Semitic, but why should not Israel accept to live together with Palestinians?” As for peace, they derided the idea that Sadat could come to terms with Israel. In fact, no President who made peace with Israel would “last a day,” they explained.
Tahsin Basheer, President Sadat's press spokesman, had agreed to squeeze in an interview. The French foreign minister would be arriving within the next few hours, the Shah of Iran was due soon, and the phones were ringing incessantly. But Basheer plunged doggedly if listlessly into a statement he'd no doubt repeated many times before. Suspicion in the “Arab mind” toward the Zionists had existed since the 1947 partition plan in the United Nations. The “Zionists wanted the partition as a first stage toward taking the whole country.” The “Arab reaction was . . . not to divide the country. Even today this is the PLO solution, a secular country like America, where each man—irrespective of religion—can have the same rights.” Basheer vigorously defended the PLO position, although he admitted after some urging that Yasir Arafat did mean to “replace Israel as it now exists.” His conversation was peppered with slurs; he called the Israeli army “Hitlerian” and Prime Minister Rabin a terrorist.
Basheer supplied the phone numbers of some Egyptians he suggested I see during my stay. One was Chalad Mohadeen, formerly known as “the Red Major” for his early Communist activities (others in Cairo told me he is still a Communist). Mohadeen heads a movement called the “Egyptian Peace Committee,” which is “fully supported” as a semi-official arm of the Egyptian government and holds frequent international conferences. The EPC is dedicated to the fight against “British, French, American . . . imperialism and colonialism.” As a Marxist, Mohadeen says he fears “economic domination by the Israelis,” but the real reason the Egyptian Peace Committee is “against the political foundation of Israel” is “racial difference”—namely, the fact that “Judaism is the official religion of the country.” That Islam, as I pointed out, is constitutionally designated the official religion of Egypt and practically every other Arab state, he summarily dismissed: “So long as the ‘Law of Return’ . . . considers all Jews as world citizens in Israel,” the Peace Committee will be against the Jewish state. “If any other Arab tells you that he is not against Israel, he is a liar,” Mohadeen exclaimed.
Arafat, according to Mohadeen, is “a moderate man,” and to the Arab world the Palestinians are “something great.” “The United States, the Soviet Union, every country in the world is afraid of the movement.” As for the Russians, “good relations with the Soviet Union are one of the main political cards for all Arabs” and of paramount importance to “the policy of the peace movement.” American “circles who benefit from the production of arms and from the cold war” are creating barriers to détente. American support of Soviet Jewish emigration naturally causes suspicion on the part of the Soviets; the U.S. has no right to interfere with the internal “sentiments” of the Soviet Union. Doesn't this run against the Arab objection to Israel's Law of Return, I asked? Mohadeen evaded the question, addressing himself instead to the issue of anti-Semitism. There was no anti-Jewish feeling in Egypt, he asserted, but because of the “situation in Israel,” Egyptians no longer make a distinction between “the Jew, Israel, and Zionism.”
I became acquainted with Ismail, a brigadier general who had accompanied General Gamassy to Kilometer 101 for the signing of the cease-fire accords with Israel's General Yariv, whom he knew well. We met at the home of Jean, an American friend of mine now living in Egypt. At our first meeting Ismail declared that he felt like an Israeli, he knew so many of them from Kilometer 101. He loved Israel, and declared, “I know my people—no talk about war—we want to deal with Israel. We have other problems: illiteracy, development.” Here at last was the moderation I had heard so much about in the United States.
In subsequent meetings, however, Ismail's warm feeling for Israel cooled noticeably. His description of the Israeli military grew less amicable. General Yariv's “Britishness,” General Bar-Lev's “Russianness,” a joke when he first reminisced about them, later came to seem offensive to Ismail. He explained that “Egypt couldn't accept European Jews—so harsh. In another generation Sadat says he will make peace. Sabras are different, softer . . . more Arab. After all, Arab Jews are Arabs. In another generation. . . .” We were eating at a pizzeria in the Hilton (Ismail's choice) as he expounded the virtues of “kindly Arafat, gentle Arafat.” He knew Arafat well, he said. He contrasted Arafat's proposed “Palestine” to Israel, that “land of religious fanatics.” He worked himself into a fury as he spoke, then just as suddenly the rage passed and he was grinning again. I went to make a phone call. When I returned, Ismail was chatting affably with a couple from Damascus. The man was a doctor who headed the Syrian Red Crescent, the equivalent of the Red Cross. He advised me that if I wanted a visa for Syria, “you must say you are very pro-Arab.”
