PALESTINE -- PEACE NOT APARTHEID
Except for Egypt's contacts with the Palestinians, the Arab nations surrounding Israel do not now play a constructive role in any potential peace process, but their cumulative influence will be vital in helping to consummate an acceptable agreement and in assuring doubtful Israelis that such a peace can be dependable and permanent. It will be helpful to summarize the past involvement and assessments of the leaders of Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia concerning their potential involvement in possible solutions. I have visited these countries as often as possible and arranged for additional meetings with their leaders either in the United States or elsewhere.
Israel has relinquished its control over previously occupied portions of Egypt and almost all of Lebanon but still occupies a region of Syria encompassing the Golan Heights. It is interesting to observe that when "Golan Heights" is entered into Google, one of the initial responses is an invitation to international tourists to come and visit the Israeli settlers who live there. I first visited this high plateau in 1973 and have returned to the general area several times on trips to Israel, Jordan, and Syria. Israel captured the Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War and in 1981 passed a law that seems to imply its permanent jurisdiction over the area. This is an extreme irritant in Damascus and has caused Syrian leaders to be in the forefront of Arabs who have resisted accommodation with Israel on any other issue.
When I became president, one of my primary goals was to persuade Syrian President Hafez al-Assad to change this negative policy and cooperate with me on a comprehensive peace effort. Little was known about his personal or family life, but former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and others who knew Assad had described him to me as very intelligent, eloquent, and frank in discussing even the most sensitive issues. I invited the Syrian leader to come to see me in Washington, but he replied that he had no desire ever to visit the United States. Despite this firm but polite rebuff, I learned what I could about him and his nation before meeting him.
The failure of the Arab states to destroy the new State of Israel in 1949 had aroused a wave of self-criticism among and between them, and in 1958 their search for a new approach resulted in a union between Syria and Egypt to form the United Arab Republic. After three and a half years it became obvious that Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser was dominating the new nation, and dissatisfied Syrian leaders dissolved the union. As minister of defense, Hafez al-Assad and other military leaders blamed politicians for the humiliating defeat in the 1967 war, and Assad subsequently refused to obey his president's orders in 1970 to support Palestinian militants who were fighting in Jordan against King Hussein. When he was condemned for this action, he seized power in a bloodless coup.
Assad had a reputation for ruthlessness toward anyone who resisted his authority and was fervent in protecting his region from outside interference and in expanding Syria's role as a dominant force in Middle East affairs. He was willing to face serious political and military confrontations rather than yield on this principle.
We first met in Switzerland in June 1977, and I found Assad as described -- by far the most eloquent leader in expressing the crux of Arab beliefs regarding Israel and the prospects for peace. He seemed somewhat haughty at first but interested in my efforts to arrange peace negotiations. He insisted that peace talks had to comply with U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338 (Appendices 1 and 2) and must include the Soviets, and he objected strongly to bilateral discussions between Israel and any Arab nation and to the exclusion of the Soviet Union. Syria depended heavily on Soviet aid, but Assad was not a subservient puppet, and I hoped that he might demonstrate his independence by working with me to overcome some of the obstacles we faced. My own plans for peace talks at that time were based on the same U.N. resolutions that he emphasized.
In order to understand the still-prevailing attitudes in the Arab world, even including the more moderate views in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, it is useful to summarize the fervent opinions of Assad, which are rarely heard in the Western world. Rosalynn and I, plus official interpreters, kept careful notes of our conversations.
Assad stressed to me that Israel was admitted to the United Nations in 1949 with the clear proviso that Palestinian refugees would be allowed to return to their homeland or be fully compensated for their lost property. Prior to 1967, he said, Israel was steadily forcing additional Arab inhabitants from their small remaining territory in violation of U.N. agreements that the Israelis had sworn to honor, and he claimed that they initiated the 1967 war in order to take even more Arab land.
He quoted key Israeli leaders who had announced that this was just an intermediate step toward an ultimate "Greater Israel," and every action since that time, he said, had demonstrated their expansionist commitments. Assad was convinced that the Israelis did not want peace and would always frustrate negotiations as they expanded geographically. He emphasized that, as a matter of principle, no Arab leader could ever agree to any extension of Israel's legal borders no matter how great his desire for peace.
I tried to convince Assad that the Israelis were ready for peace if Arab leaders were willing to negotiate with them directly and in good faith. I described the overwhelming commitment of the Israelis to the security of their small nation and their need to be accepted as a permanent entity in the region. Assad pointed out that the West Bank made up only 22 percent of the British Mandate, about a fourth of what the Israelis had obtained, and he condemned their expansion into Syria's Golan Heights.
