Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
When the last issue of Foreign Affairs went to press in late August, few readers can have believed that by early fall Egypt and Israel would be negotiating a peace treaty. The only sure way of predicting the future is to have the power to shape it, and here the actors in the field have a great advantage over even the most learned commentators. The army of pundits and experts that marches in the procession of international affairs is becoming very much like the chorus in Greek tragedy, whose vocation was to express musical consternation at events that it was powerless to control.
Even after Camp David these are precarious times for the commentators. There is no full certainty yet of a new and stable Middle Eastern order, and Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin should make the most of their Nobel laurels while the euphoria persists. Autumn foliage has a bright but fleeting glow. The hard truth is that on the most crucial and complex issue - that of the Palestinians and the West Bank - the Camp David signatories did little more than postpone their confrontation by the kind of semantic dexterity that is quick to wear out.
Yet no amount of prudent reserve can diminish what they have already achieved. Like all negotiated compromises the Camp David agreements have their detractors. But the noisy anguish of the militants on both sides merely enhances the impression that a victory has been won for temperance and equilibrium. Nearly two centuries have passed since Benjamin Franklin said: "I have never known a peace made, even the most advantageous, that was not censured as inadequate, and the makers thereof condemned as injudicious or corrupt."
The Camp David signatories have not escaped this fate. Sadat is censured only by the Arab radicals for whom any peace with Israel, "even the most advantageous," would be total heresy. Begin, on the other hand, comes under converging fire. Some denounce him for having disposed of Sinai - and of his own past slogans - with too much speed and too little recompense. Others, more shrewdly, suspect that his concessions in Sinai were designed merely to be the cover for continued obduracy in the West Bank and Gaza. A third school (to which I belong) believes that Mr. Begin's sincere intention is, as he himself asserts, to maintain permanent Israeli control everywhere west of the Jordan, but that the agreements that he has signed have their own contrary dynamic so that Arab "self-government," once put into effect, would inexorably lead to an Arab rather than an Israeli destiny for the West Bank. History works more in paradox than in logic, and the rational consequence of "self-government" should interest the Palestinians more than the contradictory and varied intentions of its proponents.
No matter how these complexities evolve, the Middle East is set on a new course, and nothing after Anwar Sadat's voyage to Jerusalem can ever be the same again. His main achievement was to separate our future from our past. Both nations, Arabs and Israelis, give great reverence to history. But the past is the enemy of the future. The images that the Arabs deduce from their history do nothing to prepare them for the idea of a sovereign Jewish state in what they call "the Arab region." For them the Middle East, in the political sense, is a monolith of a single, Arab-Muslim, color; for us it is a tapestry of many colors of which the salient thread was woven by Jewish experience centuries ago. Jews do appear in the turbulent drama of Arab history, but always as subjects, members of a deviant religious faith, merchants and craftsmen, scholars, doctors and advisers, sometimes as the objects of transient tolerance, more often as the victims of intolerance and persecution, but never as the bearers of an autonomous political and territorial legacy. The Arab intellectual torment about the reality of modern Israel is authentic, and should not be taken lightly.
In similar degree, Israel's past is not conducive to easy conciliation. Our national experience is tragic. It therefore generates a traumatic reaction to any new condition bearing on our physical security. Israelis, as the product of Jewish history, are more aware of the dangers than of the opportunities involved in any grave decision. Israel's meticulous vigilance about physical security should be understood even by those who find it inconvenient.
Anwar Sadat's great achievement in November 1977 was to make a simultaneous breach in the walls of Arab rejection and Israeli suspicion. For the first time, the Arab world was presented with a vision of the Middle East that did include the sovereign Jewish State of Israel. The promulgation of this vision by a major Arab leader marked an ideological revolution in modern Arab history. The rhetoric and literature of rejection lives on elsewhere, but on November 19, 1977 it lost its dogmatic force, and can no longer be described as the normative Arab doctrine.
On the same day, Israelis, for the first time, began to look upon peace, not as a unilateral fantasy, but as a concrete and vivid diplomatic possibility. Some of us have always believed that, once peace became a credible prospect, the Israeli consensus about the value of certain territories would undergo a sharp transformation. Sadat was the first to put this to a convincing test, and his reward was dramatic. The truth is that at every stage during the past decade, the Arab refusal of peace has been the primary issue, to which the Israeli attitude on territorial change has been subsidiary. A nation can be empirical about the negotiation of its boundaries, but not about its own legitimacy.
