The bellboy who showed me to my hotel room hardly knew what I was doing here. Talks? What talks? Was Premier Menachem Begin of Israel here in Alexandria?
The bellboy was not an exception. Israel’s peace with Egypt was hardly the talk of the town as Begin and President Anwar Sadat met here for two days. Few Egyptians seemed excited about the goings on, or the peace process. In fact, the reaction on the part of the Israeli public is not much better. Only two weeks ago former Defense Minister Ezer Weizman said on Israeli television that the government has succeeded in destroying the joy of peace among Israelis. There is no longer that joy of peace in Egypt, either.
When Begin’s motorcade raced through the empty streets of Alexandria there was nothing reminiscent of the large crowds which greeted him cheerfully two years earlier in the same city. The million-and-a-half Egyptians in town this week were much more concerned about swimming and bathing in the Mediterranean than about the visiting Israeli leader.
I wondered whether this was because of the lack of progress in the autonomy talks or merely because of the inconvenience the visit caused, as the main streets were closed to traffic and the usual traffic jams became even worse. Both, it seems were true. As a Jerusalemite I recalled the problems caused by similar state visits in that city, including the general havoc in the routine of daily activities. But when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Nixon created commotion and tumult during their visits to Jerusalem in the 1970s, we accepted it with love. We knew that it was history in the making.
In Alexandria, the Israeli journalists who accompanied Begin also had the feeling that the making of history had slowed down somewhat, and perhaps this was the reason for the lack of enthusiasm by all the parties concerned — the bellboy, the general public and also Begin and Sadat. Begin would not have minded if time had stopped altogether.
THE AGONY OF WITHDRAWING FROM SINAI
It is now eight months before the last Israeli soldier will leave Sinai, when Israel is due to return the area to Egypt under the peace plan. Begin is well aware of the threats of the Yamit settlers and their supporters to do everything in their power to prevent Israel’s withdrawal. He is aware, too, and remembers the bitter charges by the Labor Alignment opposition that peace could have been achieved without giving up the settlements so easily. Sadat, on the other hand, has made it quite clear in the past and again this week, that the settlements must return to Egyptian sovereignty.
Begin probably would not mind something happening that would spare him the moment when the Israeli flag is to be removed from Yamit and the Egyptian flag flies there in its stead. But Begin’s politics are guided by legal formalities and the written word. The written word makes it quite clear that by April 25 there will no longer be any Israeli presence in Sinai — and he intends to adhere to that commitment, despite strong opposition.
REALITY AND THE WRITTEN WORD
Begin’s sensitivity about the written word was quite apparent at the press conference he and Sadat held here yesterday at the end of their two-day summit. He again spent time quoting Palestine Liberation Organization resolutions and statements to show why Israel would never talk to the PLO. He kept referring journalists to the Camp David accords which spoke of Palestinian participation in the Jordanian and Egyptian delegations to the autonomy talks — not of a separate Palestinian delegation.
Sadat did not comment. After all, why should he? All he cares about presently is that the withdrawal will take place in time, and he is ready to ignore and swallow a great deal until that time arrives, including Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor which came two days after his summit meeting in Sharm el Sheikh last June, and the bombing of terrorist headquarters in Beirut last month with its heavy toll in civilian lives.
Sadat confirmed at the press conference that these two incidents were raised in his talks with Begin, but “I prefer not to comment.” Asked whether he could promise Israel that he would continue the peace process after Israel’s final withdrawal from Sinai, Sadat did not use the phrase that has become traditional for him, “no more war.”
He let Begin announce, instead, that he was confident Egypt would not go back on its peace commitment. Yes, Sadat conceded, there are some difficulties in implementing the process of normalizing relations between Egypt and Israel “but I have already instructed my Foreign Minister to see to it that they are overcome.” It had a familiar ring.
Sadat began the press conference with an announcement that the autonomy talks, “the full autonomy talks,” as both he and Begin stressed, would resume next month. He ended it by declaring that, yes, he was an optimist by nature and that it was still possible to conclude the talks by the end of the year, as he had declared before. If not, well, things don’t always happen on schedule … just as long as the Israelis leave Sinai on schedule.
The journalists at the press conference came away with the feeling that they already heard this before. Begin and Sadat appeared to feel the same way.
NO EXCITEMENT ABOUT PEACE
After leaving the press conference I drove to Cairo, a three-hour drive along a boring flat road through the Egyptian delta with its shabby and dirty towns with millions of people. Poverty and misery are visible everywhere, and one is not surprised that Egyptians are no longer excited about peace. The Egyptians had hoped that peace would bring a radical change in their way of life.
While there are changes, they are hardly radical. The social and economic problems are too complex to surmount in such a short period of time since Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977. What are some of the changes? Egyptians are investing a great deal of effort and money in developing such things as traffic lights and the telephone system, both of which operated much smoother this time than they did shortly after Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem.
Yet, peace is a reality. It was amazing to me to be able to introduce myself anywhere (perhaps almost anywhere) in Egypt as an Israeli and feel safe — and often even welcome. But this is not the kind of peace we Israelis dreamed about. We thought that peace with Egypt would be the beginning of a new era, that the gates would be open to us in the entire Arab Mideast. But this seems as far away as ever. Perhaps we are not modest enough, perhaps we should be happy with what has already been achieved — and hope for the better.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.