I was invited to wait in the luxurious and palatial main headquarters of the Egyptian foreign ministry while my arrival was announced. Then I was ushered in for a taped interview I'd labored for ten days to achieve with Ismail Fahmy, Egypt's Foreign Minister. As I sipped good Turkish coffee from a china demitasse, Fahmy amiably lit my chain of cigarettes and answered my questions with angry, accusatory questions of his own; by the end of the interview he was shouting.
Israel's demand for a declaration of nonbelligerency was the first topic of discussion. Egypt, Fahmy asserted, could not consider Israel's request for formal assurances that Egypt would not attack her. “Nonbelligerency is a political and legal status. It does not come automatically. Nonbelligerency means permanent peace.” Fahmy said Israel had “more responsibilities” than Egypt—he came close to saying that Egypt accepted no obligations or responsibilities toward Israel whatsoever—and he denigrated nonbelligerency as a “fallacy.”
To Fahmy's mind, Geneva was the place where all these questions should be worked out, but Israel did not want to go. We discussed the then current justification for the “step-by-step” approach of the U.S. State Department as a substitute for Geneva. Fahmy indicated an acceptance of this approach only if it led “quickly” to Israel's “complete withdrawal from all Arab lands occupied in '67—and at the same time the recognition of the political rights of the Palestinians.” I brought up Fahmy's recent public pronouncement, that either the Jewish state must be replaced by the “democratic secular state” demanded by Arafat or the state of Israel must move back, not to the 1967 borders but to the 1947 borders. Fahmy saw no inconsistency here. “The 1967 border is our own international boader. If we [Egypt] go back to the '67 borders, and on the Syrian front, and as far as Jerusalem is concerned, that does not solve the Palestinian problem. . . . Besides,” he pointed out, “the 1947 [UN partition] resolution does provide for an Israeli—Jewish—state.”
The best solution of all, Fahmy stated, was one which “both Israel and Palestinians accept, peaceful coexistence and two states—one Palestinian state with clear-cut borders, and a Jewish state.” The locale, Fahmy said, would be “formalized through a long process of negotiations.” Egypt would go along “if it is a good compromise, which gives everybody his own rights.”2
Israel's fear that retreat to the 1967 borders would be dangerous struck Fahmy as irrelevant; Israel's absolute certainty that the 1947 borders would be suicidal Fahmy dismissed as unreasonable. And “if the Israelis would like to be unreasonable, we are in a better situation to be unreasonable and to react us such.” If only Israel would let the Arabs live in peace, the Arabs would cause no problems, Fahmy said, even though “we have suffered here during the last twenty-six or twenty-seven years from the very existence or intrusion of Israel.” His voice rose several decibels as he continued, punctuating every word by pounding his fist on the desk, “They will go to Geneva sooner or later. Nobody can run from this—even the Israelis! And the Palestinians will participate in Geneva and this is a must”
I raised the issue of the public statement by Fahmy that any settlement of the Middle East conflict would have to include a fifty-year ban on further immigration to Israel. He said he was “appalled” at the negative reaction to this demand, because “really it is pacifist.” If more Jews come to Israel, “we will have an explosion—-at my expense, Syrian expense, Jordanian expense, Iraqi expense, Lebanese expense.” Fahmy urged me to “go and find the big map in the Knesset”: I would be shocked by Israel's plans for expansion. As national policy, he assured me, the Israelis intend to take all the land from the “Euphrates to the Nile. Israel is against human rights, against our civilization, against international order.”
