Interview with Osama El-Baz: "Expect Arab-Israeli Peace in Two Years"
by Daniel Pipes
THE SADAT ERA
Middle East Quarterly: When President Sadat decided to visit Jerusalem, your former boss at that time, Foreign Minister Isma'il Fahmy, quotes you in his book as exploding with rage and saying, "This is crazy. This man [Sadat] is not balanced. He should be prevented, even by force, to go to Jerusalem." And if Sadat insisted on going, you were asked would you join him? You said, "Over my dead body"—I will never go to Jerusalem."1 How do you look back today on these words?
Osama al-Sayed El-Baz: It is not an accurate quotation. At that time, most of us were not sure whether Sadat was serious about going or whether he was raising a test balloon. But I never said that Sadat was crazy for thinking this. I said he was a visionary.
MEQ: You didn't say what Isma'il Fahmy ascribes to you?
El-Baz: No. Had I said that then, I wouldn't have joined Sadat later on the trip to Jerusalem. It was I who accompanied him to every session and planning meeting. I helped write his speeches; I contributed to and was a member of the delegations; I took part in the Camp David summit. I believed in Sadat's line and helped him and supported him from day one.
MEQ: Would it be fair to say that Sadat was right about ending the hostilities with Israel and his staff was wrong?
El-Baz: No, because it would be a mistake to generalize and say that Sadat was going in a certain direction and his staff was going in the opposite direction. We were working under tremendous pressure because we knew that sooner or later we would have to adjourn at Camp David?
MEQ: Wasn't the staff reluctant through those years?
El-Baz: I have to admit that Sadat was ahead of 90 percent of us in terms of his vision for the future. There wasn't much resistance to his new thinking, but it took most people some time to realize what he was thinking, and whether his ideas were justified and backed by facts and realities.
Also, Sadat never cared for details, and that made some people believe that his staff was not on line. He would say, "I don't care about the language. I'm not going to waste my time putting a comma here or eliminating a comma there. You are like tailors. I am giving you the fabric, and you work on it. But I'm not going to fight over a word here or a word there."
But I am a lawyer and being a lawyer imposes a certain discipline. At Camp David I spent at least sixty hours reading the drafts, trying to determine whether they established a balance between the interests of both parties, and whether the language could lead to controversy in the future. The Americans had a tendency to gloss over differences and urged us to agree to language that could be interpreted differently by different parties. I thought that would cause more harm than good as it would likely lead to controversy.
MEQ: Speaking of Camp David, in his recent memoir, Boutros Boutros-Ghali makes you a central figure at Camp David in 1978, saying that "the members of the three delegations—Egyptian, American, and Israeli—no longer took part in the negotiations. The work was done by Carter, al-Baz, and Barak, although many later claimed to have been deeply involved."2
El-Baz: Well, we stayed at Camp David for thirteen days. Everybody was involved one way or the other. In the last three days, after having spent so much time listening to each others' arguments, claims, and counter-claims, we began to crystallize matters to put things together. President Carter asked President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin to appoint a representative. He said he'd like to sit down with the representatives and try to put together a rough draft. President Sadat appointed me, Begin appointed Barak.
It was very easy for me to work with Barak, also a lawyer trained in America; we had a common language and a common perception of things. He is a moderate, very intelligent and cooperative. President Carter had the drive, the stamina, the perseverance, but he lacked the legal knowledge to put together a draft. Oftentimes I worked things out directly with Barak, and so it appeared as if the other members of the delegation were excluded. But by that time, most of the negotiations were over.
MEQ: Boutros-Ghali also calls you the "hero" of those fighting to recognize Palestinian rights.3
El-Baz: He is correct about my support of the Palestinian cause. President Carter thought that the most important thing was to reach agreement between Egypt and Israel. But I told him that the Palestinian question was the core of the entire dispute; that unless we addressed it adequately and genuinely, the Arabs would maintain their animosity towards Israel. Even the Egyptian people themselves might have second thoughts, and the peace would be a fragile one. I also told the same to Prime Minister Begin and his colleagues, Moshe Dayan, Ezra Weizmann, all of them. It was also important because Egypt is the superpower in the region, the big brother in terms of geography, population, culture, heritage, and so on. It has great influence over others.
