Not on the same page

A timely compilation of Begin and Sadat’s correspondence reveals that their letters to each other were like ships crossing in the night.

Sadat 521 (photo credit: Rahamim Israeli)
Sadat 521
(photo credit: Rahamim Israeli)
It is perhaps little known that Menachem Begin was a man of letters. Letter writing, he lamented, was a dying skill. Language was being robbed of precision and clarity.
This was in the 1980s, so one can imagine his horror over its state today. Begin, the “aficionado of history,” who in his years of seclusion had consumed books, poured his skill into the correspondence and speeches given at the time of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.
In his introduction to Peace in the Making, Yehuda Avner remarks that “the reader will note that the letters were often loquacious, most particularly those of Sadat... [which] were drafted by a committee of presidential advisers... Begin’s were written in his own hand.”
Aren’t all great events in history thus? In the battle for Syracuse the Athenians sent an army, the Spartans one man; the chess champion Bobby Fischer played alone, while Boris Spassky had a team to advise him.
The idea to turn the relatively paltry Begin-Sadat correspondence into a book was broached in 1983, after Begin had retired and was living in seclusion. His friend and adviser Harry Hurwitz, who edited the work, saw that Begin was “reading, or devouring, a tome on the exchange of letters between Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”
In subsequent meetings he and Begin discussed the idea of compiling declassified letters between him and Sadat into a book.
Begin, ever sensitive to reality, said “A book? But there is not enough material here for a serious book.” So it was decided to include speeches and interviews given during the same period.
Sadat was the younger of the two. Born in 1918 in Mit Abu al-Kum in the Nile Delta, he became an officer in the army.
During World War II, Sadat was sympathetic to Nazi Germany. He eventually rose to become Gamal Nasser’s right hand, ascending to power in 1970. He was murdered by Islamists in 1981.
Begin was born in 1913 in the Polish border town of Brest-Litovsk. Imprisoned by the Russians, he found his way to Palestine and became leader of the Revisionist underground. He resigned as prime minister in 1983 and died in 1992.
The peace treaty was signed despite US president Jimmy Carter’s best attempts to scuttle it. This may seem ironic but the book reveals the depths of Carter’s obsession with the Palestinians. In Sadat’s address to his parliament in 1977, he noted: “President Carter has succeeded in removing the veil from the eyes of the American people and placing the Palestine problem within its true frameworks... the problem of Israel, with her lying propaganda and her notorious influence in America.”
Later, during the negotiations in 1978, “Carter stubbornly sought to pressure Begin on the Palestinian issue even beyond what Sadat had dared to hope for.”
Begin and Sadat were committed to doing what their Labor and Nasserist forbears had only lied about. As Sadat said, “The people want us to act rather than talk.”
Begin declared, “I call upon King Hussein, President Sadat and President [Hafez] Assad to meet with me.”
Israel’s Labor Party had talked of peace from 1948 to 1977, but it had excelled only at war. Begin, who was accused of being a fascist by the Left in Israel and the Egyptian press, would bring the peace.
When Sadat addressed the Knesset in 1977, he dwelled on two themes. In the opening lines, “God” was mentioned 14 times. But as the speech droned on, it was the Palestinians and the “permanent and just peace... [which] has not become the call of the whole world” that took center stage. He elaborated that “in the absence of a just solution to the Palestinian problem, never will there be that durable and just peace.” The Palestinians were the “crux of the entire problem.”
Begin understood that he must represent the Jewish people’s aspirations in his reply: “It is my duty today to tell our guests and all the nations who are watching us and listening to our words about the bond between our people and this land.”
As today, the “peace” work that took place was primarily one-sided; Sadat came to Israel where he received a “very warm welcome,” Begin could not go to Egypt, because peace has always been primarily about Israelis accepting the “other” with the other doing little to reciprocate.
Begin’s and Sadat’s letters to each other often were like ships crossing in the night.
Sadat dwelled on the Palestinians – “security [for Israel] should not be at the expense of land or sovereignty” – and Begin demanded “the recognition of our land.”
Neither was on the same page.
In a prescient question posed to Sadat in 1979, an Israeli journalist asked: “What guarantees do we have that we will have another Egyptian president who will pursue your attitude?” Sadat responded that “Egypt is not a one-man country. We are a democracy... we are a state of institutions.”
In subsequent letters he claimed there was a free press in Egypt.
The Begin-Sadat correspondence is a fascinating read, but it is primarily interesting from the standpoint of 30 years. Little has changed: Hosni Mubarak maintained the “cold peace” that was standard in Begin’s time. Sadat and Begin were larger-than-life figures, but even they could not rise above the molasses that encumbered all negotiations.