Why 'pen pals' Begin and Sadat fell out

Peacemakers Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel have become poison-pen pals, and a peek at their mail reveals two wildly divergent visionaries who may never see eye-to-eye.

The bitter postal impasse -- with Egypt seeking concesions for the Palestinians, and Israel saying "no" -- is seen by diplomats as one explanation for a sudden hardline outburst Aug. 13 by generally moderate Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Fahd Bin Abdelaziz.

Prince Fahd wondered out loud what was the point of attempting peace with the Israelis, whether anyone could blame the Arabs for turning to "jihad," or holy war, against the Jewish state.

"The Saudis clearly still would prefer peace," commented one senior diplomat. But in their view, all Egypt's moves and all Washington's moves in that direction have finally proven to be worth nothing, and the Israelis have proven unwilling to budge."

The Sadat-Begin letters tell a story of stalemate.

Beyond the "Dear Menachem" and "Dear Anwar" lies a clash of personality, approach, and aim overshadowing specific issues in the nearly 15-month-old talks on Palestinian autonomy.

Issues have hardly been touched. But then, President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin don't even agree on what those issues are. The separate Egyptian-Israeli peace, and Israel's return of the nearly empty sands of the Sinai Peninsula, were one thing; overall peace, involving the Palestinians, seems quite another.

Each leader accuses the other of violating the negotiating framework agreed on at Camp David in 1978. But then, they have never even agreed on what the Camp David agreement means.

President Sadat has cited Israel's reaffirmed control over the disputed holy city of Jerusalem as the catalyst for his third suspension of the Palestinian autonomy talks in as many months.

But the exchange of long, tough letters with Mr. Begin after the negotiating break suggests the Jerusalem conflict is partly a symptom of more fundamental differences.

The Egyptian leader sees himself and his peace initiative as part of a broad historical sweep, a process greater than any one man or any one issue.

He dreams of full self-determination, not just "autonomy," for the more than 1 million Arab Palestinians under Israeli rule in the occupied West Bank of Jordan, Jerusalem, and in the Gaza Strip.

He abhors, and sometimes ignores, detail. True, the Camp David agreement speaks only of "full autonomy" for the Palestinians, allows Israel to veto just about anything on "security" concerns, and tucks away the Jerusalem issue for much later debate.

But the same document also says a Palestinian "self-governing authority" will "replace" Israeli military authority in the West Bank and Gaza, and that the "legitimate rights" of the Palestinians will be respected.

The spirit, if not the letter, of the accords has always seemed to Mr. Sadat to imply an eventual Israeli cession of the Arab territories captured in the 1967 Middle East war. Most of the world, and most US negotiators, tend to agree with this. History agrees with this, Mr. Sadat would add, and so should Mr. Begin.

Mr. Sadat's 18-page letter to the Israeli prime minister explaining the suspension of talks in early August -- published Aug. 12 in Cairo -- made this clear.

Repeating past objections to Israeli settlements on the West Bank, the Egyptian leader said, "I need not explain the international rejection and total condemnation of this policy . . ."

The same goes for Jerusalem, the Egyptian President suggested. History, the implication was, calls. "I am confident you remember our conversation," he wrote to Mr. Begin, in which "I advised you not to fight a losing battle."

But Mr. Begin sees the battle very differently, and he does not think he is losing. World opinion makes little difference, to him. History is not static, but a process molded by men. DEtail counts. Rhetorical fourished do not. Camp David said Palestinian "autonomy," not self-determination, and that, says Mr. Begin, is precisely what it meant.

Above all, Israel counts. It is a state, Mr. Begin reminds Mr. Sadat in the reply to his letter, built by a cruelly persecuted people. It is a state that has thrived against all odds. The prime minister cannot resist noting, in describing a recent heart ailment, that he was "put under a machine, made in Israel, unique in its sophistication."

Mr. Begin has battled almost all his life to create, then strengthen, the state of Israel. Before statehood, he headed an extremist terror group. He was a hard-line opposition leader when the 1967 war greatly expanded Israel's borders and handed it all the disputed city of Jerusalem.

HE insisted at least Jerusalem and the West Bank must not be returned, and he has never changed his mind.

Palestinian "autonomy," to Mr. Sadat a vehicle for eventrual Palestinian self-determination, is for Mr. Begin an umbrella for Israeli control.

Forget the so-called "spirit" of Camp David, he seems to say. It is the letter of Camp David, its commas and semicolons, that Mr. Begin proceeds to cite at lenght in his reply to Mr. Sadat.

The message is clear: "I have never misled you." Jerusalem will remain Israeli.The settlements will stay. "Are settlements mentioned at all in the Camp David accord?" he asks rhetorically. They weren't.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.