Behind the Headlines Sadat’s Credibility Gap

One of the main lessons of Egypt’s conduct throughout the disengagement talks was a very pronounced gap–completely unbridgeable–between statements for public consumption and real bargaining positions In fact, as one observer here put it, nothing said by the Egyptians in public ever reached the ears either of Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger or the Israeli negotiators in private. Thus, those Israelis who tended since the Yom Kippur War to accept Egyptian statements substantially at face value are once again questioning the true significance of what they hear on Cairo Radio or read in the Egyptian press.

The same goes for Egyptians themselves. Once misled by President Anwar Sadat concerning Egypt’s conditions for a disengagement, other Arab governments too will now add more than a grain of salt to every Egyptian declaration in the future. It seems that Sadat deliberately initiated this new credibility gap. He was prepared to sacrifice the newly-won confidence in Egypt’s word, of which he was so proud, for the sake of an immediate political goal. Sadat decided upon a campaign of mis-information in order to be able to carry through the negotiations unhindered.

Apparently, he felt that by admitting in advance Egypt’s real terms he would invite unbearable Arab pressure to discontinue the disengagement talks. That was why he chose to disguise his real conditions behind a heavy smoke screen of tough propaganda. Arab reaction to the disengagements terms in fact justified his concern. Iraq, Libya and a considerable section of the Palestinian armed organizations have denounced Sadat’s move as a sell-out to the U.S. Others, notably Saudi Arabia, Syria and Algeria, were somewhat more reserved in their response although clearly suspicious of this “separate settlement.”

To allay these suspicions Sadat embarked immediately, after the agreement was signed upon a “clarification offensive” aimed at convincing both his Arab and Soviet allies that Cairo would stop at this point and go no further towards settlement unless accompanied by Syria and the Palestinians. But Sadat still has lots of explaining to do. The major discrepancies between Egypt’s public pronouncements and his real positions were:

Line of Israeli withdrawal: Egypt said publicly it would not tolerate continued Israeli occupation of the Mitia-Gidi line. Hassanein Heykal, Al Ahram’s editor, wrote that such a continued Israeli presence would be “disaster” for the Arabs. And a Cairo radio commentator declared that an El Arish-Ras Muhamad line would be Egypt’s minimal demand. Yet Sadat finally accepted Israeli troops 10 kilometers west of the passes.

Thinning out of forces: Every Egyptian spokesman took pains to stress that the east bank of the canal was Egyptian sovereign territory so there could be no question concerning the number or strength of forces stationed there. However, Sadat agreed to retain there only 7000 soldiers out of the 70,000 he now has there with only 30 of the 700 tanks, few artillery batteries and no missiles.

The canal and its cities: The Egyptians rejected all hints that the canal should be reopened once the disengagement was completed. Yet Sadat assured Israel through Kissinger that this is exactly what they are going to do now–and without delay.

Israel’s west bank enclave: For months now Egyptian generals, politicians and journalists told their public that the Israel-west bank force could be wiped out within 24 hours. They tried to depict these troops as “hostages” rather than as a threat to Egypt. Suddenly, once the agreement was signed, Egyptian spokesmen switched to explanations that operations to drive Israelis out would have meant 15,000 Egyptian casualties.

How did Sadat explain these contradictions? We still do not know. However, one thing is almost certain. From now on he will have to be much more careful. The old trick of deliberate misinformation against one’s own allies cannot be used too often without boomeranging one way or another. The next stage of the Geneva conference may well be the victim of Sadat’s narrowed scope for maneuver. He could hardly hope to try once again to “go it alone,” explaining to his allies what he was doing only once it was done.

NEXT STORY