It was a cold winter day when I arrived at Dulles International Airport in Washington DC on 4 January 1979 to begin my first diplomatic posting in the Egyptian embassy.
Three months earlier, Egypt and Israel had signed the Camp David Accords, on 17 September 1978 in DC as a prelude to starting a diplomatic process to reach a comprehensive, total and just peace among the Arab countries, the Palestinians and Israel. It was to be based on UN Security Council Resolution 242, adopted unanimously by the council on 22 November 1967.
I had taken up my first diplomatic posting in Washington while the US administration of former president Jimmy Carter was pushing quite hard for a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
The Israelis were dragging their feet, as usual, in agreeing to a full withdrawal from Sinai. Furthermore, they wanted to keep some military presence while leaving their settlements intact.
Needless to say, Egypt would not buy into Israel’s arguments, nor indirect American pressure in this regard.
Moreover, Cairo wanted the expected peace treaty to be part of a larger peaceful settlement for the Arab-Israeli conflict with particular emphasis on granting the Palestinian people their right to self-determination.
At the time, Arab countries and the Palestine Liberation Organisation were warning Egypt of reaching what they had called a “separate peace” with the Israelis at the expense of Arab and Palestinian rights. Moreover, they argued that such a peace would not pressure Israel enough to implement Security Council Resolution 242 on all fronts, nor would Israel, once it had signed a peace deal with Egypt, be interested in settling the Palestinian question.
These had been very serious questions facing Egyptian decision-makers at the time. No one in Cairo wanted to be seen within Egypt and in the larger Arab world as reneging on Egypt’s historic commitments towards all those who had fought side by side with the Egyptian army against the Israelis in 1967 and in 1973, especially Syria and Palestinian freedom fighters.
On 26 March 1979, Egypt and Israel signed, at the White House and in the presence of former president Jimmy Carter, the first peace treaty between an Arab country and Israel in a bid to reach this comprehensive and just peace.
The treaty itself was marketed in Egypt in grandiose terms. We, the Egyptian diplomats at the Egyptian embassy in Washington, had taken this as too good to be true, but who could have foreseen while former Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat was putting his signature to the text of the treaty with former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin that the true aggressive intentions of Israel would weigh heavily on the Middle East, in the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights, not to mention Lebanon.
Some believed that we should give peace a chance, particularly the Carter administration that had assured Sadat that it would bring Jordan into the peace process and would work with Egypt to facilitate reaching an agreement on self-rule, for five years, as stated in the Camp David Accords, for the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. President Sadat took this commitment on its word.
The Egyptian interpretation of self-rule was that after the lapse of the five-year period the Palestinians would exercise their right to self-determination according to the United Nations Charter. The Americans had led us to believe that they endorsed this interpretation. Our calculations proved to be wrong, unfortunately.
But it was too late. Begin was adamant that self-rule was meant to be administrative, and had nothing to do with the question of national sovereignty. In fact, the Israelis insisted on referring to the West Bank as Judea and Samaria.
In the three years that followed the signing of the peace treaty with Israel, Egypt and the Middle East became destabilised from a larger strategic perspective and in their power dynamics vis-à-vis Israel.
On 6 October 1981, former president Sadat was assassinated to be succeeded by his vice-president, Hosni Mubarak.
Israel in 1980 and in 1981 had passed two laws, one that has recognised Jerusalem as the “undivided and eternal capital” of Israel and the second that had claimed that the Golan Heights would remain under Israeli control.
However, grave consequences followed in 1982 when Israeli forces led by Ariel Sharon invaded Lebanon and crossed the Litani River to surround Beirut. It was the first time the Israeli army had laid siege to an Arab capital.
During this siege, Sharon with his Lebanese allies supervised the massacres at Sabra and Shatila where hundreds of hapless, innocent Palestinians were mowed down.
The Israeli occupation of Lebanon would last more than 15 years from 1982 to 2000. This occupation was the direct cause for the establishment of the Lebanese national resistance movement headed by a newly-constituted national militia known as Hizbullah.
The price to be paid by the Palestinians and the Arabs to lift the siege of Beirut was the evacuation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and its chairman, the late Yasser Arafat, from Lebanon. The Americans had taken up Israeli demands in this respect and activated the Cairo channel to bring it about.
Our concern was threefold at the time: one, to make sure that Arafat would leave Lebanon unharmed, that all Palestinian fighters of the Palestine Liberation Organisation would sail for Tunisia with their personal weapons, and to bring to an end, as quickly as possible, the Israeli occupation of Lebanon.