"It is strange to insist on secure borders on other people's territory. Why should their secure border be in the backyard of Damascus but quite distant from Tel Aviv?"
He added, almost as an afterthought, "We are all the time talking about religion. If Jerusalem is taken from us, we Muslims would be soulless. It is inconceivable that we should be clamoring for a return to the 1967 borders and exclude only Jerusalem."
"Would it make it any easier if we make other exclusions as well?" I asked.
He laughed along with our advisers around the conference table. "If the Israelis insist on keeping East Jerusalem, this shows that they do not want peace, because we are as attached to it as they are," he replied.
I answered that other Christians and I were deeply committed to Jerusalem and hoped that all believers would have unimpeded access to the holy shrines and the right to worship there without restraint. Before we adjourned our meet-ing, Assad promised to make some positive statements about he peace effort, adding that a year or two earlier it would have meant political suicide in Syria to talk about peace with the Israelis.
I asked him why Syria had never recognized Lebanon as a separate and independent nation and seemed to consider it part of Syria. Assad disavowed any designs on his western neighbor, insisting that he and his people recognized Lebanon's independence without equivocation. He claimed to prefer a free and independent Lebanon and vowed to withdraw his troops "when requested to do so by the Arab League and the Lebanese government," but it seemed obvious that he never expected this request to be made.
Assad complained that the Israelis consider it the right of every Jew in the world, needy or not, to settle in the Arab territories that they control by force while refusing to allow homeless and suffering Arabs driven out of their country to return to the dwellings and lands to which they still hold legal deeds. He argued that, while Israel claimed the right to its statehood in Palestine in 1948 because it was only recreating a nation demolished in ancient times, it rejected the recognition of a Palestinian state in the same area -- the very place that generations of Palestinians, either Christian or Muslim, have inhabited continuously for thousands of years. Furthermore, no other nation on earth, he added, including the United States, recognizes Israel's present claims for lands it has confiscated since 1949.
The Syrian leader also said that Israelis asserted that the Jews of the world constitute one people, regardless of obvious differences in their identities, languages, customs, and citizenship, but deny that the Palestinians comprise a coherent people even though they have one national identity, one language, one culture, and one history. Many Arabs consider these distinctions to be a form of racism by which Israelis regard Palestinian Arabs as inferiors who are not worthy of basic human rights, often branding them as terrorists if they resist Israel's encroachments. He scoffed at Israel's claim to be a true democracy, maintaining that its political and social equality are only for Jews.
Concerning the search for peace, Assad argued that to ensure security for themselves, Israelis create excuses to expand, to occupy new lands, and to build permanent military outposts that are developed into civilian settlements. Obviously with the Golan Heights in mind, he said that they then create circumstances to defend the new settlements by further expansion, strengthened military forces, and the displacement of the Arab inhabitants.
The loss of Arab life, he claimed, is relatively insignificant to the Israelis and their American backers, who associate all Palestinians with terrorism in an attempt to justify this racist attitude. The explanation for such a joint policy is a United States-Israeli ambition to dominate the Middle East at the expense of its native people, who want only freedom and the right to live peaceably in their own homes. Assad explained that by refusing to discuss peace directly with the Palestinians, the United States and Israel block negotiations, except when they might single out one Arab group at a time and induce it by threats or economic blandishments to work with Israel and the United States alone.
Assad maintained that Syria had proven its willingness to work for peace in the following ways that were shared neither by Israel nor the United States:
Although Assad gave no indication of being willing to abandon any of his long-term objectives, I came away from our first meeting convinced that he might be sufficiently independent and flexible to modify his political tactics to accommodate changing times and circumstances. Even in his bitterness toward Israel he retained a certain wry humor about their conflicting views, seeming to derive patience from a belief that history, as during the Crusades, would be repeated in an ultimate Arab victory.
During subsequent trips to Syria, I spent hours debating with Assad and listening to his analyses of events in the Middle East. He had been furious when Sadat first told him of his planned visit to Jerusalem, and he never forgave him for his "betrayal" of the Arab cause. He saw Sadat as having been seduced by Israel into a unilateral act that would give Egypt back its lands at the expense of other Arabs. The Syrians did everything possible to prevent direct talks between Israel and Egypt or any other of its neighbors and then led an effort to isolate and boycott Egypt. Even in death Sadat was not forgiven. The streets of Damascus were filled with cheering throngs when his assassination was announced.