Had we spent two more days developing a better formula for the Palestinians, one that would have encouraged the Palestinians to join us, it might have subsequently spared both Arabs and Israelis a great deal in terms of wasted lives, time, energy, and confidence.
CURRENT PEACE PROCESS
MEQ: Jumping to the present, you've been four times to Jerusalem in the past seven days engaged in mediating between Binyamin Netanyahu and Yasir Arafat. Is this effort in competition with the American mediation?
El-Baz: Some people thought we were not cooperating with the American mediation rule. That's not true; we are. For example, the minute Dennis Ross returned to Washington last month without fulfilling his mission, we took over and are coordinating things with the U.S. We are not doing it in conflict or to exclude the U.S. I was in close touch with both Dennis Ross and Secretary Albright. In fact, I chased her by telephone all over Europe, calling her at midnight and she once calling me back at three o'clock in the morning. Why are we doing that? Because we have the same goal.
Our interest in advancing negotiations might actually be greater than the American interest, for we have more at risk. We need to maintain peace and security in the region because we are betting on peace. If peace is breached and we go back to either cold war or real war, our economic reform program will experience a setback, and we cannot afford that. We are placing all our bets, all our money, on the success of economic reform.
MEQ: Yasir Arafat has criticized Dennis Ross as biased.4 Do you agree?
El-Baz: It's not a question of being biased. You can't personalize positions like that. Any American envoy works under certain limitations and within certain guidelines and structures, and we all know about those guidelines.
I believe that the Palestinians were nervous at the time when Arafat made that statement. They thought that the Israelis were reneging, going back on their word, that the Israelis were being heavy-handed with them. The Palestinians thought that Dennis could tell Netanyahu what to negotiate. So Arafat was not attacking Dennis personally as much as he was protesting the lack of U.S. pressure.
MEQ: You don't consider him biased?
El-Baz: No. But you have to bear in mind that we are all biased as to what we believe is fair or practical.
MEQ: What are your expectations of Arab-Israeli negotiations? Specifically, is there peace at the end of the peace process?
El-Baz: I expect to see peace between Israel and the Arabs in less than two years.
MEQ: Really? That's awfully optimistic.
El-Baz: Look, the majority of Israelis and Palestinians have reconciled themselves to coexistence. Dissenters and enemies of peace will always exist, people such as those who launched the suicide attacks [in early 1996] while Israel was cooperating, while Yitzhak Rabin and then Shimon Peres were trying to work out procedures and arrangements with the Palestinians. But the Palestinians are reconciled to the necessity for living with Israel as a separate entity. And a majority of Israelis still favor the establishment of a disarmed Palestinian state with certain other limitations. It will not be difficult for us to work out an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians within a year to a year and a half depending on the developments. This is a very important development.
MEQ: That will require some pretty impressive diplomacy.
El-Baz: Yes, exactly. It has to be continuous, persistent diplomacy without any gaps or long pauses.
MEQ: What about the Syrian track?
El-Baz: As soon as matters begin to look promising between the Palestinians and the Israelis, Syria will step in. In turn, it will sign a peace treaty with Israel in a year's time.
MEQ: Why do you think so?
El-Baz: Because both sides have discussed the issues in great depth and know what the issues are in terms of security arrangements, monitoring systems, and the establishment of relations. The quid pro quo is fairly clear. They've discussed these matters at length in Washington and at Wye Plantation.
MEQ: How do you explain the fact that by early 1996 the Syrians and Israelis got so close to an agreement but could not close on it?
El-Baz: Yes, they were about to reach an agreement. The late Prime Minister Rabin had no hesitation whatsoever about returning all of the Golan to Syria and going back to the June 4, 1967, border. The Syrians had reconciled themselves to the fact that peace does not mean only the end of religious belligerency but also means the establishment of relations. They had for three years been preparing the Syrian people for that idea, forwarding new slogans. New signs went up in all the Syrian cities about seeking the "peace of the brave," salam ash-shuja'a.
MEQ: Does the possibility still exist?