Then Fahmy launched a tirade against the Americans. He denounced the “embezzlement” and “blackmail” perpetrated by the “Jewish lobby,” and asserted that the U.S. had lost its “freedom of action” in the world. The supply of American arms to Israel was both evil and futile. For “Who will survive at the very end? The three million [Israelis] or the 150 million [Arabs]?” Fahmy refused to discuss the Soviet role in Egypt in any context—the provision and installation of missiles at the Suez. Canal in 1971, the sending of thousands of technicians, the massive supplies of Soviet arms and materiel used by the Arabs in 1967 and 1973, the furnishing of troops from North Korea, North Vietnam, and Cuba to fight on the Arab side, and so forth. Whenever I mentioned the Soviets, Fahmy attacked the U.S. or Israel, feigning incredulity that I presumed to bring up a matter so irrelevant to our discussion.
In closing Fahmy offered me a word of caution: if I wrote the truth about what I saw in the Middle East, they would never leave me alone, they would be after me, I would lose my job. Who? “The Jewish lobby in your country. I guarantee you . . . you will lose your job. I am warning you! I'm afraid for your future.” As we parted I asked Fahmy what he would say if he were talking to the Israel Foreign Minister. Through gritted teeth Fahmy answered that the Israelis must “respect international order, be realistic, abandon personal ambitions. Egypt will take what Israel offers but there will be no peace on that basis. But this is the right moment for peace,” he concluded. “And they are playing with fire”
I was sitting in the office of Khayam, the government press-information officer, along with another press attaché by the name of Maher. A man poked his head into the office. He was slight, with aquiline features above a disorderly beard, and he seemed uncertain whether he'd been sent to the right place. Maher recognized the bearded fellow and warmly introduced him as Swartz, a writer from France. Swartz seemed amazed at the chance meeting, reciprocated the greeting, and then answered Khayam's routine questions about affiliation and made his interview requests. Maher promised to do “anything we can” to assist Swartz and walked him out of the office arm in arm, only to return a moment later and address a barrage at Khayam in Arabic; the words “Swartz” and “Yehud.” repeated frequently, were all I could recognize. The Frenchman was Jewish. As Maher spoke, Khayam reacted at first with surprise, then, enraged, he quickly passed on Maher's revelations by phone to someone else, crumpled the calling card Swartz had left behind and furiously flung the tiny wad into the wastebasket.
The drive out of Cairo to the Egyptian front lines east of the Suez Canal began about an hour behind schedule. Gamel, a member of the “President's Staff” who had been appointed to accompany me, was quiet, answering my questions perfunctorily and tersely. About half an hour out of the city the broad expanse of the Sinai began to resemble a lunar landscape, with the Adaka mountain range spread out in the distance. We passed soldiers directing trucks into fueling stations, areas of bivouac, billboards advertising cigarettes in Arabic and English. As we got nearer to Suez, tanks began to appear.
We crossed the Suez Canal, scene of the all-important “crossing” that nearly every Egyptian proudly proclaims as the “glorious victory of the October war.” (What happened after the crossing is yet unknown or unimportant in Egypt.) The water was still. Our car stopped and we were joined by a Third Army major and a motorcycle escort, complete with screaming siren.
As we drove alongside the Israeli-built wall of sand, I asked Gamel and the major how well the Israelis had fought in the last war, and they laughed. “Egyptian soldiers can fight under any circumstances, without air power,” while Israelis “need all security, and surrender when they have no cover. Egyptians fight to die, Israelis want to save their lives.” Gamel described the Israeli shelters as “comfortable, with ice-water, a kind of luxury Egyptian soldiers don't have.” Translating for the major, Gamel continued, “Egyptian soldiers can fight without eating or drinking.” This brought to mind the food and water passed by the Israelis to the surrounded Egyptian Third Army—how did the major and Gamel feel about that memorable exchange (which I, though I did not say so, had witnessed and photographed)? They both exploded with laughter, looking at me as though I'd put my foot in my mouth. Calming down, Gamel finally explained, “There was no such thing—the Third Army had enough supplies for another month. Those supplies were only for Suez City civilians. It was the Third Army that surrounded the Israelis—the Third Army was never surrounded!”