If Camp David produces a viable and effective peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, what is the exact scope and limitation of the achievement? The fact that the Middle East deadlock has been broken by something that falls short of a "comprehensive" settlement has caused rage in the radical Arab countries, embarrassment in parts of Egyptian opinion, and some restraint on enthusiasm in the Western world. It is important to recall that Sadat's voyage to Jerusalem evoked ambivalent sentiments in the American policymaking establishment and in Europe. It cut clean across the prevailing fashions both in the procedure and in concept. It was difficult not to salute the first real gleam of peace on the Middle Eastern horizon, but there was a curiously disconcerted reaction to the new trend. In many Foreign Ministries the response could be summed up in the phrase, "Yes, but . . ." Was an agreement useful if it was "only" with Egypt? Might this not radicalize the rest of the Arab world? Sadat was inaugurating a process that deliberately excluded the Soviet Union and the PLO. Was this wise? Even if he obtained a treaty with Israel and an agreed statement of principles about the future of the Palestine Arabs, would not this still be far from the "comprehensive" agreement that the United States and other Western governments had enunciated as the highest, and, indeed, the only good? Reservation followed objection in a cascade of troubled skepticism. And all the doubts were summarily expressed in a curious nostalgia for Geneva.
I take my full responsibility for my own part in the decision to establish the Geneva Peace Conference in 1973 as a means for ensuring the cease-fire and disengagement and securing Arab agreement to such previously forbidden ideas as "negotiation" and "peace between Israel and Arab States." (These had all been forbidden words in the vocabulary of the United Nations for over 20 years, and none of them had appeared even in Resolution 242.) But by 1977 it should have been plain that deliverance could not possibly come by means of a spectacular international conference in which all the parties - Israel, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinians, the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Nations - would simultaneously negotiate agreements on all the territories, all the aspects of peaceful relations, all the security checks and balances and all the interlocking interests of all the parties. Sadat has done chivalrous service to the United States by rescuing it from this quagmire of impossible perfection. And American diplomacy has shown a wise humility in changing course so as to accommodate itself to the atmosphere and results of the Jerusalem and Ismailia meetings of late 1977. If you try to involve all the parties in the solution of all the issues, you give a veto power to the most intractable issue - and to the most obdurate party.
Nations are accustomed to appoint commissions of enquiry to ask themselves what went wrong. After the undoubted success of Camp David, it is important to define what went right. This event has intrinsic significance for the Middle Eastern dispute, which is still far from fully resolved, and exemplary importance for what it can teach us about diplomatic concepts and techniques across a wider field.
It was right to avoid making Geneva another of the Holy Places of the Middle East. The Middle Eastern capitals and Washington are more natural as well as more stimulating venues. And it was right to neutralize Camp David from the encroachment of the news media. The most disruptive change in the diplomatic tradition during this generation has been the vast encroachment of publicity on negotiation. It is right, and indeed inevitable, that agreements should be published; it is quite another matter when every negotiating phase, every trial balloon, every tentative idea has to be submitted by the negotiators to their own constituencies through the press before final agreement is secured. Seated on a stage with the whole world as audience, statesmen are more likely to illustrate their virile nationalist fundamentalism than be caught in the flagrant act of concession. Compromise is the key to successful negotiation; and compromise, in essence, means that you accept today what you vehemently rejected as inadequate a week before. This is a necessary and salutary exercise, but is not something that political leaders like to be photographed doing. I am convinced that if the concessions agreed to by Sadat and Begin had been reported to their constituencies before - and without - the compensating advantage of the final agreement, the entire effort would have been frustrated at an early stage.
It was right to prefer private conciliation to public multinational debate. Camp David stands as a posthumous monument to the disinterested legacy expressed by Dag Hammarskjold in his final report. In theory, he should have been the high priest of open, public diplomacy. In practice he became convinced of the limitations and even the injury of multilateral debate: "The best results of negotiations between two parties cannot be achieved in international life any more than in our private world in the full glare of publicity, with current debate of all moves, avoidable misunderstandings, inescapable freezing of positions due to considerations of prestige - and the temptation to utilize public opinion as an element integrated into the negotiation itself."
