• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

At Pharaoh’s Court

Boutros-Ghali’s appointment set off vicious attacks in the Arab press: they wrote that since no Muslim agreed to accompany Sadat, he had been “forced” to choose a Christian with a Jewish wife. For Boutros-Ghali and the other Egyptians on the president’s plane the “unbelievable journey” was like suddenly seeing the other side of the moon. “I had not realized the distance was so short!” He noticed Sadat’s calm as he stepped out of his plane at Ben-Gurion airport. He stood “bathed in the glare of what seemed like a thousand floodlights. His presence seemed like a biblical vision.”

Boutros-Ghali fretted over how he would get on with Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, who would be his opposite number, and what he should say first to help break the ice. Before takeoff, he had tried to read Dayan’s writings but “was so nervous that I could neither concentrate nor even remember what I had read already.” Hearing that Dayan was fascinated by archaeology he decided he might begin by telling him of his own collection of antiquities. Dayan later said that he had laughed and answered they had one more important thing in common, they were both married to Jewish women.

If this broke the ice, the rest of this first conversation was far from satisfactory. Dayan pressed for a separate Egypt-Israel peace treaty. Boutros-Ghali insisted that they should try to draw in the Palestinians and the other Arab states. “Egypt,” he argued, “has an Arab dimension imposed by history, geography and national ties founded on culture and a shared language and religion.” He feared that if Egypt didn’t preserve its regional position in the Arab world it would be reduced to just another overpopulated African country, like Zaire or Nigeria. He was resolved to avoid this.

In his own memoirs,3 Dayan gives his somewhat different version of this first meeting. According to Dayan, Boutros-Ghali had come to Jerusalem on the erroneous assumption that Sadat’s flight to Jerusalem would by itself induce Israel to withdraw to the pre-1967 lines. The two men quarreled over this. They disagreed on the Palestinian issue. Boutros-Ghali concluded that Dayan cared little about what happened to the Palestinians. Dayan suspected that Boutros-Ghali’s pro-Palestinian rhetoric was Sadat’s “fig leaf,” intended to please the Arab world, and did not necessarily reflect his chief’s true aims. He was not entirely wrong about this. Closeted with Begin or Dayan, Sadat made disparaging remarks about Arafat and other Arab leaders. They were, he said, corrupt dwarfs and mentally deranged. Boutros-Ghali thought that Dayan was “indifferent to the profound pan-Arab and Islamic dimension of the [Palestinian] issue.” Dayan could not understand why Boutros-Ghali felt so strongly about this. He “was impervious to my words,” Boutros-Ghali writes.

Dayan asked that Sadat refrain from including any reference to the PLO in his Knesset speech. “I did not tell Dayan that the speech I had drafted included a reference to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation,” Boutros-Ghali writes. When Sadat spoke, he did not include “a single word, phrase, or idea of mine” in “the wonderful speech he gave.” He read an entirely different text which disappointed the Israeli audience because it briefly referred to the Palestinians; but it “was no consolation” to Boutros-Ghali either.

He was entering, he felt, “the most important chapter of my life. How could I make the most of it?” In Jerusalem he was thrust into the limelight and appeared on one television talk show after another. He seemed awkward and ill-prepared for such an intense scrutiny. He understood English perfectly but spoke in heavy French accents and sounded at times as if he was suppressing a sneer. The Israelis considered him formal and stiff. When they (and later the American peace negotiators) undid their ties and took off their jackets Boutros-Ghali kept his on, saying, on one occasion, that staying buttoned up gave him “self-confidence.”

The unresolved Palestinian issue remained uppermost in his mind. He kept arguing about it with his Israeli interlocutors. They were not responsive. Begin’s main argument was that the PLO was a Communist-controlled terrorist movement. “Sadat did not object to this description,” Boutros-Ghali writes. Sadat had no patience with details. He was eager above all to regain Egyptian land. All other issues were secondary and could wait. Sadat made things worse by being cool to Dayan and cordial, even affectionate, to Dayan’s rival, Ezer Weizman, the Israeli defense minister. “Weizman can’t be a Jew,” Sadat said. “He is my younger brother.”

