Pieces of Peace

Itamar Rabinovich
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Itamar Rabinovich

"Heroic Diplomacy: Sadat, Kissinger, Carter, Begin, and the Quest for the Arab-Israeli Peace" by Kenneth Stein, Routledge, 324 pages, $32.95 [translated recently into Hebrew by Yossi Offner and published by the Israel Ministry of Defense].

In January 2001, a short while after U.S. President George W. Bush's administration was sworn in, his secretary of state, Colin Powell, issued a circular that instructed State Department officials to avoid using the term "peace process" in connection with Israeli-Arab relations. The directive reflected the Bush administration's desire to distance and disengage itself from the legacy of the Clinton administration. It also expressed the utter weariness generated by that "process" and by the terminology associated with it.

The process, which extended over many years, began in late 1973 with the end of the Yom Kippur War and with the signing of cease-fire and disengagement of forces agreements; continued with the interim agreement of 1975; reached its climax with the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of 1979; became moribund in the 1980s; and was revived, in a new format, with the Madrid peace conference in 1991. The various manifestations of this process have fostered a sea of publications: memoirs and chapters in autobiographies; comprehensive surveys and research studies on specific issues and episodes.

This rich corpus enables us to contend with two fundamental questions: What explanation can be found for the fact that 30 years of efforts failed to lead to a peace settlement or to a resolution of the conflict? How, despite this fact, were such significant and dramatic breakthroughs, such as the Israel-Egypt and Israel-Jordan peace agreements and the Oslo Accords, achieved?

Kenneth Stein's "Heroic Diplomacy" deals with the second question and its two-fold answer: cooperation between the United States, Israel and Arab partners, and, as alluded to in the title, the courage and diplomacy of an entire series of leaders and policy-makers. This amalgam, argues Stein, enabled progress, within six years, from the hell of the Yom Kippur War to a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

Stein was well armed when he approached his research: His first book dealt with the territorial component of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He then became director of the Carter Center at Emory University in Atlanta, where he became acquainted with former president Jimmy Carter and with the top officials in his administration, as well as with the archival material documenting their share in Israeli-Arab diplomacy between 1977 and 1980. Stein later collaborated with American Ambassador Sam Lewis in an important essay that contained a wealth of insights on all matters related to the establishment of peace between Israel and its neighbors.

Stein does not arrive at any revolutionary conclusions. It is a commonly held belief that diplomacy can be assessed by three measuring rods: vision and the charting out of the proper route of action; the courage to make decisions congruent with the vision and the charting of the route; and the ability to mobilize political support for the implementation of those decisions. Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat stood the test of diplomacy. Henry Kissinger and Carter in their respective roles as state secretary and president played a crucial role in the bridging of the gaps between the sides and in the construction of the context that enabled the sides to sign and implement agreements.

Little on Assad

With the help of a wealth of documentation and with numerous interviews with central personalities, Stein offers us a fascinating narrative, rich in detail and focused on the period's key figures - from presidents and heads of state to ambassadors and legal advisers. When I finished reading this book, I had a better understanding of the difference between the Camp David conference of September 1978 and the one that took place in July 2000. Granted, the first was concerned with the resolution of a conflict between two sovereign states, while the second sought to resolve a conflict between two nations that was intertwined with weighty and complex religious issues. And granted, the second Camp David conference was held at a very inauspicious time: in the waning days of Bill Clinton's presidency and on the heels of Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak's loss of his coalition. However, the primary difference stemmed from the motivation and modus operandi of the three chief protagonists.

Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat in July 2000 was not the Anwar Sadat of 1977-1978. Arafat openly refused to make a historic decision, acting like a politician, not a diplomat. Clinton invested a great deal of time and the power of his personality in an effort to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement (and, previously, an Israeli-Syrian one); however, both Clinton and his team lacked the messianic, manipulative and brutal passion of the Nixon, Carter and Bush, Sr. administrations, which generated the Camp David agreement and other breakthroughs in Israeli-Arab relations. Barak, as his own foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, has written, was prepared to make heroic decisions but he failed to recruit and keep intact the necessary political basis that could enable the implementation of those decisions.

A comparison between the two Camp David conferences highlights the contrast between the roles played by Sadat and Arafat respectively, but a comparison can also be made between Sadat and Syrian president Hafez Assad, his ally in the Yom Kippur War. Sadat is a classic example of a certain type of diplomat-cum-political leader. With an orientation based on a comprehensive view of Egypt's situation, he formulated a strategy whose fundamental component was two-fold: disengagement from the conflict with Israel, and the construction of a partnership with the U.S. He went to war in October 1973 to push forward the process he wanted; found himself, in the wake of that war, in the middle of a peace process with Israel; and advanced that process to its logical conclusion - a peace treaty with Israel. Sadat was a person of vision who was concerned with the major moves and had no patience for the details, the nuts and bolts.

In contrast, Assad was a cautious individual who carefully calculated every step, even the smallest, and who acted like a fanatically meticulous bookkeeper. We should not underestimate a leader who built up modern Syria, transforming it from a weak, unstable state to a major player in the Middle East region. His intriguing personality captivated the imaginations of leaders and policy-makers like Kissinger, Carter and, later on, Clinton. However, as far as the peace process is concerned, Assad's record is a disappointment. He never succeeded in rising to the level of diplomacy that Sadat reached. Thus, Assad descended from the stage of history with the Golan Heights remaining in Israeli hands.

Touching this point, readers of Stein's book are in for a slight letdown. Stein is superbly equipped to shed light on the intricate, fascinating relationship between Carter and Assad, and to explain to us how the latter sabotaged the president's moves in the spring and summer of 1977. However, Stein devotes relatively little attention to Assad. The pages where he discusses Kissinger, Sadat and Begin are intriguing and highly illuminating. Shorter passages dealing with the secondary characters of this narrative are also illuminating, and this is the book's major contribution. Stein repeatedly reminds us that one of the historian's primary roles is to tell a fascinating story and to remind readers that the raw material of the historical narrative is at times more intriguing than fiction.

Prof. Itamar Rabinovich, president of Tel Aviv University, served as Israeli ambassador to the United States from 1993 to 1996.