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The View from Cairo

After a visit of a few days in Cairo to talk with dozens of people about the possibilities of peace, I came away with answers that seemed, at least, to be surprisingly clear. Sadat wants peace; the intelligentsia does not want normal relations with Israel; and the ordinary people do not want war. So I was told. And whether they are accurate or not, these opinions appeared to be solidly rooted in the self-interest of those who are said to hold them.

Sadat is the most enigmatic of the three forces. It is possible and perhaps even probable that when he set events in motion by attacking Israel in 1973 and by inviting himself to Jerusalem in 1977, he had no clear conception of what the consequences for the Middle East would be. What is clear is that in both war and peace he was, and is, playing above all to what he thinks of as an American audience, the one that for him counts the most by far.

The large numbers of poor Egyptians have no spokesman, no Gallup poll to record their views. What was striking was that every politician or journalist I talked to, including the young intellectuals who back the PLO, claimed that Egyptian young people would not want to fight again. One hundred thousand casualties in the various wars with Israel are enough. Moreover, the widening of the Suez Canal is now going forward and the cities on its banks are being rebuilt. A nation planning to make war would not be likely to block its route of attack in this way.

This does not mean that war is impossible. Some new Pharoah may arise who rejects Camp David. He may have missiles that can fly over the Canal and the entire Sinai peninsula from deep within Egypt. Nevertheless, for the next decade, a long time in the Middle East, there seems very little possibility of an Israeli-Egyptian war.

This peace between Israel and Egypt does not, however, bring with it “normalization” either now or in the near future. The intellectual and professional classes seem overwhelmingly opposed to the exchange of ambassadors that has taken place and to carrying on regular trade and diplomatic relations, or collaborating on development projects. Aside from their sympathies for the Palestinian cause, they have other reasons for doing so. The wages of professors are low in Egypt; a teacher often makes ends meet by lecturing in Kuwait or elsewhere in the oil sheikhdoms for very large fees. Technicians and researchers of all kinds need their jobs as consultants and temporary workers in the Arab world if they are to keep up their standard of living at home. Egypt’s largest single source of foreign currency derives from the remittances of some two billion dollars a year sent back to the families of the quarter of a million Egyptians employed in other Arab countries. This “diaspora” is as large as, or larger than, that of the Palestinian technicians with which it competes for places throughout the Middle East. To interrupt these relations, even to cause a temporary tremor within them, would be disastrous not only to those who count on work abroad, but to the Egyptian state.

A few meetings between Israeli and Egyptian academics have taken place “under the table,” but any Egyptian scholar who meets openly with Israelis has destroyed his bridges to the rest of the Arab world. In mid-April, a chair of Israeli-Egyptian studies was dedicated at Tel Aviv University, and an international colloquium was held there in honor of the occasion. Of fifteen Egyptians invited, two came. One was the cultural attaché of the Egyptian embassy in Israel, and the other was a famous, retired scholar aged eighty who lives mostly in Paris.

Having been invited as vice president of the World Jewish Congress and as a historian, I was asked to give two lectures in Cairo, one to a group of middle-level diplomats, the other to university people interested in historical studies. No one made any secret of the fact that Israel and Egypt could not by themselves work out normal relations. That depended on the Palestinians, whose stamp of approval was required before full and open relations between Arabs and Israelis could begin to take place.

In the dealings of the Egyptian intelligentsia with the rest of the Arab world, matters of pride and self-confidence count for much. Cairo regards itself as the intellectual and academic center of the Arab world. Partly in order to maintain their claims to that leadership, the Cairo intellectuals, as some of them told me, feel they must show very openly their opposition to Sadat. They make the same arguments against him that can be heard in the rest of the Arab world—that the Camp David accord has not helped the Palestinians, and should be junked, and that pressure for an independent Palestinian state should now be the main task of Arabs everywhere. Whether they are university teachers or broadcasters or economists, the Cairo intellectuals and bureaucrats I talked to seemed to be waiting with some impatience for one of two things to happen—for Sadat either to succeed in the negotiations, by unexpectedly getting agreement to Palestinian self-determination, or to fail completely with the Israelis and thus free Egypt to pursue a new and tougher policy.

I had no trouble finding outspoken opponents of Sadat, even at official diplomatic parties. But my impression is that hardly a blade of grass falls among the bureaucrats and intellectuals in Cairo—even those who appear disaffected—that Sadat is not aware of and able to fit in with his plans. Perhaps the leeway that Sadat is now giving to his various critics and opponents is more than “a safety valve for discontent,” as it was described to me. He may also be orchestrating this very unhappiness as part of a campaign to bring pressure on Israel and especially on the Americans.

What lends support to these reflections is the argument currently being made by Egyptian diplomats in Washington, Cairo, and Tel Aviv: that if Israel does not concede more, then Sadat will be further weakened; that he will be in imminent danger of falling, thus removing from the Egyptian scene and the Middle East the one steady force for peace. The policies that would follow would be all the more hostile to Israel since the Egyptian intelligentsia and the technocrats who are so opposed to Camp David would have more of a voice.

