Into the Fray: Begin – in retrospect
By MARTIN SHERMAN
Israel cannot afford the same miscalculations made in the peace treaty with Egypt on its fronts with the Palestinians and the Syrians.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions – Aphorism attributed to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)
We cannot conclude from the good intentions of a statesman that his foreign policies will be either morally praiseworthy or politically successful....How often have statesmen been motivated by the desire to improve the world, and ended by making it worse? And how often have they sought one goal, and ended by achieving something they neither expected nor desired? – Hans Morgenthau (1904-1980), on political realism
The sweeping victory of the Islamist parties in the election in Egypt is – somewhat belatedly – beginning to concentrate minds. Israel is being forced to confront the stark possibility that in the foreseeable future, it may be left with no peace, no Sinai... and eventually, no demilitarization.
Inevitably, this unpalatable prospect will force a national reassessment of the process – and the personalities – that brought this ominous situation about, of the prudence of the decisions taken at the time and of the beforethe- fact predictability of its potentially perilous outcome.
Inevitably, too, this will focus attention on Menachem Begin and his role in precipitating Israel’s evacuation of the strategic expanses of the Sinai Peninsula in return for a peace treaty with Egypt, then Israel’s principle adversary.
A brief history
The deal, brokered by US president Jimmy Carter, was concluded in 1979 after two years of intense negotiation following Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s historic 1977 address to the Knesset. It was greeted with great international acclaim – except in the Arab world where it was long regarded as an act of treachery – and the award of Nobel peace prizes to the Egyptian and Israeli leaders.
The intended strategic substance of pact was mutual recognition of each state by the other, and the cessation of the state of war that had existed since the 1948 War of Independence.
Israel undertook a complete withdrawal from Sinai, held by it since the 1967 Six Day War, while Egypt agreed to the demilitarization of the peninsula. The agreement also provided for the free passage of Israeli ships through the Suez Canal, recognition of the Strait of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba as international waterways, and massive US economic and military to Egypt, whose military has since received almost $40 billion from Washington, allowing it to to modernize and revamp its aging Soviet equipment.
Whichever way you slice it, the treaty was afflicted by a stark structural asymmetry in the undertakings of the contracting parties: On the one hand, Israel was called on to relinquish vast physical assets of great strategic and economic value, which could only be retrieved – if at all – by a massive outlay of blood and treasure.
In return for the receipt of these assets – plus generous US financial support – all that was demanded of Egypt was paper promises, which could be violated whenever it deemed it expedient or the profit worth the pain.
This asymmetry was perhaps most aptly articulated by Sadat himself, when in a 1980 interview with The New York Times, he remarked bluntly, “Poor Menachem... I got back... the Sinai and the Alma oil fields, and what has Menachem got? A piece of paper.”
From the outset then, the durability of the peace agreement hinged not only on Cairo’s continuing willingness to honor its commitments, but also its continuing ability to do – despite domestic opposition. This clearly applies – and applied then – not only to the Sadat regime, but to any successors who might accede to power – be it by the bullet or by the ballot.
There is – and was – no need for the benefit of hindsight to grasp this pivotal feature of the agreement. It was distinctly discernible as an inherent element of the treaty from the get-go. It was always a precarious arrangement — its abrogation, whether sudden or in stages, always a plausible possibility.
Indeed, it would seem that Sadat himself was keenly conscious of the fragility of the treaty and how future Egyptian regimes may well feel unbound by its terms. In a 1975 interview he openly stated: “The effort of our generation is to return to the 1967 borders.
Afterward the next generation will carry the responsibility.”
Yet within the Israeli public discourse, any suggestion that the potential long-term strategic dangers might outweigh the undeniable short/intermediate-term benefits, were dismissed as the demented raving of extremist warmongers. Anyone who dared caution that the situation now emerging in Egypt and along our southern border, might in fact emerge, was scorned either as a deranged scaremonger or a uniformed ignoramus.
Consequently, there was no serious public discussion of how to respond to an intentional violation of the agreement, or an unintentional collapse of Cairo’s ability to uphold it. And in the absence of a clear and credible comprehension of what penalties such violations would incur, only a giant leap of faith in Arab altruism could induce the belief that these scenarios were implausible.
However, beyond the mindless malice and myopia of political debate in Israel, questions must be raised as to the judgment and foresight of the Israeli leadership that consented to forgo the tangible fruits of military victory for the ephemeral promise of political peace.
As Begin was the overwhelmingly dominant figure involved in Israel’s acquiescence to the treaty terms, it is likely such a reevaluation would, as an unintended side effect, damage his standing in the national pantheon.
‘The road to hell...’
The objective would be to enhance awareness of the non-static nature of Israel’s political environment, and to develop deeper understanding of how the nation should manage long-term risk in the dynamic instabilities of the Middle East. But more specifically – and more important – it is imperative to avoid creating similar situations of strategic danger through similar strategic misunderstandings of the dynamics in play on Israel’s other fronts with the Palestinians, the Syrians and the Jordanians.
There can, of course, be no doubt as to the totality of Begin’s commitment to Israel and to its security, or as to fever of his devotion to Zionism and its ideals. Indeed for many, he was the epitome of the leader whose absolute dedication to his country and his people was never subordinated to, or sidetracked by, the pursuit of partisan interest, private gain or personal prestige.
However, pure motives and noble intentions are no guarantee of effective statesmanship or strategic acumen.
Indeed, as Hans Morgenthau, one of the most influential figures in the study of modern international politics, remarked: “Chamberlain’s politics of appeasement were, as far as we can judge, inspired by good motives; he was probably less motivated by considerations of personal power than were many other British prime ministers, and he sought to preserve peace and to assure the happiness of all concerned. Yet his policies helped to make the Second World War inevitable, and to bring untold miseries to millions.”
While any comparison between the two men is wildly inappropriate, the bloodcurdling frenzy of the lynch mob that stormed the Israeli Embassy in Cairo in September may prove that Begin’s declaration of “No more war, no more bloodshed, peace forever” was no less premature and naïve than Neville Chamberlain’s “Peace in our time.”...