Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 19, 1983, Page 7

Book Review

Negotiating For Peace In The Middle East

By Ismail Fahmy. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983. 331 pp. $25.00

Reviewed by Russell Warren Howe

Autobiographers and memorialists, like lawyers, present a one-sided case; but former Egyptian foreign minister Ismail Fahmy, the perspicacious strong-minded servant of a flawed, vainglorious leader, has probably written the best "insider" book on Sadat so far. Is this Cairene Machiavelli self-serving when he approves an Egyptian emissary meeting Dayan in Rabat, then resigns over Sadat's visit to Israel? At least, he can cite Dayan himself to show that the Egyptians saw Rabat as a way station to Geneva, not Jerusalem. If economic warfare is the most civilized form of conflict, why did he not insist more on preserving the oil embargo until it had achieved really concrete pressure on Israel? Well, he concedes that the embargo was "lifted too soon."

The most unusual revelation in this book comes in Romania, where Nicolae Ceausescu, playing his pivotal role in bringing Sadat and Begin together, tells Fahmy of Begin's plan for a Palestinian homeland. This is not to be in the West Bank and Gaza, but in a Gaza-sized sliver of coast just south of Lebanon. Is there some religious significance in this? Did the Twelve Tribes never settle in Acre or Haifa? Fahmy understandably did not believe the offer was serious.

Expelling the Soviets

As an undersecretary, Fahmy came to Sadat's attention when, in an improvised address to a symposium, he suggested that Cairo balance its ties to Moscow with closer links to Washington. This, he says, helped inspire Sadat's 1972 expulsion of the huge Soviet military mission, which in turn prompted Moscow to reingratiate itself by increased military supplies, which made possible the politico-military victory of 1973.

The blunt Fahmy soon established a close relationship with a president who usually preferred sycophants in the Arab ministerial tradition. Sadat, at this point, was "distrustful and contemptuous of those around him," Fahmy recalls, describing the man who fell into power by being Nasser's cypher as "complex but not sophisticated."

As Jimmy Carter and Cyrus Vance have both told this reviewer, in interviews, Sadat had a short attention span and relied heavily on others, including Kissinger and Carter, to do his "thinking." Then, he would issue a pharaonic edict. As Fahmy puts it, "he lacked the patience and tenacity to follow through till the end, often making split-second decisions out of frustration, thereby wrecking a delicate balance achieved during painstaking negotiations, (even) totally reversing direction." A humane if often ineffectual prince, he would lavish praise on his courtier for his "brilliant" proposals—then do the opposite.

Fahmy understood that nothing short of a well-planned military strike would shatter Israel's arrogant complacency. Sadat followed through in 1973, with Israel being rescued by U.S. re-supply, satellite pictures of Egyptian forces, and advisors, which a timid Moscow did not match. Fahmy asserts that it was against his advice that Sadat refused the first cease-fire, sought by both Syria and Israel when Egyptian forces had the advantage, then agreed to one when the tides of war had changed and he had no choice. But he says that Assad lied to Sadat by denying that he had asked Moscow to help arrange a cease-fire.

Fahmy is excellent on the deviousness of Kissinger's diplomacy, the patriotic excuse for which was that it put the U.S. in the driver's seat. He also makes a convincing case of Kissinger's dual loyalty to Tel Aviv, as his Watergate-obsessed president delegated more and more proconsular power, to the distaste of Fahmy, who found Nixon strong in resisting Israel and its lobby. But, on the whole, the American and Egyptian Machiavellis seemed to have understood each other well.

Sadat's Impulses

Fahmy faults Sadat for impulsively agreeing to a prisoner exchange and giving away bargaining chips (such as agreeing to reopen the Canal) without obtaining serious concessions, leaving Damascus stranded and only able to regain some territory in exchange for a lifting of the oil embargo. The 1973 war finally led to the abortive first Geneva conference and the imposition of Kissinger's step-by-step shuttle diplomacy.

The author praises the Carter Administration for wanting an overall solution, involving the Soviet Union. This meant a revival of Geneva, where Arafat had agreed to be represented by a Palestinian-American, Prof. Edward Said of Columbia. Israel, of course, resisted such a negotiation, preferring to pick off the Arab countries one by one. Fahmy resisted urgings to meet privately with Dayan; Kissinger, out of office, but still doing Israel's bidding, even offered to arrange a secret tryst on the Rockefeller estate.

In the end, without informing Carter in advance, Sadat side-tracked Geneva by announcing his trip to Jerusalem, with its attendant media hype. Fahmy resigned. Carter had no choice but to see if the Knesset caper would work. The result was Camp David, a separate peace, an isolated Egypt, an invasion of Lebanon, and the prospect of still another Arab-Israeli war, more deadly than the others. 

Russell Warren Howe is diplomatic correspondent of The Washington Times and U.S. correspondent of Al-Majalla.

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