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Begin vs. Begin

I

When President Sadat came to Jerusalem in November 1977 he stole the initiative from Arab “rejectionists”—not only Syria, Iraq, Libya, but all the important factions of the PLO. Among these are Yasir Arafat’s Fatah, the Syrian-backed Saika, the Iraqi-backed ALF, Naif Hawatme’s PDFLP, and George Habash’s PFLP. What seems forgotten now is how bitterly most of these countries and factions were feuding with one another then. The Syrian and Iraqi Ba’athists were competing to dominate the region north of the Persian Gulf. Fatah and Syria (and Saika) were at odds over President Assad’s strong-armed intervention in Lebanon, particularly the Syrian army’s murderous crushing of Fatah at the Tel-a-Zaatar refugee camp in early 1977. Fatah was also feuding both with the Libyan-financed PFLP over Arafat’s apparent readiness to negotiate with the US and with the Iraqi ALF, which had long resented Arafat’s prior involvements with the Syrians. The Syrians had, after all, accepted UN resolution 242 and had negotiated a disengagement agreement with Israel; like Fatah they were eager to go to Geneva.

Surrounded by such ideological antagonism and ambition, Arafat’s position was diminished. His only patron was King Khalid of Saudi Arabia, who cautiously preferred Fatah’s non-“Marxist,” pan-Islamic line to that of the “radicals,” and was hedging against Syria’s growing power. After he went to Israel, however, Sadat soon had the tacit support both of Khalid (whom the Egyptian army protected) and also of Hussein. His initiative seemed superbly pragmatic. It offered a chance to secure the return of Arab lands captured in 1967, to pressure the Americans into forcing Israel to change its position on Jerusalem and the Palestinian question—and to do so without a risky Geneva Conference and without giving the Soviets a part in the negotiations. Hussein in 1977 still had substantial allies in the West Bank and Gaza—the mayors of Bethlehem and Gaza, Freij and Shawa, the former mayor of Hebron, Jaabri, the Ramallah lawyer Shekhadeh, and Anwar Nuseibeh, Hussein’s former minister of defense, among many others. He was still anxious to rule the mosques of Jerusalem, still seemed open to some kind of deal.

Sadat, in short, could not have chosen a better time to break the old taboos and change the rules. The Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza were, then as now, mainly supporters of the PLO—the only visible symbol of Palestinian self-determination—but this was vague support since the PLO’s leadership was obviously disorganized and exhausted. Sadat (and, it was assumed, Hussein) seemed to promise a more plausible first step to political independence from Israel. The Palestinians could not be immune to the huge popular success of Sadat’s trip in Jerusalem and Cairo. A delegation, mainly from Gaza, went to Cairo to greet the “hero of peace” three weeks later. That peace seemed a real alternative to the occupation was dramatized by the way Arafat sat shocked and helpless in the Egyptian parliament as Sadat announced his determination to address the Knesset.1

Had the Israeli and Egyptian governments worked out some peace settlement soon after Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, the PLO leaders, like the rest of the Arab world, would have had to continue to respond to events which outflanked their policies and exacerbated their old divisions. And the settlement would have been reinforced by the enthusiasm of tens of millions of Egyptians (many more than the combined population of all rejectionist Arab states) who had been prepared by Sadat’s regime to view peace as the beginning of domestic development: population would move from the Nile Valley to the Canal Zone, conditions for foreign investment would improve, funds would shift from the army to public utilities, to economic integration with Sudan, and so on. There was little cynicism evident in Egypt during those days; and Sadat’s growing prestige might have been a decisive American and Israeli asset in the search for a comprehensive settlement with the other Arab nations.

