It has been thirty-six years since President Sadat shocked the world by flying to visit his neighbors in the Jewish State. In those heady days, events between Israel and Egypt seemed like a mirage, the unreal only appearing to be real. If I hadn’t witnessed the limousine personally, I probably wouldn’t have believed it. There was the great man, himself, waving to me as his vehicle sped by on the old road to Jerusalem. Sitting on my tractor at the edge of a cotton field, I naturally waved back. In those days my knowledge of politics was limited. I was a twelve-hour-a-day farmer but, like everyone in the country at that time, history being made in front of your very eyes was intoxicating, stunning and hopeful, oh so very hopeful.
Years later, in the cold light of day, the truth of the political reality behind this event was sobering, yet very instructive. Five months before President Sadat’s arrival, Menachem Begin had created his own political earthquake by defeating the Labor Party establishment. PM Begin became Israel’s first right-wing leader. Seven months earlier, another outsider calling himself a simple peanut farmer came to power in Washington, D.C. His name was Jimmy Carter. These three men were destined to make history together, but not because their actions were coordinated. On the contrary, history was made because Carter’s actions were at odds with the other two leaders and the vast majority of his own Congress.
Carter’s foreign policy team took its Middle East advice from the Brookings Institute. Brookings had written an alternative paradigm for the Middle East peace process in 1975. In the report Brookings took a comprehensive approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Co-authored by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the report also placed the Palestinians at the very center of the region’s problems. Carter advocated PLO involvement and the convening of an international conference with the Soviet Union as an equal participant. The Carter team believed that all Middle East problems could be solved in a simultaneous manner once the central question of Palestinian representation was resolved. This thesis turned out to be not only wrong, but also politically naive and electorally damaging.
Begin chose Moshe Dayan as his Foreign Minister. Dayan had been a Labor Party stalwart. For his Defense Minister, Begin chose another Labor Party insider, Ezer Weizman. Both of these men had giant reputations and gave the new Begin team political gravitas and a kind of national unity character. Dayan, especially, understood the extreme radical nature of the Carter approach. To him the PLO was anathema to a peaceful settlement of the conflict. In Dayan’s mind, the two banks of the Jordan River amounted to a political as well as a geographic whole. Israeli security and Jordanian royal political survival demanded an exclusion of Arafat and his Black September militia from an entry to the West Bank. Dayan understood that the West Bank is the gateway to the East Bank. In those days, the entire Hashemite ruling family were also of one mind on the importance of maintaining a presence on both sides of the river.
Begin and Dayan formed a formidable obstacle to the new Carter and Brzezinski paradigm. But instead of confrontation, they held their cards close to their vests. Meanwhile, in Egypt, Sadat fumed. A comprehensive approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict was viewed in Cairo as a long shot. Arafat had re-positioned his forces in Lebanon after their defeat in the Jordanian civil war. The Syrians under Assad did not favor an independent Palestinian state. In fact they saw Israel and the two banks of the Jordan, as well as Lebanon, as historic Syria. With Arafat mired in the Lebanese civil war and Assad the final arbiter to the same conflict, the PLO had no room to maneuver with the Americans. Sadat understood that in this environment, an international conference was a recipe for stalemate.
Carter and Brzezinski didn’t get it. The new paradigm was comprehensive, but the Arab world had always been disunited and remained so. Meanwhile, the new Israeli Foreign Minister had kept quite mum on the idea of Soviet participation at the international conference. Brzezinski took this to mean Israeli acquiescence. But it was not. Dayan had snookered the administration into believing it was on the right track. But the entire Republican Party and most of the Democratic Party were aghast. At the height of the Cold War, it was tantamount to heresy to allow the Soviet Union to play any kind of role in the oil strategic Middle East. Congress and the media punished Carter, and only Sadat’s brilliant move saved what was left of his foreign policy reputation.
Fast-forward to early November 2013. President Obama has now become the new Jimmy Carter. He is completely out of touch with the US Congress on issues of Middle East policy. On Israel-Palestine, his Secretary of State still holds to the Carter-Brookings paradigm on an independent West Bank Palestinian state. Twenty years after the signing of the Oslo Accords, with no hint of progress, the idea seems unworkable. Yet Obama and Kerry remain convinced they’re onto something. Most Congressional observers view the process as tinged with a certain amount of hubris. Since the so-called Arab Spring (and for many even much earlier) the Palestinians are tangential to the central focus of the Middle East struggle. Yet the administration labors on as if the sectarian divide across the region is inconsequential to the future of Jordan and Israel. Moshe Dayan must be turning in his grave.
On the issue of an American-Iranian rapprochement, Congress and the administration seem to be in near open conflict. If you watched the Wendy Sherman interview on Israeli television, there was almost zero mention of Iran’s role in the region. It’s as if the entire nuclear question is somehow unrelated to the Shia ascendancy in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Perhaps for the administration, it is. But Congress doesn’t feel that way. Last Friday, a powerful letter was sent by members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, both Republican and Democrat, urging the president to insist that Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki stop the Iranian military flights destined for Syria through Iraq’s airspace. On Thursday of last week, the very same committee held a hearing on Syria. Again the administration was lambasted for its indecision and lack of foresight. With Revolutionary Guards on the ground, Hezbollah in Syria is now taking direct orders from Tehran. Meanwhile Iraqi Shia soldiers are being recruited and trained for combat in Syria by those same Revolutionary Guards. Yet al-Maliki has the audacity to ask for helicopter gunships.
Now the administration is desperately seeking a Congressional halt to a tougher sanction regime on Iran. But for that to happen, a much broader explanation of presidential strategy has become long overdue. For members of Congress, the foreign policy elite appears hesitant and removed from the reality on the ground. For Arabs and Israelis, who live on that same ground, the issue is Iranian policy in its totality. This is not some negotiation game to be played at the Brookings Institute. It is real life, and its consequences affect real people. Many years ago, the Washington think-tank insiders got it all wrong. But unlike Jimmy Carter, there probably won’t be an Anwar Sadat to bail out Barack Obama.