We went through the rubble in Suez City, decimated target of battles dating back to the time of the British. Despite some reconstruction activity and a sprinkling of people recently planted there, Suez still looked like a ghost town. Osman Ahmad Osman, Egypt's Minister for Reconstruction, had told a group of visiting editors last summer that Egypt would drop reconstruction if the “peace” offered by Israel did not totally satisfy Egyptian demands. Did Gamel and the major agree with this position? Would the present efforts to rebuild prove as meaningless as those at the time of the 1970-71 War of Attrition? Gamel brusquely replied that the major didn't discuss political matters. Then the major and the motorcycle escort left us, and Gamel spent the two-hour drive back to Cairo justifying his claim that the Israelis had never surrounded the Third Army. He even drew a map for me, to prove his point.
I was concluding a luncheon interview concerning the population explosion with Samira, one of Cairo's leading demographic experts. She'd been recommended by a mutual friend in the States, and her name had been mentioned often in Cairo as someone I must meet if I were interested in learning about Egypt's attempts to deal with the staggering swell of its birthrate. Samira spoke English fluently and seemed typical of a new breed of Egyptian women—charming, with well-groomed good looks, dynamic—qualities that men in Egypt labeled “aggressiveness.” Here was a truly intelligent, reasonable woman, and I was dumbfounded when she abruptly launched into a bitter attack against Jews and the United States, in that order. She had, she said, no time for “people who don't see the issues the right way”; she was fed up with talk about the “Holocaust” and Israel's historical rights. The Holocaust was a “German thing we don't have time for.” As Samira saw it, “Israel has no right to exist.” It is composed of “religious fanatics, colonial people, all wanderers.” Senator Fulbright, who had put things in “proper perspective,” had in her view been deprived of his place in the Senate not because he lost an election but because he would not accept a “payoff” from the Jews. Suddenly, as though the outburst had never taken place, the furious intensity disappeared. She flashed a dazzling smile, promised to deliver the data and statistics I needed, offered a warm handshake, and hurried back to work.
A festive cocktail party at Ma'adi, an affluent, scrubbed suburb of Cairo, in the home of Bill, an expatriate from Michigan. Bill has been working in press relations at Cairo's American University. It was a fascinating mixed bag—dozens of guests, most of whom were Egyptian or American. A lovely woman talked about her job—she was called a “television news editor,” but all the news was censored before she saw it. Hamdi, a law professor, was anxious to know what reactions I'd formed to his country, and to the “conflict,” and suggested we adjourn the discussion to a small restaurant he knew in Cairo.
The restaurant was a small, inconspicuous storefront with appetizing cooking odors and trays of tehina, taamea, flatbread, and other Arab specialties displayed delicatessen style in a showcase. Hamdi ordered prudently—we could always get more, he assured the waiter—then he began to talk excitedly about Israel and the Jews. Israel was ruining the economies of many African countries that were ostensibly the recipients of her foreign aid—Tanzania and Ethiopia, for instance; these countries were being turned into Israeli “satellites.” Israel was taking over everywhere. “It is bad for world progress, not in the interests of the Middle East or of the West to have a Jewish state.” I said that her so-called “African satellites” consistently voted against Israel in the United Nations and had in fact cut off diplomatic ties to the Jewish state, becoming de facto puppets of the Soviet-Arab bloc. Hamdi brushed me aside. I obviously did not understand Jewish imperialism. “Egyptian Jews ruled my country here before Israel was a state. Jews would be ruling me if it weren't for the Middle East conflict.”
I had arranged to meet Ali, a law professor who I had been assured was “well-informed, a man of the regime,” a former politician—and of “common sense.” Ali apologized profusely for the paralyzing traffic that had made him late. I asked if he could arrange an informal gathering of students—young people—and he promised to try.