Peace would have been concluded at the Ismailia summit in December 1977 had Israel agreed to evacuate the whole of the Sinai—including the Rafiah settlements—and to endorse the principle that “Palestinians be given the right to participate in the determination of their future.” This was the Aswan formula announced by Sadat and President Carter after the summit meeting failed to produce an agreement on principles. For Begin to endorse this formula would also have meant suspending Jewish settlements on the West Bank and keeping silent about the future status of Arab Jerusalem. Political organizing on the West Bank would have to be permitted as well, along with an increase, by surreptitious stages, in the presence of Jordanian administrators and police.

Shimon Shamir of the Shiloah Institute, one of Israel’s best informed experts on Arab politics, believes such actions by Begin could have then served as the basis for a treaty. So do Egypt’s acting foreign minister, Butros Ghali, and the American ambassador to Israel, Samuel Lewis. But in late 1977 and early 1978 Begin balked, suggesting an autonomy plan a little like the one Tito granted Croatia. He denied that UN resolution 242 would apply to the West Bank—still, to him, “Eretz Yisrael.” He acquiesced in Ariel Sharon’s bulldozer diplomacy by which he kept extending settlements in North Sinai.

Now (as he did at Camp David) Begin has openly capitulated on most major points, including complete withdrawal from the Sinai—but not on suspending settlements. He has also withdrawn most of the objections he posed after Camp David to Egypt’s treaty obligations with other Arab nations in case of war. Not that these objections were ever decisive: if war comes, each country’s interests will prevail over its signatures. In any case Egyptian Prime Minister Mustapha Hallil announced to the Egyptian Parliament on April 9 that Egypt will side with Syria in a “defensive war” to retake the Golan Heights if its negotiations with Israel fail. He also said that “normalization” with Israel can only proceed at a pace that corresponds to progress in achieving full Palestinian autonomy, at least in the Gaza Strip as a first step. Israel for months sought to avoid this “linking,” but none of Hallil’s statement is contradicted by the text of the treaty Begin signed.

Few observers have noticed that, according to the treaty, negotiations on normalizing trade and tourism are to begin only after six months, i.e., after negotiations on autonomy are already supposed to be fully under way. General Matti Peled, who is closely acquainted with Egyptian leaders, told me if these collateral negotiations bog down, he doubts Egypt would send an ambassador to Israel after nine months—as the treaty specifies. Then we shall not have peace but some nervous and de facto “interim agreement,” with the Israeli army withdrawing to a line running from El Arish to a point west of Sharm al-Sheikh. There will be no optimistic momentum, no progress on commercial and diplomatic relations, and no American military and diplomatic presence between the Israeli army and the Egyptians.

Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has already predicted this kind of deadlock. Naphtalie Lavie, Foreign Minister Dayan’s closest aide, hinted to me that this would be considered a “tolerable” outcome. But there can be no doubt that it could degenerate into a situation far more precarious for Israel than any since the 1967 war. And the Carter administration, which openly supports Egypt on the Palestinians, will not be sympathetic to Israeli claims for support under the separate agreement Secretary Vance negotiated with Dayan.

Begin cannot avoid this dangerous deadlock unless he makes good on an autonomy plan he really abhors. Unlike the one he presented Sadat at Ismailia, the one he suddenly endorsed at Camp David promises “full” Palestinian autonomy: an elected council, an end to the military government, a “strong” indigenous police force, the retreat of the Israeli Defense Forces to specified enclaves. Furthermore, this autonomy was and is to be “transitional,” leading to Palestinians enjoying their “legitimate rights”—a clear strengthening of the Aswan formula. Israel’s withdrawal of North Sinai settlements will be a clear precedent for the Golan and West Bank (Begin’s demurrers notwithstanding).2 Dr. Moshe Sharon, Begin’s own former adviser on Arab affairs, called this autonomy plan a certain step to an independent Palestinian state and a precarious one at that because tensions between “autonomous Palestinians” and Israeli settlers are, in his view, bound to stir up nationalist and secessionist sentiments among Israeli Arabs as well. Israeli hawks such as Ariel Sharon and Mier Har-Zion have already issued dark warnings to the Arab citizens of Israel that they not “repeat the tragedy of 1948.”3

