4 February 2021
Peace In Our Time
In the Middle East
by J.R. Thomas
Readers are asked to excuse a modest personal reminiscence. In 1979 I realised that I had made a fundamental career misdirection. Surprisingly, my boss concurred, but was kind enough to finance some modest escape arrangements. So with a positive bank balance and under a female thumb I suddenly discovered that what I wanted to do was to depart to live on a Kibbutz in Israel.
May 1979 was, with hindsight, a singularly inappropriate time for an enthusiast of politics to leave the UK; the long economic and political stagnation was about to end dramatically when, unexpectedly, Mrs M Thatcher and the Conservatives won the general election. But it was, in compensation, a wonderful time to be in Israel; indeed, for travellers the best time since the formation of the state in 1948. In fact it was probably the best time until the present day.
The Israeli Prime Minister was Menachem Begin, who had won by a landslide in 1977, after years in the political wilderness. He was 64, not in the best of health, intense and rather humourless, best known in the UK for his role as a freedom fighter (label that as you wish) in the struggle that led to Israeli independence in 1948, and in particular for his leading of the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1945. That caused a much higher death toll than the bombers had had in mind and was instrumental in both de-escalating the violence of the struggle, and in particular, changing Begin’s approach to how such a struggle should be conducted. But the popular view of him even in the 1970’s was of a hardliner who would not compromise any attempt to protect the state of Israel or her citizens.
Yet, as so often, it is the least likely ones that become the makers of great change. By the time he became Prime Minister, Begin had become a humble and thoughtful man. He had formed the view that the long-term security of his country would be best served by making peace with Israel’s neighbours; the luck that fell into his lap was that had become also the view of Israel’s long term adversary, Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt. Sadat was a former senior Egyptian army officer, who had fought the Israeli’s in the 1967 war and again as president, and disastrously, in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Sadat, like Begin, had come to the view that his country could only prosper in conditions of peace with its neighbour. In 1974 he began through a series of minor treaties to form links with the Israeli government, and in 1977 paid a formal visit to Jerusalem to meet Begin. That process was encouraged by the Americans under Jimmie Carter, who finally brokered a meeting at the American presidential retreat of Camp David in 1978 which resulted in a full peace treaty, the resolution of all outstanding issues, and a growing friendship between Israel, Egypt, the USA, and Iran.
Being in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in 1979 could not have been better timed. The Israeli economy was flourishing (although inflation was rampant), most domestic restrictions had been lifted, and it was possible to visit all parts of the country (armed soldiers on some buses though). The substantial Arab and Palestinian population were slightly cynical as to the future, but Begin’s economic and educational reforms had improved the lives of many and things looked promising. Which was not to say that everybody was happy. Indeed, the most unhappy were Begin’s own back benchers; they particularly opposed his handing back of much occupied territory in Sinai – of no economic value but of great strategic importance. He was only able to carry that through with support from the opposition. Failing health and opposition within his own party meant he was unable to prevent continuing Israeli settlement of large parts of the Golan Heights and Gaza. After a badly conducted military campaign against Lebanon, Begin had to resign – a fate better than his fellow peacemaker Sadat, assassinated in 1981 by army officers furious at the concessions to Israel, Sadat’s growing closeness to the USA, and his friendship with the deposed Shah of Iran, given political sanctuary in Egypt. Within four years of the Camp David Agreement, Israel was once again arming her borders, suffering internal terrorist attacks and external threats, and travel for tourists and Westerners generally became difficult and more risky. The days when kibbutzniks could wear a Coco-Cola T shirt overprinted “Sadat-Begin: It’s The Real Thing” (as I did) had certainly gone.
Which is how things have stayed until the last four years or so. Israel is led once again by a highly controversial figure, Benjamin Netanyahu, but quietly he has reached across the sands, as Begin did, to try to build strategic and long-term peaceful relationships with Israel’s neighbours. And quietly, very quietly, that has been reciprocated. Not from Egypt this time, but, more remarkably, from Saudi Arabia, from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, heir to the throne and Prime Minister. There is a lesson here and a very old one, concerning soft smiles and big sticks. The Prince and Mr Netanyahu are both regarded as tough guys, inside and outside their countries (other comments have been made about their respective styles of government but we won’t venture there). But they also are clever strategists who know that the best thing they can give their countries is peaceful co-existence. Prince Mohammed in particular has read the drifting sands very carefully and can feel the threat to Saudi coming from across the Persian Gulf, from Iran, which would like to see the governments of both Israel and Saudi Arabia replaced by theocratic administrations. Increasingly the countries of the Middle East are having to take sides, and if that means for Moslem countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrein and Morocco, finding themselves in a Saudi camp alongside an Israeli tent, well, so be it. The diplomacy of the Trump administration, not something which features much in the media, must be recorded as a major success in getting this group of nations on friendly terms.
The Netanyahu government is acutely aware that this gathering of smaller nations into a huddle which includes Israeli, the ancient enemy, is a painful thing for them, and for their citizens. So over the past year Israel has devoted much effort to a cyber hands-and-minds campaign, to modestly show what Israel has achieved in its 73 years of existence, and how that could come true for its neighbours in a peaceful Middle East. They also demonstrate what has happened to Iranian client states such as Syria and Iraq, and what a disaster that would be both for the populace and for ruling regimes (Israel remains the only true democracy in the area.) It is a clever and thoughtful campaign, with a claimed 80 million internet page views in 2020 (the Israel Arab Facebook page has nearly 3 million followers). It seems to be working, and Arab views of Israel are improving (not so much it has to be said among Palestinian people, but even there Israel is making great practical and on-line efforts to improve its standing).
There is a long way to go before everybody is good friends. Middle Eastern rulers remember only too clearly what happened to Sadat, for one thing. But the realities of strategic alliances and the benefits of peaceful co-existence have never been clearer in this violent part of the world. Maybe it’s a bit early to lay in a stock of XXL Coco-Cola shirts over-printed “Netanyahu-HRH Prince Mohammed – It’s The Real Thing” but give it a couple of years and you never know.
Tile photo by Fabienne Sypowski-Meyer on Unsplash