The Terms of Consensus: Interview with Tahseen Basheer

The Terms of Consensus: Interview with Tahseen Basheer

. 11 min read

With representatives of the Israeli and Egyptian governments scheduled to meet this month in the United States, the status of the peace process in the Middle East emerges once again as a critical issue. In an interview with the International Review, Ambassador Tahseen Basheer, the Egyptian representative to the League of Arab States, assesses the complex relations between Egypt, other Arab states, Israel, and the United States. Ambassador Basheer is currently a fellow at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard. International Review staff member Marc Rotenberg conducted the interview, which was originally published in the HIR April-May 1980 Issue.

Ambassador McHenry's vote in the United Nations and the subsequent reversal by Carter was both confusing and disturbing to a great many people. How do you think the Arab world perceived it?

It was not the first time that there has been an American reversal on the Palestinian issue, and usually the reversals have ambivalent reasons which suggest strong particularist pressure from a segment of pro-Israelis in the United States. There are, nonetheless, two important questions raised by this action. One, whether the U.S., as the superpower that is advocating the immediacy of a peaceful settlement in the Middle East should change its position that quickly, assuming that the vote was based on an accurate transmission of information.

The second question that is raised is whether the United States has checks and balances on issues relating to the Arab-Israeli conflict or whether there is a pro-Israeli bias that people need to be aware of and, as such, have to correct in order that the U.S. can have a sustained policy of reconciliation and peace.

Do you think that the U.S. reversal has significantly jeopardized its bargaining position with the Arabs?

I think that the Arabs who have historically had a bitter taste of American behavior said, "Ah, we have told you so." For the most part, though, what it has done is to add to the pressure on moderate Arabs. For example, the United States is trying to demonstrate to Saudi Arabia that it has a genuine interest in the peace process while the Saudis put particular emphasis on Jerusalem. And the only reversal in American policy happens to be on that issue which therefore contradicts other aspects of American national interests regarding Saudi Arabia.

Would you say that there is a widespread belief in the Arab world that there is a strong pro-Israeli lobby which determines U.S. foreign policy?

Yes and no, but definitely there is ho clear pro-Arab lobby, and there is no lobby that defines American national interests in the Middle East without any sectional opinion. And as such, the pro-Israel lobby tends to color American behavior more significantly than considerations of American prior commitments or what many people consider to be American national interests in the area as a whole.

What intensifies this is a very dangerous tendency to encourage extremist positions in Israel by default. As such, this does more harm in the peace process because these attitudes are counterproductive. What we need to do is to encourage the forces of moderation everywhere, on both sides of the equation.

On Egypt's role in the peace process, there were certainly very bitter feelings in the Arab world that concessions were made to Israel that should not have been made. Do you feel that today Egypt's position in  the Arab world is any stronger than it was after the signing of the Camp David treaty?

My view of Camp David is based on the fact that the United States was unable to gain from Israel any immediate breakthrough on the Palestinian issue with its two aspects: the withdrawal from the occupied territories and self-determination and peace for the Palestinians in association with Jordan or independent from Jordan.

The problem confronting President Sadat before Camp David was whether to accept the status quo or to try to alter the situation. I think President Sadat took the correct risk. But there are still many risks that need to be taken, namely, to break the back of the enmity between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

The situation in the Middle East is radically and qualitatively different from the situation that existed before. For the first time, Israel can have a genuine, normal peace, not an extra-peace or a conditional peace. If Israel respects and plays within the rules of the international system as expressed in the United Nations, we can have real progress. And this process of making peace should encourage the Israelis to go through the more difficult process of mutual recognition between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

So Camp David was, at best, a first step, but a very important first step. It can never succeed on its own. It has to be followed by building the other edifice of peace which is the Palestinian-Israeli dimension. Israel today faces a dilemma. It could continue to occupy the West Bank and Gaza which means that in ten to twenty years it ceases to be a Jewish state and becomes a pluralistic state. And the Israelis did not go from every corner of the Western world and the Middle East to build a pluralistic state. They went there for a particular aim and ideology that they are willing to fight and die for. So by occupying the West Bank and Gaza, they are following a self-defeating policy. The other side of the dilemma is that if they try to get rid of the Palestinians by force, they will be committing genocide. The world today will not allow such mad notions, and the Arabs will not repeat the pattern of fear that existed during 1948.

