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Sadat and Annapolis
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 15 - 11 - 2007

Three decades after Sadat's dramatic visit to Jerusalem, Abbas will go to Annapolis without assurances. Dina Ezzat examines a peace process turning 30 that has yielded few dividends
It was on the evening of 19 November 1977 that then Egyptian president Anwar El-Sadat walked, tense, stiff and apprehensive, on the red carpet then Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin rolled out at Ben Gurion Airport for his long time adversary, a man who tried and almost succeeded to defeat Israel in a war four years earlier.
During a 36-hour visit that included the first ever speech by an Arab leader before the Israeli Knesset, Sadat turned the heads of the entire world, including his own countrymen. People were stunned to see the Egyptian president, whose country at the time was the uncontested leader of the Arab world, make good on a proposition he floated earlier on 9 November in an address to parliament, declaring that in order to save the lives of Egyptian soldiers he was willing to "travel to the end of the world, and as Israel would be surprised to hear me say now, before you, that I am willing to go to their own house, to the Knesset, and to argue with them." Before the Knesset, Sadat stated that he took the decision to visit Israel "knowing that it constitutes a great risk."
Sadat's gamble was lost -- almost. With the exception of Oman, every Arab country boycotted Egypt. The Arab League moved, in 1979 after the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and for 10 years to follow, its headquarters from Cairo to Tunisia. Egypt was no longer considered worthy to lead the Arab world. Sadat was left to his own means, stripped of Arab support, to negotiate a peace deal with Israel under unmistakably biased American sponsorship.
As of that evening of 19 November, Sadat changed, almost single- handedly, and it seems forever, the context and fate of Arab-Israeli relations. The relationship that was known from 1948 as "the Arab-Israeli struggle" swiftly was encased within new terms of reference: negotiating an Arab-Israeli peace. As the years went by, the world -- Arab countries included -- stopped talking of the Arab-Israeli struggle. The name of the game, until today, became "the Arab-Israeli peace process", even while it appears clinically dead.
Thirty years after Sadat's gamble turned against him, Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is soon expected to arrive in Annapolis, Maryland. Abbas's trip to the US is certainly less momentous than Sadat's trip to the entity of Israel. And judging from appearances, far less will be attainable there than was conceivable for Sadat at the time he played his hand. Permanent peace is not something more than but a few expect.
ABBAS CORNERED: Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly from his Washington office, Aron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre who advised six US secretaries of state on the Arab-Israeli conflict and author of the forthcoming book The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace, affirmed the common assessment that Annapolis will fall short of kick-starting final status talks between Palestinian and Israelis or even securing a declaration of principles on such talks. According to Miller, the maximum that should be expected is the formalisation of the already ongoing meetings between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and their respective aides.
If Abbas, like Sadat, is taking a risk it is of an altogether different kind. According to both his supporters and critics, failure of the Palestinian leader to secure some gains for his people out of Annapolis, especially a firm Israeli commitment to launch final status talks on clear and agreed upon terms of reference, is likely to force Palestinians, already tired of long unfulfilled promises, to turn their back on the so-called peace process indefinitely. It would be a vote of no confidence in the Abbas strategy of "negotiations over resistance" that already has split the Palestinians. "It would be basically the political end of Abbas and the declaration that it is only resistance that works," commented one Palestinian official on condition of anonymity.
Just as Sadat told the Knesset that he journeyed to Jerusalem with no prior coordination with Arab states, Abbas in recent press statements said he was "not going to wait for [all Palestinian political groups] to agree on Annapolis. I am going to go anyway." Unlike Sadat, Abbas must know that the dream of a durable peace is very far from reach. Indeed, it would be without credibility for Abbas to call upon Israeli leaders present to stand with him in "the courage of men and the boldness of heroes who dedicate themselves to a sublime aim," as Sadat told the Knesset 30 years ago.
The Annapolis meeting that the US administration is pushing to host this autumn is not about making any breakthrough in the history of Arab-Israeli relations, unlike Sadat's gamble of visiting Jerusalem. Judging by the accounts of involved diplomats, the Annapolis meeting is going to offer scant hope for the Palestinian people. Rather, in the presence of a raft of world and regional leaders, Abbas and Olmert will likely shake hands. Abbas and Olmert will then spend a day or two together along with their American host to discuss the future of Arab- Israeli cooperation. The two men should then adopt a document. Some sources say it is being drafted as a concise, possibly two-page text that announces determination to ensure Israel's security and calls for final status talks on a date that might be left undecided for a period of time that is not expected to be specified either.
