Behind the Headlines the Complexity of the Summit Talks

It is not yet time to attempt a post mortem on the Camp David summit. But certain questions were pressing themselves insistently at the weekend after several days of intensive efforts to negotiate some sort of success for the nearly two-week long conference. (See P. 3 for latest developments at Camp David.)

What was Israeli Premier Menachem Begin doing while other Israeli ministers were talking with President Anwar Sadat and other Egyptian officials? Were the relations between him and Sadat so poor they simply could not meet together? Was President Carter involved himself in the minutiae of drafting? Was he playing a middle-man role? Were these, then, proximity talks? If so, could this be termed a summit?

These were some of the queries that were fired at Presidential Press Secretary Jody Powell during the “crucial,” “final, ” ” intense and specific” period of the conference.

His replies were themselves instructive in their diplomatic elegance. He had not made a practice, he said, of reporting on the three principals’ activities when they were not involved in formal negotiating sessions, and so he could not say precisely how the Israeli Premier occupied himself when his ministers were meeting with Sadat.

He had no way of “temperature-taking,” Powell noted, on the state of personal relations between the two leaders. He was not present at their initial meetings, together with Carter, 10 days ago, and so he couldn’t characterize the atmosphere that prevailed at them.

As for Carter’s role in the talks, the President was certainly “involving himself, directly and indirectly, ” in all aspects of the conference, including the drafting. But, interestingly, Powell omitted to report officially the fact that Carter had been sitting for long hours with the legal aides of the two delegations, separately and together.

THE RELATIONS BETWEEN BEGIN AND SADAT

On reflection, the questions regarding the personal relationship between the two leaders, and the inferences implied in them, seemed slightly simplistic. International affairs on the highest level are not conducted on the basis of personal likes and dislikes. Statesmen cannot afford to allow their social sentiments to impinge on their perception and pursuit of national interests. Exceptionally, a leader arises who does allow himself that luxury. Sadat is not such an exception and nor, of course, is Begin.

Sadat has known how to play the game of likes and dislikes these past 10 months since his visit to Jerusalem to the discomfiture of the Israeli Cabinet. But ultimately, he must have known all along that, so long as that discomfiture did not become a disintegration, his partner for peace or war was Begin–like him or not. And he came to Camp David in the clear knowledge that no disintegration had in fact set in Jerusalem. More to the point, then, in trying to understand the negotiating process at Camp David, is to recall a report by Hooretz’s reliable Yoel Markus early in the summit to the effect that Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan had suggested, and the Americans agreed to, postpone Sadat-Begin one-to-one sessions until the agreement was all but concluded.

The Premier’s spokesman, Dan Patir, hotly denied that report. But then, neither Dayan nor the Americans would have been particularly anxious to confirm it to him. Patir, at any rate, gave a reason for the Sadat-Begin disengagement which certainly had a measure of logic to it.

Sadat-Begin encounters, he said, were by their nature the “court of last instance” from which there could be no appeal. In other words, if the two of them became deadlocked over any issue, despite the proddings and promptings of Carter, there would be nowhere else to turn to.

THE WEAKNESS OF THE THESIS

But the logic had a weakness in it: It begged the question–why have a summit? After all, Sadat had sat with Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizman half a dozen times these past few months. On occasion they even neared agreement–only for Sadat to back-track or for Weizman to discover that he did not carry his Premier and his Cabinet with him. That is part of the history that preceded the Camp David summit. And, after all, the definition of a summit is a series of meetings by the people at the top.

Thus, while accepting Patir’s thesis as a partial explanation, some observers believed there was another factor that must be recognized: this summit was not symmetrical.

On the Egyptian side, there was Sadat, unquestionably alone at the apex of a retinue of subordinates. On the Israeli side there was a team of three ministers plus former Attorney General Aharon Barak, with Begin certainly and unchallengeably the first among equals but not the splendid autocrat that Sadat is. In large part, that was perhaps a consequence of the Israeli system of Cabinet government, and of the specific play of forces at work in the present government and Knesset.

THE INTERNAL ISRAELI CONSTELLATION

Ironically, Begin could have had it otherwise, certainly as regards Weizman, whose counterparts, Egyptian War Minister Mohammed Gamassy and U.S. Defense Secretary Harold Brown, were not participants at this conference. But the Premier, out of shrewd political calculations, deliberately insisted that Weizman attend–so as to associate him in the outcome of the summit, for better or for worse.

The Americans and the Egyptians naturally made the most of this internal Israeli constellation, as they had indeed tried to do ever since the peace initiative was launched.

They were acutely conscious of the disparate political constituencies back home to whom Begin, Dayan and Weizman each owe their accounting. And, perhaps more importantly, they were aware of the differences on the issues between the three men ( what are delicately referred to in Hebrew officialese as “Hevdelei Nuancim” ). They were aware that Weizman’s devotion to the dogma of Eretz Israel seems less tenacious than Begin’s, and that Dayan’s

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