The degree of common understanding already achieved between Egyptian and Israeli leaders throws a light on many other corners of fact and hypothesis that were obscure during the decades of immobility. A deathblow has been dealt to the theory of irreconcilability, according to which the Arab-Israeli dispute, unlike all others, was inherently insoluble, endemic, implacable, deeply embedded in the very bloodstream of Arab culture, and capable at best of transient and illusory periods of relative quiescence. In the Arab world this defeatism had become axiomatic, and in Israel it had been elevated into an academic discipline which never became fully canonized or officially endorsed, but which made great inroads on the nation's mood.
The truth is that what nations say to each other at the negotiating table bears little relation to the speeches that they were making a few weeks before. Pre-negotiation rhetoric is discarded without too much difficulty under the transforming effect of human encounter. For some time after the Six Day War in 1967, Israel insisted that direct meetings with Arab representatives were an essential condition of progress. We were persuaded to relinquish this view in deference to friendly counsel that implored us not to make an issue of mere procedure and prestige. What did it matter how peace was obtained, if it could be secured even by unconventional courses? There were bizarre Soviet proposals in the early 1970s for making peace by the "depositing of documents." Israel, as it were, would put the territories in an envelope and slide them under the Arab door, and the Arab states would wrap peace in a package and deposit it for Israel's acceptance in a post office box at Geneva. Experience has proved that encounter is a matter of substance, not merely of form. Negotiation does not merely photograph positions; it is capable of transforming them in a process of authentic interchange.
On the other hand, the insistence that negotiation must be "direct," without any mediation beyond the use of good offices, has not prospered. Israel and Arab states have been brought to contractual agreements only when mediation has been assertive, as with Ralph Bunche in 1949, when he was acting U.N. mediator in Palestine, Secretary of State Kissinger from 1973 to 1975, and President Carter in 1978. When mediation has been excessively amiable and passive, as with U.N. Special Representative Jarring in the late 1960s and Secretary of State Rogers from 1969 to 1971, the objective potentialities of agreement have not been fully explored.
Above all, there has been vindication of a gradualist approach to conflict resolution. The interim and disengagement accords of 1974 and 1975 were indispensable stages toward peace. They proved that negotiation could produce benefits, that agreements could be kept, that there was usually more than one possible solution for dilemmas of physical security, and that modest partial agreements were more likely to develop a positive momentum toward further agreement than to "freeze" situations or "destroy incentives" as the critics of Kissinger and of the disengagement agreements seemed, or professed, to fear. When you descend to earth from an exceptionally tall ladder, it is often prudent to use the intervening rungs, rather than seek posthumous glory by a single leap.
The debate about "comprehensiveness" as against separate or phased agreements remains unresolved by the Camp David accords. This is not a procedural or technical discussion at all. It takes us deep into the essence and nature of Arab nationalism, and non-Arabs who are vitally affected by its outcome have no duty to withhold their impression and counsel.
Anwar Sadat's critics virtually deny the contractual sovereignty of individual Arab States. According to their theory, you have made no valid contract with any part of the Arab world unless you have made it with all that world; and the Palestinians are the arbiters of legitimacy, honor and solidarity in inter-Arab relations. This doctrine was expounded in its most extreme and eloquent form in the July issue of this journal:
The Arab states' system is first and foremost a "Pan" system. It postulates the existence of a single Arab Nation behind the facade of a multiplicity of sovereign states . . . . From this perspective, the individual Arab states are deviant and transient entities: their frontiers illusory and permeable; their rulers interim caretakers, or obstacles to be removed . . . . Their mandate is from the entire Arab Nation. Before such super-legitimacy, the legitimacy of the individual state shrinks into irrelevance . . . .1
Observe that the Arab Nation is in capital letters, while the Arab states have to be satisfied with a lesser orthographical dignity. The indivisibility of Arab nationhood, and therefore of Arab diplomacy, is thus asserted with the solemnity of revelation. It is a dogma to be accepted, not a point to be argued. Indeed, the text goes on: "It is this resonance [of the concepts of pan-Arabism] that gives them sanctity as dogmas."2
It is clearly a momentous event in Arab history when the leader of the largest Arab state openly revolts against this sanctity and these dogmas. And it is significant that peace between Israelis and Arabs can only be approached and perhaps even attained when the sonorous rhetoric of pan-Arabism has been tempered with a due measure of pragmatic realism. The tension between unity and particularism runs throughout the whole of Arab history. There is a sense in which all men of Arab speech are a single community, linked by the special social energy that Ibn Khaldun called "assabiya," a unifying spirit that gives coherence to the Arab historic adventure. But there are also domains in which the separate sovereignties of Arab states are much more than juridical fictions. To wait until all the 22 states and the Palestine people have a simultaneous and equal interest in a settlement with Israel is to postpone peace until a Messianic age in which the need for diplomatic craftsmanship will, in any event, be transcended by divine grace.
