It was the first day of the Israeli-Egyptian peace negotiations, after Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. They took place at Mina House, a hotel rich in history near the Pyramids.
In front of the building, the Egyptians had hoisted the flags of all the Arab countries they had invited (none showed up, of course). On one of the poles the Palestinian flag was fluttering merrily.
I was going up the stairs, when I saw the Chief of the Israeli Security Service coming down in a great hurry. He was a bitter enemy of mine, and therefore I was rather surprised when he addressed me: "Uri, you must help me! What does the PLO flag look like?"
"It’s not the PLO flag," I corrected him, "It’s the Palestinian national flag." On a piece of paper, I drew its likeness.
"O my God!" he cried, "The Egyptians have hoisted this flag!"
He hurried back to the conference hall, and a few minutes later the Egyptians suddenly took down all the flags, including the Palestinian.
This little incident was symbolic of all that happened in the run-up to the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement, and especially at the central event – the (first) Camp David summit meeting of September 5, 1978.
On the 25th anniversary of that conference, which takes place this week, secret documents of that period have been published. The most interesting is the list of recommendations prepared by the State Department for President Jimmy Carter on the eve of his departure for Camp David.
It contains some amusing items that testify to the thoroughness of the authors. For example: it says that Begin goes to sleep at 11 pm and rises at 5.50 am. He is used to focussing on minute details, while the Egyptian president deals only with great ideas. Begin uses the details in order to shirk his obligations, while Sadat regards the wide vision so as to be able to ignore any troublesome details. Begin is obstinate, and therefore it may be useful to use Moshe Dayan (then Foreign Minister) and Ezer Weitzman (then Minister of Defense) in order to "manipulate" him. Also, the American president was told, both leaders are very susceptible to flattery.
Before the meeting even started, the Americans had, without consulting the parties, prepared the full text of an agreement. This text is very similar to the agreement that eventually emerged.
The main victim of Camp David was, of course, the Palestinian people. The Americans had decided beforehand that there was no place for a sovereign Palestinian state, but only for some kind of "autonomy" that would allow the Israeli occupation to continue. Meaning that they could take responsibility for their own sewage, and perhaps also education and public health.
The only concession Begin made in the agreement was the recognition of the "just requirements" of "the Palestinian people". But even this was immediately taken back: he annexed to the agreement a statement that wherever the text mentions "the Palestinian people" it really meant "the Arabs of Eretz Israel".
The Palestinian people were not, of course, represented at the conference that was to decide their fate. They were not consulted at all. Carter, Begin and Sadat determined their fate as if they were too primitive to have an opinion.
The question remains: did Sadat decide in advance to sacrifice the Palestinian people for the interests of Egypt, or was he manipulated into doing so against his will? Since I liked the man, I always tended towards the second version. But the Americans assumed in advance that Sadat cared only for Egyptian, and not for general Arab interests. This means that he was ready to sell the
Palestinians down the river in order to sign a separate peace with Israel and gain the favor (and money) of the United States.
However, from the beginning Sadat suspected that the Americans might sabotage his initiative. That’s why he did not inform the Americans in advance of his plan to fly to Jerusalem. The American ambassador in Cairo at the time told me that he learned about it from the newspapers, like everybody else.
The Palestinian side of the story looks like this: at the time Yasser Arafat was engaged in the mediation of a conflict between Egypt and Libya. Suddenly he received an urgent message from Sadat , who was about to make an important speech in Parliament and requested his presence. In this speech Sadat dropped his bombshell, announcing his intention to address the Knesset. Arafat was photographed applauding politely, like all present. Suddenly he realized that he had fallen into a trap. He had been taken totally by surprise.
Perhaps Arafat initially considered the option of cooperating with Sadat, in the hope that the Egyptian president would contribute to the struggle for a Palestinian state. But when he arrived in Beirut, the main base of the PLO at the time, he found the Palestinian public seething with fury at Sadat. For the only time in the whole of his long political career, Arafat’s position was threatened. Nobody believed that Sadat had not informed him in advance about his intentions. So people suspected that Arafat was in league with him. The abyss of suspicion between Egypt and the Palestinians remains to this day.
The American documents expose the Carter administration’s view that the problem could be solved without setting up an independent Palestinian state. Yet two years before that, we had set up the "Israeli Council for Israel-Palestinian Peace" and established close contacts with the PLO leadership. We were completely convinced that no peace solution was possible without the creation of a State of Palestine next to the State of Israel.
Could it be that we – a small group of Israelis – were smarter than the huge United States administration, with its thousands of experts, officials and agents, right up to the President himself?
In any case, 25 more years were wasted before the American leadership accepted (at least in theory) the principle of "two states for two peoples". Twenty five years of bloodshed, wars and intifadas, with thousands killed on either side and no end in sight.
All this could have been prevented if the most powerful superpower on earth had been headed by people a little bit more wise, and if the leaders of Israel and Egypt had not evaded their historic responsibility – either through "focusing on details", like Begin, or "concentrating on big ideas", like Sadat.