Begin vs. Begin

Menachem Begin
Menachem Begin; drawing by David Levine


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…

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