Commentary Magazine


Moderate Egyptians

To the Editor:

Joan Peters’s “In Search of Moderate Egyptians” [May] conveys impressions so contrary to those of my COMMENTARY article, “Conversations in Cairo” [December 1974], that I feel I owe your readers a “reaction.”

Miss Peters speaks about Egyptian “sentiments”; I spoke mainly about the reasoning of Egyptians. The two are not the same. I leave it to the reader to judge which is more “newsworthy” in the case of a conflict that has gone on for a whole generation.

Given an ambiguity that is typical of all situations of conflict which are beginning to thaw, nothing is easier than to provoke the subjects of interviews into giving vent to their bitter side. I have seen that happen repeatedly with Israeli subjects in the course of a recent venture in making a documentary on the Middle East. Israelis whose names are bywords of moderation were driven by insensitive interviewers into voicing statements much more characteristic of their opponents. (Item: An Israeli “dove” is asked what he thought of the situation after Arafat’s UN appearance. He answers, sighing, that the event had a “devastating effect” on the moderate camp in Israel. The interviewer then asks why “so-called” Israeli moderates were so opposed to the PLO when the “whole world” thinks it is a “fine national-liberation” movement. . . . You can imagine the answer of the “dove” and the remainder of the interview.)

I do not know how Miss Peters approached her subjects, but I know how she approached what I wrote; and I have reacted by implicitly associating her with “insensitive” interviewers—which I didn’t mean to do.

Nadav Safran
Center for Middle Eastern Studies
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

I sympathize with Joan Peters’s vain attempt to find moderates in Egypt. I, too, went to Cairo in search of preconceived Egyptian peaceniks, counterparts of the Israeli doves. The time was last July when the euphoria following the successful face-to-face Egyptian-Israeli disengagement negotiation at Km. 101 had not yet been dissipated. The Egyptian authorities were welcoming Jewish journalists, even a Zionist editor like me. Peace was in the air, but the question in my mind, and that of my Israeli friends, was what kind of peace? Would it be a real peace, a peace of friendliness, an actual sulh? Were the Egyptian leaders, editors, and intellectuals ready to end a quarter-century of hatred for everything Israeli?

So I went to Cairo, after a month in Israel, to look for peace-lovers, Israeli style. The task I set myself was to search for Egyptians who would agree with expatriate Egyptian writer Sana Hassan that Israel had a moral right to exist: and/or condemn, as did Sana Hassan, the terrorist killing of women and children in Ma’alot and in Kiryat Shmone.

My first interviews in Cairo were with knowledgeable American residents: the political officer of the American embassy; veteran correspondents of the New York Times, Reuters, etc. They were too polite to laugh at my preconceived criteria for moderate Egyptians. They knew of no Egyptians who fit either of my criteria.

So I went to see Egyptians—government officials, editors, and leaders of the Egyptian Peace Committee. Sana Hassan, I was told, had been away from Egypt too long and no longer thought like an Egyptian. At that point I could have concluded, like Miss Peters, that the search for an Egyptian moderate was hopeless and gone home. But I found that if I changed my definition, the situation was not entirely hopeless. Egypt desperately needs peace to get out of the economic morass in which Nasser’s policies have sunk it. Egyptian leaders from Sadat down understand the vital necessity for peace if they want to survive. The Egyptian Minister of Information, Dr. Kaml Abdul-Magid, told me in a private interview in his office that Egypt must “create an aura of stability which will attract foreign investments.”

An aura of stability means an end to the incessant warfare. So Dr. Abdul-Magid, who has made many a violent statement against Israel of the kind listed by Miss Peters in her litany of non-moderates, could be called a moderate, if you define the word, as I came to do, as follows: one who believes that a military solution of the dispute with Israel is impossible and is willing—even anxious—to negotiate and sign an iron-clad peace agreement in return for Sinai.

Sadat and all his officials, including those quoted pejoratively by Miss Peters, meet this definition.

