This week in Tel Aviv, Orientalist Bernard Lewis revealed a secret that has been bothering him for 30 years: Before the Yom Kippur War, during a visit to Egypt, he heard from sources both reliable and close to then-president Anwar Sadat that Sadat wanted to get on the road to peace with Israel. Lewis hurried to report to then-prime minister Golda Meir. To his disappointment, he encountered a cold response and, indirectly, indifference from then-defense minister Moshe Dayan.
Lewis was speaking at Glilot's Center for the Intelligence Community's Heritage, at an evening remembering Shmuel "Ziama" Divon, who 50 years ago in Paris was the first liaison officer between Moshe Sharett's Foreign Ministry and the military coup in Cairo run by Gamal Abdul Nasser. Memories of contacts that were missed and others that were tried also came up at the same place last month, when Ali Shukri, the former head of King Hussein's bureau came to speak. He remembered the close ties between Hussein and Yitzhak Rabin and the late king's different attitudes toward other Israeli prime ministers. His hints to the audience were about Benjamin Netanyahu, hero of the Mashal affair, and especially Shimon Peres, whose habit of interrupting the king during their conversations would make Hussein lose his usually serene patience.
There are two contemporary lessons from those old stories: context and the legitimacy. The context was and still remains superpowers - then British and French, later Soviet and as now, American. The legitimacy is world public opinion, as seen in the policies of democratic governments and the position of officials in international institutions - policies and positions that mix to create the decisions of the UN, the EU and maybe the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
The context of the Cold War influenced the joint Sinai-Suez operation, the Six-Day War and the war of attrition at the canal, which began yesterday, March 8, 35 years ago. Secret documents from the former Warsaw Pact countries make clear how slim were the chances of success for an Israeli peace with Nasser, who could not shake off his dependence on the Soviets - and with the most extreme among them. In one document, from the spring of 1970, Nicolae Ceaucescu reports to his colleagues in the ruling party in Bucharest how Leonid Brezhnev reprimanded him for Romania daring to show any independence, trying to mediate between Meir and Nasser. The enormous Israeli failure in recognizing the new possibilities for peace in the year prior to October 1973, was the failure to decipher Sadat's expulsion of the Soviet inspectors and his courting of the American administration.
King Hussein, who supported Saddam Hussein in the 1991 war, reconsidered and returned to the American camp after the defeat of Saddam and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Like him, Yasser Arafat internalized the significance of the new era. American power - and not Peres and then Rabin's about face toward the PLO, which surprised Washington - is what created the conditions for the Oslo process and the Israeli-Jordanian peace.
Seemingly, a second, decisive American victory was needed over Saddam, a dozen years and another war later, to speed up the process of making the final arrangements between Israel and the Arab states, including Palestine. But practically speaking, President Bush's ambitious policies supplied the Arab rulers with a reason not to be in a hurry: The perpetuation of the conflict provides an excuse to delay the transition to democracy, which will be the suicides of the Mubarak, Assad, Hashemite and Saudi dynastic regimes. From that perspective, no time is right for an Israeli operation in Gaza: a year ago, Bush was angry about an operation with many casualties in Khan Yunis just when he needed Arab quiet ahead of the invasion of Iraq. In the last three years there have been dozens of "intrusive operations" by battalions and brigades to crowded urban areas in Gaza, at a similar price. Not all were equally criticized or condemned.
Ariel Sharon's announcement - still not accepted by his government and the army - that he plans to evacuate Gaza is also being interpreted by the Palestinians as an intention to take one leg out of the hot tar of western Palestine to strengthen and balance the other leg standing on the drier lands in the east, the West Bank. The Palestinians fear that an evacuation of Gaza without any progress by them toward accepting real responsibility for the territory and fighting terror will grant Israel credit around the world and relief from the pressure for more withdrawals.
Through their diplomatic efforts, their attacks and the scuffles with the IDF in the refugee camps, the Palestinians are working to shape the context - by nipping at the heel in Gaza to expel it without letting the foot settle in the West Bank - and to deny Israel any legitimacy for freezing the situation in the West Bank. The IDF has good responses to the pinpoint questions - for example, most of the casualties take place as the army is retreating from an operation, when the Palestinians try to chase them - but only lame responses to the larger questions of context and legitimacy.
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