Boutros-Ghali was convinced that a peace treaty could endure only if the Palestinians’ minimum requirements were secured, i.e., the right of self-determination. Begin paid lip service to the “legitimate rights” of the Palestinian people but (like Netanyahu today) expected them to be content with semi-autonomous enclaves, Bantustans, surrounded by Israeli settlers. Begin wanted a separate deal with Egypt which would give him a free hand on the occupied West Bank and in Gaza. Boutros-Ghali pressed for a comprehensive peace. Dayan asked with derision: “How will you be able to negotiate in the name of the Palestinians, the Syrians, and the Jordanians if they reject the principle of negotiations?” Boutros-Ghali answered that it was Egypt’s task to convince them to change their mind. Israel could help by adopting positions that would demonstrate—above all in the occupied Palestinian territories—that negotiations could succeed. “The Egyptian mission,” he told a French interviewer, was to make Arabs and Israelis accept, in Sartre’s words, the existence of “the Other—the Jewish state by the Arab world; and, on the other hand, the existence of the Palestinian people by the Israelis.”

But this sense of mission was only partly, if at all, shared by Sadat. He was an Egyptian nationalist, and calculated that the Arab leaders, whom he belittled, would be forced to play by his rules. His style and rhetoric only antagonized them. His anti-Palestinian, anti-Syrian, and anti-Jordanian invective was music to Begin’s ears.

Dayan urged Boutros-Ghali to agree on a schedule for Egyptian-Israeli negotiation. Boutros-Ghali preferred to concentrate on the heart of the outstanding issues, not on technicalities and formalities. The two men argued for many hours. The racial and cultural difference between the worldly, pampered intellectual aristocrat and the often uncouth peasant-soldier Dayan could not have been bigger. And yet they grudgingly grew to like each other. Boutros-Ghali praises Dayan for his imagination in finding ways out of impasses—for example, when the negotiations seemed to break down over the timetable and extent of the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai, or over Begin’s insistence on matters of national prestige.

In his memoirs, Dayan was slightly less generous. When at one point, according to Dayan, Boutros-Ghali insisted that to preserve the peace in Jerusalem they must try to go beyond “obsolete” notions of sovereignty, Dayan inquired sarcastically whether the Saudis and the other Arabs were also convinced of this. “Boutros paused for a while,” Dayan writes, “and then said that to his great regret I happened to be right. With the Saudis it was difficult to conduct sophisticated symposia on sovereignty as one does in a university seminar.”

Many of the contentious issues that would bedevil Egyptian-Israeli relations during the next twenty years were first mooted during Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem—the press often spoke of it as a “pilgrimage”—and at the follow-up conferences in Cairo, Leeds, Washington, and Camp David. These issues are discussed in Boutros-Ghali’s book and some are still of central importance. On their second day in Jerusalem, Mustafa Khalil, one of the Egyptians in Sadat’s entourage and a future prime minister, suddenly asked Israeli defense minister Ezer Weizman: “Does Israel have the atom bomb?” Weizman did not answer, Boutros-Ghali remembers. “He rose from his place with his empty glass and walked very slowly to a nearby table to fill it with Scotch and began to drink. Then he spoke on a different subject, as if he hadn’t heard the question.”

Other issues, including some essentially ceremonial and other technical matters, are now completely forgotten, but they divided the negotiators so bitterly they would go to their rooms to pack their suitcases and the talks nearly broke down. The negotiations were plagued by differences in style. The Egyptian style was to concentrate on the broad meaning of statements. The Israelis were pedantic, concentrating on the precise meaning of every word; but they were also the shrewder lawyers. In the art of splitting fine legal and linguistic hairs they often retained the upper hand.

