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From Camp David to the Gulf: Negotiations, Language and Propaganda, and War.

It has long been a staple of U.S. discourse about the Arab-Israeli conflict that Arab rejectionism was the obstacle to peace, not U.S.-Israeli intransigence. So deeply entrenched is this belief that Arab concessions to U.S.-Israeli negotiating demands are invariably portrayed as an about-face on the part of some Arab leader as he climbed down from his rejectionist and maximalist stand. When, in reality, it was Israel and Washington that refused to budge from their rejectionist stands, forcing an often-times desperate and autocratic Anwar Sadat or Yasser Arafat to literally sue for peace by abandoning already moderate and conciliatory positions.

Adel Safty's work is in essence a counter to this official version of history, so far as it concerns Americans, Israelis, and I suspect even many Arabs. In so doing, Safty follows a path already cut by Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Norman Finkelstein and others, but a lonely path just the same. His work is informed by interviews and discussions with numerous Egyptian intellectuals and government officials, including Mohammed Ibrahim Kamel, the former Foreign Minister of Egypt, Boutros Ghali, and others.

In a section on the Camp David Accords, Safty demonstrates that as early as 1971, the leadership of Israel's most powerful Arab foe concluded that Egypt could not win a military conflict against a U.S.-backed Israel, and therefore had to pursue a negotiated settlement. This simple fact, amply documented, is still largely foreign to educated discourse in the U.S., which tends to speak of "breakthroughs" and even of "miracles" when developments surpass their simplistic analyses of the conflict.

Safty retraces how Sadat moved Egypt from a pan-Arab strategy, which incidentally proved highly effective during the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War, to an Egypt-first line. Although Sadat was able to enlist the help of writers like Nagib Mahfouz and Tawfiq Al-Hakim, support for the policy shift from Egypt's intelligentsia was largely lacking. A chapter is devoted to rehearsing the developments that led to Sadat's fateful journey to Jerusalem. Of special note is Safty's discussion of the economic reasons behind Sadat's trip, which should be compared to U.S. rhetoric about Sadat undergoing some kind of religious conversion.

Safty's reconstruction of the twists and rums in the Egyptian-Israeli negotiations is particularly striking against the backdrop of the recent Palestinians-Israeli negotiations. It is difficult not to be struck by the parallels. Anwar Sadat is frustrated by Israel's intransigence. Sadat meets with Jimmy Carter. Sadat is mollified. Carter meets with Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan. The latter wonders whether Sadat's stated position about not being able to proceed without Jordan's King Hussein is serious or mere rhetoric. "Carter replied that Sadat might be satisfied with a simple declaration of principles. . . . The declaration of principles of the so-called framework for a comprehensive settlement would in effect be nothing more than what Dayan accurately understood it to be: words serving as a cover to enable Sadat to conclude a separate agreement with Israel" (p.74).

The parallels between the Egyptian and Palestinian agreements are inescapable. In each case, Israel attacked neighboring Lebanon just before a key turning point in developments, leaving death and destruction in its wake. In each case, the Israelis succeeded in isolating the self-appointed leader of the Arab side from his respective entourage and extracting concessions from him against the advice of his negotiators and advisors. One need only substitute Rabin and Arafat for Begin and Sadat in the following passage:

In contrast to Begin and his negotiating team who showed firm commitments to positions from which they generally did not budge, Sadat adopted positions which were elastic, highly flexible, and often contradictory. His decision-making and negotiating strategies involved deceptions and manipulation, but generally vis-a-vis his own Ministers and Arab allies. Whereas Begin, Dayan, and Weizmann avoided making commitments by saying they had to have cabinet approvals, Sadat often made decisions alone without consultations and sometimes even without the knowledge of his advisors and Ministers; his unilateral decisions were made on the spot and in private meetings with Israeli and American negotiators. When his Ministers were not kept in the dark and objected to a particular decision he ignored them. When the Americans asked for more concessions he obliged "as a favor" to his friend Carter and unilaterally reversed previously established policy decisions agreed upon by the Cabinet. (pp.89-90).

In light of Sadat's (and Arafat's) negotiating antics, autocratic behavior, and impulsive concessions, it is surprising that criticism of the agreements with Israel was not louder than it actually was. What Americans and others were told, however, was that Sadat was way ahead of his people; the latter unable to shake off their automatic rejection and hatred of the Jews. In reality, as Safty demonstrates, opposition to the Accords cut across wide sections of Egypt's political and intellectual classes, and importantly opposition was not against a peace with Israel per se, but against Sadat's unilateral concessions on Egypt's negotiating principles which required Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab territories, restitution of Palestinian national rights, and achievement of a comprehensive peace treaty. All of this and much more was buried beneath the U.S. media's adulation of Sadat.

To take only one example of Egyptian criticism of Camp David, the surviving Free Officers issued a long, detailed statement on the Accords, which, incidentally, never found its way into the U.S. news media, for obvious reasons. One prescient statement there captures, I think, the essence of the agreement that Israel reached with a desperate Yasser Arafat in Cairo some sixteen years later. "Egypt," the Free Officers concluded, "has committed itself to Israeli security, but has overlooked its own present and future security." (p.101) Because of its immediate applicability to the present, Safty's book should be read by every Arab desirous of placing the PLO-Israeli accords in historical perspective.

Safty's work is in actuality several works in one. Part I is devoted mainly to reconstructing developments on the Egyptian-Israeli front during the Seventies. This section concludes with a chapter on "Language and Propaganda." Although it is difficult to reconcile its inclusion, the chapter merits consideration by readers. Taking a cue from a work by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, in which the authors propose and test a propaganda model to describe and predict the workings of the corporate-run news media, Safty briefly examines the "dominant discourse of interpretation" employed by the news media "to report on and analyze the Palestine question." (p. 144)

Safty examines the conventional discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict against Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the subsequent Palestinian Intifada. The review is not exhaustive, but is sufficient to establish the contours of the traditional line on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and, importantly, its resilience in the face of contradictory historical and diplomatic facts, and the mountain of outrages committed by the Israeli army and police in Lebanon and in the Occupied Territories.

While his overarching conclusion about the resilience of the conventional line is essentially accurate, I think it overlooks certain subtle shifts in media coverage of Israel. Torture, once an unmentionable word in the context of Israel, is slowly making a regular appearance in major media coverage of Israeli treatment of Palestinian prisoners. This shift is partly due to criticism leveled against Amnesty International and other human rights organizations who hewed the conventional line that Israel only employed "moderate physical pressure" on detainees in its prisons. Once respectable human rights organizations, led by Israeli-based B'Tselem, abandoned the party line, the major media, in particular the New York Times, slowly and grudgingly changed their tune.

If Part I should be mandatory reading for all Arabs, Part II on the Gulf crisis should be read by all Americans. Readers familiar with the ins and outs of Bush's war preparations against Iraq will find little new here. But Safty's reconstruction of the period will be illuminating to those who cheered the war on, especially because he provides a badly needed Arab perspective on the crisis.

Chapter Seven, "Negotiations or War?" is an excellent review of Iraqi and other attempts to arrive at a political solution to the crisis, and U.S. successes in thwarting them. Paradoxically, it is Washington's successes that largely tie together the seemingly disparate events covered in this work, forming its powerful, but unspoken subtext.

Nabeel Abraham teaches anthropology at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Michigan.
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Author:Abraham, Nabeel
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1994
Words:1395
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