Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Yehuda Avner on the Egypt-Israel Peace Process

Essay: With undue credit

Mar. 19, 2009

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. It was a protracted and teetering process, beginning with the staggering visit to Jerusalem in November 1977 of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat who was bidden forth by the deft diplomacy of prime minister Menachem Begin.

Never had Ben-Gurion Airport been more embossed and festooned as on that Saturday night of his arrival - a sea of light and of color, hung with a hundred flapping flags, Israeli and Egyptian. Deep rows of parading troops, their regimental ensigns aloft, framed the tarmac, and at one end was arraigned a military band, its brass instruments flashing in the floodlights.

Sadat's schedule was hectic. It lasted 36 hours, capped by an address to the Knesset. And as his plane faded into the sky back to Cairo an exuberant prime minister beckoned me over to say, "I want to send off a cable to president Jimmy Carter straight away to tell him how it went," and on the spot he began to dictate while striding to his car.

As anyone who has ever tried it knows, writing while walking is no easy feat, and my resultant scribble was so illegible I had tremendous difficulty deciphering it. Once I did, it came out like this: "Dear Mr. President - Yesterday night president Sadat and I sat till after midnight. We are going to avert another war in the Middle East, and we made practical arrangements to achieve that quest. I will give you the details in a written report. The exchanges were very confidential, very far-reaching from his point of view. I am very tired. I work 20 hours a day. There are differences of opinion. We are going to discuss them. I have a request. You will plan another trip to various parts of the world. Please visit both Egypt and Israel during that trip. Sadat was very moved by the reception of our people. You will come to Israel and we will give you a wonderful time. So will Egypt. Give two days to Jerusalem and Cairo. Please take this into consideration."

THAT SAME NIGHT the prime minister, exhausted though he was, received a four-man delegation of United Jewish Appeal philanthropists (now the United Jewish Communities) who had flown in from the US especially to witness the historic event. Among them was an old acquaintance from Columbus, Ohio - Gordon Zacks, commonly known as Gordie.

Gordie was a close-thatched, vigorous, enterprising, big-hearted, idealistic sort who not only gave generously but also thought innovatively. In 1975 he'd embarked on a peacemaking mission of his own by flying to Egypt to identify a hundred projects in the fields of medicine, agriculture, irrigation, industry and social welfare, which he envisioned as possible joint Egyptian-Israeli enterprises to serve as stepping stones to peace. He carried his proposal to Israel and asked me to arrange a meeting with the then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

As Rabin flicked through the bulky project folder, Gordie leaned across and said to him with enormous zest, "Yitzhak, listen to me, this is a no-lose deal."

"Meaning what, exactly?" asked Rabin, slamming the folder shut without even pretending to examine a single one of its projects.

"Meaning, here is a way of testing Sadat's true intentions toward peace."

"Gordie, in what world are you living?" scorned Rabin with pitiless sarcasm, pushing the folder away as if its author was one of the babes in the wood.

"I'm telling you this is a solid proposal," countered Gordie indignantly. "Israel could offer to become a part of any or of all these projects. It could lay the foundations for confidence-building measures, the beginnings of a dialogue."

"And if the Egyptians say we don't want you, as I'm sure they will?"

"Then what you do is to publicly offer them two projects a week for 50 weeks. You will come out smelling like roses as the peacemaker, while Sadat will seem to be the intransigent one."

"Crazy, naive American," scoffed Rabin, rising and extending a hand of farewell. "Gordie, old friend, this is just another public relations gimmick. Go back home to America and do what you do best: raise money for the United Jewish Appeal."

And off Gordie went, dejected.

TWO YEARS LATER, when Menachem Begin assumed the premiership, he asked to see all materials to do with Israel's past peacemaking efforts with Egypt, and among the documents was Gordie's proposal. It aroused enough curiosity for the premier to ask me who the man was, and when I told him, he said, "His ideas are a fantasy, but they show daring and imagination. I'd like to meet him one day." I phoned this through to Gordie and within a week he was having lunch with the prime minister in the Olive Room at the King David Hotel.

"Mr. Zacks, have you ever been in jail?" asked Begin while the first course was being served.

"No, Mr. Prime Minister," answered Gordie testily, wondering what Begin was getting at. "I've never been in jail."

"That's a pity," said Begin enigmatically, nibbling on his chicken. "You see, I have been in three different jails."

Gordie Zacks sat back, stunned: "Three - how come?"

"The first time the communists arrested me was in Vilna. I was in the middle of a game of chess. When the Soviet agents dragged me off, I remember calling out to my colleague, 'I concede the game. You win.' The Soviets locked me up in one of their prisons. I was held there for six weeks, and all I could think of was getting out and going back home, free. The second prison was a forced labor camp in Siberia. By the sixth week, I dreamed of being back in that first prison cell. The third time the Soviets put me in solitary confinement, and I dreamed of being back in that Siberian labor camp. So, you see, Mr. Zacks, my job as prime minister of Israel is to make sure that Jewish children dream the dreams of a free people, and never about prisons, or labor camps or solitary confinement. I want to bring them peace, but in our region peace can be won only through strength."