The two sides continued their search for a peace agreement because it was in their common interest. Both were tired of war. Dayan, sobered by the 1973 war which he had predicted would never happen, knew that Israel was exhausting its resources. Boutros-Ghali also believed that Egypt was pursuing peace not out of altruism but out of necessity. Few Egyptians were as acutely aware as he was of Egypt’s vulnerability for reasons that had little to do with the Arab-Israel conflict—among them the population explosion, Islamic fundamentalism, the exhaustion of water resources in the Nile, and the encroachment of urbanization on precious farmland in the Nile valley. Time and again he came back to the unresolved Palestinian issue which Begin’s team tried to sidestep.

Boutros-Ghali felt more strongly on this point than some of his Egyptian colleagues. Sadat vetoed his attempt to establish “linkage” between the two parts of the Camp David agreement, the first establishing peace and normalization between Egypt and Israel, the second recognizing the “legitimate rights” of the Palestinians. Begin would later claim that self-determination was not a “legitimate” right. Boutros-Ghali tried to delay “normalization” with Israel, including not only mutual recognition but the exchange of ambassadors, trade, tourism, and cultural relations, among other measures. He wanted to use normalization as leverage on Israel, to get Israel to meet Palestinian demands that they be treated as a main party to the negotiations. He was overruled by Sadat. Following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, in 1983, Sadat’s successor Hosni Mubarak withdrew his ambassador and froze “normalization” anyway.

And yet Boutros-Ghali was also changing. The peace process had a momentum of its own. He was also pushed by Sadat to “compromise.” Compromise, he said later, was always that which only yesterday one swore never to accept. When I first met him in 1978, he was still absolutely aghast at the prospect of Israeli tourists crowding into Luxor or the pyramids. He would do everything to prevent this. In his new mood, he even began calling himself a “technician.” His main purpose, he told me when I saw him in 1981, was to provide the diplomatic techniques that would allow the peace process to continue despite the prevailing disagreements.

He became a professional promoter of the “peace process.” In view of his militant rhetoric up to the moment of his appointment as Sadat’s principal negotiator, his metamorphosis was spectacular. “It is easier to overcome the contradictions between Marxism and capitalism than between [Israeli] imperialism on the one hand and the [Arab] war of liberation from imperialism on the other,” he had written in 1975.

Moreover, between the Soviet and the American blocs there is an element of equality that facilitates the arrival of détente. There is no such element of equality between the Arab homeland and the Zionist state…. In Kenya, Algeria and Mozambique the imperialist struggle was ended not by détente between the majority and the minority but by the liquidation of the racist minority or its assimilation.

I first interviewed Dr. Boutros-Ghali in Cairo a few days after the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty early in 1978. As I was putting my notes in my pocket and getting up to leave, I cited some of the views I have quoted above and asked him if he still held them. He looked up from his desk. For a moment, his dark, nervous face, long and gloomy, seemed almost the reincarnation of the delicate wooden statue of a Fourth Dynasty scribe in the Cairo Museum. “Did I write that?” he said absent-mindedly, shuffling his papers. “Ah, I have written so much.”

I remember another interview with Boutros-Ghali in Cairo about a year later, after the Arab countries had cut off diplomatic relations with Egypt. In the taxi, on the way over to see him, I had read an editorial in one of the Cairo dailies. It claimed that Egypt could not be isolated—the Arab countries could only isolate themselves, for “Egypt is the head and the Arabs are the body.” What good did this do? I asked him. Why do they write in this arrogant style? “Why not?” he said haughtily. “It’s the truth!”

He fascinated me then as yet another case of an intellectual in politics who was running up against the contradictions between his theories and the demands of practical negotiating. A few years earlier, he had been a veritable doctrinaire of conflict, with the familiar, prejudiced tendency of certain French intellectuals to find neat dividing lines between angels and devils. His radical generalizations were made more palatable on occasion by a judicious use of the subjunctive. For years he had considered Israel an unmitigated evil—much as the French had been seen by the FLN in Algeria—an alien, corrosive, Western colonial encroachment upon the Arab East. If this was a half-truth or a quarter-truth, it nevertheless convinced many at the time because it was not entirely false.

