Editor's Notes: The wisdom of 1977

A Canadian law professor delivered a message from Sadat to Begin that helped precipitate peace negotiations. In the last few days, Irwin Cotler retold this story to both Abbas and Netanyahu, with a key accompanying lesson.

Netanyahu Abbas Shake 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Netanyahu Abbas Shake 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
‘And in the course of my conversations with Abbas and Netanyahu, I brought up the message from Sadat to Begin, as I thought it relevant to our discussions,” Irwin Cotler remarked to me, fairly nonchalantly, as we talked over coffee this week about his meetings with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
“You gave Begin a message from Sadat? What message?” I asked. And the following story spilled out: In the mid-1970s, Cotler – human rights activist, committed pro-Israel and peace advocate, former Canadian justice minister and current opposition MP – was the head of a group called Canadian Professors for Peace in the Middle East.
In that role and others, he’d often visit Israel and its Middle Eastern neighbors, and he happened to be in Cairo in May 1977, when Menachem Begin’s Likud secured its revolutionary first general election victory. Cotler had been in Egypt in 1975, when the professors’ trip had been organized by president Anwar Sadat’s bureau chief Tahseen Bashir, and again in ’76, by which time he and Bashir had become friends. In ’77 he was there giving a series of lectures to the Al-Ahram Center’s Institute of Politics and Strategic Studies.
Soon after the election result was declared, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Egyptian foreign minister (and later UN secretary-general), whom he had also befriended, invited Cotler to the ministry for a consultation whose key question was: Could Egypt expect to be able to reach a peace agreement with the new Israeli prime minister and his hawkish government?
Cotler answered in the cautious affirmative, and subsequently found himself being called in to meet with Sadat, and being asked the same question.
The visiting law professor stressed to the Egyptian president that he didn’t know Mr. Begin particularly well, but said he believed that Begin, like other political leaders, would look to his place in history, and would want to be remembered as the first Israeli prime minister to make peace with a leading Arab country. And were a deal to be struck, Cotler added, he was certain that the Likud government would be able to carry the country behind it.
Cotler had several more meetings with senior Egyptian figures, and that’s how he wound up coming to Jerusalem that June with a message from Sadat to be personally and confidentially delivered to the prime minister.
Sadat’s message inquired about the possibility of opening peace talks, with two conditions: the return of Sinai, and Israeli recognition of the rights of the Palestinian people.
Begin asked Cotler whether he thought Sadat’s intentions were genuine. Cotler said he did.
Begin responded in the affirmative to Sadat. Cotler, as we would all later see, had given an accurate assessment to the Egyptians about Begin, and to Begin about the Egyptians, with historic consequences.
STILL A frequent visitor to Israel and the Middle East these days, and as well connected as ever, Cotler didn’t only tell me his 1977 “message to Begin from Sadat” story in the course of his current trip. He recalled it, too, in (obviously separate) meetings with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
When he was done telling Abbas, Cotler told me, the Palestinian leader asked him the same questions that Sadat and the Egyptians had asked: First, do you think I can make peace with this government? “And I gave him the same answer: This government would carry the country if it made a deal with you.”
And what, Abbas asked, about Netanyahu? Could the Palestinians make peace with him? Abbas noted that Cotler may not have known Begin too well, but he certainly does know the incumbent Israeli prime minister.
Cotler again responded with a yes, assessing that Netanyahu, again like other political leaders, would be looking to his place in history and would like to be the Israeli prime minister who made peace with the Palestinians.
“But I added this point to Abbas,” Cotler told me. “Begin and Sadat achieved their peace via ongoing direct talks without others. No Europeans. No United States. They came in later, to offer support. The same applies today. The need is to enter direct talks, and to maintain them. That’s the Begin-Sadat lesson: Direct talks, building a personal relationship, leading to peace.”
Cotler said he stressed to Abbas how that personal relationship “even played out at a joint Begin-Sadat press conference, when Sadat referred to ‘Judea and Samaria’ rather than the West Bank because he had so internalized some of Begin’s language. And Begin, having internalized Sadat’s language, spoke of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.”
At their Ramallah meeting, Cotler said, Abbas sought to emphasize what he said was his genuine commitment to peace with Israel. Cotler reminded him that the two had first met in Damascus in 1977, on another of Cotler’s Middle East law professor trips, and that Abbas had told him then that he regarded the Jews as a “religion,” not a “people,” and hence as undeserving of self-determination, never mind statehood. Acknowledging that this had been his earlier mindset, Abbas said peoples’ views could change, and that his certainly had.