Assad blamed Sadat and the peace treaty with Israel for subsequent attacks on Lebanon. He maintained that the Israelis would not have taken the risk of concerted retaliation against the PLO if Egypt had been free to join forces with the other Arabs. We had heated exchanges. I would remind Assad that Egypt had its land back and its people were living in peace. I quoted passages from the Camp David Accords to prove that the framework mandated withdrawal by Israel from occupied territory, Palestinian self-determination, and a peaceful resolution of the outstanding differences between Israel and its other Arab neighbors.
After one long meeting, Assad stood in his office before a large painting depicting the battle of Hittin in 1187. In that historic engagement, the Muslim leader Saladin defeated the Christian invaders, and the Crusaders' Kingdom of Jerusalem fell. The Arabs were victorious over the West. As Assad discussed the Crusades and the other struggles for the Holy Land, he seemed to speak like a modern Saladin -- as though it was his obligation to rid the region of foreign presence while preserving Damascus as the focal point for modern Arab unity.
When I met with Hafez al-Assad for the last time in 1999, at the funeral of King Hussein, he had had mixed successes. Israeli troops were almost completely out of Lebanon, but Jordan and Israel had concluded a peace treaty five years earlier. He was very frail, with only a year to live -- not long enough to see his son, President Bashar al-Assad, remove all Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005.
I made a visit to the Middle East early in 2005 and planned to visit the young Syrian president in Damascus. As usual, I notified the White House well in advance of my itinerary and immediately received a call from the national security advisor, who informed me that I would not receive approval for this portion of my trip. Because of differences with Syria concerning U.S. policy in Iraq, a decision had been made to withdraw our ambassador and to isolate President Assad by prohibiting visits by prominent Americans. I tried to explain that I had known Bashar since he was a university student and that I would be glad to use my influence to resolve any outstanding problems, as I had done with his father. In a somewhat heated conversation, I also expressed my view that refusing to communicate with leaders with whom we disagreed was counterproductive. Reluctantly, I complied with the directive. Later, I observed that President Assad was denied a visa to attend a U.N. General Assembly summit meeting in New York.
Despite this effort to embarrass and weaken Bashar al-Assad, he has survived for six years in one of the most difficult political posts in the region. It is quite likely that he has been pushed into stronger alliances with anti-American forces in Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon. When an international peace effort is launched to end the current conflict between Israel and Lebanon, Syria may once again play a major role.
"When Rosalynn and I first saw Jordan in the spring of 1973, we were looking through barbed wire from the West Bank at the green fields across the Jordan River. As guests of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, we were welcomed to the crossing at the Allen by Bridge, where we observed a large and uninterrupted stream of people going back and forth between the two countries. Border inspections were perfunctory, and there was almost a carnival air about the busy scene.
In 1983, after I had been president, we went back to the Allen by Bridge. Israeli uniforms were everywhere, and only a trickle of people was crossing the border. Lines extended for hundreds of yards, an uneven row of vehicles and camp-sites that looked as if some of the people and their produce had been waiting for days. There was a sense of tension and animosity in both directions.
This time we were traveling from Jerusalem to Amman, following weeks of skirmishing by my staff with U.S. diplomatic officials in both countries. Finally, I became the first person to make the crossing using just one passport, because if documents were stamped first in either Israel or an Arab country, they would not be honored by the other. When we reached the center of the bridge, there was no exchange of pleasantries between the stone-faced officials of the two countries.
Rosalynn and I were driven to the royal compound, on a hill near the old city. From our guesthouse we could look across a deep ravine at the bustling streets of a residential area where housing, mostly for Palestinian refugees, had been built in recent years. Some of our escort remembered that King Hussein's grandfather, King Abdullah ibn Hussein, enjoyed practicing long-range marksmanship at what were then unoccupied hills across the valley.
A direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, Abdullah had fought well against the Turks in World War I, and the British had wanted to reward him. At first he was considered for the crown of Iraq, but the British decided to give that honor to his brother Faisal. Another throne was needed, so an emirate called Transjordan was created out of some remote desert regions of the Palestine Mandate, and Abdullah had his crown, though little authority. It was not until 1946 that Transjordan was given independence, and still the British ambassador retained control over foreign policy and most financial and military matters.
Following the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, King Abdullah claimed the land on the west bank that was not part of Israel, including the old walled city of East Jerusalem, with its numerous holy shrines. The Palestinians accepted Jordan's decision, and this action was confirmed by a 1949 armistice between Abdull ah and the Israelis. Transjordan became the Kingdom of Jordan and struggled to absorb almost 400,000 refugees who had lost their homes in what became the new nation of Israel. Only 6 percent of Jordan's land area was in the West Bank, but nearly two-thirds of the population and a large portion of its natural and financial resources were now Palestinian.
