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Thomas Carlyle's controversial view that history is but the doings of great men, comes naturally to mind as we mark the 30th anniversary of Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem on the one hand, and brace for the Annapolis summit on the other.
It takes no Carlyle, or Hegel or Nietzsche, who also believed that history was driven by individual greatness, to agree that Sadat was a towering historic figure. There is no measuring the guts it took to defy the entire Arab world by extravagantly landing at Ben-Gurion Airport, laying a wreath at the eternal flame for Israel's fallen soldiers, and then, from the Israeli legislature's podium, call for peace.
So gallant was this feat that people tend to forget how equally gutsy it was for Sadat to launch the Yom Kippur War. Yet Sadat's greatness lay not only in his courage, but also in his sobriety and vision, like his realization that he must replace Moscow's sponsorship with Washington's, and that the Egyptian economy could not, in the long term, shoulder the costs of war.
The case for Menachem Begin's historic greatness is more problematic.
Begin wrongly assumed that the West Bank could be retained in return for the Sinai's relinquishment; he did not bother to personally inhabit the West Bank which he so much wanted the people to call home; he misread Israeli society and his own defense minister before storming Lebanon; and he led the economy to the brink of catastrophe. As historic cruelties go, his own inglorious death as a depressed recluse starkly contrasted with Sadat's departure as a martyred visionary.
And yet Begin earned a place in history as a daring underground leader who later attacked a distant nuclear reactor, as well as a pragmatist who knew to rise to the occasion, accommodating a reconstructed enemy by reconstructing himself.
Would Israel and Egypt have made peace had Begin not been elected in 1977, or had Sadat died, say in a helicopter crash, the previous year? Sadat's prime minister, Mustafa Khalil, once said that Sadat went to Israel because he knew Begin could deliver; which means Sadat would have shunned a deal with a Labor leadership. Then again, given the opportunity, the Labor Party of those years would have actually delivered Israeli society, the way Yitzhak Rabin easily overcame the rallies that accompanied the disengagement agreements he signed with Egypt and Syria in the mid-'70s.
On the Egyptian side the question is even tougher.
Had Sadat not been there, most other successors at hand would have lacked his conviction, vision or courage. Foreign minister Ismail Fahmy was so opposed to Sadat's trip that he resigned. Sadat's deputy, Hosni Mubarak, while lacking Fahmy's hostility, also lacked Sadat's enthusiasm. Then again, Egypt really emerged from the '73 war destitute and exhausted, so someone like Tolstoy, who believed in the pre-destiny of great events rather than the impact of great figures, would argue that peace would have broken out in any event.
Yet whether or not Begin was as great as Sadat, and whether or not what the two jointly did would still have happened without them, there is no arguing that they were great men, and that even if they did not shape the storms through which they navigated, they still surfed, masterfully, the massive waves that took their nations to new horizons.
If only any of this could be said of Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas.
OLMERT'S LACK of conviction is demonstrated daily in his failure to present a coherent vision on pressing issues like the education crisis, electoral reform and ultra-Orthodox draft dodging. Being weak on vision, he wanted to look brave, so last year he stormed an enemy he assessed as weak, only to see his own weakness exposed.
Hegel said that history's great actor could articulate and deliver what his generation wanted. Had Olmert been blessed with such instincts, or even had he just been humble, he would have known that he had reached the top at the dawn of a post-heroic era, which meant that he should not try to play Begin. Of course Olmert is no Begin: first and foremost because that modest resident of a two-bedroom shoebox on Tel Aviv's Rosenbaum Street would never in his wildest dreams have spent his time accumulating houses, dealing out perks and meddling in state tenders.
Mahmoud Abbas is not much closer to historic greatness.
Initially, Abbas seemed potentially heroic, when he attacked the Palestinian resort to violence in general, and the suicide bombings in particular. Alas, since then he has tangoed into the sunset with Hamas and remained ineffective even when they, in the middle of their dance, stabbed him in the back.
Had he been great, Abbas would have built Gaza the morning after Sharon left it. A visionary leader would have stood there that day, looked the Gazan masses in the eyes and said: "Now is our chance. We have all the money it takes - America, Europe, Japan are all here for us. Until now we showed what we could do to others; now is the time to show what we can do for ourselves. Yesterday was a time to destroy, now is a time to build. To work!" Meanwhile, troops would have gone from house to house confiscating all weapons, while others recruited workers to build Gaza's own factories, ports, resorts, farms and malls.
This would of course have meant risking being shot, but history's great men aren't afraid of bullets: Sadat wasn't, and neither were Yitzhak Rabin or King Hussein.
NOW, AS ALL eyes turn to Annapolis, the question is whether men who aren't great can, in spite of themselves, still create great history.
The general answer is yes. That is what happened, for instance, to Mikhail Gorbachev, who was not particularly charismatic, lacked a coherent vision of the future and clearly never meant to undo communism and dismantle the Soviet Union, only to modify them. Yet for the old order to vanish this way, it must first be brain-dead. In the East Bloc's case, this meant that practically no one, from Berlin to Beijing, still believed in communism by the time it was undone. Had people still believed in it, confronting it would have demanded not a Gorbachev, but a Sadat.
In the Middle East, the forces Sadat confronted 30 years ago remain fierce. Fanaticism here is where communism was not in the 1980s, but in the 1930s, when it was sweeping millions off their feet. And so, when Annapolis is over, its organizers will have to concede that for the Middle East to change they will first have to wait for one of two things to happen: either for fanaticism to die, or for leadership to be born.
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