Four decades have passed since the beginning of the Arab-Israeli peace process at Camp David, the country retreat of the President of the United States. After such a long time, observers can only reflect on the events of the Arab-Israeli conflict and lament, especially given the fact that the process has become a series of fruitless negotiations with no goal other than to task the Arabs with securing Israel while getting nothing in return.
The Arabs began to make mistakes from the first moment that they thought of accepting peace with Israel; the option of peace is old and precedes the Oslo, Madrid and Camp David agreements. Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser did not oppose ending the state of war with Israel, but based on objective terms, the first of which was its withdrawal from the occupied Arab territories. This not only meant the Sinai Peninsula, or any of the partially occupied land, but the occupied territories as a whole.
In addition to the great personal differences between Nasser and Anwar Sadat, the latter benefited from the lessons of the Nasserite era, especially with regard to the manner of managing the conflict with Israel. The result was full conviction in the need for the Egyptian and Arab stakes to be changed from relying on a strong relationship with the Soviet Union to dealing directly with the United States, and making it their sole sponsor. This would put the reins in Washington’s hands alone, and not in the hands of any other superpower. According to Sadat himself, he believed that 99 per cent of the cards were in US hands.
With regards to the Arab states, the memoirs of Egyptian politicians and diplomats have revealed that Sadat was not seeking peace on his own, as he was consulting with Arab leaders and officials, including Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad. However, the disparity between the initial refusal to enter into a peaceful settlement and the objection to the way it was launched prevented the formation of a collective, unified Arab position.
As such, Sadat cannot be held solely responsible for this division, as Arab countries fearing the exposure of their reliance on, and legitimacy gained from, the conflict with Israel were also responsible, along with other countries that were not directly involved in the conflict, but which saw Sadat’s endeavour as an opportunity to eliminate Egypt, steal its leadership position and even isolate it. Caught between all of these countries, the Palestinians were confused. Arafat almost went to the Mena House Hotel — where the preparatory negotiations were held, and the Palestinian flag was still raised until the last day — but he was under pressure and temptation from the Arab parties that feared the Palestinians would join Sadat.
It was not wrong to make the shift towards peace rather than war. The mistake lies in the approach taken to reach peace, and then later in abandoning the rationale behind war or peace, which is the restoration of basic human rights.
According to information and documents revealed over the past four decades, the face of the Arab region would have been different if the Arabs had accepted a peace agreement from the outset. If that were to happen, the Arab negotiating position would have been stronger, and the Arabs would have achieved much greater benefits from the Madrid, Oslo, Wadi Araba and Camp David agreements. If the Arabs were present, Sadat would not have made concessions that prompted his then foreign minister, Mohamed Ibrahim Kamel, to resign in the middle of the negotiation process.
Four decades ago, Camp David was the beginning of the Arab divide over the management of the conflict with Israel. It took the Arabs a long time before they learned from their mistakes arising from absence. Now, it seems that they have not learned from Sadat’s mistake of rushing into things. The Arabs are following in Sadat’s footsteps by restricting sponsorship of an agreement to the US, and have gone even further than Sadat by begging for peace and admitting openly and officially that they have no other options available. Sadat, however, entered peace talks with a military victory behind him, thus ensuring that he would be able to negotiate from a position of strength.
Just as the Arabs erred in the beginning, they also erred at the end, as they joined the agreement process later, and under even more unfair conditions than those proposed in Camp David. Now they are ignoring the reason behind the negotiations and the original goal. If Camp David failed to bring the Arabs together and achieve a fair and comprehensive peace based on the restoration of Arab rights, then forty years later there is no hope for achieving anything from futile negotiations that have no clear objective or principles governing them. There is simply no room in these negotiations for recovering land or restoring rights.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 24 September 2018.