Back Door Channels: The Price of Peace.Part I: Sadat’s Visit to Jerusalem.06.05.13

Back Door Channels: The Price of Peace                                                            06.05.13

Part I: Sadat’s Visit to Jerusalem


Howard Adelman

The title of today’s blog is taken from the documentary directed by Harry Hunkele called Back Door Channels: The Price of Peace which I saw at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival but was too busy to write about it during that busy film week. The film is available on Netflix or on a DVD. It is not a new film; an early version was shown at the 2009 Monte-Carlo Television Festival, premiered at the Abu Dabai Film Festival in October 2010 and was screened at Cannes in 2011. The title also belongs to the book of one of the important individuals involved as a back channel conduit featured prominently in the film, Leon H. Charney, and from whom the director clearly borrowed a great deal in dealing with the Camp David segment.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been long and appears intractable. In these types of conflicts, military forces and diplomats alone rarely achieve peace. Complex approaches are used involving a multitude of agents in addition to diplomats and soldiers – academics, human rights activists, conflict resolution experts, businessmen. These are referred to as Track II initiatives. They bring parties together and can focus on joint projects and building trust even when the parties are technically at war. They also offer a parallel path for contacts. Track I and Track II efforts can be clandestine or open. The use of clandestine contacts, dubbed back door channels through trusted private individuals or politicians, has been a part of virtually every peace negotiation in history. This film purports to focus on those back door channels. Having been involved in several Track II efforts, some clandestine, I was very interested in seeing the film.

The documentary is about the efforts and personalities who brought together first Anwar Al-Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem, then the Camp David Accords and finally the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt that followed. The film, as the subtitle indicates, is also about the consequences of such peace efforts to the principals involved. The film contends that all three principals, Anwar Al-Sadat, Menachem Begin and Jimmy Carter at Camp David, paid a huge price for making peace before the finale focuses on allusions to the present with clips of Obama presumably from his speech in Cairo.

Let me deal with the conceit, indeed, distortion, that all three leaders paid a great price to make peace. Unquestionably, Sadat did. He was assassinated for signing the Camp David Peace Agreement. In fact, the film slides over the fact that his Prime Minister resigned over the issue and most of his advisors refused to attend the signing ceremony. This is important for it was relevant to whether Israel could be confident that a peace agreement would hold. It did hold, but it turned out to be a cold peace that today is under threat of unravelling.

The suggestion is made that Begin also paid a high price. His colleagues, who had accompanied him through his long years in the underground and in the wilderness of the opposition, accused him of betrayal according to Hunkele. Further, as he stalled on the second half of the peace agreement dealing with the Palestinians, Ezer Weisman resigned from his cabinet – though the film does not deal with these events. The filmmaker believes that Begin then invaded Lebanon in 1982 to prove to everyone he was not a softie or an appeaser, and, following that calamitous decision, in 1983 withdrew into isolation as a seriously diminished individual, ended as a recluse and thus became a victim of signing the Accords.

I do not even find this argument plausible, but perhaps some case could be made for it.  The film never even tries to make the case. This is not true for the explanation of Jimmy Carter losing the bid for re-election. In the Q&A that followed the showing, Harry Hunkele was asked why, if Jimmy Carter played such an important role in making peace, he developed so much ill will in the Jewish community in America. Hunkele presumed the questioner was referring to Carter`s statement about Israel being an apartheid state, and said that he believed that this was a result of Carter becoming frustrated with Israeli intransigence on the Palestinian peace front.

It is hard to believe that this is what he actually said. It only indicated to me that a director can make a very effective and powerful film, especially out of such historically important material, and still be relatively ignorant about the subject matter he is covering. Carter did not just make one statement about apartheid. He wrote a book called Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, a polemic against Israel, Israeli politicians and Israeli Jewish and gentile supporters in America based on distortions, misinformation and exaggerations that help sabotage rather than advance peace. And it is not just an aside. Carter’s obsession with Israel and his hatred of Begin have never abated.

What about then? It is certainly true that Carter`s support in the American Jewish community fell from 72% in his first election bid to 45% in his bid for re-election. But to connect that fall in support to Carter`s facilitating the Camp David Accords and subsequently the Camp David Peace Agreement is more than a stretch. Look at the facts. 

Carter no sooner took office than he alienated the Jewish community by calling for a Palestinian homeland. Such a vision might be considered prophetic, not simply because I held that view at the time, but it ran strongly against both community beliefs and the back door efforts underway in the seventies to make a deal with Jordan. Second, in the Spring of 1978, Carter sold Saudi Arabia America’s top fighter, the F-15; recall that Mark Siegel, who helped initiate the Holocaust Museum in Washington and forge Carter’s generous policy towards Soviet Jews, resigned from Carter’s White House staff over the issue. Third, Zbignew Brzezinski, who was Carter`s Security Advisor and plays a prominent role in the film, worked with Carter to get Sadat and Begin to attend a Geneva Conference with the goal of producing a comprehensive and all-encompassing peace agreement, an initiative that both Sadat and Begin regarded as foolish and incapable of producing results. Fourth, after Sadat made his historic visit to Jerusalem in November 1977 `behind Jimmy`s back`, Carter had to reverse gears and remake his strategic approach. Carter deserves credit that he did change his approach and took the lead in inviting Begin and Sadat to Camp David against the advice of his closest associates.