Can Egyptians whose feelings for Israel are those quoted by Miss Peters make a lasting peace? Yes, if they feel they have no alternative. Moshe Dayan and other Israeli hawks have always said that the Arabs will make peace only when they decide that they can never defeat Israel. That time has come as far as the Egyptians are concerned. But Egypt understands that there can be no peace without the Syrians and the Palestinians. As Israeli critics of the recent abortive Kissinger shuttle pointed out: a statement of non-belligerency by Sadat, which is what Israel demanded, would be a worthless piece of paper if Syria decided to go to war. Egypt would then have to join in.

Are Syria and the Palestinians ready for peace? There are indications that they are convinced that they have more to gain from peace than war. If Israel plays its cards right—if it stops searching for nonexistent “moderates” and accepts the possibility that peace is possible with non-moderates—there may never be a fifth round, imyirtze hashem and inshallali.

Jesse Zel Lurie
New York City

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To the Editor:

Less than two years ago Israelis like Amnon Rubinstein were writing, “There are no more doves in Israel,” and the pleas of leftist Israeli intellectuals for international appreciation of Israel’s struggle for survival were heard. Today it seems even more commonplace to encounter the thesis that the Arab world is now permeated with “moderates” suddenly desirous of coexistence and eventually of true peace with Israel.

Joan Peters’s “In Search of Moderate Egyptians” is a most welcome challenge to this false contemporary wisdom. She is to be commended for the courage to write it as she found it (needless to say, she’s not heading back to Cairo soon).

No matter how much all of us want to find a basic change in the overall Arab desire to defeat Israel and bury Zionism, we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of such wishful thinking or the self-deception which too many Americans are prone to pursue. Realism remains the approach most likely to safeguard Israeli interests as well as American interests.

When I visited Egypt in 1972 as United Nations Representative of the International Student Movement, I had two basic reactions. First, I was amazed at the charm of Cairo and of so many of the Egyptians I met during my two one-week visits. It being my first visit to the Arab Middle East, I was rather pleasantly surprised by the magnetism of the civilization. But secondly, I found a profound antagonism toward Jews and a determination to fight Israel and “the Zionists” whatever the cost. I spoke with officials of the newly created United Nations Association, with an official of the Youth Department of the Arab Socialist Union, with student leaders of the General Union of Student, and with any English-speaking people I came in contact with. Nowhere was there an acceptance of Israel, pre- or post-1967. A conflict between civilizations was my impression. And the deeper the conversations, the more profound and intractable the confrontation.

In my conversations here in the United States with Arab students and Third World supporters of the Arab cause, I find an underlying conviction that Israel’s destruction is a historical certainty. Thus, short-term “moderation” with the goal of weakening Israel is acceptable—but not as a step to real peace, only as a means of eventual triumph. Coexistence might evolve under such circumstances, it is true, but it should not be mistaken for acceptance of a Jewish state in the Middle East. At best there might be toleration in view of the potential cost of attempting the final destruction. But even then the likelihood of a renewal of warfare would always remain if Israel’s strength or her international position were such that further weakening or potential victory were contemplated.

Mark A. Bruzonsky
Washington, D.C.

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Joan Peters writes:

Nothing would be more gratifying than to learn that the findings reported in my article were wrong, and that the Egyptians are indeed ready to begin direct peace negotiations with Israel on even a tentative basis. Unfortunately, none of the arguments set forth by Nadav Safran or Jesse Zel Lurie seems to affect the conclusions of my article. Nor do I regard self-delusion as a helpful ploy in this situation; on the contrary, self-deception on the part of knowledgeable and respected observers of the Middle East can create public distortion and become an obstacle to realistic analysis. I wrote candidly of what I saw and heard in Egypt because I believe it is essential to confront the facts, however unpalatable.