In many ways, President Sadat's belief is that peace the only way to solve this problem. Alas, in politics, as we know, we don't necessarily have rational men nor rational attitudes all the time.

But, certainly the question of Egypt's relations with other Arab countries is a significant one.

I think that the relationships between Egypt and the other Arab countries are deep, organic relationships. Because of their depth, there was a feeling of hurt at having been left out of the process. But you cannot solve this problem automatically and in one stroke. Most of the Arab countries have a very
superficial view of how to solve this problem. You cannot solve this problem in a big party like the Geneva conference with exact stipulations. Sadat tried that in 1977, and it didn't work. The problem is that opening the opportunity of peace is one thing while achieving it is another. We are now in the difficult process of jumping from the first step to the second, and that is the Palestinian dimension.

One of the costs many people thought Egypt would have to bear for the Camp David accords was the loss of aid from Saudi Arabia. Is that still a concern for Egypt?

Oh, yes, but it is very difficult to quantify the costs. For example, there are a lot of emotional costs. There are two million Egyptians working in Arab countries that are being subjected to a lot of criticism because of this. Egypt is the Mecca of the Arab world, and still many Arabs are mad at Egypt. By not working with Egypt, it also exposes Arab limitations, because they haven't developed an alternative strategy.

It was painful all along, but I hope that the pain will be short-lived. Soon, we'll start the second phase with the Palestinians and gradually we can get the Arabs back in the fold again. But, for the first time, a problem which was for all intents and purposes insoluble has become possible of solution, I hope, with a minimum of hurt.

Regarding the financial loss, for example, the Bagdad conference had allotted US$5 billion for five years to Egypt for Egypt to not sign the treaty. But, Egypt went ahead and said that we cannot trade our independence and our will for any amount of money.

You mentioned that the second step along the road towards peace is the Palestinian dimension. It would seem that recent acts by Israel have made that step more difficult. Many people would say that the appointment of Yitzhak Shamir as foreign minister and the expropriation of land around Jerusalem have retarded the peace process. Are you more hopeful or less hopeful than you were a year ago?

I have been hopeful since the peace treaty because the problem is now theoretically capable of solution. Before it was one side or the other overwhelming the other militarily. Now, that is no longer the case. For example, we now have a large peace constituency in Israel among young fighting Zionist Israelis who want peace and who don't want to conquer the Palestinians. But, at the same time, the Likudists and Mr. Begin have escalated their policy beyond even rational goals. For example, while Israel has one of the highest inflation rates in the world, they draw up budget and allocate massive amounts for new settlements, settlements which have no settlers. And it's only an ideological irritation to take Arab land. A few acres of land in Jerusalem is going to cost the Israelis 300 million sterling. They don't have that money.

This is all motivated by ideological considerations that tend to work against the long-term interests of Israel; all the statements coming from many members of the cabinet in Israel have been counterproductive. But the Israeli policy is for the first time controversial in the world and even in Israel. And if elections were held today in Israel, we might have a different story. But I think that this policy is coming to an end. President Carter is to meet soon individually with President Sadat and Mr. Begin. So we hope that a breakthrough will be coming soon.

If, as you say, the structure of the peace settlement was established at Camp David, what steps must be taken now by Israel, by Egypt, and by the U.S. so that it will come about?

First of all, there are two approaches to this. There is a technical approach in which we say, "All right, we talked about autonomy." And then you wait several years for the process to evolve.

But Israel, with foresight, should go ahead and offer the Palestinians the right of mutual recognition and peace right now. It should go to the Palestinians and say, "I am willing to recognize you if you are willing to recognize us" and then negotiate peace on this basis. This will mean demilitarization and treaties securing the independence and neutrality of the Palestinian state.

This will preempt enmity. It will be as Sadat's trip to Jerusalem. Israel will say to the Palestinians, "Look, there was a historical tragedy to you, to us; everyone has his own history, his own burdens to carry. Let's make the best out of it now. We don't want to make you Israelis, but we don't want any danger from you either." If they do that, I think the majority of the Palestinians will respond positively.

