Weizman's Example

The lesson of the peace with Egypt is that the boldness to instigate change pays off, and that it takes a leader who believes in a new way to lead the change. This was true 28 years ago and it's also true today.

In January 1978, U.S. ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis learned that defense minister Ezer Weizman was expressing himself at internal government meetings to the effect that there was no security benefit to the existence of the Israeli settlements in Sinai. From that point the Carter administration knew that one of the four people shaping Israel's position in the negotiations with Egypt was inclined to forgo the pronounced demand to leave standing the settlements in the territory slated for evacuation.

This was valuable information. The negotiations had reached a crisis, after President Anwar Sadat withdrew the diplomatic delegation he had dispatched to Jerusalem, and Prime Minister Menachem Begin responded by keeping the Israeli military delegation from departing for talks in Cairo.

The peace process, which began three months before with Sadat's surprise landing at Ben-Gurion Airport and flooded Israel with a rare wave of excitement and optimism, appeared to be faltering. The country's leaders had plenty of reasons to despair of the opportunities that had opened: The traditional suspicion regarding the treacherousness of "the Arabs" received confirmation the more the negotiations dealt with details; growing familiarity with the power structure within the Egyptian presidential court strengthened the premise that an agreement was unattainable; and the flip-flopping more than once in Sadat's position led to the conclusion that he could not be trusted.

The Israeli negotiating team was not cut from a single cloth. Begin may have initiated the preliminary contact with Sadat, but in the course of the deliberations that developed since then, he was inwardly torn over the price his Egyptian interlocutor had imposed on reaching an agreement.

Moshe Dayan may have viewed the process that evolved as a very important opportunity to crack the cycle of Arab hostility, but in the course of the negotiations he cast doubt on the chances for success on more than one occasion.

The attorney general, Aharon Barak, may have striven with all his might to reach a peace deal, but his official duties prevented him from declaring his position.

But Weizman stood at the head of the peace camp in the Israeli government, and stuck to his mission with impressive perseverance.

At the critical crossroads where the process became deadlocked - when agriculture minister Ariel Sharon initiated settlement operations, when negotiations were at an impasse, at the Camp David summit in September 1978, and in the bargaining over the final wording of the agreement - Weizman displayed leadership. He took upon himself the responsibility of generating a major political crisis, when in March 1978 he threatened to resign in protest over another settlement operation planned by Sharon, with Begin's backing; he conducted a dialogue with the public to drive home the peace option that was slipping away; he spurred the like-minded (Dayan, Barak) to pressure Begin into softening his positions; and he was astute about maintaining contact with the Egyptian regime, even during the process' darkest times.

Weizman was no Don Quixote: There was a group of ministers in the government which sought an agreement with Egypt - four ministers from the Democratic Movement for Change, Simcha Erlich and Gideon Patt of the liberal wing of Likud, and Aharon Abu Hazeira of the National Religious Party - and they needed a leader to translate their position into political leverage. Weizman filled that role naturally.

The manner in which Weizman functioned then is also relevant now: Attaining peace takes a leader who identifies wholeheartedly with the objective. In every negotiation to end the conflict with one of the Arab peoples, severe difficulties crop up. In every process of this kind prejudice emerges to impact the way in which the negotiators judge their interlocutors. In every situation of this sort the Israeli leaders run into burdensome political necessities. In every circumstance of this sort, there is great temptation to stick to what already exists. The lesson of the peace with Egypt is that the boldness to instigate change pays off, and that it takes a leader who believes in a new way to lead the change. This was true 28 years ago and it's also true today.