What Obama can learn from Israel's peace with Egypt
Today, at the age of 86, former U.S. National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft is still acceptable to Republicans as well as Democrats.
He was present during the secret talks between Richard Nixon, Golda Meir, Henry Kissinger and Yitzhak Rabin, before and after the Yom Kippur War. He witnessed Israel's plight in October 1973, when it desperately needed military equipment and a cease-fire even at the price of an Egyptian victory. He heard from Kissinger that Jordan's King Hussein was prepared to accept the Allon Plan but only if "the mosques and another street" in Jerusalem were thrown in. In November 2008, immediately after Barack Obama was elected U.S. president, he drew up the four-point plan that is now being attributed to Obama.
Brent Scowcroft, a retired general in the U.S. Air Force, was the deputy to National Security Adviser Kissinger in the Nixon administration and served as national security adviser under President Gerald Ford. Later, President George H.W. Bush brought him back, with Robert Gates as his deputy. Today, at the age of 86, Scowcroft is still acceptable to Republicans (for example Gates, now secretary of defense, and Senator John McCain ) as well as Democrats.
His uniqueness lies in his realization of the need to act without delay - bereft of any illusion that one has to wait for an internal political event such as elections. What will happen if the enemy refuses to be held up, identifies a weakness and acts precisely in this twilight hour?
That's what happened in 1973, first when Israel's elections due on October 31 were postponed when the war with Egypt and Syria broke out on October 6, and later when the elections were postponed by two months because of the war, slowing progress in the diplomatic and security talks until January lest Meir's government be accused of concessions at home.
On March 1, 1973, Scowcroft took notes at the Nixon-Meir talks attended by Kissinger, the outgoing ambassador Rabin (it was his birthday and Nixon congratulated him ) and the incoming ambassador, Simha Dinitz. This was a crucial meeting; it was then that Meir agreed to an interim arrangement of "security in return for sovereignty" with Egypt in which the Israel Defense Forces would withdraw from the Suez Canal as far as the Mitla and Gidi passes in the Sinai. It was agreed that Israel's position would be hidden not only from the public but also from the State Department, which was then still headed by Kissinger's rival, William Rogers. Kissinger was not in a hurry to push forward the contacts with Egypt; he was waiting for the Israeli elections.
Meir couldn't understand how her proposal, which revived an idea that had been raised by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in 1971, was not appealing to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Sadat objected because moving the IDF away from the canal, as part of a deal and not as a unilateral withdrawal, would deprive Egypt of a vital military asset: the ability to shell the IDF if the War of Attrition was renewed, or to cross the canal under the cover of ground-to-air missiles. Sadat wanted - and eventually, when he went to war - got a comprehensive agreement. Arab rulers are wary of partial diplomatic achievements that their enemies portray as a concession over the part of the deal that has not yet been achieved. Moreover, that summer, Meir and Dayan led their party with a campaign calling for Israel to remain in the eastern Sinai.
When Obama was elected, the Republican Scowcroft and the Democrat Zbigniew Brzezinski both entreated him to act immediately to implement the four-point plan for a Palestinian state alongside Israel within the 1967 borders - even before Israel's 2009 elections and with the hope of influencing the elections' outcome - but to no avail. The plan envisaged minor and agreed-on modifications of the border, compensation instead of the right of return for the Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem as a joint capital of two states, and security for Israel by demilitarizing the Palestinian state and stationing an international force there. Scowcroft also supported the idea of an American force on the Golan Heights if peace is achieved with Syria and territories are returned to that country.
Obama has wasted two years in the expectation that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will pull himself together. Scowcroft has seen four decades of missed opportunities pass before his eyes. Obama should learn from Scowcroft not merely the layout of the plan, which would receive the backing of certain groups among the Republicans, but also the need for immediate action. Fears about upsetting the Israeli government, or about the president's rivals in U.S. politics joining forces with the supporters of a rigid Israeli line, could be a recipe for failure and disaster.