Sadat's voyage, with a clear mandate from the popular sentiment of Egypt, proved that the Arab world is marked not only by solidarity, but also by diversity. The strong assertion of national particularism, within a general assumption of Arab unity, has been more prominent in Egyptian literature and politics than in those of other Arab states. If peace is a vital objective for the international system, and if Egypt is under stronger compulsions and constraints to pursue peace than are other Arab communities, the non-Arab world has no rational course but to respect Egyptian sovereignty as a legitimate reality, and not as a "deviant and transient entity" or a "facade." The PLO's disrespect for the sovereignty of Arab states has got the Palestinians into no less trouble, and into more frequent and sanguinary violence, than its quixotic and virulent doctrine of Israel's "illegitimacy."
While the Camp David document on a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel is reasonably specific and clear, the document relating to the West Bank and Gaza is deliberately equivocal. Both Begin and Sadat portray it as consistent with their previous positions. One of them has clearly got it wrong. My conviction is that the future of these territories and populations will be determined less by the fine print of the document than by the realities that lie beyond and behind the text.
Equivocal language is often used in diplomacy to cover up disagreement on issues which must be included for some reason in a larger settlement, or which must be dealt with as if there was agreement. In other words, there is a degree of complicity involved in the ambiguous language. There is nothing inherently wrong in this practice, so long as the parties know what they have done and do not delude themselves with the hope that their joint signature creates a common policy.
Whether the absence of progress on the Palestine question would impair the fulfillment of an Egyptian-Israeli treaty is not so much a juridical question as an issue of political determination and regional atmosphere. Just as PLO supporters are wrong in assuming that Egypt has no particular interests to be legitimately defended within the terms of its sovereignty, so would Israelis err badly if they thought that Anwar Sadat's independence of spirit reflected an intention to resign from the Arab family. Continued deadlock on the future of the West Bank and Gaza would, at the very least, injure the Egyptian-Israeli treaty relationship.
The most dubious aspect of the Camp David agreement, as drafted on September 19, is the underlying assumption that the major problems remain to be decided only after three or five years. It would be more realistic to assume that a Middle Eastern crisis could arise in full intensity within a few weeks of an Egyptian-Israeli treaty. The danger can be forestalled or surmounted only if Israel and the Palestinians move beyond their present attitudes.
Israel's urgent need is to grasp that the avoidance of Israeli rule over the million Palestine Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza is not only a concession by Israel to her adversaries, but also a service that Israel should render to her own interest and destiny. It is legitimate and, indeed, crucial to improve the security prospect by defensible boundaries that would involve changes of limited size which could be crucial in their strategic effects. Previous Israeli governments have always assumed that in a peace settlement there would have to be an international boundary constituted somewhere west of the River Jordan. The partition logic cannot be denied, even if it takes different cartographical forms. History has created such a duality of national identities that any unitary framework can only be coercive and morally fragile. Not for one second in the 24 hours of each day do the million Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza share a common emotional experience, a common vision or a common dream with the Jews now living under Israel's sovereign law. On the one side there is a total saturation with Hebrew speech, Jewish experience and Zionist values. On the other side, every sound and sight, every movement of heart and mind respond to the images and associations of Arab history. Neither of these two worlds seeks harmony with the other through any compromise of its separate nature. The areas are properly described as Judea and Samaria, but this does not make their inhabitants Judeans or Samarians. They are Arabs in all their notions and fidelities.
It might have seemed quixotic a few months ago to urge an Israeli government under its present leadership to accept Arab sovereignty in most of the West Bank and Gaza, subject to agreed improvements of the Israeli boundary. But the autonomy proposal signed by Mr. Begin at Camp David could serve as a natural bridge to such a solution, which the Labor Alignment still supports. Nobody in his senses would have predicted a few months ago that Mr. Begin, Mr. Dayan and Mr. Weizmann, with the concurrence of Mr. Ariel Sharon, would approve a document laying down that "the Israeli military government and its civilian administration will be withdrawn as soon as a self-governing authority has been freely elected by the inhabitants of these areas to replace the existing military government," and further that after a transitional period "the elected representatives of the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza [shall] decide how they shall govern themselves consistent with the provisions of their agreement." There is also to be "a withdrawal of Israeli armed forces . . . and . . . a redeployment of the remaining Israeli forces into specified security zones," and "a strong local police force . . . which may include Jordanian citizens."
