NOVEMBER 11, 1978
Orwell said it about saints, but Nobel peace laureates also should always be judged guilty until they are proven innocent. No doubt it would have appeared more seemly had the authorities in Oslo waited to bestow their decorations till a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt actually had been signed. In any case it is evident, at least in the cases of Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, that the Nobel Peace Prize is not awarded on the basis of either character or personal history. The two have been honored for their last act, and an uncompleted one at that. Extraordinary as their present achievement may be, little else in their lives commends them to us as peacemakers. But, as one Washington cynic observed, Teddy Roosevelt was also accorded the same honors. Nonetheless, it is hard to countenance putting Begin, historically a zealot for the ultra right-wing Zionist heresy of redemption by violence and intimidation, and Sadat, wartime pro-Nazi and only yesterday a vulgar and belligerent Jew-baiter, in the company of Albert Schweitzer, Andrei Sakharov, Rene Cassin, and Martin Luther King Jr, Yet statesmanship is so scarce in our time that apparently it must be rewarded, even if it emerges from scoundrels. What the prime minister of Israel and the president of Egypt have demonstrated is unanticipated flexibility in a very tight spot. Reason enough, alas, to be grateful.
Some American chauvinists and President Carter's own cheerleaders insist that justice would have required that our president also be invited to share in the cash, kudos and ceremony. Indeed, he did provide a forum at Camp David, and he has devoted considerable energy and patience to bringing about a peace. Yet it is impossible for us to forget the variety of dead ends into which President Carter tried to push the adversary parties. Even today, one senses, he creates as many impediments to a settlement as he does opportunities for it.
It may not please the Carter entourage to be reminded of it, but the one genuine claimant to recognition for his seminal role in the Middle East peace process is Henry Kissinger, The Camp David breakthrough is a vindication of his step-by-step efforts in the region and his general theoretical perspective on how to break the war momentum. The Carter administration's record on the Middle East has consisted of repudiating Kissinger's ideas, trying formulas which Kissinger long ago contemplated and rejected, and finally rediscovering, after much anguish for us all, the wisdom of his approach.
This has not prevented Carter and some of his advisers from trying for retrieve and reapply their discredited assumptions. Paramount among these (and passionately held in this administration) is the belief that peace will come only through a "comprehensive" settlement that involves all the contentious parties and issues in the area. In pursuit of this aim, the American interlocutors have pushed Sadat into a harder line on West Bank issues than he otherwise would be inclined to take. There is little pretense among Sadat's emissaries at the Madison Hotel that they care a fig for the Palestinian extremists or the Syrians who have pronounced an anathema on them. Assistant Secretary of State Harold Saunders is the particular villain of this piece. It's not simply the wary King Hussein whom he wants to bring into the action. For a long time, he has been a special patron for President Assad, the Damascus Ba'athists and others who profess dedication to an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, and he is not beyond a little bit of diplomatic prevaricating in their interest. So, to win their support for the Camp David accords, and to gain them a role in Middle East diplomacy that so far they have not earned, Saunders has been stretching the substance of the understandings reached between Carter and Begin, By now, it is almost indisputable that the Israeli prime minister never agreed to a ban on new settlements in the West Bank beyond duration of the negotiations for the agreement with Egypt, Maybe he should have, but he didn't; and this fact hasn't kept our diplomatic folk from petulantly and pointlessly insisting that he did. On the expansion of existing settlements, there had never been any doubt at all, despite the fit of temper displayed by the president and secretary of state after the announcement in Jerusalem that Israel would expand some settlements already in place. Carter himself told a group of reporters at breakfast on September 27 that he had expected "a very limited expansion plan that would be revealed before the negotiations for the West Bank-Gaza self-government would be completed,"
To be sure. Begin is not a master of fact. It may be argued that he needn't have publicized his plan about adding some 300 family units in various West Bank settlements. But we have seen that this was not exactly a surprise pulled on an unsuspecting world. Can it really be that the Arabs didn't know what was agreed to at Camp David or that they didn't know what the president had told so many other people? Moreover, Saunders, by telling Arabs that Israel's terms were less firm than they are, put Begin into a difficult situation. Some of his oldest comrades have turned on him, charging treachery. Many of his remaining coalition allies are restive over the perils with which Israel has now committed itself to live. They became more restive still on learning that Saunders was offering the Arabs certain provisions for the West Bank which had never been negotiated and others for Jerusalem which had never even been raised at Camp David, As it happens, despite Saunders's provocations, and others by Ambassador Atherton and higher-ups in Washington, Begin was able to turn his predicament into a plus for the ongoing negotiations. With his redundant an- nouncement about new housing in old settlements, he won the unanimous support of his cabinet for the further (and, of course, reciprocated) concessions Israel will now be making to complete the treaty with Egypt.
The Carter administration seemingly cannot stop trying to coerce Israel into making concessions in advance of, or as substitute for, negotiations with appropriate partners, Israel's very concrete (and essentially unilateral) concessions on the West Bank have won no corresponding response from those who will benefit. Nonetheless, the routine hectoring of Israel by our government and press is unabated. Just about everyone demands that Israel behave as if Syria is not preparing to extend its virulent imperium across bleeding Lebanon and down to the southern border. Israel will no doubt be submitted to more humiliating salami tactics before and after a peace treaty with Egypt is signed. On two issues, however, they will not succeed--the two, in fact, on which they have in these last days faltered so ignominously. One is Jerusalem, where symbolic sovereignty over some Arab enclaves could well be restored to some Arab authority, but where also the claims of history, demography and living reality have established it as the unified and open capital of Israel.
The second is with reference to the disputed territories in historic Palestine, Surely Begin's self-rule plan, even as modified in the Maryland hills, is not the final design for the West Bank and Gaza, The wisest Israelis, and also the most numerous, do not wish to govern a heavily populated captive area. Too much of their ethos and strength would be at risk were they to do so. When Jordanians and Palestinians come forward to stake their claim in negotiations (by which is meant compromise), it will doubtless be honored despite the reluctance of the current prime minister to say so. But no government of Israel can be expected to alienate the right of Jews to live as Jews anywhere in the Holy Land, Much as Arabs live in Israel, with their own religious courts and schools and protected traditions, much as other Arabs will no doubt also return to Israel, so too Jews, limited in number to be sure, will live--as they had for millennia till their expulsion in the middle years of this century--in a tiny land mass which is home to two peoples. By what moral authority does our bloodless diplomatic bureaucracy purport to have it be otherwise?