El-Baz: Yes. President Asad is a very shrewd and cautious leader, very good at politics, and in touch with the pulse of his people. He knows you cannot jump from a state of animosity and mobilization directly to a state of fraternity.
MEQ: Why didn't the two sides reach an agreement?
El-Baz: Because a great deal of tension arose at the time the Israelis and the Syrians were talking, due to the violence and terrorism involving Hizbullah. That delayed the delegations' work.
Also, Prime Minister Shimon Peres made a mistake when he thought he couldn't move on two tracks simultaneously and interrupted the talks with Syria in favor of those with the Palestinians. He expected there would be only a brief pause, but the situation developed quickly and a new Israeli government came in. Unfortunately, some members of the Netanyahu cabinet issued statements that were not encouraging to Syria.
MEQ: Such as?
El-Baz: They said that Syria would never regain control of the Golan. Unfortunately, people in the region often take statements issued by officials too seriously, when these are simply a negotiating position.
Israel made another mistake when Prime Minister Netanyahu said it would not be bound by the understandings which were reached previously.
MEQ: Why is that a mistake?
El-Baz: Because the Syrians are negotiating not with a specific government, but with a state, which must keep to the same obligations regardless of any change of government.
MEQ: But the two sides had not reached any formal agreements.
El-Baz: No, they hadn't reached formal agreements, but they did agree on semi-finalized positions, and you cannot say that you're going to throw those away and then begin anew from scratch.
MEQ: Why not, if they are not formal agreements?
El-Baz: In the strict legal sense, everybody is free to change his views until the document is signed. But the principle of negotiating in good faith means that you have to stick to the positions you have already taken in the course of the negotiations. Unless you commit to understandings you've reached tentatively, there will be no progress. In that case, you can negotiate to no effect until hell freezes over.
MEQ: Yes, but a change of government took place.
El-Baz: A change of government does not entail a change of position. Negotiations are with a state, with an institution. The new government, elected with a margin of less than 1 percent, was not justified in adopting a fundamental change of positions. Some minor change here or there is okay, an added demand here or there, but not more. It was a mistake to talk about starting entirely new negotiations.
MEQ: You've met with President Hafiz al-Asad of Syria many times; please tell us something about him.
El-Baz: He is one of the most humble and modest leaders in the region, someone who does not at all act as a dictator. He is a very good listener who asks pointed, sharp questions. He is a good judge of character. He speaks softly and is a great conversationalist. In particular, President Asad is interested in history.
At times, he can cause his interlocutor to become exhausted—look what happened to James Baker, who once spent nine hours straight with him. I once took a personal message to President Asad and expected to spend an hour or two with him, but in fact stayed five.
MEQ: Is he overly suspicious?
El-Baz: It is not fair to say he is a particularly suspicious person. But conspiracy theories being so popular in our region, anyone dealing with the Syrian president must prove to him, by words and deeds, that he is acting in good faith, and not part of a conspiracy.
MEQ: Does he understand the United States?
El-Baz: He asks lots of questions about it. He does not hesitate to ask the views of anyone who is familiar with the U.S. political scene. What is the political structure? Who makes decisions? He is very interested in understanding the American mind.
MEQ: Can you say anything positive about the government of Binyamin Netanyahu?
El-Baz: Yes. It is more open minded than many people thought it would be, and it is learning from experience. When President Mubarak advised the Arabs to wait and see and not prejudge the new prime minister, some people asked, "Did President Mubarak hear anything from Netanyahu that warranted this advice?" We said no, but maybe the campaign rhetoric was a little bit exaggerated, and you should judge the man by what one hears from him across the table.
Judging by my personal experience, I find Netanyahu open-minded. He is definitely to the right of Rabin and Peres, and not as progressive as them. However, I hope he will try to regain his credibility and the confidence of the Arabs, including the Palestinians.
Some of them have accused him of peace-talking rather than peace-making and of going back on his word. But in politics you couldn't possibly be bound by every single word you say. You may intend to do something, but then find yourself bound by certain obligations, certain difficulties, hindrances here and there, and you have to adjust and readjust your views.
MEQ: About a year ago, an Israeli newspaper quoted you as addressing Netanyahu and saying, "If you Israelis allow the occupation to continue, you will be forsaking your entire moral base, which means that the Holocaust of the Jewish people could recur sometime in the future."5 This sounded to some people like a veiled threat of nuclear weapons.
