Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Moshe Arens on Begin's Gamble

Moshe Arens' op-ed in Haaretz: Begin's gamble

Could Begin have insisted on a better deal, on a compromise in Sinai, without giving up everything?

In 1867 the United States bought Alaska from Russia. Over 1.5 million square kilometers, an area the size of Texas, for $7.2 million. Czar Alexander II sold and U.S. President Andrew Johnson's Secretary of State William Seward bought. For a number of years this purchase was referred to as "Seward's folly." But it was no folly - it was the best real estate deal ever.

A little over 33 years ago another real estate deal was concluded: Israel agreed to surrender the Sinai peninsula, 60,000 square kilometers, an area three times the size of the State of Israel, to Egypt in return for a peace treaty. Menachem Begin, after 12 days of secret negotiations with Anwar Sadat at Camp David in the presence of Jimmy Carter, had signed the deal. It was the biggest real-estate deal of the 20th century. It was Begin's gamble. Was it a good deal? This is a good time to look back and attempt to dispassionately answer that question.

Two questions surrounding the Israel-Egypt peace treaty signed in 1979 were raised at the time, and are still relevant to this day. Was it a good deal, or should Begin have held out for better conditions? And was the peace treaty, paid for so dearly, going to be no more than a temporary arrangement signed with a dictator who would eventually be replaced, and if so, was the temporary arrangement worth the price?

The price Israel paid was unprecedented in the annals of international relations. Never before had an aggressor who had been defeated been compensated for all he had lost. Egypt had committed aggression against Israel four times - in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973. Its army had been beaten each time. Now all the territory it had lost was going to be returned. There was no precedent in history for such a reward for aggression. And what kind of a precedent was this going to set for aggressors in years to come?

And what did this mean regarding future negotiations between Israel and its other neighbors? Israel was giving up great strategic depth sorely missed these days, military bases, its naval presence in the Red Sea and areas that were to become major tourist attractions, in addition to the evacuation of the Israeli settlements that had been established in the Sinai.

Could Begin have insisted on a better deal, on a compromise in Sinai, without giving up everything? Or was it going to be another war with Egypt unless he gave Sadat all that Sadat demanded? Although not likely after Egypt's total defeat in 1973, we will never know the answer to this question. Begin decided not to hold out for better terms. Sadat received everything that he asked for and Begin received the peace treaty and an Israeli ambassador in Cairo.

There was never going to be the normalization of relations between Israel and Egypt that Begin had hoped for, but peace came to Israel's southern border.

There is a myth that Begin also wanted to throw in the Gaza Strip and that Sadat refused to accept it. This is untrue. We know that the reason Begin was able to overcome his reservations about conceding all of Sinai was that he did not consider the Sinai to be part of the Land of Israel. On the other hand, as far as he was concerned the Gaza Strip was an integral part of the Land of Israel and he was not prepared to concede an inch there.

As for Sadat's insistence that all of Sinai was rightfully Egyptian, that is historically questionable. It was only in 1906 that Britain, the ruler of Egypt at the time, forced the Turks to withdraw eastward to the line that now delineates the Israel-Egypt border.

Was it going to be a permanent arrangement? Part of the answer we already have - the peace treaty has held up with minor perturbations, like temporary withdrawals of the Egyptian ambassador from Tel Aviv, for the past 32 years. Did Begin consider the fact that he was signing a treaty with a dictator and that the permanence of the treaty was therefore in doubt? Who knows? He decided to gamble. It outlasted the assassination of Sadat in 1981. Will it outlast the present turmoil in Egypt?

As Zhou Enlai, Mao's foreign minister, is supposed to have said when asked about the significance of the French Revolution - "it is too early to say."
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