An insider's view of the peace process

No sooner had George Bush delivered his speech at Aqaba, did the road to peace become bumpier. But there may still be hope, as a former US negotiator explains.

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By  Massoud Derhally Published  July 3, 2003

|~||~||~|On October 7, the second day of the 1973 October war, the White House got a message through CIA channels from Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. The message, addressed to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon, said: “I know that while the war is going on, we’re going to be on opposite sides; it’s inevitable. But I want you to understand why I went to war. I didn’t go to war to destroy Israel; I went to war to destroy the stalemate, and when the war is over I want you Americans to step in and help find a diplomatic solution to this conflict.”

This, according to William Quandt, a Camp David participant and former National Security staff member under presidents Nixon and Carter, was the first communication of this kind the United States received from Sadat.

From his office in Virginia, Quandt described in an exclusive interview the elements that paved the way to Camp David, his views on attempts by subsequent administrations to forge peace at various junctures, the different personalities at the negotiating table and what he considers the essentials to reaching a future settlement.

The message the White House got from Sadat set the ball rolling. “[It] got Kissinger thinking about the moment the war is over. He would have to get busy working on a political settlement,” says Quandt. As the October war was coming to a close, Kissinger became determined not to let the Israelis destroy the Egyptian Army, as he knew such an eventuality would make it impossible for Sadat to negotiate.

When the Camp David summit commenced, it came five years after the war, and after a period of intensive diplomacy. “We all had a pretty good sense of what the possible outcome would look like,” says Quandt, adding: “The question mark was not so much about the content of the Egyptian-Israeli agreement, but how much more we could get beyond a bilateral agreement.” As Quandt describes it, everyone entering negotiations had a notion that if peace were achieved between Egypt and Israel, then it would entail the return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in return for the recognition of Israel and security.

There is nothing comparable today. The situation on the ground is worse. Much in line with the general perception in the Middle East, Quandt agrees that US President George W. Bush has systematically kept his distance from being engaged in the prickly issues of peacemaking, until now. “There is no momentum to build on and, instead of having two relatively strong leaders on respective sides of the conflict, we have one very strong leader in Sharon and one untested leader in Abu Mazen.”

For former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who was a real ideologue, anything that came close to suggesting Israel would be obliged someday to give up its claim to the West Bank was impossible for him to agree to. This, according to Quandt, is what differs about Ariel Sharon. “Begin could be pragmatic about issues in Sinai, even relinquishing settlements, and talking rationally about security arrangements. [But] if we tried to put language into the framework agreement, which suggested that after a transitional period, a final agreement would be based on Israeli withdrawal in return for recognition and peace with the Palestinians, he wouldn’t do it. He wouldn’t use the words West Bank; he wouldn’t allow Jerusalem as a topic to be negotiated. He was adamant on those issues.”

At one point in the negotiations, Begin said, “I won’t be prime minister forever; maybe my successor will have a different view, but I’m not going to be the prime minister of Israel who gives up our claim to Judea and Samaria.” This prompted the Americans to try everything they could to leave a little room for flexibility. But Begin wouldn’t do it. “He was a tough bargainer but at the end of the day he would make concessions if necessary.”

By contrast, Sharon appears more flexible. Unlike Begin, Sharon doesn’t have the ideological conviction that every inch of what Israel calls Judea and Samaria must remain under Israeli control. He has a well-developed security map in his head, and knows where the settlements and the strategic areas that Israel needs to keep are ­ no matter what, says Quandt. “Where he will not show flexibility is on Jerusalem or removing the large settlements or on returning to the 1967 lines with minor modifications. Those I think are his red lines.”

The estimation among most observers is that Sharon will avoid confrontation over these issues now by acknowledging they are for the final phase of negotiations. “The closer they get to the issues of refugee rights, final borders, Jerusalem, removal of settlements - at that point Sharon begins to show his determination not to budge.”
But there is room for optimism. Quandt believes sometimes diplomacy can turn things around and that in the midst of uncertainty previously shut doors can open.

The makings of such a situation may be in place. The Palestinians are eager not to be seen as the obstacle to peacemaking under Abu Mazen. Ariel Sharon has a strong interest not to be blamed for sabotaging a US-led initiative that has strategic goals going well beyond Israeli-Palestinian peace. “I think for Bush this is an attempt to demonstrate to sceptics in the Arab world that the US is not totally one-sided,” says Quandt, adding that he doesn’t “actually trust this administration to go through more than just the symbolic motions of getting engaged.”
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Unlike 25 years ago, when Carter spent a marathon 14 days at Camp David, Bush was at the Aqaba summit for one day. This, according to Quandt, is a major difference. “Clinton, who for all of his amateurness in the way he conducted the negotiations, nonetheless invested a huge amount of his personal and political capital in developing relations with Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak and earlier with Yitzhak Rabin,” says Quandt. “He knew the issues much better than this president does. He had a certain amount of credibility, but in the end he failed.”

Bush also enters the negotiations with much political support at home, but he is untested on these issues. He is up for re-election next year and that is problematic. When Clinton convened his summit at Camp David, he didn’t have to worry about re-election in 2000 and so the dynamics were different. “Carter by inclination wasn’t a very politically minded person. For him, going to the summit in the second year of his presidency [meant] he wasn’t thinking of how this would affect his re-election chances,” says Quandt.

Next to the domestic considerations is the realization that negotiations are never clear-cut and turn out to be strange. Quandt characterizes the atmosphere at these get-togethers as one where the parties don’t want to talk to each other nearly as much as they want to talk to the United States. When Sadat sat down with Carter at Camp David, he gave him a formal Egyptian proposal. At the same time, according to Quandt, Sadat gave Carter all of the concessions he was prepared to make and said; “Now you do the negotiating for me. You know what my position is, but get something for all the concessions I am prepared to make.”

The Americans, as a result, ended up doing most of the negotiating; knowing that on one or two points Sadat was unshakeable. The question now is not simply whether Bush is willing to engage himself deeply in the negotiations, but how he can avoid a potential stalemate and its detritus. “Leaders have to be able to see a package, in which for every concession they make, they have to get something; otherwise, it is politically nonviable,” says Quandt, “That’s where the US can be helpful by saying ‘we’ll take the blame for putting the package together.’ That is a role the US has been reluctant to play but it’s an important one.”

The US must create a win-win situation for all those involved. It has to identify painful trade-offs and it “has to play a more imaginative role in proposing solutions to substantive issues, and not just get the parties together,” says Quandt.

Reflecting on past negotiations, Quandt says: “Dayan came to us once and said, ‘We’re prepared to make concessions to the Egyptians but for political reasons we can’t just propose to the Egyptians what we’re prepared to concede. It’s just not viable. If you Americans make this proposal and force us to accept it, then politically our public will understand why we had to go along with it.’”

America aside, the Palestinians and the Israelis should follow a certain level of decorum, says Quandt. Each side must begin to say in public what is consistent with the idea that a new phase is beginning. That means talking about the peaceful relationship they hope to see emerge.

“You can’t demonize the other side while you’re making peace with them,” says Quandt. Additionally, the serious negotiations have to be done outside the public arena, initiated in confidential channels and kept secret for quite some time. “The trade-offs that have to be considered are very sensitive ones, and they need to find a way to negotiate without constantly leaking the content of the negotiations in a way that embarrasses the other side.”

The meeting in Aqaba is a poignant step toward achieving an agreement that would capture what has been an elusive and bitter struggle for peace. It was undeniably Bush’s moment of reckoning, and all eyes will be watching to see if he will be able to deliver. ||**||

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