About a third of the Palestinians in Jordan were in camps; the others lived wherever they could find temporary shelter -- in churches, mosques, tents, caves, shacks, and public buildings. Some refused to accept permanent housing, claiming that their only home was in Palestine. Many of the displaced persons remained unemployed and subsisted on food allocations from United Nations relief agencies. Even so, life in the West Bank had been relatively prosperous, so the average Palestinian was better educated, better fed, and more active politically than his East Bank neighbor. When the official merger of the West Bank with Jordan was approved by the Jordanian parliament in April 1950, all Palestinians were offered citizenship. Many participated in Jordan's political affairs, but they still retained their identity as Palestinians.
Although there were strong objections among the Arabs to acceptance of the State of Israel, King Abdullah was reported to be meeting secretly with the Israelis. He was assassinated in July 1951 by a Palestinian extremist on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in the presence of his grandson Hussein ibn Talal, and a little more than two years later the young man became king when he reached the age of eighteen. By this time, the Palestinians had been allotted half the parliamentary seats and the same portion of top positions in the government. The young king continued to press for Jordanian independence, and in 1956 he ordered British officials and military personnel to leave Jordan. It was to be the most popular decision of his reign.
King Hussein's greatest political disaster came in the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israeli troops occupied East Jerusalem and the entire West Bank. Jordan lost almost half its population, a major source of tourist income from the holy sites of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and large areas of productive land. At the same time, almost 250,000 additional refugees from the West Bank settled in Jordan on the eastern side of the river.
Despite Hussein's efforts to control them, during the late 1960s the increasingly powerful Palestinians used some of the refugee camps as commando bases for their almost constant attacks on Israel. Many of these militants welcomed retaliatory raids on Jordan because one of their objectives was to weaken Hussein and replace the monarchy with a republic like that of Nasser's Egypt. By September 1970 a full-scale civil war was raging in Jordan between Hussein's armed forces and the guerrilla bands. It was at that time that Syrian Defense Minister Assad refused to attack Jordan's forces and Hussein was able to prevail. The Syrians withdrew, many Palestinians fled to Lebanon, and order was restored. Ad mired for his honesty and benevolence, Hussein was able to attract strong financial support from the international community, much of which was channeled to the Palestinians.
Having ascended to the throne in 1953, Hussein had become the senior national ruler on earth when we visited him, serving in the thirtieth year of his reign. His fellow world leaders respected his opinions because they were always moderate and carefully considered. Hussein had much more personal strength and influence than his weak kingdom permitted him to exhibit. He had condemned Sadat after the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, but I was hoping he would renew diplomatic relations with Egypt and become reconciled with the Palestinians.
King Hussein made it clear that he considered the persistent unrest, instability, and tension in the region a threat to his kingdom, especially if the Palestinians could not achieve lives of peace and dignity. He was fearful that new waves of refugees might pour into Jordan because of the Israeli effort to absorb the occupied areas. He considered the inability of Palestinians to express their legitimate rights the basic cause of political ills that plagued the area.
Like Assad, the king took pride in having supported the major international proposals designed to end conflict in the region. He and almost all other Arab leaders persistently equate the plight of the Palestinians with that of the Jews following World War II -- without national or individual rights, forced from their homeland, still suffering from the oppression of a military power after more than a generation. In carefully orchestrated presentations to visitors, the Jordanians claim that the constant policy of Israel is to tighten its military hold on the West Bank and Gaza, to compete with the Palestinians for the choice locations, and to make life for them as onerous as possible in order to evict the Arab population from their own land. Hussein emphasized to us that about 12,000 Palestinians a year were being induced or forced to leave their ancestral homes and move east, either into Jordan or to join the many wandering refugees in other countries.
Acknowledging that the Israeli-Egyptian treaty gave a fresh momentum to the peace process, the Jordanians maintained that the advantages were offset by the neutralization of Egypt and by Israel's increasingly domineering role in the occupied territories. The Jordanians informed me that Ronald Reagan, when he was president, had given them direct and unequivocal assurances that Israeli settlement activity would be frozen as a condition of the commencement of any expanded peace talks. They added that the Israelis rejected any political decision to cease settlement activity.