THE ANNAPOLIS TRAP: The differences between Sadat's trip to Jerusalem and that of Abbas to Annapolis go far beyond atmospherics. "One cannot compare between Sadat and Abbas as two negotiators with Israel," commented editor-in-chief of the daily Lebanese As-Safir newspaper, Talal Salman. "Sadat was the president of Egypt, the largest and strongest Arab state. He was the warrior nearing -- even if missing -- victory. As such the mere fact that Sadat decided to accept negotiations... was a great lure to Israel," Salman said. "As for Abbas, he is in too miserable a position to be a negotiator. Abbas is the chairman of a weak authority whose mere existence is decided by Israel. It is a divided authority that is engaged in an internal fight while Israel is aggressively oppressing Palestinians in the West Bank and in Gaza. Indeed, it is an authority that enjoys little Arab support," he added.
Senior Arab officials, including Palestinians, admit that when Sadat arrived in Jerusalem he was, despite the lack of national and Arab support for his visit, in a position to negotiate a deal for Egypt due to the military success achieved in 1973. That deal would secure some of the basic Egyptian rights threatened by Israeli military force, including the recovery of territories occupied by Israel. Abbas is nowhere near such a deal. In the words of one Palestinian official, "Sadat went to Jerusalem on a challenging note. He was challenging himself, the Arabs, the Israelis and the Americans. By contrast, Abbas is dragging his feat to Annapolis with little support from his people, from the Arabs, the Americans or the Israelis who are supposed to be his peace partners." But according to the same Palestinian official, unlike Sadat, Abbas "has no choice but to go" to Annapolis lest he be accused of defying international -- or rather American -- will to hold a peace meeting.
"What counts most if one has to draw parallels between the two scenarios that are 30 years apart is the mindset of Israel regarding the Palestinian cause," argues Hesham Youssef, chief of cabinet of the Arab League's secretary-general. "When Sadat went on his historic trip to Jerusalem and called for a real comprehensive peace to end the Arab-Israeli struggle, Israeli leaders at the time were not willing to commit themselves to grant the Palestinian people their legitimate rights and wanted to focuss mainly on achieving peace with Egypt," Youssef said. Today, despite much water under the bridge, the Israeli government is as intransigent as ever "even when Israel seems to indicate that it has given up on the dream of Greater Israel."
"A historic decision has to be taken," Youssef continues. Such a historic decision cannot be constrained within the confines of the illegal separation wall that Israel is constructing on occupied Palestinian territories as a potential, or rather de facto, unilateral declaration of borders. However, according to Israeli affairs analyst Emad Gad, there are no signs coming from Israel "at all" to indicate that such a historic decision is in the making. "Full and comprehensive peace is not on the Israeli agenda," he said. According to Gad, since Israel managed to "exclude Egypt from the direct equation of the Arab-Israeli struggle it has paid little attention to any Arab peace initiative, simply because such initiatives offer the antithesis of what it really wants: a 'selective process' that grants the maximum scope of overt and covert normalisation with Arab states in return for no rights for the Palestinians."
Arab diplomats close to the Arab-Israeli struggle/ negotiations concur, both on and off the record. "In 1977, when Begin received Sadat at Ben Gurion Airport, the Israeli prime minister had his eye on getting Egypt to sign a peace deal with Israel on the assumption that this would get Egypt out of the struggle and consequently allow him and every other Israeli prime minister to keep the Palestinians under the Israeli thumb," commented one diplomat who asked for his identity to be withheld. But, he added, "Israel, due to the firm Palestinian sense of resistance, including among other forms of demographic resistance, failed to achieve its objective of firmly and indefinitely quelling the Palestinian people. This is why it decided to pursue the road of negotiations with the Palestinians."
THE PEACE OF DEFEAT: Israel, like the US, has another reason for pursuing the Annapolis track: Iran. Arab officials may not talk much about it, but they do not deny it either: American officials have been promising support for some Palestinian rights in Annapolis in return for a freeze of any public Arab criticism of US plans -- or even perhaps their implementation -- to attack Iran. It is also recognised by officials and observers alike that the designs of Olmert today are what Begin proposed three decades ago, which in effect translates as giving the Palestinians as little as is imaginable in return for extracting from the Arabs as much for Israel as a situation just short of farce allows. In 1977, they argue, it was Sadat and Egypt that Israel got, even as it gave Sinai back in return. Today, they say, it is final Arab submission and full normalisation that Israel is hoping to exact in Annapolis.