Now, this might be too hopeful, but this first step of mutual recognition must be taken right now.

Many Israelis would argue that if the Palestinians would accept the guidelines of 242 and recognize Israel, Israel would take the steps which you have suggested. Why do you believe that it is Israel's responsibility to take the initiative?

You are giving the Israelis, who are the conquerors, the occupiers, the right to define the problem. Why should the Palestinians recognize the Israelis if the Israelis will not recognize the Palestinians? I say that the Palestinians and the Israelis should sit down and negotiate with the aim of mutual recognition. But 242 does not even mention the word "Palestinian," so how can the Palestinians sit and negotiate about something in which they are not mentioned?

What role then does the United States play in the future of the process?

Many roles. The United States is not a bystander in this process. The U.S. aid to Israel finances most of the Israeli military, and the U.S. also provides advanced technology. The aid per capita is unique in American history. Now you shouldn't provide that type of support unless the Israelis are forthcoming in peace. Otherwise, the United States will be supplying, arming, and writing a non-peace policy. And as such, working against American interests. It would be a living contradiction.

You indicated that it is a general perception in the Arab world that it is in America's interest to facilitate the peace process. Do you think that this view is truly widespread?

I think that most Arabs I know would believe that reaching a reasonable peace is in American interests. But it will take a great American resolve to achieve it.

What are the obstacles?

Many. Bureaucratic, congressional, leadership. America talks, for example, about Soviet intervention in other parts of the world. Look at Egypt. We got rid of Soviet influence – about 20,000 Soviet experts – when we thought that this was no longer in our interest: That was done without American help. Policy means an art of will, of defining your aim, and pursuing your aim with techniques relative to that aim. You cannot achieve peace by adopting aggressive methods.

America has to exercise great leadership to achieve this. I think that it can be done in the Middle East, despite the great difficulties, because, in the final analysis, it is not in the best interests of Israel to occupy the Palestinian land. They can do it. They are doing it, but it is very counterproductive. And again they face the dilemma that they do not want a pluralistic state and they cannot have genocide. Many Israelis would like to have a way out, and they need to be encouraged; they need to be helped. So do the Palestinians. Israel can at any time take over the West Bank in a matter of minutes. But, in the end, the:re is no way out of the peace process and that is what makes one hopeful. But political l realities make me very pessimistic in the short-run.

What is the status of future peace negotiation?

The second negotiation has not started. The Israelis have put impediments up all along the way. They are trying to use the concept of "full autonomy," which is a term coined by Begin, to exclude the possibility of Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza and self-determination and peace for the Palestinians. They are playing for time because they think that America cannot pressure them in an election year. They're working for time because their internal coalition is weak and they want to delay; and they are using the increased number of settlements as a way to obstruct peace. However, even the settlement policy is an empty policy: they have settlements, but no settlers. There are more people moving from Israel to New York City than are moving to the occupied territories. And what you are left with is ideological fanaticism playing a political game. Not a policy keen on solving the Israeli dilemma.

This process is fantastic. The pessimistic scenarios are many and rampant, and the only limitation is that they are very expensive and self-defeating. And, as such, we are in a difficult dilemma because the progress to real peace is difficult, particularly unless the Israelis come forward. And if they don't come forward, then the results will be very negative. That is where we are now.

If there was one step which you would like to see taken in the peace process that would bring the parties closer to peace, what would it be?

I would like the Israelis to come with a declaration that if the PLO ceases fire, then the Israelis will stop any military action against the Palestinians, particularly in Lebanon, and that they would be willing to negotiate with the Palestinians to reach mutual recognition. I would also like the Israelis to declare that they do not covet any inch of the West Bank and Gaza. If they are willing to do that, they will get a bet than by any delaying process.

But, in the absence of this, you will see more and more of the bad scenarios. To list one of them, if you apply the international rules of the U.N., then Israel may find itself more and more alienated and might not have an American vote. And that is dangerous both to Israeli and Arab interests because these things are infectious. You tell me that I'm a killer, and I tell you that you're a killer; and, in the end, we both become killers. I think that the peace process has a salutary and expiating impact, and we should not lose that. If you have time for the bad scenarios, there are plenty, but you read them every day. Let us concentrate on making the good scenarios work.