The king and his brother Crown Prince Hassan could quote the latest Israeli figures on how much Palestinian family land was being confiscated by Israel's military authorities, and they claimed that the societal structure of non-Jews was being changed methodically from family farming and free enterprise into day labor, with Palestinians becoming increasingly dependent on menial household jobs and other work for Israelis. They showed me statistics to prove that water resources from the upper Jordan River valley were being channeled almost exclusively to Israelis and that Arabs were even prohibited from digging a new well or deepening an old one dried up by adjacent wells being dug by Jewish settlers. They condemned Israel's policy of forbidding the delivery of foreign aid through Amman to the West Bank and Gaza for such projects as education, housing, and agriculture.
We had already heard most of these complaints from those living in the West Bank and Gaza, but now we were presented with color photographs, bar graphs, pages of statistics, and official documents. It was clear that Jordan's royal family was making the same presentation to other visitors and to audiences in international forums. Jordan's leaders were convinced that Israel's move "to colonize and eventually to annex" substantial portions of the occupied territories not only would change the basic character of Israel but would jeopardize her peace treaty with Egypt and friendly relations with all other neighbors. This would end all viable attempts to reach a peaceful settlement of Arab Israeli differences and lead eventually to another broader and more deadly holy war, with Muslim forces committed through their religious beliefs to restore the rights of their Arab brothers who live west of the Jordan River or who claim the right to live there.
Even without such a conflict, many Jordanians feel that a failure to resolve the Palestinian issue may lead to the destruction of their own nation, and they listen with anger and concern to some extreme Israeli spokesmen who say, "Jordan is Palestine." This threat is real and vital to Jordan's leaders. Following the death of King Hussein in 1999, his son Abdullah II assumed the throne, and he has seemed to continue his father's attitude of cautious idealism. Despite limits on his influence, his personal integrity and commitment to Middle East peace are acknowledged.
Our family has always enjoyed visiting Egypt to cruise on the Nile, travel through the countryside, examine the ancient sites, and meet with political leaders. We still receive the warmest of welcomes, but it has not been the same for us since Sadat. Of almost a hundred heads of state with whom I met while president, he was my favorite and my closest personal friend. In fact, our wives and two other generations of our families also forged close relationships. We made a special trip to Sadat's home village after his death, to repay a visit he had made to our home in Plains.
One morning in the early 1980s, as we were approaching the entrance to the tomb of Tutankhamen, a group of Israelis saw me and began to sing "Hayveynu Shalom Aleichem" -- "Peace Be with You." We stopped to listen, and I noticed that my eyes were not the only ones that glistened. I went over to talk to them, and they thanked me "for giving us the opportunity to visit our new friends in Egypt." I learned that 50,000 Palestinians from the occupied territories were crossing the border from Gaza into Egypt without incident, in addition to 33,000 Israeli tourists coming to Cairo and Alexandria each year. These were comparatively halcyon days, and the Israeli tourists and Egyptians we met in their homes and marketplaces were pleased and thankful for what they thought would be an era of peace and friendship.
On one trip around Egypt, in a private plane, I received permission to depart from the normal flight paths, and we landed near Mount Sinai, where the Bible describes the Ten Commandments being delivered to Moses. We hiked up to St. Catherine's Monastery, which has huddled against the north face of the rugged mountain for more than 1,450 years -- the oldest continuously occupied Christian monastery on earth. Sadat saw this "Mountain of God" as a symbol of peace and wanted a shrine for all three religions to be built there. His dream was never realized.
During many conversations with Sadat, I often expressed apprehension about Egypt's growing isolation from the other Arab nations, but he would scoff at my concern. He was certain that his bold initiative represented his own people's aspirations for peace, and he was equally convinced that most of Israel's other Arab neighbors had the same ambition, at least among the people themselves. He strongly and publicly condemned the leaders of those nations for their short- sighted timidity when they failed to follow his example.
Sadat proved to be right about the fruitlessness of attempts to punish Egypt. The other Arabs could not long exclude or ignore Egypt, with its formidable armed forces, central location, ancient cultural heritage, heterogeneous population of 47 million, large external workforce, and the willingness of its leaders to explore bold new concepts. A Tel Aviv University professor told me that the Arabs' attitude toward Egypt during their attempted boycott reminded him of an old headline in the London Times, "Fog in Channel. Europe Isolated."
There were repeated calls for the death of Sadat, but the Egyptian leader was not disturbed and calmly proceeded to pursue the goal of peace. After receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and even being honored in America as Time magazine's Man of the Year, he was assassinated on October 6, 1981. President Hosni Mubarak has been careful to honor the peace agreements of his predecessor but has concentrated more on the internal political and economic affairs of his country while working with other leaders to restore Egypt's role as a leading Arab nation.
