Posted by: Steve Coplan | August 9, 2006

A partner for peace

As the situation in the Middle East continues to deteriorate, it’s interesting to look back at more hopeful moments in history. While Hizbullah’s intentions were overtly aggressive, Israel and the US have dug themselves into a hole by discounting the prospects for a diplomatic or political resolution from the outset, on the basis that no partner for peace exists. Now a school of thought is emerging that finding a partner for a sustainable ceasefire is improbable. The Camp David Accords in 1977 brought together two unlikely protagonists – Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat – neither of which were wishy washy liberals. Yet they managed to find enough common ground to put in place a long-term ceasefire.

Menachem Begin was instrumental in the planning and execution of the Stern Gang’s bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946, then the base for the British Secretariat for the Palestine Mandate – a pivotal event in the establishment of the State of Israel. The Stern Gang was a hardline faction of the Irgun, itself a splinter group from the mainstream Zionist underground military group the Hagana, which was the precursor to today’s Israel Defense Force. Although international support for the estabishment of Israel is now framed in terms of the need for a Jewish state in the aftermath of the Holocaust, for several decades the Zionist movement had worked towards establishing a proto-state, self-sustaining economy and a military presence to blunt Arab opposition to the inflow of immigrants. The scale of the Zionist project is ilustrated by the fact for such an ancient country, Israel’s largest city Tel Aviv was established in 1909.

Begin’s interests were focused, however, on a very specific aim: pushing the British out of Palestine and ending the mandate originally estabished by the League of Nations in 1922, but his politics were fiercely anti-socialist (thanks to spell in a Soviet concentration camp). With the British out of the way, the creation of a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan could start in earnest, the Stern Gang contended. The mainstream approach was to manipulate the British were they could be manipulated, work with the Mandate to confound the pro-Arab tendencies of the Foreign Office, and establish facts on the ground (including building numbers through immigration, smuggling arms and buying land from absentee Arab landlords.) The strategies that the Stern Gang adopted have become case studies in urban terrorism and guerilla warfare. The most devastating act and the one that ultimately sent the British scurrying out was the bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946. The bombing killed 91 people, including British officers and troops as well as Arab and Jewish civilians, and was devastating in its destruction and impact on Britain’s political will at a point when the economy could ill afford an expensive military engagement. The Irgun under Begin’s leadership continued to carry out military operations such as the break in to the Akko Prison to release prisoners on death row, and the abduction and hanging of two British sergeants, causing the British to suspend any further executions of Irgun prisoners.

Begin was a political non-entity for decades after the establishment of the state, in part because his politics were in opposition to the dominant Labor Zionists, but also because the hasty British retreat created an extremely tenuous situation for the state that could have easily resulted in a military defeat. The bombing was seen as a strategic blunder, with the loss of life serving as a convenient point of condemnation. Begin’s tenacity and toughness were not dulled by his time in the wilderness or being suspended by the the Israeli parliament for his vehement opposition to weidergutmachung– German reparations. Eventually, his persistence resulted in his election as the head of the first right-wing government in Israel’s history in 1977, an event that irrevocably shifted the political balance.

Begin’s genius was to appeal to the 600,000 immigrants and their descendants from Morocco, Iraq, Kurdistan, Egypt, Tunisia, Bukhara, Georgia, Yemen and Libya. Most arrived destitute and were treated like second-class citizens by the Labor Zionists who were almost entirely Eastern European. These groups had generally voted for Labor because they were dependent on the state, but eventually the establishment’s disdain for people who didn’t know what a symphony was let alone be able to discuss Shostakovich became a political issue. Some even established a movement modeled on the Black Panthers.

Begin’s appeal to these groups was not a cynical one. He admired their traditionalism and the sincerity of their Zionism that was deeply rooted in their faith. While the Labor Zionists actively discouraged religious practice, Begin told them their way of life deserved respect. They were also natural supporters of his muscular Zionism, most having arrived destitute from Muslim countries which they had left under duress. In addition, many saw the Arabs as threats to their livelihood since they filled the same economic niche. Still, Begin managed to build enough consensus to sign a peace agreement with the country that hadd attacked on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar that still holds today. Unfortunately, Begin’s reputation was done much damage in later years when he presided over the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and his defense minister Ariel Sharon ceded the moral high ground with Sabra and Shatila.

Anwar Sadat was the son of an Egyptian clerk in a small Nile Delta village Mit Abul-Kum where he grew up with 12 other children. “Everything I experienced in Mit Abul-Kum made me happy”, he said of his childhood. For most of his career Sadat was viewed as riding on Gamal Abdel Nasser’s coattails until he took power after Nasser died off a heart attack in 1970. Sadat was also a devout Muslim, with the dark callus on his forehead the result of years of adherence to the injunction to pray five times a day.