"So, how can I help?" asked Gordie, with his characteristic wholeheartedness."

"By telling me about your trip to Egypt, and the nature of the projects we might do together with the Egyptians once we have peace."

IT WAS NO WONDER, therefore, that Gordie Zacks displayed such excitement that night at the end of Sadat's visit when Begin told him and his colleagues, "Friends, you will be pleased to hear that president Sadat and I have come to an understanding. We still have our differences as you heard in his Knesset speech and my response to him, but we agreed there will be no more war. I already wrote as much to president Carter. Yehuda" - this to me - "did you sent off my cable?"

"Of course, as soon as I got back to Jerusalem from Ben-Gurion."

"Then, let's call the president now - hear his reaction."

"Do you have his number?" I asked.

Begin shook his head with an air of innocent ignorance.

"So, I'd better rush over to the office. I have it in the classified phone file," I said.

"Why not call the international exchange and ask for the White House switchboard," suggested Gordie helpfully. "I'm pretty sure they have a general number."

"I'll try," said I, and soon enough I got through to 001 202 456 1414. I was speaking in the hallway to a woman at the White House switchboard who thought I was a crank.

"I'm sorry, mister," she said in a steely voice, "but you can't speak to the president of the United States."

"It's not me, it's the prime minister of Israel, Mr. Menachem Begin," I said haughtily.

To which she responded dubiously, "Menakem who?"


"Hold the line."

"Hello, how can I help you?" - this from a lady in a more mellifluous voice.
I explained the matter and she said reasonably, "Please give me the prime minister's number and we'll get back to you."

I checked the phone to see the number. There was none. How could there be? This was the prime minister's residence, and his number was not for public display for prying eyes to see. So I called out to the prime minister sitting in the lounge, "Mr. Begin, what's your number?"

"I've no idea. I never phone myself," he said.

And then, moving into the hallway he shouted up the stairwell, "Alla [that's how he called his wife, Aliza], what's our phone number?" "664763," she shouted back.

I scribbled it down and repeated it to Washington.

"Thank you," said the voice, "we'll get back to you presently."

And, sure enough, within minutes, the phone rang, and the voice said, "Please put the prime minister on the line. I'm putting the president through now."

I handed over the receiver, and stood aside to take notes. With no extension close to hand I could only record what Begin was saying.

"I HOPE YOU received my message, Mr. President," he said beamingly.

Long pause: "Of course, tomorrow I shall send you a full account, through our ambassador."

Another long pause: "Oh yes, indeed," said Begin with an enthusiastic shake of the head. "There are immediate concrete results from the visit. President Sadat and I agreed to continue our dialogue on two levels, the political and the military. Such meetings will take place hopefully between our representatives soon. We made a solemn pledge at our joint press conference in Jerusalem that there will be no more wars between us. This is a great moral victory. And we agreed that there be no future mobilizations or troop movements on either side, so that our mutual commitment of 'no more war' may be given a practical expression on the ground."

And then, shoulders back, head rising, forehead frowning: "No, no, Mr. President, I assure you - yes, yes - we still want to go to a Geneva peace conference if you still think that will be useful. It is all a matter of the proper timing. President Sadat and I discussed this, but we did not talk about an actual date. We exchanged ideas on the most substantial issues, and knowing we have differences of opinion we promised each other to discuss them further in the future. What is important is that the atmosphere throughout all our talks was friendly, frank and cordial."

Then finally, face all a-grin and voice bubbling: "Mr. President, without you it could never have happened. So allow me to express my deepest gratitude for your magnificent contribution. Peace-loving people the world over - and the Jewish people for generations to come - will be forever in your debt for the role you played in helping to bring this historic visit about. We shall need your understanding and help in the future. God bless you, Mr. President. Good-by," and he hung up.

Privy to every word, his guests in the lounge fervently congratulated him on what was, assuredly, an affable conversation - all of them, that is, but Gordie Zacks who asked dumbfounded, "Why, Mr. Prime Minister? Why? Why give Jimmy Carter so much credit? Sadat came here because of what you did, and despite what Carter did with his idea of a Geneva international peace conference."

"What does it cost?" answered Begin with a pixyish expression. "I'm still going to need America, aren't I? So giving him a bit of credit now might help us a little bit in the future. The important thing is that Sadat and I are agreed on making peace with or without Geneva."

And, indeed, they did. No Geneva conference was ever convened. Had it done so it would have simply added gratuitous knots to what was just the same a knotty endeavor.
President Obama, please note.

The writer was on the personal staff of five prime ministers. His book The Premiers (Toby Press) will appear at the end of the year.
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