When pressed to continue dealing favorably with their neighbor, many Egyptians ask, "Which Israel?" Increasingly concerned, they now describe the territories as being filled with "small new ghettos of Israelis armed and looking at the Arabs around them as enemies," and they see the extensive settlements as aggravating and perpetuating the hatred that Sadat believed would end with his commitment to peace. For President Mubarak and other Egyptian leaders, the vital peace treaty is always considered to be just one part of the overall Camp David agreement, with Egypt pledged to respect the entire package as long as Israel can be expected to honor the agreements concerning Palestinian rights, the withdrawal of military and political forces from the West Bank, and other specific terms of the Camp David Accords.
A final decision by Israeli leaders to retain the occupied land and a nullification of the Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty of 1979 would be a fatal blow to sustained peace in the region. This would bring Middle Eastern affairs back full circle -- to an isolated Israel surrounded by united and implacable Arab foes, waiting patiently as they prepare someday for another opportunity to strike a fatal blow.
Until the most recent outbreak of violence between Lebanon and Israel, circumstances in Lebanon had been a minor factor in the ongoing dispute between Israelis and Palestinians, but it is useful to review previous events in order to understand the causes of conflict and the potential for peace.
Lebanon has long had to accommodate religious and political divisions, with a Christian majority at the time of its formation under French control at the end of World War I and a growing Muslim influence. The mountainous terrain permitted the different religious communities to live in relative isolation and to preserve their identity and autonomy through the centuries, even while ruled by the Ottoman Empire. A constitution was evolved in 1926 under the French mandate that provided for the president to be chosen by a two-thirds vote of the National Assembly and by unwritten custom to be a Maronite Christian, with the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the parliament a Shia Muslim. Other government posts were divided among the Druze, Greek Orthodox, and Greek Catholics. Despite horrendous wars, political upheavals, and a present population with a growing Muslim majority, these general "confessional" political arrangements have prevailed.
Loyalty to family and religious groups transcends any commitment to national unity, and memories of injustice and past conflicts are nurtured by the wronged parties for long periods of time and have precipitated acts of retaliation and revenge. Political and religious factions have established independent militias, who have frequently depended upon foreign powers to intercede on their behalf. The Muslim Turks have favored the Druze, the French came in to protect the Maronite Christians, the Russians support the Russian Orthodox, the Syrians have on different occasions been aligned with various sides, and the Israelis and Maronites have worked closely as military allies. Members of the more militant Hezbollah have strong ties to both Iran and Syria. Few peoples in modern times have suffered as much as the Lebanese at the hands of such a diversity of foreign powers.
It was almost impossible for me to remember the different alignments in Lebanon while I was president, so I finally directed the CIA to include in weekly briefings a summary description of the political and religious organizations, their current leaders, the size and effectiveness of each militia, any foreign connections, and the latest changes in their status. Only then could I understand the news reports from the troubled country.
Lebanon's leaders have long claimed a neutral foreign policy between East and West and between Israel and Syria. They have not always succeeded, but at least the collective Lebanese government has never mounted a threat to any of its neighbors.
A civil war erupted in 1975, with Christian forces fighting against Palestinians and other Muslims as they contended for economic and political advantage. Syrian President Assad dispatched troops into the war-torn country to restore order. This move was approved by Lebanese government officials representing all major factions, and also by Israel, the United States, and later the Arab League. Although the two countries were officially independent, Syrian leaders considered them to be "one country and one people." When I examined Syrian maps during my visits to Damascus, there was no international boundary line, and the usual bilateral diplomatic customs were not even observed between the two governments. Assad resented any implication that his troops were "invaders" or even "foreign forces" and insisted to me that he and his troops considered their presence in Lebanon to be temporary.
With Arafat as its leader, the PLO remained a strong force in Lebanon and continued cross-border attacks against Israel. In June 1982, a massive array of Israeli military forces invaded Lebanon and drove all the way to surround Beirut, with the goal of driving the PLO out of the country. The specific explanation was that the PLO had assassinated the Israeli ambassador in London, though a different group later claimed responsibility for the crime. Even as a private citizen I was deeply troubled by this invasion, and I expressed my concern to some top Israeli leaders who had participated in the Camp David negotiations that the attack was a violation of the Accords. Back came a disturbing reply from an unimpeachable source in Jerusalem: "We had a green light from Washington." President Reagan's national security advisor denied any official approval for the invasion, but a tacit unofficial blessing was all that had been needed.*
Israel's bombing of Lebanese cities caused high civilian casualties and aroused intense opposition, even within Israel. Israel's Maronite Christian ally Bashir Gemayel was elected president of Lebanon, and under pressure from Washington, the Israelis made a partial withdrawal to the south while American and European troops entered Beirut to supervise the forced departure of Arafat and several thousand of his PLO troops. Then, in quick succession, Western peacekeeping forces left Beirut considering the crisis to be resolved, President Gemayel was assassinated, and Israeli military forces returned to the city and its suburbs. A few days later, more than a thousand non-combatant Palestinian and Lebanese Muslims were slain in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps controlled by Israel's allies, for which Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was held accountable. American, British, French, and Italian troops moved back into Beirut.
