After months of stagnation, a rapid series of high-level political statements and diplomatic exchanges appears to have breathed some life into the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process once again. But of course, looks can be deceiving, and even if the peace train really is building up steam, no one knows which way the train is heading.
In April, the French government announced that they would host an international meeting of foreign ministers on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the end of May, to which neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians were invited – presumably to allow the participating countries to formulate a solution that the rest of the world could throw its weight behind so as to place greater pressure on the two sides to accept it. This ministerial meeting is meant to lay the groundwork for an international peace summit that will be held later in the summer, this time with the participation of Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
The idea of a French initiative was first mooted by the former French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in January this year. Since then, President Abbas has shown consistent support for the initiative, while PM Netanyahu has remained sceptical about the effectiveness of an international peace conference and argued that such a conference would hinder the only path to peace, which is bilateral negotiations between Israel and the PA.
This past week, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault met Netanyahu and Abbas to discuss the French peace initiative. Netanyahu expressed his objection once again, while Abbas warned that the failure of another peace initiative would spur more acts of terrorism. In an apparent setback, the French government postponed the international ministerial meeting, allegedly to allow the US to participate.
All hope is not lost for the French though. Two days ago, Egyptian President al-Sisi made an impromptu speech in which he expressed support for the French peace initiative and called upon Israeli and Palestinian leaders to seize this “realistic” and “great” opportunity to reach a solution. Interestingly, he claimed that the animosity between the Israelis and Palestinians is similar to that between Israelis and Egyptians just before they signed the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979.
What a coincidence that al-Sisi compared the Israeli-Palestinian relationship to the Egyptian-Israeli relationship just two weeks after I finished reading “Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David” by Lawrence Wright. There is a lot to learn from the Camp David process about the challenges and rewards of diplomacy and conflict resolution – lessons which are especially relevant in light of this renewed effort to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This book presents an account of the Camp David negotiations between Israel and Egypt in 1978 in a captivating narrative that keeps the reader at the edge of his seat. But it’s more than just an account of the proceedings. Wright expertly presents the conference in its larger geopolitical context by weaving into the narrative key events in the history of the Middle East, extending all the way back to Biblical times.
What I found most intriguing, however, was the writer’s analysis of how the personal experiences of the key negotiators shaped their psychology, which influenced not only their negotiating positions but also their behaviour during the conference. I liked the description of the personal dynamics between the negotiators because it makes the entire episode more relatable to the reader. In the book, he links Begin’s personal hardship in Poland and Siberia to his stubborn distrust of Sadat, and his legal training to his meticulous attention to detail. Wright describes how Sadat’s penchant for audacious risk-taking was strengthened during WWII, especially when he sent a letter to Rommel in 1942 to conspire with the Germans to defeat the British in Egypt (as a 23-year old captain!). The writer also shows how Carter’s perseverance during the negotiations was the fruit of a long journey in politics, and how his strong desire for peace in the Middle East was rooted in his personal faith as a Christian.
Today, we see the famous picture of Begin, Sadat and Carter shaking hands on the lawn of the White House and we regard them as titans of the 20th Century. This book reminds us that they were mere mortals with their own personal flaws, biases, and eccentricities. They were impatient, fearful, rash, but also tenacious and imaginative at times. It’s quite unnerving to think that in the negotiating room, the fate of millions of lives – in this generation and the next – depends on the competence, cunning, and emotional make-up of a few people.
While reading the book, I kept drawing parallels between the Egyptian-Israeli peace process and the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, just like President al-Sisi did. Today, the Israeli-Palestinian situation looks as bleak as ever – there haven’t been talks between the two sides since April 2014, the Gaza Strip is still dealing with the consequences of Operation Protective Edge, and the past few months have seen a wave of violence that has led to many deaths on both sides. But I imagine that the decades of hostility between Israel and Egypt seemed irresolvable at that time too. As hopeless as it seemed after 1967 when the Arab League issued its Three Noes to Israel, or after 1973 when Egypt sprung a deadly surprise on Israel and shattered its illusion of invincibility, the two states did sign a peace treaty that has lasted almost 40 years.
Of course, I realise it is naive to draw similarities without also identifying the many differences as well. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has much deeper roots and has gone on for much longer than the conflict between Israel and Egypt. The negotiations between Israel and Egypt didn’t have to deal with the issue of millions of refugees or the question of sovereignty over holy places. Also, it’s difficult to compare the Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai desert to the idea of a future withdrawal from the Golan Heights – the Egyptian government argued that it could guarantee a secure border between the Sinai and Israel if a peace treaty was signed, but the idea of a Syrian guarantee of security along the Golan Heights is a non-starter. It’s not surprising that the Palestinian issue was practically ignored in the Camp David Accords and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty – it was seen as an obstacle that could have scuppered the entire deal.
Nonetheless, it is not naive to keep hoping and praying for another opportunity for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, or at the very least, de-escalation of the conflict. Past successes like Israel’s peace with Egypt keep the flame of hope alive. Even on Day 9 of the 13 days of Camp David, Begin still said, “My right eye will fall out, my right hand will fall off, before I ever agree to the dismantling of a single Jewish settlement (in the Sinai desert).” Yet, the settlements were dismantled because Carter and other Israeli negotiators convinced Begin to put the Sinai withdrawal decision to a vote in the Knesset, thus allowing the MKs to overrule Begin’s obstinacy.
Carter learned to use the negotiators’ personal strengths and group dynamics to his advantage. He capitalised on Sadat’s personal admiration for him and his desire for closer US-Egypt ties to persuade him to stay committed to the talks. After realising that Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman were more open to compromise with the Egyptians, he tried to use them to persuade Begin to change his mind. He also sat with Aharon Barak and Osama al-Baz, two brilliant lawyers on the Israeli and Egyptian negotiating teams, to fine-tune the final text so as to make it more palatable to both sides. Peacemaking requires ingenuity, which I am sure can be found amongst Israelis and Palestinians today.
Eventually, the Camp David Accords were signed on 17 September 1978, paving the way for long-lasting (albeit cold) peace between Israel and Egypt and heralding a new geopolitical configuration in the Middle East. Can such a monumental solution be forged once again? Perhaps it can, if Israeli and Palestinian leaders remember the relief and jubilation that Begin, Sadat and Carter felt on that 17th night of September.