Nadav Safran indicates in his letter a certain irritation that my observations in Egypt were so “contrary to” the wistful and nostalgic “impressions” of his most recent return to his native land, recorded in “Conversations in Cairo.” Yet Professor Safran himself closes that article on a note of doubt. Upon “closer inspection,” he writes, a book he had found in Egypt “turns out to be a scurrilous compendium” of anti-Jewish slanders, and he is led to question the sincerity of the Egyptian friend who had just assured him in “heartfelt words” that the Jewish heritage is held in high esteem by Muslims. Mr. Safran’s closing sentence begins, “Which is the real Egypt? . . .” That question is well worth pursuing.

Mr. Safran insinuates that questions I asked during my interviews in Egypt were slanted, or—to use his euphemism—“insensitive.” He implies that I may have provoked the subjects into overstating their positions, and suggests that I “approached” them in a manner designed to elicit preconceived answers. None of this is the case. I reported Egyptian attitudes as they were revealed to me; I did not color, perfume, or distort them. Mr. Safran states explicitly that he does not know how I “approached” my “subjects”—that is true, he doesn’t. As for the “insensitivity” alleged, I pointed out in my article (and the tape recordings of the interviews abundantly corroborate this) that the views I reported, far from being provoked by me, were often intruded vehemently into the conversation, whether relevant or not to the subject at hand. After becoming comfortable in the presence of the tape recorder and the interviewer, and at ease in the assumption that I was not an Egyptian-born Jew, as is Mr. Safran, the people I interviewed volunteered their comments freely. To suggest otherwise, without any substantiation, is unworthy of a scholar of Mr. Safran’s stature.

Jesse Zel Lurie expresses apparent surprise that “even a Zionist editor” like himself was well-received in Egypt (emphasis added). But in fact, several Egyptians in Cairo confided to me quite candidly that Jewish writers from abroad were being given “special treatment,” the purpose being to convince Jews in the Diaspora—especially in the U.S.—that it is Israel, not Egypt, which is standing in the way of “peace,” and thereby to erode Israel’s support within the world Jewish community. I might incidentally share with Mr. Lurie the half-jesting advice I got belatedly from a friend, a senior diplomat stationed in the Middle East, in a letter which was waiting at home when I returned from Egypt: “Egyptians are now going out of their way to welcome American journalists regardless of religious persusasion, so the only danger is to beware of being completely brainwashed.”

Mr. Lurie discloses that he set for himself a heavier task than mine; he was “in search of . . . Egyptian . . . counterparts of the Israeli doves.” He found none, and he could find no one in Egypt classifiable as moderate by any definition acceptable to Western observers. So he obligingly changed his definition of “moderate”—which is permissible as a rhetorical exercise so long as one doesn’t redefine oneself into self-deception. I sympathize with Mr. Lurie’s reluctance to face what would otherwise seem a “hopeless” situation, but he has, I believe, based his new interpretation and his conclusion on a fallacious premise: that many Egyptians are ready to make peace with Israel because they are finally convinced Egypt cannot defeat her militarily. Unfortunately, not all judgments in this conflict are based on rational considerations of this kind. Moreover, there is little if any evidence that the Egyptians are convinced that Egypt will always be defeated on the battlefield. Finally, the Egyptians now seem to believe that Arab wealth and power, in conjunction with diplomatic pressure, and U.S. leverage upon Israel, will enable Egypt, at long last, to achieve its original goals.

And the Egyptians themselves certainly are not acting as if they were without any alternative to peace with Israel; unhappily, the general findings of my article appear to be corroborated all too well by President Sadat’s recent statements. Upon announcing the reopening of the Suez Canal last June, for instance, Sadat mentioned that Egypt was constructing three new tunnels under the canal for the purpose of expediting the movement of tanks to the eastern side. He has repeated on several occasions that peace may come only in “another generation”—that there will be no peace in his time—and he has declared in a speech to his own people that Israel, by its very existence, is “a knife thrust into the body of the Arab world.” Of such “moderation” too many wars are made.

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