*Current events show that history tends to repeat itself.
The Israeli forces around Beirut were under almost constant attack from Lebanese who were supported by Syria, and casualties were high. In September 1983 the Israelis again withdrew to Southern Lebanon with one of their goals accomplished: the PLO troops in Beirut and Southern Lebanon had been forced out of the area, leaving Israel's northern border more secure. American marines deployed around the Beirut airport came under increasing fire from the Lebanese militia in the surrounding hills, and U.S. forces responded with naval guns from battleships and aerial bombing from aircraft carriers offshore.
It was at this time that I made one of my visits to Lebanon, to meet with President Amin Gemayel, successor to his brother Bashir. We sat in a reception room on the top floor of the presidential palace, which had recently been bombed, and could hear and sometimes feel the tremors of distant explosions. My host did not exhibit any concern, and I pretended also to be calm. When I asked about the location of the battle, we walked out on a balcony and saw that it was concentrated in the airport area several miles away. Gemayel's main hope was that some kind of internationally monitored cease-fire might be implemented. I asked him about Assad's claim that he would withdraw Syrian troops if requested, and his quiet response was "That is the way I understand it." After a slight hesitation, he added that they would need some time to prepare for such a change.
The militant group Hezbollah ("Party of God") was formed in Lebanon in 1982 to resist the Israeli occupation. Its members are mostly Shia Muslims, and the organization receives support from both Syria and Iran. Hezbollah is led by Hassan Nasrallah, a disciple of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, who led the Iranian revolution against the Shah. About 700 hard core militia are able to expand to as many as 20,000 during times of emergency. It is a tightly knit and effective fighting force that dominates portions of Lebanon, much too strong to be controlled by the regular military forces of the nation. The civilian wing is widely respected in Lebanon for providing humanitarian services, and its political candidates hold 14 of the 128 seats in parliament. Amal, a sister Shia group, has 15 seats. In the 2005 election, these two groups won 80 percent of the votes cast in Southern Lebanon.
In Apri1 1983, a month after my visit to Beirut, 63 people were killed by a bomb at the American embassy, and later a deadly explosion took the lives of 241 U.S. marines in their barracks. These attacks, combined with the shooting down of American naval planes by militia in the hills surrounding Beirut, aroused strong American political opposition to our presence in Lebanon, and U.S. troops were quickly withdrawn. This seemed to leave Assad "king of the mountain." He proclaimed that the Arabs had just won their most important victory over the United States. All Lebanese groups would now have to turn to Syria.
With American approval, Israel maintained a strong military presence in Southern Lebanon in an apparently fruitless attempt to destroy the military capability of Hezbollah. In April 1996 Israel attacked a well-known United Nations outpost at Qana, which was housing a group of 800 Lebanese who had taken cover there. More than 100 civilians were killed, and an international outcry about Lebanese casualties plus the attrition of its own military forces were major factors in Israel's decision in May 2000 to withdraw almost completely from Lebanon after eighteen years of occupation, retaining its presence only in Shebaa Farms.
Although the Lebanese have not been strong enough to defend themselves, their nation has proven resilient. Their dream has been to become something like a Switzerland in the Middle East, neither involved in conflict nor a staging area for other combatants, and benefiting from good relations with all other nations. Their government's primary complaint is that Israel holds a number of Lebanese prisoners and still occupies an area near the borders of Israel, Lebanon, and Syria known as Shebaa Farms, which Lebanon claims as its territory. Israel insists it is part of Syria, which would justify their occupation.
This is a key issue and needs to be understood. Since 1924, Shebaa Farms had been treated as Lebanese territory, but Syria seized the area in the 1950s and retained control until Israel occupied the Farms -- along with the Golan Heights -- in 1967. The inhabitants and properties were Lebanese, and Lebanon has never accepted Syria's control of the Farms. Although Syria has claimed the area in the past, Syrian officials now state that it is part of Lebanon. This position supports the Arab claim that Israel still occupies Lebanese territory.
