The welcome that Israel’s new prime minister received in Arab capitals following his election victory was not unprecedented. The praise for the Zionist state’s most decorated general as a ‘trustworthy man of peace’ has its parallel in the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s sudden visit to Jerusalem in November 1977. The unsolicited visit to Jerusalem and the praise for Barak share similar motives and consequences, namely the desire to please the US and the undermining of the Arab side’s bargaining power.
In 1978, when the cold war was at its height, the US was anxious to have Egypt as an ally, while Israel was prepared to pay a genuine price in return for peace with the Arab world’s strongest and most influential country. But Sadat - who had already demonstrated his tendency to throw away his bargaining chips by ending his military and economic ties with the Soviet Union - revealed his vulnerability by his sudden flight to Jerusalem.
US president Jimmy Carter and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin praised Sadat as ‘a man of vision’ but concluded that he would accept far less than he could achieve by ruthless bargaining. The result was the 1978 Camp David accords, the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, and the emergence of Egypt as the US’s senior Arab proxy.
One of the accords provided for a separate peace with Egypt (signed in March 1979), while the other suggested the main lines of a settlement of the conflict as a whole. The inhabitants of the West Bank and Ghazzah would be given autonomy under an elected self-governing authority; after five years, there should be negotiations to determine the final status of the West Bank and Ghazzah, in which Egypt, Israel, Jordan and representatives of the Palestinians should take part.
Begin’s government - like Ehud Barak’s current cabinet, a coalition brought to power after recent elections - immediately set out to modify the agreements. While it withdrew from most of Sinai as agreed, it held on to bits of Egyptian territory - which remain under Israeli occupation to this day - and totally ignored the granting of autonomy to the Palestinians. Begin, Carter, Sadat and Husni Mubarak (then Sadat’s vice-president) justified the failure to grant autonomy on the grounds that the Israeli government, a disparate coalition, would unravel if hardliners opposed to change were not accommodated. A similar argument is being used today to justify Barak’s refusal to implement the Oslo and Wye accords.
But that is not the only fallacy borrowed from Sadat. In order to justify his decision to seek a separate peace-treaty with Tel Aviv, Sadat argued that Israel, backed by a superpower, could not be defeated in war, and that the only way out was to become a valued ally of Washington and persuade it to be an even-handed mediator. Now his successor, Mubarak, and other leaders of the so-called ‘front-line states’ are applying this argument with a vengeance, adding that the US is now the the only remaining ‘superpower’.
This has led to an extraordinary situation: Barak is publicly calling on Washington to reduce its role in the ‘peace process’, while Arab leaders are openly urging it to do exactly the reverse. The US, as Israel’s sponsor and close military ally, is committed to maintaining the zionist state’s military superiority over its Arab enemies. Its reaction to Barak’s election as prime minister was to give Israel further military supplies, including the latest fighter aircraft, which experts say will secure Israel’s ‘military edge’ until 2010. Such an obvious party to the conflict cannot surely be an ‘even-handed mediator’ in its resolution.
It is also an extraordinary spectacle - and a by-product of the Sadat doctrine - that the only demonstrations allowed in the Ghazzah strip by the Palestinian Authority (PA) are against Arab countries and that thousands of Palestinians opposed to ‘normalisation’ of relations with Israel are in the PA’s jails. The officially-organised demonstration in Ghazzah City on August 6 was directed against the Syrian defence minister, Tlas, who had earlier attacked Yassir Arafat because of his many concessions to Israel.
The demonstrators must have felt silly when, the very next day, Arafat announced that he was making yet another concession to Tel Aviv. He said that he would give Barak until October to implement the Wye accord, without explaining what happened to his well-publicised condition that Tel Aviv must fulfil its obligations under the agreement before any further negotiations could begin.
Arafat’s latest climb-down must confirm the Israelis in their long-held belief that whatever crumbs they throw the Arab leaders’ way can always be renegotiated. The Wye accord, signed by Arafat and former Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu last October in the US, should have already been implemented. But the Israelis are holding out for further concessions from Arafat, and appear to be succeeding as usual. Arafat’s climb-down explains Barak’s public request to US secretary of State Madeleine Albright later the same day to postpone her planned trip to the Middle East; she was presumably coming to pressure Arabs on Barak’s behalf, which was no longer necessary.
Arafat’s concession opens the way for talks between Syria and Israel, which are expected to lead to a separate peace treaty between the two. The old reasons used in 1978 will be employed to quell opposition to a new agreement. Barak, it will be said, must be helped to preserve his coalition and Syria must make concessions over its demand to recover the entire Golan heights without Jewish settlements. Above all, concessions to the Palestinians must be postponed, while the Palestinians must make further concessions so as not to endanger Barak’s coalition.
The US and its chief Arab surrogate, Husni Mubarak, will be there to iron out any difficulties which might arise. But they may be forgetting that it was the Camp David accords that led to the intifadha.
Muslimedia: August 16-31, 1999