Negotiating Gaza: Lessons from 1977

by Thomas W. Lippman

To understand why Israel and Hamas keep fighting, and why Secretary of State John Kerry was unable to forge a permanent peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, it helps to do some homework. Read Volume 8 of the State Department’s “Foreign Relations of the United States” series for 1977-80, the years of Jimmy Carter.

It is a 1,303-page compilation of declassified documents—presidential letters, intelligence assessments, memoranda of conversation—covering the 20 months of intense Middle East diplomacy between Carter’s inauguration in January 1977 to his decision to convene the famous trilateral summit at Camp David. The principal characters are Carter, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, but much of the heavy lifting is done by their foreign affairs ministers, Moshe Dayan of Israel, Ismail Fahmy of Egypt, and Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, along with their professional staffs.

What the documents show is that despite herculean efforts, especially by Carter himself, and huge investments of time, diplomacy failed. Sadat undertook his daring trip to Jerusalem in November 1977 and Carter summoned the other two to Camp David because only extraordinary, game-changing gambles produced any real movement on the intractable issues the negotiators faced. Suspicion ran deep, antagonisms were entrenched, and history was implacable, especially for the Israelis. Not even the combined weight of the United States and Soviet Union could bring the Israelis and Egyptians—to say nothing of the Syrians—to the comprehensive, once-and-for-all regional solution that all professed to want.

The fate of the West Bank, which Israel referred to as Judea and Samaria, defied every formula offered for resolving it, just as it does today. As for Gaza, it was a stepchild of the negotiations throughout—nobody really wanted it. And while everyone agreed that peace must be based on US Security Council Resolution 242—the “land for peace” formula adopted after the 1967 war—the negotiators spent endless hours arguing about what that resolution required.

Resolution 242, which even today provides the theoretical framework upon which negotiations between Israel and the Arabs would be based, stipulated the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” and recognized “the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.” It also called for the “withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict,” but it did not say “all territories” or even “the territories.” Israel said any withdrawal from the lands it captured in 1967 was negotiable and would not necessarily apply to all of them—the Sinai Peninsula, which belonged to Egypt, the Gaza Strip, which had been under Egyptian administration, Syria’s Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem and the West Bank, which from 1948 to 1967 had been part of Jordan. The Arabs naturally argued that since 242 declared the acquisition of territory by war inadmissible, the resolution obviously applied to all the occupied lands.

Another major stumbling block at the time was the refusal of Israel, supported by the United States, to have any dealings with anyone associated with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which it regarded as a group of terrorists decided to Israel’s destruction. Israel’s view was that before 1967 the West Bank belonged to Jordan, and its inhabitants were citizens of Jordan, and therefore its future would be negotiated with Jordan alone. The problem with that was that an Arab summit conference had stripped Jordan of its claim to the West Bank and declared the PLO to be the “sole legitimate representative” of the Palestinian people.

And then there was the composition of the delegations that would negotiate at Geneva. Syria’s Hafez Assad, father of the current president, fearful that Sadat would strike a separate peace with Israel and abandon the other Arabs, wanted a single, unified Arab delegation. That was unacceptable to Sadat, who understood that nothing would be accomplished if every Arab participant had a de facto veto over decisions by the others.

Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who understood that Sadat was impatient but the Israelis were not, told Carter that “the priority of Israel’s policy now seems to be to make a fairly attractive offer to Egypt in order to tempt Sadat into a separate deal. This would allow Israel to put off movement on the Syrian front and to avoid the Palestinian-West Bank issues altogether.”

He was right about Israel’s negotiating strategy. Begin’s Likud Party was elected in the spring of 1977 on a platform that called for keeping the West Bank and encouraging Jewish settlements there. The Labor Party, which had run Israel since statehood in 1948, had been somewhat more forthcoming about the possibility of territorial compromise, but Begin was a hard-line Zionist who believed in Israel’s right to all the land from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.