Carter also deserves credit for the effective and determined role he played in Camp David, quite aside from all his mistakes. He also has to be given enormous credit, again in spite of his many fumbles, for helping translate that peace accord into a full-fledged peace agreement. At that time, his support within the Jewish community was strong. But the Jewish community, like the American community in general, turned against Carter on all kinds of grounds – his handling of the Panama Canal issue for one. But most of all it was over the failure to rescue the American hostages in Iran that stood in such blatant contrast to the successful Israeli efforts at Entebbe a few years before and his failed negotiations to bring the hostages home.

The Iran Hostage Crisis was sufficient to ensure his defeat. But there were other reasons which guaranteed a landslide victory for Reagan. The Soviets marched into Afghanistan on his watch just after he signed an arms control treaty with Leonid Brezhnev. The American military was perceived as having been gutted so that America could no longer project strength abroad to intimidate adventurism. The American economy was in a shambles suffering from both high inflation and stagnation – stagflation. I spent five days with President Carter in Atlanta over African issues in the 1990s at the CarterCenter. I came to Atlanta with little knowledge of him and a general appreciation for what he accomplished at Camp David.

I left totally disillusioned and convinced that the impression of his fellow leaders in NATO of him as incompetent – obsessed with a combination of high moral principles and meticulous mastery of details that were often irrelevant – had been correct. In my five days with him, he displayed a quite stubborn determination to get his way whatever the objections raised to his proposals for dealing with a particular African problem. In spite of his mastery of facts, he never let an inconvenient fact falsify a conviction he held. His understatement, impish smile and sparkling eyes disguised his powerful will. He was always simplistic even though he had a great capacity to know all kinds of minute details on a subject. He projected a combination of 100% dogmatic assurance who liked to be surrounded by sycophants while underneath being very insecure and uncertain, a state of mind which he covered with dogmatic adhesiveness. The Jewish community – like every other community – had a great many reasons to vote against him. Camp David was unlikely one of them. Rather than paying a price for Camp David, Camp David is perhaps the only action that saves Carter from total ignominy.

Part of the problem of the film is that it covers three phases of the peace process instead of concentrating on the last two where Carter was most effective after the parties themselves arranged the Jerusalem visit in spite of Carter’s deeply flawed and distracting if not destructive Geneva efforts. The back door channels to achieve the first stage could have been easily covered without getting into distractions. Given that the first five minutes of the film are taken up with a silly cartoonish and potted history of the conflict from the split between Abraham’s two sons thousands of years ago to the 1970s that mixed historical film footage with computer-generated imagery was enough to drive you out of the theatre. The film could have started with the October 1973 war and its legacy.

We are approaching the 35th anniversary of 17 September 1978 when President Jimmy Carter brought President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel together to the White House to sign the Camp David Accords, the document outlining how they would subsequently agree to end the state of war between the two countries and also attack the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The film could also have begun much more organically with the historic victory of Menachem Begin over Shimon Peres that thrust all us peaceniks into deep doldrums and a sense that we would never get peace. How then did the first major breakthrough come with Egypt? What role did clandestine contacts play? Such a focus, if one obtained access to the right persons, could not help but be a powerful film.

In the first phase of the process to set up the historic visit of Sadat to Jerusalem, I happened to be living in Jerusalem; I was a Lady Davis Visiting Professor at Hebrew University for 1977-1978. Though I managed to wangle my way into the Jerusalem Theatre to hear Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres, I knew nothing at the time of the convoluted back door efforts that had been used to bring about that historic visit. But even before those back door processes through Romania and Morocco could be explored, setting the context of the implausibility of pulling off such a venture is critical.

My own knowledge of the backdrop came from Aziz Sidqi who was Prime Minster of Egypt from 1972 until after the Yom Kippur War. We spent four days together in Amman at a conference and the two of us spent a day off hiking through the hills of Jordan. He was a bright economist with a PhD from Harvard, but with a very jaundiced view of politics. When we went on that hike, he had taken time off from his business as a candy importer. He had been driven from office by orchestrated protests by a cabinet colleague against price controls he had lifted as part of a comprehensive effort to free up the rigidities of the Egyptian economy. In 1973, on the eve of the Yom Kippur War, he was in London with his wife who was due to be operated on the next day. Sadat summoned him back to London. Two hours before the war started, he, as Prime minister, was informed. Prior to that, Sadat had told only the Defence Minister and the Minister of Intelligence.  