Before he started negotiating with the Israeli establishment, he would tell foreign visitors that Israel was a foreign body—the Israelis were “Polish,” “German,” “colonialist,” and imbued, in his view, with the mentality of white settlers. They refused to become Arabs. Integration with such people was impossible. They were a thoroughly alien presence in a Middle East which, in Boutros-Ghali’s eyes, ought in justice to be a monolith, not necessarily one of religious faith but of Arab nationality, Arab culture, and Arab language: one chosen people. Everything non-Arab was marginal, subsidiary, and possibly corrosive. (All this from a Copt—a member of a minority much discriminated against, as he laments in his book. Such contradictions are not unprecedented. Some of the most ardent nationalists in nineteenth-century Germany had been Jews.)

Sadat’s assassination was a disaster for Boutros-Ghali’s more recent policies. On the day of the shooting, he was in Alexandria, vacationing on the Mediterranean beach. “Sadat was killed by the same kind of fanatic who killed my grandfather,” he writes, apparently quoting his diary. “The whole edifice we had built so painstakingly threatened to fall apart.” Would the Israelis retreat from Sinai now that Sadat had disappeared? They had always suspected that Sadat did not convincingly represent Egypt. Boutros-Ghali had spent months telling them their fears were unfounded. And would Sadat’s successors carry on his work? Arriving in Cairo a few hours after the assassination, he was told that it had been part of a nationwide plot. His name had been next on the assassins’ list.

In the years after Sadat’s death, especially during the Lebanon war, he grew bitter. For a time he pinned his hopes on the Labor Party winning the elections in Israel. Such hopes were dashed in 1984 and 1988. Begin’s extensive plans for settlement on the West Bank angered and offended him. I last talked to him in 1983. “Begin cheated! Begin cheated!” he yelled at one point. Why did he say that? I asked. “Begin never concealed his annexationist designs in the occupied West Bank. You were fully aware of them.” “Yes,” he said, “but we were also given to understand that this was only Begin’s public stance, it was only tactical.” I asked what reasons he had to believe that this was in fact so. He said that Ezer Weizman, then Begin’s defense minister, had assured them that this was the case. “How very odd,” I said. It was common knowledge in Israel that Weizman was assuring Begin that Sadat’s public position on the Palestinians was also merely a tactic. “All he needs is a fig leaf from us,” Weizman used to tell Begin. “Let’s throw him one.” In the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty the sides had obviously cheated each other—and themselves.

Boutros-Ghali carried on as Mubarak’s acting foreign minister for another decade. The Israelis were like French colons in Algeria, he used to say. When they were making concessions it was always too little, or too late. His detractors in Israel dismissed these notions as the dogmatic assertions of a third world intellectual. They also belittled him personally, claiming he was never more than a tool, in effect an “attendant lord, one that will do/To swell a progress, start a scene or two,/Advise the prince;… Deferential, glad to be of use….” They should have been more attentive. The fast-declining prospects for peace in the region confirm Boutros-Ghali’s basic concerns and the warnings that are the leitmotif of his book. He had no precise solutions for Palestinian “self-determination” but he perceived that it was the main issue that had to be negotiated, and with the Palestinians themselves. At a time when Sadat and Begin were mouthing the common clichés of politicians prematurely rewarded with Nobel Peace Prizes, Boutros-Ghali’s sober foresight was remarkable. His warnings, which he repeated ad nauseam to Egyptians and Israelis alike, that peace between them would never really mature if they ignored the root cause of the wars—the Palestinian issue—proved prophetic and tragically correct. > Wardani! Wardani!
Illi ‘atal al Nusrani!
(Wardani! Wardani! Who slew the Christian!)

  1. 3

    Moshe Dayan, Breakthrough: A Personal Account of the Egypt-Israel Peace Negotiations (Knopf, 1981).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print