Nasser was an enormously charismatic leader who advanced the notion of pan-Arabism, an idea in its day that was as inimical to the continued existence of Israel as the current strain of Islamic fundamentalism. Sadat and Nasser’s fate had been intertwined since they studied together at a military college established by the British colonial administration in the 1930s.

Sadat was jailed by the British for revolutionary activities, or essentially organizing an officers movement within the college with the stated aim of expelling the British in concert with the Germans. Sadat stayed away from politics for a few years but in 1952 joined up with Nasser to depose the puppet monarchy of Farouk I. Sadat stayed in Nasser’s shadow for many years, but was instrumental in a series of pivotal events including the nationalization of the Suez Canal that precipiated the Suez War of 1956 (involving Great Britain, France and Israel), the disastrous Six Days War when Israel won enormous amounts of territory in battle and decimated the Egyptian Airforce while their Soviet MiGs sat on the runway.

Sadat did, however, play a major role in the Yom Kippur War in 1973, coordinating attacks on two fronts with Syria. The lapses in Israeli intelligence that left Israel unprepared to continue to be the subject of much analysis, despite Sadat making his intentions clear. The margin of victory was much smaller than in previous wars and Israel came very close to being militarily overcome as well as losing territory. Instead of being seen as something of a lightweight, Sadat emerged as a canny operator and a force to be reckoned with.

Still, Egypt lost the war, excerbating serious economic issues — a growing population, reliance on agricultural exports, an unreliable sponsor in the Soviet Union and minimal access to Western markets. Plus, Sadat realized that he couldn’t both oppose Israel on equal military footing and keep a lid on growing discontent in Egypt. The bind this set of circumstances imposed on Sadat was not immediately clear to Begin who doubted Sadat’s sincerity from the outset. It was Sadat that ultimately made the definitive overture by coming to Israel to address the Senate. The end result was the Nobel Prize for Peace for both leaders. (Begin’s acceptance speech makes for interesting reading).

Of course, Sadat was later assasinated by Islamic fundamentalists, in part because of his rapprochement with Israel (which was perceived as part of a broader pattern of obsequiousness to the West) but also because his economic policies deepened disparities in wealth and he brutally quashed dissent from the Islamic Brotherhood. It’s difficult to draw parallels with Yitzchak Rabin despite Rabin’s own unlikely conversion to a non-military solution and his death at the hand of an extremist. Rabin was never as ruthless in quashing dissent, and continues to be a inspiration for the peace movement in Israel. It is interesting to note that among those arrested for their involvement in Sadat’s those involved went onto form the core of al-Qaeda, such as Omar Abdul-Rahem (convicted for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing), and Ayman Al-Zawahiri (the real Al-Qaeda mastermind).

So what observations can we make? The first is that courage in leadership and force of personality is required to effect sea changes. The second is that peace is attainable despite all indications to the contrary. The Camp David Accords were the pinnacle of both Sadat and Begin’s career, with both proving that perceptions of their weaknesses were not unfounded. Begin did not fundamentally alter his view of Jewish victimhood and Sadat continued to see peace with Israel as a pragmatic compromise not an ideological shift. Plus, peace with Israel has not done much to alter Egyptian society — Hosni Mubarak’s lesson from Sadat was that he wasn’t ruthless enough. (Interesting report in today’s Wall Street Journal how Condi Rice’s amateurish approach leaves the US propping up authoritarian regimes, including Egypt.)

It’s probably appropriate to note that the nature of the opposition to Israel’s existence primarily and its policies secondarily has changed in the interim. But pan-Arabism and Egyptian nationalism seemed at the time to be as unaccomadating to Israel as Islamic fundamentalism is today. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism will not be resolved by bombs and it won’t be solved initially by opening up these countries to democracy (at least not initially). The popular appeal of Islamic fundamentalism is readily apparent, but there’s little evidence so far that it’s a superior system of governance (although the Bush administration is helping out Iran’s mullahs to delay reform both through its high-handed approach and psuhing up oil prices by introducing instability). Islamic fundamentalism needs to fail like Baathism and Communism before it will lose its appeal, and courage is required to meet an overture halfway. As it stands, Hizbullah’s Nasrallah has nothing to lose in persisting in his current course of action, while the Bushites are acting in the precisely opposite manner to diminish the appeal (and consequently threat) of Islamic fundamentalism.

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