Abbas said the Palestinians had recently made an offer to Israel regarding security and borders, but had yet to hear back. He added that he didn’t expect Israel to agree to the offer, but was awaiting a counter- proposal. He said they had focused on those two issues because those were the two Netanyahu speaks most about, and because resolving the border issue would enable an immediate resolution of where Israel could and could not build in the settlements, and would lead to resolution of the other core issues, Jerusalem and the refugees.
Cotler, in conversational rather than confrontational mode, didn’t put to Abbas the idea that resolving the border issue first, where Israel would be conceding territory, would be particularly convenient for the Palestinians, but less so for Israel. It would leave Israel with little leverage to press for Palestinian compromise in the area where they will have to concede, namely the “right of return.” Nor did he ask Abbas to square his declared commitment to a negotiated peace with his current bid for international endorsement of unilateral moves toward Palestinian statehood.
They did discuss the failure of the direct talks to date, and the complications surrounding the issue of a settlement freeze. “I said that the freeze should not be a precondition for negotiations,” Cotler told me. “After all, the two sides had talked for years during periods of much greater settlement building.”
Abbas’s retort was one he has made in other meetings too over recent months: President Barack Obama made such an issue of the demand for a freeze, and the Palestinians couldn’t be less pro- Palestinian than the president of the United States.
Cotler’s response was that Obama seemed to have moved away from that position recently. And that the Palestinians should do the same.
Abbas said, “I’m getting old, and I want to make peace.”
CALLING IN at the Prime Minister’s Office a few days later, Cotler was asked by Netanyahu whether he had seen this new Palestinian proposal on borders and security. Cotler said no; Netanyahu indicated that it wasn’t a particularly helpful document.
The prime minister had just got off the phone with Abbas – a condolence call on the death of the Palestinian leader’s brother Atta in Damascus. He stressed to Cotler his oft-stated desire to resume the direct talks with the Palestinians. And he was extremely interested to hear that Cotler had told Abbas about the 1977 message from Sadat, and about the importance of direct, personal interaction. “You should make that story public,” Netanyahu said.
Both Abbas and PA Foreign Minister Riad Malki had already briefed the Palestinian press about their meetings with Cotler. Plainly, both Israel and the PA were happy to have Cotler’s conversations referenced. Which is why the fuller story appears here.
Cotler’s meetings featured two leaders who are not making any direct progress toward reconciliation despite their individual professions that substantive progress is precisely what they seek. His conversations also appeared to show two leaders who could really use some more face-to-face time.
Certain concrete initiatives emerged from Cotler’s contacts with them. Abbas acknowledged the imperative to deal with anti- Israel incitement in the PA, and said he had suggested reviving the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian committee on the issue. He backed a longstanding idea for Canada to host a meeting of Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian justice ministers. Having met recently with a series of Israeli politicians and American and French Jewish leaders, he also asked Cotler to arrange for him to meet with members of the Canadian Jewish community. Cotler noted that it might be an idea for Netanyahu to do some similar outreach of his own, to the Palestinians.
Netanyahu immediately signaled his support for a resumption of the anti-incitement committee’s work and, hearing Cotler’s suggestion that he meet with Palestinians, called it a good idea and one he’d like to implement.
Astute and sensitive though he is, Cotler certainly does not see himself as any kind of substantive mediator. But the content of his separate conversations would suggest that there is productive mediation work to be done.
For his own part, Cotler noted to me that the Sadat-Begin breakthrough was “unprecedented – the very first substantive instance of Israel-Arab normalization.” So, to some extent, he said, it should have been harder for those leaders then than it should be for their successors today.
Did that mean that Cotler was optimistic about Netanyahu and Abbas actually getting somewhere?
“Optimistic in the sense that both of them have moved forward from their initial positions,” he said to me. “Netanyahu has accepted a twostate solution, and Abbas the recognition of Israel. But I’m pessimistic because there is still a large disparity in the threshold positions of mainstream Israelis and Palestinians, not only of the two leaders, on the main substantive issues. And some of those disparities are of an existential character, like Jerusalem and the refugees.
“As well, Sadat and Begin did not have the domestic constraints that both Abbas and Netanyahu have. Sadat did not have a Hamas. And Begin did not have an unwieldy coalition. Key figures in Begin’s coalition were pushing him forward.”
As for the Palestinian leadership’s wildly contradictory signals – the moderate Abbas TV interviews and outreach meetings, on the one hand; the incitement, boycott, demonization and unilateralist efforts, on the other – I’m not sure what Cotler would have answered had Netanyahu asked for his assessment of the PA head as peacemaker.
But Netanyahu didn’t ask. Interesting, that.
Sadat queried Cotler about Begin’s intentions and capabilities. Begin asked Cotler about Sadat’s. A third of a century later, Abbas questioned the very same intermediary about Netanyahu’s peacemaking bona fides. Netanyahu did not complete the symmetry.
Presumably, the prime minister thinks he already knows the answer.