According to critics of Sadat and Abbas, it is Sadat that should be held responsible for a good part of Abbas's dilemma today since it is through the marginalisation of Egypt in the years between 1977 and now that the Palestinian cause was most challenged. When Egypt lost its place in the driving seat, they argue, the whole wagon went astray. Now the situation is such that Arabs do not start wars against Israel -- after all Sadat declared that the 1973 War was "the last war". Israel, however, starts wars against the Arabs -- in Lebanon and Palestine, and also in Iraq, backing the current Palestinian leadership against a wall so that it might eventually sign on to a deal that undercuts the essential and basic national and human rights of the Palestinians, including the constants of the Palestinian struggle: Israeli withdrawal to the lines of 4 June 1967, uncontested Palestinian and Arab control over East Jerusalem, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
"This is [why] after 30 years I still think that Sadat's visit to Jerusalem was more than a crime. It was a huge political miscalculation that was based on a shockingly shallow understanding of the nature of the Israeli enemy and that caused among other things the destruction of any future collective Arab standing [on the Palestinian cause]," Salman said. According to Salman, the road of "the peace of defeat" first taken by Sadat in visiting Jerusalem is the road that Abbas is walking as he flies to Annapolis -- may be on 26 November.
"Annapolis is only another stop on the endless road of open-ended [Arab] defeats. This is mainly because Egypt, with its great people, army and sacrifices, was ejected by Sadat's trip to Jerusalem that undermined the chances of a comprehensive and fair peace as much as -- or more than -- it eliminated the chances for war."
Salman concludes: "this is not to say that I hold Egypt responsible for whatever befell the Arabs during the past 30 years. It is rather to say that Egypt's role is simply decisive for every crucial Arab cause, including war and peace with Israel. After all, I belong to a generation who grew up to believe that it is Egypt and none other than Egypt that is legitimate in leading the Arab world."
According to Cairo University political science professor Ahmed Youssef, however, the fact that Sadat decided to reduce his options, after the 1973 War, to choosing between a new war and peace at any price was bound to affect the overall struggle for a long time but it does not justify the choice made by Abbas and other Arab leaders to continue to see their choices as being strictly limited between total war and full peace. "Whatever happened to the fair mix between resistance and political negotiations?" he asks. Indeed, according to one Egyptian diplomat, when all is said and done Sadat did not go to Jerusalem with the intention of selling out the Palestinian cause. Yet this may not be true of some Arab capitals that are planning to send envoys to Annapolis. In Jerusalem, and later in Camp David, "Sadat thought [for right or wrong] that he could deliver a comprehensive peace".
HANDSHAKES AND GAINS: One of the most obvious outcomes of Annapolis, Miller argues, would be some sort of Saudi-Israeli direct engagement, if not even a direct handshake between Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and her counterpart Saud Al-Faisal. Arab officials involved in the preparations for Annapolis say that such a handshake would be possible only if Israel was to make the Palestinians a decent offer in terms of the start of final status negotiations and of constraining anti-Palestinian aggressive measures, including the construction of the apartheid.
Critics, however, argue that such a handshake would go beyond serving Israel's interest on the Arab front to help Israel fudge increasing attempts, especially in European intellectual quarters, to boycott Israel morally for its treatment of Arabs, especially the Palestinians. Any handshake would also be a boon for Olmert on the domestic front: a visual act of normalisation in return for no more than a renewed Israeli commitment to reach peace, with no specific deadlines or clear mechanism for implementation or following up.
The most astute critic of Arab official policies on the peace process for the past 30 years would argue that Arab regimes have already granted Israel an end to war and commitments to harshly contain Arab resistance. "These regimes need to save normalisation for a trade off, otherwise the Arabs would have nothing left to offer Israel," Professor Youssef said. According to Gad, if Arabs fail to agree amongst themselves that Israel is not going to be granted normalisation for free, then they need not get into a prolonged process of blaming Sadat for having allegedly sold out the Palestinian cause.
According to one Syrian diplomat, the door for normalisation, which Sadat opened by his visit to Jerusalem and has remained open to many an Israeli overture since, needs to be temporarily closed as Arabs fly to Annapolis. "This is a tough mission, but it is the role of the Arab League to try and undertake it," he said. Mohamed Sobeih, assistant secretary-general of the Arab League for Palestinian affairs, argued that the Arab organisation has recently adopted sufficient resolutions -- the most recent in June 2006 -- and that is up to sovereign Arab capitals to take the necessary measures for implementation.