If it is true that the Egyptian-Israeli peace depends wholly on Sadat’s survival, then the Israelis would be right to regard the so-called “Camp David process” with sharp suspicion. But if you press the Egyptians, they will admit that peace—that is, a state of non-war between Egypt and Israel—does not depend on Sadat’s survival, that the basic contract between Egypt and Israel to end the fighting has been made. What is not secure, and, indeed, has not even begun, is normal relations, which Sadat alone cannot deliver, and which the Israeli government, in view of its current policies, cannot possibly expect.

At Camp David, both Sadat and Begin must have known that whether normal relations between their countries could be worked out would partly depend on the Palestinian question. The differences in their respective interpretations of the Camp David agreement showed that it meant very different things to each of them. Were they simply fooling each other? Or, what seems to me more likely, did they badly misconceive each other’s intentions?

Some of the officials I met in Cairo had their own explanation of Begin’s behavior, one that seemed to me convincing. In their view Begin went to Camp David determined to be the magnanimous gentleman. The Sinai, including the settlements, the oil fields, and the road to Sharm-el-Sheikh—all this was hard for him to give up, but his ideological mentor Jabotinsky had never laid claim to the Sinai as part of the land of Israel. What could be more gallant than to give up the Sinai in one grand gesture, thus accommodating to Sadat’s demands, on the assumption that Sadat would then in his turn play the gentleman and allow Begin to retain territorial sovereignty over the West Bank? How could Sadat fail to recognize that the “undivided land of Israel” was indispensable both to the ideological purity and the domestic political needs of Begin?

It does not matter much whether Sadat thought, even briefly, that such a deal was possible. It should have been obvious that he could not settle the Palestinian question for Israel on terms favored by the Likud, however generous Begin’s concessions on the Sinai. The most that Sadat could offer was exactly what the world knew he was offering at Camp David: concerted action among Israel, Egypt, and the United States to create, in a demilitarized West Bank, a Palestinian entity in some sort of association with Jordan. The Israelis may have believed that this was a rhetorical screen behind which Sadat hid his intention to conclude a separate peace. Sadat may have given them reason to believe this by emphasizing, then and since, how binding he considered the bilateral pledges never again to go to war. But it should have been clear that Sadat was able to offer peace for the Sinai, as he did, but nothing more.

The solution Sadat hopes for is that the Americans will put intense pressure on Israel; and there seems a fair chance that he is right, and that such pressure will become visible after the November elections, whoever wins. It is also possible that the rich Arab states, which have broken off political relations with Egypt but not economic ties, might create so many difficulties for Egypt over loans, trade, and other matters that Sadat would be in real danger of falling from power. At the moment this seems unlikely. For one thing, Sadat has been willing to act as the instrument of US power in the region—it was from an Egyptian airfield that the C-130s flew in the abortive rescue attempt in Iran—and if he is deposed, the oil kingdoms that fear subversion or attack, and count on US support, would feel much more vulnerable.

Time is therefore on Sadat’s side. The US is committed to supporting him, and already Egypt has very nearly overtaken Israel as the chief beneficiary of aid of all kinds. Many of Sadat’s enemies in the Arab world now find the prospect of his successors much more frightening. And however short lived it may turn out to be, there is something of an economic upswing in Egypt. During the next three years, while the rest of the Sinai is returned to him, Sadat is likely to grow stronger, not weaker—at least so long as he can keep the intellectuals and bureaucrats who might turn against him economically satisfied and politically quiet.

As for the Israelis, they can claim that their largely unpublicized contacts with the Egyptians are increasing, though not very rapidly, and it is therefore possible to imagine that, bit by bit, these will grow. They express the hope that their embassy in Cairo, now taboo for most Egyptians, will be less isolated as the days go by and that there will eventually be as much traffic from Egypt to Israel as there is from Israel to Egypt. But it is far more probable that rising anger over Israeli settlements on the West Bank will impede this progress, and that normal relations will, indeed, depend, as the Egyptians keep saying, on what is done for the Palestinians.

At Camp David Sadat made Israel the only offer he could then have made good on: to undertake to lead much, and eventually most, of the Arab world to reconciliation with Israel, if Israel would join with him, the United States, and Jordan in creating some form of Arab sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza. Had this happened quickly, Sadat would have emerged as “King of the Arabs.” If what I heard in Cairo is true, he dreamed of this on the banks of the Nile, as he also imagined that with peace, Israel would have a large part in helping to develop the Middle East. Not only did this not happen but Israel’s relations with Egypt have been soured by the delay and by the growing hostilities on the West Bank.

What will happen now? The May 26 deadline on the autonomy talks will pass without progress. During his visit to Washington, Sadat suggested that, to save appearances, the governments involved make a new “declaration of principles.” Some such rhetoric will probably be devised, while the basic problem will remain.

To put the matter bluntly, Begin and Sadat cannot give each other what he wants on the West Bank, and so the problem is inevitably getting worse. What seems likely from a visit to Cairo is that no successor to Sadat could be more forthcoming than he has been. The open question is whether, under the government to follow Begin, Israel will finally be able to negotiate with Egypt for a West Bank solution that Egyptians, Palestinians, Jordanians and Saudis would take seriously. Will the Camp David bargain for the West Bank, as everyone except Begin seems to have understood it—i.e., as a bargain granting the Palestinians real territorial autonomy—still be possible a year hence, whoever governs in Israel? There seems little reason to be confident about this, which makes it all the sadder that the opportunities that Sadat now claims were open were never pursued.

May 20, 1980

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