The withdrawal of all other foreign troops increased international pressure for the same action by Syria, and in 2004 the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1559 supporting this goal and calling for Hezbollah and other militant groups to disarm. This encouraged domestic pressures against Syria, which may have precipitated the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, and twenty others in February 2005. Although Syria denied responsibility for the crime, Hariri was known to be a strong critic of Syrian decisions concerning the Lebanese government. Massive demonstrations followed, and Syria withdrew the remainder of its military forces. The slain prime minister's son Saad was elected to head the government. To the relief of many, Lebanon was no longer on center stage, and the light of world attention could be focused elsewhere in the Middle East. These dreams were to be shattered in July 2006, as will be described in Chapter 16.
Although not contiguous to Israel, Saudi Arabia will play an important role in any permanent peace agreement in the region. Because it is a rich nation with major oil reserves, keeper of the Muslim holy places, with diplomatic ties to almost all other nations and playing a preeminent role in the Arab League, its stabilizing influence has always been crucial. As president I had strong but private encouragement from Saudi leaders for my peace initiatives, even when their public statements were quite different.
Saudi Arabia is a strange country to many Westerners, reminiscent of the Arabian Nights, geographically isolated, ruled by hundreds of princes who are floating in wealth, and having enjoyed a close political relationship with the United States since the time of King Abdul Aziz and President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Although we found the major cities very interesting, Rosalynn and I had our most informative visit with King Fahd ibn Abd in 1983 while he was having one of the customary royal sessions with his subjects, this time in a remote desert area about two hundred kilometers north of Riyadh. In a tent city erected for this purpose, chieftains had assembled to meet with their monarch, to report on their tribal affairs and to request goods and services for their people. While I was with the men, Rosalynn was whisked off to visit Saudi women, who were in a different camp entirely, over the sand dunes and out of sight. I had known Fahd for several years and, while president, had consulted with in him in both Washington and Saudi Arabia. Then he had been a most powerful crown prince, with many international duties assigned to him by his half brother King Khalid.
The monarchs maintained political stability within the kingdom and greatly enhanced their leadership role by minimizing internal differences through close consultation, by carefully dispensing part of the nation's oil income, and by capitalizing on their preeminence as custodians of the holy places of Islam. They balanced their absolute authority with an impressive closeness to their subjects. King Khalid told me on my first visit to Saudi Arabia that each day he opened his doors to many dozens of men who wished to see him, and each week women of the families were permitted to bring their problems and requests directly to him. He traveled widely through the desert kingdom with a fleet of tractor-trailers carrying a complete mobile hospital and personally welcomed those who needed medical treatment. When I expressed concern about the time-consuming extent of these administrative chores, he replied that the kingdom could not survive if its leaders abandoned this commitment of personal service to their people.
A preeminent desire of Saudis is stability in the region. One of their prime commitments is to maintain a sense of brotherhood among Arabs, particularly with the Palestinians, whom they consider to be severely victimized, and they look upon the Palestinian Israeli conflict as one of the most serious obstacles to permanent peace in the region. There is no doubt that Saudi leaders share Arab feelings of resentment toward the encroachment of Israel on land that was previously occupied and ruled by their Muslim brothers, but Saudi kings have expressed their support for resolving the ongoing conflict through peaceful negotiations if the results will not jeopardize the fundamental rights of the Palestinians. The Saudis consider Crown Prince (now King) Abdullah's proposal adopted by the Arab League in March 2002 (Appendix 6) to be quite compatible with the International Quartet's Roadmap for Peace,* recognizing Israel within its pre-1967 borders.
Many of us fail to recognize that, with all their wealth and prestige, the Saudis' caution in dealing with controversial issues is justified. They have a relatively small native population, their military power is limited, and they are surrounded by potentially dangerous neighbors. Their leadership is predicated on compromise and the forging of a consensus among independent and volatile leaders in a divided Arab world. I might add that the Saudis and many others greatly overestimate the influence of the United States, and they never understand why we cannot "deliver" our own friends in the Middle East when it suits our purposes.
The leaders of Saudi Arabia can be a crucial and beneficial force in the Middle East whenever their influence might make the difference in bringing peace and stability to the region as an alternative to war and continuing political turmoil. At least among American political leaders, there has been a willingness to overlook in Saudi Arabia serious human rights violations that we would condemn in other nations.
*The Quartet includes the United States, Russia, the United Nations, and the European Union and has published a plan for resolving the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians.