ON YOM KIPPUR a decade ago, Egyptian forces attacked Israel as her people fasted in commemoration of the Day of the Atonement, a ritual that God required of Moses and all Jews from the days of their deliverance from the detested land of the Nile hundreds upon hundreds of years before. Thus began the October War, which led unexpectedly to the peace of Camp David six years later.
Today, that treaty between Egypt and Israel has turned into a “cold peace,” with bitter recriminations on both sides. But Israel is too busy disengaging from the Lebanese War in the north to bother much with its longtime adversary across the Sinai. It was during that war a little more than a year ago that Mark Briskman of Dallas’ Anti-Defamation League (ADL) first approached me about traveling to Israel and Egypt in 1983 with a group of congressmen, their wives, another journalist and some ADL members. I hadn’t been to the Middle East since 1965 (when Jerusalem was still a divided city and you had to make an eerie passage through the Mendelbaum Gate to get from the Jordanian to the Israeli side), so I said yes.
What I found almost 20 years later was an Egypt that’s as desperately poor as ever (with the capacity to grow only half its own food) and an Israel that’s stretching her prosperity dangerously thin (inflation is 125 percent) to finance a war footing that seems endless. There may be cold peace in the south, but you have only to go to the Lebanese border to see Israel’s persistent problems in the north.
We went to the part of the Israel-Lebanon border known as “The Good Fence.” It was through here that the sick and wounded from the Lebanese Civil War of 1975 could pass through the barbed-wire barrier and receive medical care from Israeli attendants. Fratricide still rages across that fence. Only two weeks before, some of the combatants had pulled up to a Christian broadcasting station and left their car parked in front with a bomb inside that exploded, razing the station.
All that we could see was a hulk of dusty gray metal that once was the transmitter. It was important not to step too close; mines were still along the barbed wire. Not too far away was the sound of shells exploding. The Israeli Defense Force, we were told, was on maneuvers.
Our escort officer described Israel’s withdrawal from the Chuf mountains near Beirut to a new line along the Awali River. He told us about the Druze (a secretive Islamic sect), the Maronite Christians, the Sunni and Shiite Moslims and the other multifarious ethnic groups that abound with frightening variety and fanaticism. Each is configured into its own militia and stands ready to tear tiny Lebanon apart again as soon as the Israelis pull out-which, of course, they cannot do. Not if they want to maintain peace in Galilee, which was the purpose of the invasion of Lebanon last summer.
In that operation, Israel managed to disband the PLO and stop the shelling that had plagued kibbutzim and settlers in the north for years. Kibbutz children are no longer sleeping in underground shelters at night, and people are returning to Galilee to live. According to Uri Porat, press secretary to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the PLO is virtually under the command of the Syrians in northern Lebanon, and Yassir Arafat is “a general without an army.”
We toured the military installations of the Golan Heights, saw their enormous strategic importance to Israel and Syria (on a clear day you can see almost to Damascus, less than 40 miles away) and left for the gentler reaches of Nazareth. Outside the town, nestled among orange trees, apple trees and date palms, there’s a handsome church built by Mussolini-of all people-on the mount where Christ is said to have given his famous sermon. Briskman asked State Rep. John Bryant of Dallas, who comes from a family of Methodist ministers, to read the Beatitudes.
Pressing on to Jerusalem, I pondered over this land of wildly prolific religious imagination. The Greeks were more creative in statesmanship, sculpture and architecture, and the Romans had a stronger grasp of engineering. But the Jewish matrix had in it a startling gift for abstraction. No “graven images” were permitted. So this culture, steeped in spiritual insight, manifests itself in a hillside city with a cubist composition that C坢zanne would have recognized as a work of subtle genius.
Much has been done to restore the old city of Jerusalem since it was reunited after the 1967 war. Today, Israelis feel great vexation that the United States will not recognize it as the capital of the country. When Defense Minister Moshe Arens agreed to meet with the congressmen of our group at his office in East Jerusalem, Steve Bartlett of Dallas decided not to go because he felt obligated to uphold the U.S. policy that Jerusalem’s future should be settled as a part of the Camp David peace process. Bartlett says that he believes it will one day be recognized as a united city.
In meeting with Prime Minister Menachem Begin, we got no hint of the resignation that was soon to come. Alarmingly frail, Begin nonetheless had an aura of patience and determination. His resignation only a week after our seeing him was a shock, even though the evidence of deep fatigue and discouragement was there for all to see. His last words to us were, “Maybe the next time you come to Jerusalem, things will be better.”
Things are not good now. Israel has lost 500 men in the Lebanese War and seems bogged down there for the indefinite future. This means that Army Reserve soldiers who are needed in the home economy are not available to mind the nation’s stores, services, farms and industries.
Jewish settlements on the West Bank remain controversial; some Israelis advocate returning much of that land to Jordan for use by the Palestinians. This is the position of Professor Yehoshaphat Harkabi, former chief of military intelligence under Ben Gurion. Citing all politics as “a choice between bad and worse,” the professor says that if Israel annexes the West Bank and Gaza, it will mean the “Belfastization” of these areas. Israel, he says, will immediately become 40 percent Arab. Violence and terrorism will become common-place. He fears that Israel is overreaching herself, trying to maintain a military presence in Lebanon that he warns “is bleeding us white.” With brilliant forcefulness, the professor contends that Israel cannot sustain its current position as watchdog of the Middle East for long.
What does Begin’s (now Shamir’s) Likud coalition say in response to such adamant criticism from so distinguished a source? The professor is “depressed and pessimistic,” according to Ehud Olmert, who has spent 10 years in the Knesset. The government, he says, is ready to get on with the peace process prescribed in the Camp David accords. If Egypt, Jordan and the PLO don’t want to negotiate, he says, Israel might implement the process unilaterally-hold local elections in Arab communities on the West Bank and eventually share with Arabs the authority over activities such as health and commerce. The primary point is that Israel must remain responsible for security in the region. In the Middle East, military preeminence is everything. That’s why the Saudis are not more influential. Money is nothing compared to military might.
It’s also the reason Israeli Major Raanan Gissin will give no quarter when it comes to his army’s control of the West Bank. The distances in his country, he says, are very short. Territory is time to detect an early warning of attack. Territory is time to prepare and retaliate. His most telling point is that even if the West Bank were returned to Jordan as a homeland for the Palestinians (a gift that King Hussein has not been eager to receive), it’s unlikely that Jordan would be strong enough to hold the area. The Syrians would move in, backed by Russian arms, and Israel would be at war again.
Weaker powers are always overtaken by stronger powers in the Middle East, says the major. (Witness Iran: When Khomeini took over, Iraq attacked.) “In the Middle East,” Gissin explains with fierce articulation, “we fight ’medieval wars’ face to face with tanks, guns, conventional lines and weapons.” A nuclear balance of terror with mutual assured destruction won’t work in this part of the world. “The Middle East,” he says, “is like the Mafia.”
One Arab state that tried for reason after a long history of reckless warfare is Egypt. We arrived in Cairo at midnight and found several officials from the American Embassy on the runway to meet our plane. There was a briefing for us at the embassy the next morning, in which charge d’affaires Henry Precht described Egypt’s sense of humiliation over Israel’s invasion of Lebanon without consulting its new-found partner in peace. So distressed was Egypt, said Precht, that the government had recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv and would not return him until Israeli forces were entirely out of Lebanon.
The high point of our two days in Egypt was to have been a meeting with President Mubarak, who had been described to me by an Israeli official as being totally controlled by Usama el-Baz, a Rasputin-type who serves as head of the presidential bureau for political affairs. The Israeli had further described Mubarak as “a general, not a statesman-ignorant of politics and trying to please everybody.”
Unfortunately, he was not given the opportunity to please our delegation. At the end of our morning briefing, Precht informed us that only the congressmen were invited to meet the president. Bartlett, Bryant, Ron Coleman of El Paso and Gerry Sikorski of Minnesota decided that they didn’t want to go without at least six members of the ADL. Precht was asked to convey this message to the presidential palace.
By the next morning, after numerous conversations, it was decided that the meeting with Mubarak would not take place and that we would go instead to visit the ancient tombs and temples of Sakkara.
There was ill feeling on both sides, and it was only heightened by a stop on the way to the airport that night to see the spot where Sadat was assassinated. Having spent two days in Egypt, surrounded by bodyguards and game-playing diplomats, I appreciated all the more the enormity of Sadat’s accomplishment: He could lead these earnest but deeply suspicious people into peace.
Landing in Tel Aviv late that night, I thought about the recurring theme that we had heard in our meetings with Israeli officials: It takes a long time to change attitudes in the Middle East. Egypt changed. Sadat realized that the cost of war was too high. Next must come Jordan. Then Syria. Then Iraq. When Israel has peace with two of these three nations, said Maj. Gissin, then its position in the West Bank might change.
For now, it’s a mistake for an American to stay too long in the Middle East. There’s a magnetic pull to psychological essentials that cut so close to the bone of life here that it’s hard to maintain the urbane balance we’ve come to expect of ourselves. Diplomats lose it and slip into cynicism. Ordinary citizens become soldiers of zealous intensity. Those who can’t withstand the pressure dig into the archaeology of the past and immerse themselves in the origins of their tribal aspirations. The Middle East gets under the skin, especially in October, when the twin passions of war and religion converged 10 years ago to remind us of our terrible fragility and our disastrous conceit.