The meeting with Professor Ali's group was held after hours, in one of the offices of an old and somewhat deteriorated enclosed-court building which Ali told me had once been the grand meeting place of Egypt's aristocrats. Unfortunately Ali could not remain at the meeting but he introduced me to his friends, and settled me in. Dr. Amin, a lawyer and former member of the foreign ministry, rose from behind his desk to greet me; he was a tall, powerfully built, well-dressed man with silver hair and mustache, and a deep reverberating voice. There were only two young people, he apologized—a young man who studied at Cairo University, and Dr. Amin's secretary, a girl about nineteen. The other guests included a well turned-out woman lawyer in her thirties, a balding former judge, and a fortyish “engineer-businessman.” Comfortably ensconced in couches and chairs around Dr. Amin's desk, they exchanged a few reserved, awkward remarks, taking the official line on the “conflict” and the prospects for “peace.” But by the end of thirty minutes Dr. Amin and his guests were passionately reacting to one another—never in dispute, but in corroboration of their common position. Except for the retired judge's occasional angry lapse into French, everyone spoke English, often all at once.
The only reason for Israel's existence, the group agreed, was to “make trouble all over the world.” But Israel was fated to “fade out, disappear,” because “there is no real reason for it to exist.” As soon as Israel became “secure”—which meant shrinking to the size of a “very small state” with “no political activities” and few resources—the world would forget about it. They expressed exasperation at America's rejection of Arafat's “secular state.” Was it so impossible to accept the dissolution of the Jewish state? Dr. Amin quoted long passages from a 1970 Foreign Affairs article by Nahum Goldmann—he said he knew it by heart. According to Dr. Amin, Goldmann proved that Zionism was based on fallacious premises. The Palestinians would have their land, and the Egyptians would get back the Sinai, which they'd held for “six thousand years”—even if it took “a hundred wars to get it.” They seemed genuinely unaware that the Sinai had come into Egypt's possession only after World War I.
The world has “no time for religious fanatics,” they went on. Israel is “finished” because it “does no good to anybody.” “The Jews dominate England, France, the United States. Once upon a time a madman started persecuting the Jews . . . maybe he had a grudge against them. Maybe it was justified?” In fact, the Bible itself—they purported to know it well—told of incest and social diseases that Jews “like Abraham” had brought to Egypt. Jews had always “asked for trouble” and made a “show.” “When Shakespeare wrote his Shylock, he drew him well.” “Shylock is the universal Jew of all time, all place . . . not just Israel.” “You see, the Jews want their pound of flesh.”
They passionately defended PLO terrorism—“What should matter is to kill as many Jews—as many Israelis—as they can.” “The terrorist attempts are never successful because the boys are not really destructive, they don't want to be barbarians, they don't have it in their blood, not like the Irish.” “They are peaceful people, not like the cold-blooded Jews.” It was “the difference between Shylock and Mohammed—the Jews arc Shylock all over . . . not a peace-loving people.” “Even when the Arabs were in domination of the world, they were never bloodthirsty; always peaceful, loving, and idealistic.” “Most of the time,” they affirmed, acts of Palestinian terrorism “are really maneuvered by the Jews themselves by Israel.” It is “more than just coincidence,” they believed, that “every time the Jews . . . antagonize world opinion, the Arab commandos do something that arouses sympathy for the Jews.” The Munich massacre of Israeli Olympic players had been “maneuvered by Israel.” “They [the Jews] are very clever.”
“Maybe the United States will force Israel into accepting a settlement,” they suggested. “That's why Egyptians spend so much hard hope on the United States, not on idealistic grounds.” The Arabs were all “very anxious” for a settlement, but Israel “would never sign to any borders whatsoever, because once the borders are settled, Israel won't exist any more. They know that and we know it better!”
Everyone was laughing now, but the tension seemed unrelieved. I forced a smile, mumbled something about the lateness of the hour—we'd been “discussing” for almost three hours—and thanked them for their kind cooperation. All assured me they had had “a very good time,” and hoped I'd “take their good ideas” back home with me, and “do good work.” It was very important to “do good work,” because “Jews dominate mass communications.” “There is no place for Arab voices to express their opinion in Europe or the United States.”
