On March 12, 1978, the president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, stood before the cabinet in Jerusalem and demanded it accept the American positions in the Israeli-Egyptian peace talks. The two states remained at odds over two marginal issues - an Egyptian demand to set up a liaison office in Gaza and an Israeli demand for a long-term contract for Egyptian oil supply.
It was an unprecedented spectacle: the president of the world's greatest superpower appearing before the Israeli cabinet to persuade its members to accept his opinion.
At the same time, it was characteristic of Carter: from the moment the United States got involved in the Israeli-Egyptian negotiations (which opened without its knowledge), he did not cease from his efforts to bring them to a successful finish.
The encounter in Jerusalem, much as it moved the ministers, did not please them. Carter exerted brutal pressure: "There will be tragic results to your refusal to open an Egyptian liaison office in Gaza. Complying with this demand is a supreme national interest of the United States. I gave President Sadat my personal commitment to get your consent to this request, and my personal credibility is at stake."
Menachem Begin objected to Carter's approach and to his tone.
In the exchange of words between them, Begin called out: "We won't sign this document."
Carter responded: "You will have to sign."
Begin: "Sir, I will not have to sign any document I don't agree with."
Carter understood he had to change his tone: "You're right, Mr. Prime Minister," he told Begin who was sensitive to the cabinet's dignity and to Israel's sovereignty effects. "You are right. I'm sorry."
The ending was good. A compromise was concocted. The two issues, which apparently threatened to blow up the Camp David Agreement, were removed from the agenda and a week later, Carter, Begin and Sadat met on the White House lawn and signed the peace agreement, as they joined hands in front of the camera in an unforgettable picture, one that opened a new era in the history of the region.
Carter's performance in the Israeli-Egyptian negotiations constituted a leadership model which should be studied. The American president enlisted heart-and-soul to bring both sides to an agreement. He operated a complex system of threats and temptations, direct talks and bypassing routes, and brought into effect the superpower weight of the U.S. More than the measures he had at his disposal, it was his personality and mainly his commitment that brought the negotiations to a successful close.
Carter was a loyal soldier of the Israeli-Egyptian reconciliation idea, and by sticking to his mission, he achieved it. Had he not been obsessed in pursuing his mission, it is doubtful whether the Israeli-Egyptian negotiations would have succeeded.
This observation is valid in any public reality, certainly in any political or military process: personal identification with achieving the goal - the inner conviction in the rightness of the cause - that is the fuel motivating people in the winding path to reach the destination.
On the day Carter gets his just due and wins the Nobel Peace Prize, to a large extent for his success in the Israeli-Egyptian negotiations, one cannot but regret the absence of figures - in Israel, in the Palestinian public and in the U.S. - with the same kind of dedication that Carter had in 1977 and 1978.
The Nobel Peace Prize may be an evasive and deceptive honor: what appears worthy at one time may be inappropriate a while later - as the decision to give the prize to Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat proves. At the same time, what appears ludicrous in the short term, may prove to have hit the target after all in historic perspective (like giving the prize to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho for achieving the cease-fire agreement in Vietnam).
At this moment the fate of the Oslo Accords seems like more evidence of the wrong judgment of the Norwegian prize committee, but there is no certainty that the reason is not the absence of leadership of the kind Carter displayed 25 years ago.
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