As he kicked off preparations for a limited Arab foreign ministers meeting that Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa called for in a little over a week, Chief of Cabinet Youssef argued that it is a collective Arab stance and strategy that could secure a change of attitude on the Israeli side. In the absence of such a united Arab rank, disaster looms. "Sadat was the leader of an Arab state that Israel would have gone to a great length to secure a peace agreement with. Abbas is the leader of a struggling people that has been under Israeli occupation for decades," he added.
In press statements hours before the arrival of Sadat to Jerusalem, former Israeli prime minister Begin argued, "the very fact of the visit is important". He added that he hoped to receive an invitation to visit Cairo to pursue dialogue with Sadat. Now Olmert and other Israeli officials have been making military threats against economically starved Gaza in the lead up to Annapolis. Abbas, 30 years on, is going to the Israelis without the prior condition of securing Israeli commitment to end the occupation and withdraw to the lines of 4 June 1967. In recent public statements that were not widely published by the Israeli press, Israeli author Amos Oz, an Israeli novelist and journalist, said that he did not trust his country's current political leadership to have enough courage to reach an agreement with the Palestinians in Annapolis.
ARAB FAILINGS: In the analysis of some Arab commentators and diplomats, it is the failed management of the peace process that has encouraged the Israeli intransigence that Oz calls a lack of courage. This mismanagement has been systematic, they say, since the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991. And the fact that during the past seven years the so-called peace process has come to an almost complete halt, some add, is only the result of the failure of Arabs, for one reason or another, to properly define and defend their positions.
"Each Arab state has been doing exactly what Sadat was so harshly blamed for. With the odd exception here or there, most Arab capitals are seeking a relationship with Israel, irrespective of whatever is happening on the Palestinian front," said one Egyptian diplomat. "If Sadat is perceived by Arabs to have made a mistake by going to Jerusalem [with no unified Arab agenda], then there is much self-criticism that many Arab capitals need to apply in assessing their management of the peace process since Madrid -- even before as they were conducting secret talks with Tel Aviv -- and especially after Oslo."
As far as Professor Youssef is concerned, from Sadat to Abbas, and not excluding former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, "Arabs were never, with some few exceptions, very clever in handling the process of negotiations with Israel." The number one mistake, he insists, is Arab failure to stake out a collective -- or for that matter any -- strategy. By contrast, there was, especially during the last decade, an abnegation in "the minimum is accepted" approach.
Centralisation in running the peace process on the Arab side is also considered a mistake. "Arab leaders like Sadat and Arafat do not pay much attention to the advice of their experts. They like to come across as the uncontested leader and as such they follow no particular strategy," one diplomat said. The grave consequences of such a whimsical approach, he argued, are compounded by the fact that Israeli leaders are firmly pursuing a clear strategy that is grounded in Israel's present and future priorities and that is constantly updated by shifting security, military and political conditions and the input of experts.
The list of mistakes that many Arab commentators and retired and acting peace process diplomats are willing to recognise also includes a mismanagement of relations with the US, the de facto number one broker of Arab-Israeli negotiations. On the one hand, Arabs since Sadat have accepted, or rather decided -- for right or wrong -- that the US holds most of the cards of the game. On the other hand, Arabs have failed to engage in effective, or for that matter comprehensive, diplomacy with the US.
"Each new US administration is initially perceived by Arab capitals as the saviour of the peace process. As time passes, it is perceived as the worst ever administration in the history of the peace process. Then it is the same scenario all over again," commented a senior Washington-based Arab diplomat. "As for building solid bridges with Congress and influential pressure groups, we can not claim much credit," he added. For this diplomat, by the criteria of public relations and that of effective diplomacy, Arabs have not gained much at a time when Israel's standing is high "and on the increase".
For Miller, this Arab failure has contributed to the "lack of an effective mediator" claim that the peace process has been dogged by recently and even during the last years of the Clinton administration that held Arafat solely responsible for the failure of Camp David II in 2000. "If the US wants to be an effective broker -- not because it wants to monopolise the peace process but because this process cannot take many mediators and because it has a relationship with Israel that allows it potentially to deliver -- then it has to make sure that its relation with Israel is not exclusive."
Meanwhile, critics complain of what they qualify as the "shameful competition" that prevailed among Arab capitals that aimed to come over as the more moderate force by delivering more and easier Palestinian concessions to Israel through the White House. In the words of a senior Syrian diplomat who served in Washington, that competition was a total betrayal of Arab national interests. One of the results of such competition is that Damascus "who had refused to negotiate 'at any price' and without a clear framework" is now being marginalised.