El-Baz: No, I never said that. I said it would be a mistake for any Israeli to speak in threatening terms or to try to force the Palestinians or others to accept things they cannot accept—or to force certain fait accompli on them—because then the Arabs might perceive of Israel as an occupier, as a foreign body that was implanted by foreigners here. This perception could make the Arabs vulnerable to hostile attitudes toward the Jews.
MEQ: It was not a threat?
El-Baz: No. It would be silly to go back to threats, either in reality or by words.
MEQ: The Arab press notes that the Egyptian government has "two conflicting trends" in its policy toward Israel.6Foreign Minister 'Amr Musa calls for more confrontation, while you call for exerting positive influence on the Israeli public so that it will put pressure on Prime Minister Netanyahu not to go ahead with his plans—what we call "good-cop, bad-cop." Is this an accurate description?
El-Baz: That's not true, and for two reasons. First, Minister Musa is a very capable and determined foreign minister, as well as a close friend of mine with whom I have worked for years in harmony, never in conflict. He believes in peace with Israel, and he is on record supporting it.
Second, this interpretation shows ignorance about the Realpolitik of a country like Egypt. Egypt has lived under a strong central government for 7,000 years, since the pharaohs discovered that to rule, they had to control the entire Nile Valley from Aswan to Alexandria. Egypt is an established institutionalized country. A foreign minister might have a different emphasis; however the final word remains with the president. In Sadat's time, three foreign ministers resigned: Isma'il Fahmy, Muhammad Riad, and then Muhammad Kamal. Sadat did not even blink an eyelash. He said fine. When we were in Washington the night the Camp David accord was signed and some Egyptian journalists said, "Mr. President, Barbara Walters is announcing that Muhammad Kamal is resigning, and this could have serious repercussions." President Sadat laughed and said, "Are you crazy, what do you think? Things will move."
MEQ: You are saying it makes no difference if you and 'Amr Musa disagree?
El-Baz: No. I'm telling you that aides might have different perceptions, different views. President Mubarak listens and consults with about nine people on this issue, not only with the two of us. He gets various opinions and then he brings us in to talk together, not separately. No one person has the exclusive ear of the president or has a monopoly of influence on him. If somebody tells you that he does, he is lying.
MEQ: How does President Mubarak take advice?
El-Baz: He asks people to express their views, he considers polls, and then in the end, he makes his decision. He does not exclude others or intimidate people because he doesn't even voice his views first. The role of the foreign ministry or myself is then to implement the policy which has been approved by the president.
Sometimes Foreign Minister Musa makes statements that sound hard-line to people. He is an old United Nations hand, and so is used to U.N. jargon. He may sound too technical; for example when people thought he took a hard line on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But that does not mean that this line of policy is his alone.
MEQ: You mentioned opinion polls. Does the president of Egypt rely on polls?
El-Baz: At times. But he does not take polls as the last word. First, Egyptian polling techniques are not very advanced. Second, he believes that if you select a sample of 1,500 people and draw conclusions from it, you're taking a risk. But he does rely on diverse views and opinions from different sources.
MEQ: Your thoughts on fundamentalist Islam?
El-Baz: It is not a fundamentalist movement but a fanatic movement. It should not be linked to Islam. We see the disastrous effects of its coming to power in Iran, Afghanistan, and Sudan. But don't forget that many terrorist acts in the Middle East have been carried out by American-trained individuals, or their pupils.
MEQ: What do you see foresee for Sudan?
El-Baz: Sudan under [Hasan at-]Turabi is on bad terms with all its neighbors, even Libya, because of its efforts to spread its brand of political Islam. I believe that his policies do not correctly reflect the views of the Sudanese people, and I do not think that the regime will last for long.
UNITED STATES AND EUROPE
MEQ: The U.S. government gives Egypt some $2 billion in aid each year, money you clearly have doubts about. "I do not like to see our country take aid from anybody. We should be prepared to do away with aid 15 years from this day."7
El-Baz: We should not base relations between Egypt and the United States—or Israel and the United States—on whether or not the U.S. provides aid. This fosters a recipient-donor relationship that is not healthy.