Yet all these Israeli concessions already seem stale, deceptive, possibly futile. Begin has himself cut down the possibilities for peace by stalling so many months. According to the reports of many journalists,4 the Egyptian public is solidly in favor of peace, a sentiment confirmed by the huge vote for Sadat in his referendum of April 19. But as the more skeptical students who were interviewed pointed out, the word peace has now become a euphemism for inflated economic hopes. Most Egyptians resent the feeling of being cut off from an “Arab world” of which they consider themselves the center. And although tens of thousands of Egyptians continue to work in the Persian Gulf, the rest of the Arab world is now diplomatically lined up against Egypt, committed to the sanctions voted at the second Baghdad conference in late March. Egypt has even been expelled from OPEC.

The Saudis have broken diplomatic relations with Egypt but are unlikely to cut off covert aid to Egypt or, more important, to withdraw an estimated two billion dollars in deposits from Egyptian banks. The Saudi royal family’s political and economic connections to American oil concerns and Western banks have become stronger with the growth of its oil revenues,5 and it will not—in spite of the tendency of the national guard’s Prince Abdullah to flirt with the Soviets—bring the Western economies down on its head. It is doubtful that the Saudi leaders will want to antagonize Senator Church further and thus risk losing the expected delivery of seventy-five F-15s. But the Saudis also have a stake in “Arab unity”: they think, and with some reason, they are vulnerable to pro-Soviet radicals in South Yemen and Iraqis in the north and they cannot afford to live under the kind of military threat posed by Nasser during the 1950s and 1960s. They can punish Sadat by remaining aloof and punish the rest of us, including President Carter, by yielding a few more percentage points to the demands of the OPEC price hawks. The recent 9 percent rise in the price of crude oil was a signal that they resent Sadat’s “independent” course (quite aside from their desire to show they have a heavy interest in Jerusalem).

A year ago the Saudis would not have had to worry about pressure on them to close ranks against Sadat. But as the negotiations dragged on, Syria and Iraq have had time to make a spectacular reconciliation—a Ba’athist “sulkh” motivated by Sadat’s threat to deny them the advantages of joint war making. In these circumstances King Hussein could not remain neutral. He has decisively joined with Syria in opposing the Camp David agreements—from which, as Begin’s statements have implied, he would get nothing but the honor of policing the Palestinians for five years.6 Hussein has even been mending his fences with Arafat and has promised joint action with the PLO in organizing West Bank resistance. Moreover, it seems unlikely that Jordanian security officials could have been unaware that Fatah was attacking across the Jordanian border near Kibbutz Tirat Tzevi in mid-April. (The attackers were killed by Israeli soldiers.)

  1. 1

    Eric Rouleau recalls in Le Monde, March 27, 1979, how close Sadat had come to eclipsing the PLO in November 1977.

  2. 2

    Israeli withdrawal from North Sinai is taken as a precedent not only by Arab parties but also by President Carter. In his carefully worded response to King Hussein’s “14 Queries,” Carter reiterated that Jewish civilian settlements in the West Bank are a violation of the Geneva Convention (Ma’ariv, April 17, 1979).

  3. 3

    Israeli settlement of the West Bank has contributed to nationalist feelings among Israeli Arabs by implying that the 1949 borders are not final: irredentist claims cut both ways. Moreover, the resources (approximately three billion dollars) spent settling occupied territory were not spent on settling Northern Galilee, where Arabs are now a strong majority.

  4. 4

    For example, Israel television journalists Rafik Halibi and Ehud Yaari conducted an extensive series of interviews during Begin’s visit. See also Amos Elon’s report, Ha’aretz, April 11.

  5. 5

    See Fred Gottheil’s “The Manufacture of Saudi Power,” Middle East Review, Fall 1978.

  6. 6

    Anthony Lewis’s report on Crown Prince Hasan’s criticism of the agreements appeared in Ha’aretz, April 23, 1979.

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