CULTURE OF NORMALISATION: The aggressive promotion of a culture of normalisation during the first half of the 1990s, the effective marginalisation of the Damascus- based Arab Boycott Bureau, the unconditional declaration of peace as an almost single Arab strategic choice, the non- governmental sponsorship of forums such as the Copenhagen Alliance, the behind-closed-doors discussions that some Arab officials engaged in over the eventual replacement of the Arab League with a Middle East and North Africa organisation in which Israel would be a member, the continuous liquidation of the terms of reference for negotiations in favour of Israel, the exchange of intelligence information between Israel and some Arab capitals regarding Islamist militant resistance groups -- especially Hamas and Hizbullah -- added to carefully-worded criticism of Israel and the harsh criticism of Islamist resistance groups and the gradual representation of Iran, not Israel, as the enemy of and a threat to Arab states are all cited by critics as part of the same "shameful competition".
"When, earlier this year, the former foreign minister of Morocco Mohamed Bin Issa [whose country chairs the Jerusalem Committee] held a meeting with Livni in Paris, not long after a collective Arab decision to do otherwise, he was simply participating in this shameful competition with his Qatari counterpart Hamad Bin Jassim, who was always willing to meet Israeli officials against the text and spirit of all Arab resolutions suggesting a limitation of Arab contact with Israel," commented a senior Arab diplomat who asked for his name to be withheld.
According to this diplomat, neither Qatar nor Morocco have any territories occupied by Israel and as such they are not in any "compulsory situation" to talk with the Israelis, "as the case is for Abbas". However, according to other critics, Abbas might simply have to talk to Olmert -- to try "to get anything" out of Israel before the current US administration exits office and the peace process gets into another 18 months lull that usually comes with US presidential elections and the acquisition of power by a new administration -- but he does not have to send envoys to meet with counterparts from Jordan, Israel and Japan to discuss the establishment of joint projects such as the "Peace Corridor".
In the view of the same critics, that Arabs have turned a blind eye while Israel has committed gross human rights violations against Palestinians in Gaza in the wake of the Hamas take-over last June is perhaps the epitome of the same attitudes. "Certain Arab capitals were rushing to support Abbas to turn against his own people [through Hamas]. They were also supporting him to go and meet Olmert with a big smile while the Israeli prime minister was bombarding Gaza and killing the Palestinian people," complained one Arab diplomat who asked for his identity to be withheld.
As for the sin of all Arab sins in walking the path of negotiations with Israel, there is almost full consensus among diplomats and commentators -- irrespective of political standing on the process: the failure to secure a freeze to Israeli settlement construction. When Sadat was in Camp David in 1978, he should have secured it, many say. When Arafat was signing the Oslo Accords in 1993 he should have made it a condition for the recognition of Israel. When the current Saudi monarch -- then crown prince -- announced his peace initiative he should have demanded the freeze of settlements as a pre-requisite for its wider Arab circulation. And when negotiating for Annapolis, Abbas should have already banked it.
"In 1977, there were about 14,000 settlers in the West Bank and 100,000 in East Jerusalem. Today, we are talking about no less than 180,000 settlers in the West Bank and 250,000 in East Jerusalem. This number could be a simple summary of 30 years of overt and covert negotiations between Arabs and Israelis," commented an Arab peace process diplomat. "This is not just about the control of territories; it is also about the control of natural resources, especially water. The [Arab loss] has become almost irreversible," he said.
LOOKING FORWARD, LOOKING BACK: In an article recently printed in the Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal, commentator Khairallah Khairallah argued that irrespective of the assessment of Sadat's visit, today -- as has always been the case for Palestinians -- it is mainly through negotiations that some serious gains can be secured. For Khairallah, this is why Annapolis needs to succeed irrespective of what is perceived as the outcome of Jerusalem.
Many of those who examine the past 30 years of the Arab- Israeli struggle/negotiations -- and even since UN Security Council Resolution 242, the effective Bible of the peace process, was issued in November 1967-- argue that despite the long and complicated history of this relationship it was charismatic and daring leaders that made the most significant moments. It is not unusual to hear diplomats and commentators argue that had former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin escaped assassination in November 1995, and had the Israelis and Americans made Arafat a credible offer that he could sell to the Palestinian people, some if not all, before his mysterious death in November 2004, the history of peace process might have been changed dramatically. This November, they say, the US and Israel need to cushion Abbas's weakness with some credible measures on the ground, and they need to accord Syria an adequate and convincing role. After all, as the common Arab saying goes, there is no war without Egypt and no peace without Syria.

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