MEQ: Do you really think the present levels of aid will continue for another 15 years?
El-Baz: Not necessarily. There has been some talk in the United States about reducing aid to all countries, including Egypt and Israel, so a reduction appears inevitable at some point. Realistically I know this aid is going to be reduced.
Also, in fifteen years, Egypt's need for American aid will not be the same because by that time we'll be attracting a lot of investment. Today there is a renaissance in Egypt, an economic boom. Egypt is an emerging market, classified as a great place for investment by Standard & Poor.
MEQ: Are you content with the way U.S. aid is structured?
El-Baz: I hope that the aid program will continue, but I hope to see it diversified and restructured in the future. The U.S. can help a country like Egypt with technology and by training our young men and women in new techniques and processes, especially in health, medical care, and education.
MEQ: It seems as though U.S.-Egyptian ties are heading in the wrong direction; are they?
El-Baz: It is important to build a strong, solid relationship between Egypt and the U.S. on the basis of our areas of agreement and where our interests converge. There are certain areas in which we don't see things eye to eye because we are a Middle Eastern power, a Arab Muslim country and the U.S. is not. These differences are fine and don't mean that we are on a collision course.
MEQ: Benjamin Gilman, chairman of the House International Affairs Committee, noted in April that "the United States and Egypt appear to be moving further apart on a range of critical issues" and described the pattern of Egyptian foreign relations as "distressing."8 His remarks probably represent accurately the frustration of many Americans that Egypt and the United States are no longer as close as they were some years ago. How do you see the matter?
El-Baz: I believe this is a misconception. I know Chairman Gilman very well and consider him a friend of Egypt as well as someone who knows about the region. Sometimes people judge situations on the basis of media reports.
MEQ: You started out in Isma'il Fahmy's office in 1974 right at the beginning of the whole process, and 23 years later, you're still there. That makes you the person with the longest direct involvement in the peace process.
El-Baz: You mean I am the only survivor?
MEQ: Exactly. Do you have any reflections on this very long involvement?
El-Baz: Yes, I have a lot of experiences, stories to tell, and that sort of thing. I dream of writing a comprehensive survey for several reasons. First, I wish to record the part of history I witnessed. Second, it is important to show this and the coming generations of Arabs and Israelis how things went and what kind of risks were involved. Third, someone needs to tell the whole story, for no one yet has done so. I have the documents and I know how these documents were drafted, who participated, and when.
Finally, I owe it to President Sadat to tell the story straight. The Americans have spoken. In America, actually, you have an excess of tales; some people whom I never saw at Camp David, and some people who did nothing—they served coffee—have written books about the summit. In Israel, Moshe Dayan and Ezra Weizmann wrote books—and there are some discrepancies between them, by the way. In Egypt, Muhammad Ibrahim Kamal wrote a book; he did not change the facts, but his writing was influenced by his own views. He is a very honest person but his bias colors his view of things, and his memory is selective. Boutros-Ghali's book is rather a collection of stories than a precise account of what took place.
I also can write about the Israeli side because I was close to them, I know who participated, whose views prevailed, who influenced Begin the most, when Begin listened to Dayan or Barak or others. Did he take Ezra Weizmann seriously or not? I can answer to the best of my knowledge. I also know about Yosef Burg, Ariel Sharon and others who negotiated on autonomy, about Shamir, and the Labor government's team.
Trouble is, I need at least six months of full concentration to write this account. Some American publishers and an Egyptian publisher have approached me and said "You make it sound too complicated and too big, it isn't that complicated. Just sit down and dictate; the secretary will transcribe it and then you correct the text. You can manage this along with your daily work" But that's not possible.
MEQ: You want to write a systematic account?
El-Baz: Of course. I have to be very precise, very honest. Maybe it is partly my legal training. I'm not writing a book to entertain people ... but, of course, I have certain anecdotes to tell.
MEQ: Can you give us one now for a taste, some personal experiences, anecdotes, vignettes?
El-Baz: Sorry, that would be revealing my secrets too early!
1 Ismail Fahmy, Negotiating for Peace in the Middle East (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), p. 260.
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