The emphasis and atmosphere of this language point clearly to a drastic reduction of Israel's involvement in the life and future of the Arab-populated areas of the West Bank and Gaza. Mr. Begin is too precise and intelligent a man for us to believe that he does not comprehend how short a step separates this kind of "self-government" from some form of eventual Arab sovereignty. Anyone who rules out the idea of ultimate Arab sovereignty in large areas west of the River ought not to have signed the Camp David accords. Those of us who approve and accept those agreements should understand clearly what it is that we approve and accept.
The prospect is that Israel will be smaller in the territory that it controls, but will have a larger world-arena in which to deploy its resources of dynamism and intellect. The conflict with the Arab world has been the sustaining myth of Israeli society. It has created our military priorities, our economic predicaments and our international dilemmas. Its general effect has been oppressive, but not all the results have been negative. It has set up an entire system of defensive and compensatory reactions, including the creation of a formidable military power and a commercial and economic system more far-flung, sophisticated and resilient than we would have had to create if Arab markets, rather than those of the European Economic Communities and the Atlantic world, had been our major economic arenas. And because our lives were at stake we developed solidarities that might not otherwise have triumphed over the disruptive and diverse elements in the Jewish character and experience. Future historians may well pay tribute to the conflict as the inadvertent architect of Israel's strength. Yet most Israelis will prefer the difficult and creative challenge of regional coexistence to the familiar zest of embattled siege.
The negotiators at Camp David may have shown deficient tact in allotting so large a place in their program to Jordan without associating Jordan in their discussion. But this failure does not liberate Jordan from the inescapable fact that a decision by King Hussein in June 1967 created the anomalies and tensions that surround the future of the West Bank. If most Israelis believe that it would be rational to trust a Jordanian role in preventing injury to Israel's security from the West Bank, whereas it would be foolhardy to entrust that function to Palestinians affiliated to the PLO, it follows that Jordan's refusal to join the Camp David agreements has the paradoxical effect of prolonging direct Israeli administration beyond Israel's own desire. The irony is all the deeper when we reflect that King Hussein was the intellectual pioneer of the notion that, since Israel was manifestly permanent, it would be more rational and useful for the Arab world to come to terms with her than to sustain the endless misery of an interminable state of war. There are moments in international, as in national life, when passivity is an extreme form of intervention, and on the wrong side at that.
To associate Jordan in the peace process may be more feasible after the Egyptian treaty is concluded than before. Washington showed an excess of zeal by undertaking diversionary conversations with Jordanian and West Bank leaders at a time when every resource and preoccupation should have been focused on the Egyptian treaty.
In the final resort, the Arab cause in the West Bank will stand or fall by the decision of the Palestinian Arabs. Their diplomatic history refutes any idea that nations usually act in their own best interest. They have invariably rejected what has been available to them, only to look back nostalgically on the rejected proposal after its availability had expired. I should be less than frank if I were to deny that there are those in Israel who count, without excessive anguish, on the likelihood that this will happen again.
But there is also a deep stirring of minds and consciences in Israel, greatly stimulated by Sadat's audacious voyage; and the desire to explore a new harmony between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs has taken a strong hold on the national imagination. Many of us who thought that there were better solutions than the "self-government" proposal of Camp David are supporting that proposal precisely because of its open character. If it does not satisfy the Palestinian national ambition, it certainly does not preclude any rational option; and it can be left to the momentum of historical development to decode the obscurities of the Camp David accords. The Palestine Arabs have the great advantage of their massive physical presence. When the status of areas is decided, this reality cannot for long be ignored.
My experience teaches me that men and nations do behave wisely, once they have exhausted all the other alternatives. All of us in the Middle East share great burdens of regret for the rich potentialities that have been allowed to flow away into an ocean of tears that need never have been shed. Our goal today should be not merely a secure peace, but the creation of a Middle Eastern community of sovereign states, with a free commerce of men and goods moving across open bridges and borders in such intensity of interaction, such mutuality of discourse and contact, that in the course of time we shall hardly be mindful of where the political boundaries are.
1 Walid Khalidi: "Thinking the Unthinkable: A Sovereign Palestinian State," Foreign Affairs, July 1978, p. 695.
2 Ibid., p. 696.