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We may ask, then: what does “moderate” mean in the present Middle East context? To describe the Egyptian position as “moderate” implies an attitude of reconciliation to peaceful coexistence with Israel. I found no such attitude. To all the people I spoke with (not one of whom could fairly be called an “extremist” within the spectrum of Egyptian political opinion), the position we call “moderate” does not mean reconciliation, but merely an acceptance of the withdrawal of Israeli troops to the pre-June 1967 borders, with no compensatory concession from the Arab side in the form of recognition. To many Egyptians, indeed, it means more, or perhaps I should say less: first, an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, and then a further push back to the lines envisioned in the 1947 partition plan, accompanied by the establishment of a Palestinian state: this, for instance, is the position of Mohammed Heykal and of Egyptian Foreign Minister Ismail Fahmy. That from such truncated borders the Arabs hope that Israel will in time shrink, through war or some other means of attrition, to absolutely nothing, is the unspoken but clear implication of this position. It is often said that there is on the Arab side today a de facto recognition of Israel's existence, a recognition that Israel is a “fact,” as Minister Fahmy called it in his conversation with me; but what Fahmy quite clearly conveyed was that to many Arabs Israel's “existence” means only the existence of an intrusion in the Arab world, called Israel, that must in time be eliminated.3
The use, or misuse, of the term “moderate” to describe the Egyptian position is not merely a matter of semantics; it alters psychological attitudes on a large scale. If one is a “moderate,” his statements are treated as reasonable; conversely, any refusal by the opponent of a “moderate” to accede to his proposals is regarded as intransigence. To have attained the status of the “moderate” party is a major propaganda achievement. And the advantages accruing to the Arab cause from the widespread positive interpretation of it in the West are considerable—to Israel's virtually complete political isolation in the world there is now added a badge of moral opprobrium, for her alleged failure to respond to a proffer of peace. “Moderation,” in other words, is a successful “line” to pursue.4
But does it conform to reality? So far Egypt has merely accepted whatever concessions could be extracted in negotiations from Israel, without offering any commitment to permanent peace in return. When, in Secretary Kissinger's last mission to the Middle East, some more concrete gesture in that direction was demanded by Israel, the Egyptians refused and the talks broke down. If further pressure does not induce resumption of private talks through some third party, the next act of the drama will be played at Geneva. But the fundamental question, as yet unanswered, remains the same: does Egypt's present policy portend a realistic shift toward genuine peace with Israel, or does she still envision Israel's eventual destruction—“peace” without Israel? As long as Egypt is evasive on this question, talk of a moderation in her position obscures reality and distorts the truth; the failure to correct such distortions can have the gravest of consequences.
1 All names used here are fictitious, except those of officials or public figures. Most interviews were recorded on tape.
2 This idea is similar to that outlined by Mohammed Heykal, formerly the acknowledged spokesman of Egypt's leadership as editor of the influential newspaper Al Ahram. In 1971, Heykal called for a change of rhetoric—no more threats of throwing Israel into the sea—and a new political strategy aimed at reducing Israel to indefensible borders and pushing her into diplomatic and economic isolation. He predicted that “total withdrawal” would “pass sentence on the entire state of Israel.” Last year, Sadat replaced Heykal with another editor, but Heykal is again surfacing as a political influence via private briefings with Sadat. Heykal has also recently published an article in the New York Times, and in a featured interview in Newsweek has declared that the “1947 partition” is Israel's “only” alternative to Arafat's “greater Palestine.”
3 It may be noted in this connection that Egypt's ambassador to the United States, Asraff Ghorbal, in an interview conducted in Argentina and published in Marchar earlier this year, declared that “extermination of Judaism in the Middle East is the point of departure for the process of liberation” of the Arab peoples. “It is our irrevocable decision to destroy Judaism,” the ambassador asserted, “as our friends in the United States, Russia, and this country [Argentina] have promised.”
4 Upon returning from the Middle East I found that a widely hailed series on public television in this country, Arabs and Israelis, had made much of Arab willingness, especially Egyptian willingness, to coexist with Israel in peace; the series' sponsor expressed hope of using the power of television to “magnify the moderate.” But in fact the producer of this series, Professor Roger Fisher of Harvard, is reported to have admitted that he edited out of filmed conversation the remark made by a highly respected Palestinian from Jerusalem, “There isn't a single Arab who recognizes the Jewish state,” because it did not conform to the picture he wished to present of Arab sentiment.