On This Day, 1982: The Lessons of Peace Plans Past
By Amir Oren
September 1, 1982, was according to Menachem Begin one of the saddest days of his life. Within the span of several hours he was on the receiving end of two shocks. It is a part of Middle Eastern history largely forgotten and worth revisiting especially when the focus is on the normalization of relations between Israel and an Arabian peninsula state, the United Arab Emirates, which only gained its independence years after the 1967 Six-Day-War and had nothing to do with the territories for peace formula of UNSC Resolution 242.
The Prime Minister was starting to enjoy a well-earned vacation in the Northern coastal town of Naharia, several kilometers away from the Lebanese border. For the preceding three months, the Israeli Defense Forces have been fighting in Lebanon, clashing with Palestinians and Syrians, laying siege to Beirut and helping the Lebanese Forces (i.e., Phalange) get its leader Bashir Gemayel elected President. Begin had to contend with the heavy price of the war in Israeli casualties, hundreds dead and thousands wounded, as well as with international outrage at the death and destruction suffered by local civilians. Was the war worth it? September 1 would tell.
On that day, the evacuation of Yasser Arafat (whom Begin considered killing but refrained from authorizing when Arafat was in the cross-hairs of a hit squad) and his armed Fatah followers from Beirut up the coast to Tripoly was to signal an Israeli victory. Lebanon would be free of Palestinian pressures. Gemayel could sign a peace treaty with Israel. The costly war would be finally seen as justified.
Begin was in for a rude awakening. Twice. When he hosted President-Elect Gemayel for a secret meeting in a Defense Ministry plant near the vacation spot, the 34-year-old militia leader, exceptionally cruel to his rivals yet well liked by Begin, had a shocking announcement. He will not, after all, fulfill his part in the deal which brought him to power. Now that he is the ruler of all Lebanese, he must consider the reactions of various domestic groups and maneuver in the minefield of the Arab world, especially vis-a-vis neighboring Syria. Peace with Israel will have to wait, for the time being.
Bitterly betrayed, Begin saw the entire war effort undone. Only a few months earlier he had to forcibly contend with Sinai settlers when he withdrew to the Eastern side of the border with Egypt, the first Arab country to make peace with Israel, thereby bestowing on himself and Anwar Sadat the Nobel Peace Prize. Now his dream of adding Lebanon to his achievements was apparently ruined.
Even worse was what waited in Naharia. Ambassador Sam Lewis, the consummate diplomat who served as Begin’s main link to Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, had a message from the President. Reagan would later that Labor Day unveil a Middle East Peace Plan of his own. Begin was given a courtesy sneak peek, a short advance notice with no power to influence the plan.
Many Israelis thought that the Reagan Plan was fair, reasonable and took care of their country’s best interests. It commited the U.S. to safeguarding Israel’s survival, security and territorial integrity – exactly what founding Prime Minister David Ben Gurion aspired for, to no avail, even as he built the IDF and the nuclear enterprise at Dimona.
For Begin, though, the cost would be unbearable. Reagan, saying he wished to continue what his predecessor started at Camp David, came down in favor of Jordan, with some sort of Palestinian autonomy, reclaiming most of the West Bank it gained in 1948 (from the Palestinian State which was decreed by the UN but never came into being) and lost in 1967. The border will be negotiated, with Israel’s security guaranteed and Palestinian rights respected, and there will be a transition period, with no further settlement activity. It would mean the end of Begin’s hope to have his Eretz Israel cake and eat it, too, in Cairo, Beirut and Amman.
Reagan was personally very friendly towards Israel. His electoral victory in 1980 was partly credited to Begin turning against Carter and indicating to American Jews that the Republican candidate is preferable. Yet Reagan had an entire Cold War on his plate, a hostile Islamic republic in Iran, Persian Gulf oil in danger and moderate Arab regimes banking on American support. He clashed with Begin on the sale of AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia, tried to prevent the invasion of Lebanon and was furious at the human cost of the war. American and Israeli interests were thus greatly but not fully aligned.
Begin rejected Reagan’s plan out of hand. He vowed to fight it, but never had a chance – or need – to. In two weeks time, all hell broke loose. Bashir was killed by a saboteur sent by Syria. His followers massacred hundreds of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Israel was implicated. A commission of inquiry forced on Begin by public opinion drove Defense MinisterAriel Sharon from office, sparing Begin but sending him into deep depression. In May 1983 Bashir’s brother and successor, Amin Gemayel, signed the second-ever peace agreement between an Arab regime and the Israeli government, under heavy American pressure, but it was hardly worth the ceremony – Syria, backed by the Soviet Union, pushed harder and Lebanon nullified the agreement. It has been relegated to tricky Trivial Pursuit questions – who was the second Arab country to sign peace with Israel. Sign, rather than make, thus Lebanon and not Jordan.
A year almost to the day after September 1, 1982, Began – saying, “I can’t take it anymore” – resigned and retired to the life of a recluse. Reagan had no effective Israeli government to pursue his plan with. Soon his Marines, which left Beirut when Arafat did but returned after Sabra and Shatila, were massacred at their Battalion headquarters and Reagan retreated from the Levant, leaving Israel to contend with the Palestinians and other Arab neighbors. It never found a better deal than offered it by Reagan, Carter, Henry Kissinger before them or James Baker at the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, all emenating from the same parameters set by Resolution 242.
The Reagan Plan, concerned with the survival of the Hashemite Kingdom, rejected the idea of an idependent Palestinian state. 20 years later, with Jordan disengaging from the West Bank and letting Israelis and Palestinians settle their problems on their own, except for Jerusalem, Reagan’s Vice-President’s son, President George W. Bush reversed this policy, calling for a Palestinian state peacefully next to Israel. Yet in two respects the pre-Oslo Reagan and the post-Oslo Bush were strikingly similar, reflecting the continuity of basic American policy: 242 and the fact that military successes – the IDF ejecting Arafat from Beirut in 1982 and destroying his terror network in the West Bank in Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 – do not translate into diplomatic triumphs. In both cases, the Palestinians were badly beaten on the battlefield, but advanced another inch, or yard, in their slow march towards a state between Israel and Jordan (and Egypt, if Gaza is included).
When a dejected Begin rejected the Reagan Plan, Israel’s Deputy Chief of Mission in Washington was a 32-year-old rookie civil servant hardly known to his compatriots, Binyamin Netanyahu. This was his diplomatic baptism. At the time, he knew full well that without territories for peace, there would have been no breakthrough Begin-Sadat-Carter accord, and that without Egypt leading the way, no Arab country, a neighbor such as Jordan, Syria and Lebanon or a distant Oildom with Iran as a common enemy, would dare normalize its relations with Israel. Rather than portray the UAE joining the club as proof that there can be peace without forsaking territorial ambitions, wrong even on its own merits as Netanyahu gave up on West Bank annexation in return for the UAE coming forward, history teaches that no club was there to join before Egypt and it would not have been a founding member had Begin refused to withdraw from every last inch of the Sinai.
The Reagan Plan was abandoned, yet along with other such milestones along the way, it contributed its share to Arabs and Israelis understanding the limits of power – American, and their own – and the necessity of getting rid of grand illusions in favor of compromise and co-existence.