In the quest for the Holy Grail of Geneva, everyone traveled extensively in an endless summer of fruitless haggling over how to proceed. These were negotiations about negotiating, arguments of stupefying legalistic tedium about who would participate, under what circumstances, and what the agenda would be. Would there be a single Arab delegation, or several? If single, would there then be “working groups” for specific country-by-country issues? What would Israel accept on the subject of Palestinian refugees? Who would speak for the Palestinians? Would Jordan participate? Would Syria? What would be the role of the Soviet Union, co-chairman of the proposed conference? Should there be agreement beforehand on a “declaration of principles?” Would the specific language of 242 be the basic reference point, or would it be somehow modified? Would Geneva be a ceremonial event, at which agreements already reached would be signed, or the forum for the hard work of negotiating? If Israel were somehow to agree to pull out of the West Bank, who should take over now that Jordan had been stripped of its claim?

Carter, who had stunned everyone in March by volunteering the view that peace would require the establishment of a “homeland” for the Palestinians, soon concluded that Israel’s positions were the biggest obstacle to peace and let his feelings show in public—stirring anger in the American Jewish community and anxiety among his political advisers. Camp David was a last-ditch, high-stakes shot at a breakthrough.

Some of the roadblocks on the path to peace were removed at Camp David and in the subsequent negotiations over the peace between Israel and Egypt, a treaty that left the Palestinian issue unresolved and was achieved only when the United States and Egypt gave up on Geneva. Other issues, such as Israel’s refusal to negotiate with the PLO, were resolved years later, at Oslo.

The Arabs argue today that one of Israel’s greatest issues, the refusal of Arab nations other than Egypt or Jordan to recognize it or accept its existence, was resolved when all members of Arab League endorsed a plan offered by Saudi Arabia to offer peace and recognition in exchange for Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines. But Israel is no more inclined to accept that formula today than it would have been in 1977; after all, Hamas and Hezbollah are not members of the Arab League and not parties to that offer, and are supported in their intransigence by Iran. Even if Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party abandoned the “Greater Israel” policy of Begin’s time, anxieties about security would still prompt Israel to demand substantial revisions in the 1967 lines, as well as demilitarization of Palestine, including Gaza. If the proposed “two-state solution” is still viable—if it ever was viable—it is hard to see how Gaza could be part of it if Israel believes Hamas workers resume digging tunnels under the border from which they could attack Israelis.

At the end of 2011, according to the Foundation for Middle East Peace, there were 328,423 Israeli settlers in the West Bank. If future negotiations about the future of Palestine are to include Gaza as well as the West Bank, it is hard to see how Gaza’s status can be resolved until the question of those West Bank settlers has been resolved as part of some overall agreement. A far-reaching deal that would end the Gaza conflict by including it as part of a Palestinian state and linking it to the West Bank by some kind of corridor—as envisioned at the time of Oslo—seems far in the future. The Gazans would live better lives if Israel were to allow them greater access to the outside world, but they will still be living in a stateless limbo.

Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat with US President Jimmy Carter at Camp David in 1978.

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Thomas Lippman

Thomas W. Lippman is a Washington-based author and journalist who has written about Middle Eastern affairs and American foreign policy for more than four decades, specializing in Saudi Arabian affairs, U.S.- Saudi relations, and relations between the West and Islam. He is a former Middle East bureau chief of the Washington Post, and also served as that newspaper's oil and energy reporter. Throughout the 1990s, he covered foreign policy and national security for the Post, traveling frequently to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. In 2003 he was the principal writer on the war in Iraq for Prior to his work in the Middle East, he covered the Vietnam war as the Washington Post's bureau chief in Saigon. Lippman has authored seven books about the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, where he serves as the principal media contact on Saudi Arabia and U.S. – Saudi relations.


One Comment

  1. Wishful thinking today, if anyone believes that there’s any solution to this problem. Until the U.S. stops backing Israels play book, the destruction/killing will continue. One may ask how those Palestinians living in Gaza are to survive if Israel keeps bombing the infrastructure back into the stone age? The IDF may be the best equipped military force in the M.E., but until they get down and dirty with an equal force, there is no comparison. Just like the U.S. invading a lesser country and triumphing, so too has Israel believing they are invincible. Easy to shoot turkeys in a barrel, which is what passes for what Israel is doing in Gaza. By this time in history, it should be abundantly clear without a shadow of a doubt, that there will never be peace in Palestine.

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