History: When peace came to the Middle East

History: When peace came to the Middle East

Daily Maverick's J. BROOKS SPECTOR has an unexpected opportunity to hear some personal reminiscences from one of the Israeli diplomats present at that astonishing summit that brought together Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin and Jimmy Carter at Camp David in 1978.

“And they will hammer their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they learn war.”

– Isaiah 2:4

In one of the leader articles in the newest issue of The Economist, almost as if they were standing there, shaking their collective heads, the editors have written: “The chances are that the latest of more than half a dozen ceasefires in Gaza will hold—at least for a month or so, while the sides talk. The pause may even guide the Gazans and the Israelis to a more lasting accommodation. Yet the skies have fallen silent out of exhaustion and the futility of fighting on, rather than because the conflict has reached a resolution. Barring an unlikely change of heart—on both sides—war will probably begin all over again, sooner or later.”

The Economist, asking if anything good can be salvaged from the destruction, offered the idea – tentatively, given all that has gone before – that, nevertheless, actual good-faith talks between the sides should be resurrected. The editorial concludes, “The ground has been dug over so often, including by America in the past, that progress could in theory be rapid. It is not the ideas of well-meaning outsiders that are lacking, but the readiness of Israel and Hamas to strive for peace. Sadly, even with a ceasefire, that prospect still looks very distant.”

Such depression over the prospects for any progress has, obviously enough, easily evolved out of the saga of Gaza’s recent circumstances, what with its repeated ceasefires, the subsequent military stand-downs, but then the flaring up of violence, yet again, what with those rocket launchings, the air strikes and artillery barrages, and everything else that flows inevitably from the cycle of violence. And yet, there is also a record of several lasting peace accords in the same region. Given the current state of the world, given the rising hostilities in Ukraine and the horrific violence reaching across Syria and Iraq, perhaps it can be useful to look back to where a seemingly intractable cycle of warfare and violence actually was brought to a decisive conclusion.

The other day, this writer unexpectedly had the opportunity for just such a backwards glance when he encountered Israeli Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, while he was in this country for conversations with members of the South African judiciary. Back in 1978, as a young Israeli diplomat, Rubinstein had found himself in the room for the Camp David talks between Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, Israel’s Menachem Begin, and American President Jimmy Carter.

Camp David is the American presidential retreat located in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland, about an hour and a half by car from Washington, DC. President Franklin Roosevelt originally named the spot, the USS Shangri La (after that mythic paradise in the then-popular book, Lost Horizon by James Hilton). It was renamed Camp David by President Dwight Eisenhower, after his grandson – and that name has stayed with it ever since.

Of course these negotiations didn’t come out of thin air like some kind of divine intervention. As it came into power in 1977, the Carter administration had been looking at the inconclusive Geneva meetings that had been taking place, wondering if there wasn’t some way to move things forward between Egypt and Israel. Meanwhile, in Egypt, now under the leadership of Anwar Sadat, was beginning to invest in rebuilding the areas near the Suez Canal, as it had come to recognise the severe economic impact the closure of the Suez Canal had had for Egypt. For its part, the new Menachem Begin government in Israel was keeping an eye out for possibilities. Rubinstein adds that the two nations had already begun some low-key, clandestine discussions under the auspices of Morocco so soil seemed fertile for one more try.

Still, Rubinstein says, until it actually happened, no one in the Israeli government really expected Anwar Sadat would actually take his unprecedented trip to Israel in 1977 (or Begin’s return visit to Ismailia, for that matter). Nevertheless, Rubinstein notes that both Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat had that innate sense of drama in their personalities. Recalling Sadat’s arrival in Israel, Justice Rubinstein says that welcoming Sadat at the airport was a quite extraordinary moment for him personally, something that simply didn’t seem to have been conceivable, given four wars between the two nations since 1948.

Specifically about the Camp David summit, in contrast to the majority of international summits – the kind where those lower level staffers, meeting in advance, actually do the preliminary negotiations so that the final agreement is virtually a done-deal before the top people even come together – “nobody knew what the results would be” at Camp David, when the actual discussions between the three leaders began. Despite Rubinstein’s disagreements with many of Jimmy Carter’s subsequent pronouncements on the Middle East, he says, the former Israeli diplomat gives Carter great credit for his efforts during those negotiations. From the way Rubinstein describes it, Carter seemed to have perfected what the chess grandmasters call “sitzfleisch”. Flowing from the Camp David accord, the results included the return of the Sinai to Egypt in stages, the opening of reciprocal embassies, and the absence of any further warfare between the two nations during the subsequent quarter of a century.

Sadly, the second half of the discussions at Camp David, an agreement about West Bank and Gaza autonomy foundered on the fact that representatives of the Palestinians were not actually involved in those discussions, as well as the fact that there soon appeared to be a profound disagreement in understanding over the duration of any hiatus in the creation of settlements on the West Bank. And so autonomy negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel as part of the framework of Camp David were stillborn. (And just how would things be, now, if that agreement had been achieved back in the late 1970s? What a question.)

Rubinstein is asked whether this Camp David meeting between Sadat and Begin and their accord shared something in common with Richard Nixon’s journey to China to meet Mao Zedong and Chou En-Lai and thereby establish an entirely new power relationship between the US and China back in 1972.

Rubinstein contemplates such a parallel. He says that, while on the face of it, neither Begin nor Sadat seemed to be the kind of man to carry out a counterintuitive political gesture; nevertheless, Sadat was actually preconditioned for this grand gesture following the earlier interim agreement for the ceasefire and the investment in the rebuilding of canal infrastructure. Meanwhile, Begin was the kind of leader who could seize an opportunity, despite the possibilities he would receive severe criticism as a result. Moreover, despite his reputation as a hard man, Rubinstein insists Begin was psychologically predisposed to consider efforts that would minimise human suffering – and thus the Camp David opportunity fits that pattern. And the result, of course, is that “there were from 1948 to 1978 thirty years of [a state of] war with Egypt…[and] a relationship that is now there.”

And so, the question, logically enough, inevitably, is whether for Israel and the Palestinians, apropos of the Economist’s editorial, it has now become time for yet another one of those moments: Can there be a ‘Benyamin Netanyahu go to Ramallah and Gaza City’ moment – and can Hamas’ leaders then come to Tel Aviv in reply? Rubinstein reaches back for the historical, and, drawing on his own experience as that young diplomat who had that chance to watch history being constructed, says, “Begin was determined not to let this opportunity go.”

He adds that as the two men reached their accord as an outcome of President Carter’s efforts, Rubinstein remembers that a warm, humane sense of things suffused the atmosphere at Camp David. And so the question remains: Is it still possible for a second miracle, or have the anger, distrust, fear and death already become too much to bear – and too much to forget? DM

Photo: File photo dated 06 September 1978 shows Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat (L) shaking hands with Israeli Premier Menachem Begin (R) as US President Jimmy Carter looks at Camp David, the US presidential retreat in Maryland. Israel and Egypt went on 26 March, 1979 to sign a historic US-sponsored peace accord, which is still in effect today. EPA PHOTO/WHITE HOUSE


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