We succeeded in the former two and had to wait for more than 15 years to celebrate the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon. The former two objectives were easily carried out because it was in the joint interests of the United States and Israel, whereas the third was not.
Needless to say, the resounding victory of the Lebanese resistance against Israeli occupation was credited to Iran, a non-Arab power. Such Iranian support paved the way for the gradual entrenchment of the Iranians in Middle Eastern politics in subsequent years.
Three months before the assassination of president Sadat, the late Egyptian president had received the Israeli prime minister, Begin, the man with whom he had affixed his signature to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty two years before, in Ismailia.
Exactly two days later, on 7 June 1981, the Israeli air force destroyed the Iraqi nuclear plant. If Israeli aggressiveness lacked any proof, and if the true strategic objective behind signing the peace treaty with Egypt needed elaboration, here you are facing an expansionist Israel that does not want to live in peace with its neighbours and has had no intention, at all, of negotiating in good faith the establishment of a Palestinian state in the context of the two-state solution as per UN Security Council resolutions.
If the Carter administration (a Democratic one) had rendered Israel its greatest strategic gift of signing a peace treaty with Egypt, the first of a kind, and its attendant strategic consequences on the destabilisation of the whole Middle East, the Republican Trump administration has done the rest.
It has recognised Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel and is on its way, probably, towards recognising the Golan Heights as under Israeli sovereignty, not to mention the creeping Israeli annexation of the West Bank and the perpetuation of the Israeli siege on two million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
In addition, it has cut its financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority as well as funds earmarked for UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Work Agency) that has catered for the humanitarian, health and educational needs of five million Palestinian refugees scattered around the Middle East.
Last Tuesday, 26 March, was the fortieth anniversary of the peace treaty that had signed with the Israelis in conviction that it would lead to the full implementation of Security Council Resolution 242. However, this promise has not been fulfilled.
On the contrary, the treaty has proven correct all those Arabs and Palestinians that have held to the belief that Israel is only an expansionist power.
On the evening of 26 March 1979, the Carter White House had organised a big reception at Blair House to celebrate the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty that morning. I remember my subdued feelings on that distant evening.
I did not trust the Israelis then. Middle East developments ever since have not proven me wrong.
I will conclude with two quotes from the memoirs of former US secretary of state John Kerry, entitled Every Day is Extra. The quotes show that the Israeli extreme right, incarnated by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the heir of Menachem Begin, is not interested in any peace deal with the Arabs or the Palestinians.
It is working for the capitulation of the latter and the subservience of the former to Israel, and the tweet by US President Donald Trump, Thursday, 21 March, in which he wrote that, “it is high time for the United States to fully recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights” only confirms that Israel is out to grab Arab and Palestinian territories, aided by Trump’s White House.
Kerry wrote: “Israel had increasingly consolidated control over the majority of the West Bank for its exclusive use, effectively reversing the transition to greater Palestinian authority that was called for by the Oslo Accords.
“The challenge gets only more daunting as the number of settlers in the roughly 130 Israeli settlements east of the 1967 lines grow. When I left as secretary, the settler population in the West Bank alone, not including East Jerusalem, had increased by nearly 270,000 since Oslo, including 100,000 just since 2009.
More than 90,000 were living east of the separation barrier that was created by Israel itself, and the population of these distant settlements has grown by 20,000 since 2009.
At the same time, thousands of Israeli settlers have set up some one hundred illegal outposts in the West Bank with the acquiescence, if not outright support, of successive Israeli governments.
“I don’t think most people in Israel, and certainly elsewhere in the world, have any idea how broad and systematic this reversal of the Oslo process has become.”
In the same memoirs, Kerry recalls the last dinner he had with former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres, weeks before the latter passed away in September 2016.Peres told Kerry that, “the original Mandate gave the Palestinians 48 per cent (of mandated Palestine); now it is down to 22 per cent. I think 78 per cent is enough for us.”
However, as Egyptians and Arabs we will never forget Palestine; neither our generation nor future generations.
For those Egyptians and Arabs who keep talking about peace with Israel, please stop talking about any kind of peaceful coexistence with the Israelis till the day they are sincerely and genuinely committed to the cause of peace.
Furthermore, please don’t bet on Jared Kushner’s plan for an ultimate peace in the Middle East.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Road to nowhere