Sadat was determined to change the ground rules, get back the Sinai and go to war since it seemed that the Israelis, particularly Golda Maier, was not receptive and could not hear his back door overtures. Win or lose, the Sinai campaign would change everything. Against the overwhelming advice of his associates, in spite of the détente in place between the US and the USSR since 1972, and in secrecy with few knowing, he decided to go to war in October. His intelligence service projected that the war would cost the lives of 30,000 Egyptian soldiers. He himself expected 10,000 dead. He wanted change and took the risk. The initial attack cost just over 200 Egyptian soldiers lives.

And change came, even though Israel finally recovered from the not-so-surprise attack if the Israeli government leaders had heeded the signals. In the end, Sadat suffered a profound military defeat. However, it was a diplomatic and political victory. Israel’s post-1967 sense of invulnerability was crushed. Egyptians hailed the defeat as a great military accomplishment just because they so successfully broke through the Bar-Lev line and did not suffer nearly the number of casualties predicted. His domestic and worldwide prestige was enormous. He had earned a great deal of political capital. He had also developed a deep personal emotional motivation to pursue peace which the film does deal with – the loss of his son-in-law in the October War. He now had to find parties on the other side that could hear his message.

In spite of America’s deafness to his back door approaches to Washington that rivalled the auditory blockages in Jerusalem, Sadat had also decided to realign with America rather than the USSR, move strongly towards a more open economy, rebuild his army with superior western arms (and correspondingly fewer troops) and redefine foreign policy in terms of placing a priority on Egyptian rather than Arab interests. The 1973 war would be Egypt’s last war with Israel. Military preparations would accord with that objective and shift the threat perception once a peace agreement could be concluded, at great savings to the Egyptian economy. The first and second disengagement agreements of 1974 and 1975 between Egypt and Israel, the joint Egyptian-Israeli patrols in the Sinai, the attendance of Egyptian and Israeli academics at conferences together and the joint experience of Israeli and Egyptian officers taking the same advanced military courses in Britain and America bore enormous fruit in creating pockets of background trust. (See the account of Ahmed Fakhr of his relationship developed over a year in London with General Ari Brown of the IDF who had been an aide to Defense Minister Moshe Dayan.)

These initiatives had allowed Sadat to seed his rapprochement plan at lower levels. These were different aspects of Track II (though not back door) diplomacy underway. Some reference to these initiatives would have made clearer why and when clandestine moves on either Track I or Track II are necessary and helpful since that is the subject of the film. The opportunity was lost. It was important to state that Sadat was not just interested in peace with Israel but in a total realignment of the region and, in particular, Egypt’s new efforts to enable Egypt to foster peace in the whole region, west and south as well as east, and to secure Egypt’s most vital interest, the waters of the Nile. Given what subsequently took place in Sudan and then Libya, Sadat was very prescient. 

Further, in addition to the economic domestic agenda, Sadat had a political domestic agenda for which these moves were prerequisites. Sadat directed the military to stay out of politics on all levels and moved ballot boxes out of military bases as a key step towards democratization, a multiparty system and a freer civil society.

It is against this background, most of which was accessible to Mossad, that Sadat renewed his primary back door peace initiative by planning to go to Jerusalem. Now that much of the Israeli archives are open from that period and can be accessed on the internet, the secret documents are available for all to see. As suggested by pictorial images and interviews with a veteran journalist in the film, on 4 September 1977, two and one-half months before Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem on 20 November, Ceausescu met secretly with Begin in Romania where Begin was told with certain conviction that Sadat wanted a high level meeting between Egyptian and Israeli representatives. Whatever the awful character of Ceausescu as a dictator, Romania was the only country behind the iron curtain that had not broken diplomatic relations with Israel after the Six Day War. Further, Ceausescu was a reliable intermediary with a formidable ability to recall conversations in great detail. In the same meeting – this was 1977 – Ceausescu told Begin that Arafat was willing to recognize Israel in exchange for recognition of the PLO and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. 

Israel immediately stepped up another back door channel through Morocco’s King Hassan II and confirmed what they had been told by Ceausescu. This is also in the film. A disguised Moshe Dayan flew to Morocco and his entourage was housed in the king’s official guest house next to his private villa with a secret back door specifically designed for back door diplomacy. I thought the director missed a chance to introduce a cartoon version of all this literal back door diplomacy, including a caricature of Dayan in disguise. Dayan met with Prime Minister Hassan Tohami. Mossad made meticulous notes of the meeting. This was an initiative without American involvement because the Americans were stubbornly pursuing a wrong track. The message was clear. The Arab countries wanted to curb Palestinian radicalism because it was infectious and posed a danger to their regimes. Peace was necessary and the opening to that route was now available through Egypt. 

The highway for Sadat to travel to Jerusalem had been built. In spite of the snipers placed in locations around the airport lest a Trojan Horse arrive, something I did not know until I saw the film, Sadat came and won the hearts and minds of the majority of Israelis. The doorway to peace had been opened.

Next: Back Door Channels: The Price of Peace – Part II: The Camp David Accords

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