Home Opinion and Features Ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires a Sadat-style leader

Ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires a Sadat-style leader

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OPINION: Spending a recent week in Egypt made me realise what is desperately missing from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: a peacemaker in the mould of Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president who became a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and one of the greatest leaders of modern times by risking everything – including, as it turned out, his life – for peace, writes columnist Max Boot.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (left) clasps hands with US President Jimmy Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin after signing an Israel-Egypt peace treaty in 1979. File picture: Central Intelligence Agency from Washington, DC, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By Max Boot

SPENDING a recent week in Egypt made me realise what is desperately missing from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: a peacemaker in the mould of Anwar Sadat.

The Egyptian president became a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and one of the greatest leaders of modern times by risking everything – including, as it turned out, his life – for peace. Even those of us too young to remember the events at the time can still thrill to Sadat’s dramatic visit to Israel in 1977 following four major wars between the two countries. This prepared the way for the 1978 Camp David Accords and the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. It was the first time an Arab state recognised the Jewish state.

Israel’s conservative prime minister and Sadat’s co-Nobelist, Menachem Begin, was an essential partner for peace, and US President Jimmy Carter was a crucial mediator, but Sadat was the one who set the process in motion. In 1981, he was assassinated by Islamist terrorists, but, nearly half a century after his pioneering efforts, Egypt and Israel remain at peace.

By contrast, as the war in Gaza approaches the six-month mark, there is no peace in sight between Israelis and Palestinians – only the certainty of more suffering and bloodshed. That’s because neither side has produced a Sadat. Israel came close in the 1990s with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, but, like Sadat, he was assassinated by an extremist from his own country – in his case, for negotiating the Oslo Accords creating the Palestinian Authority and opening a path to Palestinian statehood.

That path has been a dead end, in part because Rabin’s counterpart, Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat, was never willing to give up the Palestinians’ “right of return” and risk his status as a “freedom fighter” for his people. Since Arafat’s death in 2004, the Palestinian Authority has been ruled by his uninspiring lieutenant, Mahmoud Abbas.

Now pushing 90 years old, Abbas was elected in 2005 to a four-year term that has lasted almost 19 years. Free of the pressure of winning elections, he presides over a corrupt and ineffectual regime, with seemingly no greater goal than staying in office as long as he still draws breath. Abbas is seen by most Palestinians as Israel’s collaborator in an occupation that steals their land and denies them dignity. In one recent poll, 90 percent of Palestinians said Abbas should resign, but he gives no indication of going anywhere.

While Abbas marks time, Hamas has sought to win Palestinians’ support by slaughtering and kidnapping Israelis. Last month, one of the most depressing polls in recent memory found that 71 percent of Palestinians support Hamas’s barbaric October 7 assault and 59 percent want Hamas to control the Gaza Strip when the war is over.

Though deeply distressing to advocates of a two-state solution, the widespread Palestinian support for a terrorist organisation might be welcome news for Israel’s hard-line prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. “Bibi,” who has dominated Israeli politics for nearly three decades, has repeatedly vowed to block the establishment of a Palestinian state — and even went so far as to covertly support Hamas to dispel pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians.

Like Abbas, Netanyahu is a discredited and unpopular leader (only 15 percent of Israelis want him to keep his job after the war) who refuses to leave office. Having failed to prevent the October 7 Hamas attack, Netanyahu is now turning Israel into an international pariah with an assault on the Gaza Strip that, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, has killed more than 32,000 Palestinians. Israel counters that more than one-third of the dead are Hamas fighters, but, even if that’s accurate, it’s doubtful that Israel’s offensive will truly destroy the terrorist organisation. Israeli troops keep having to go back into areas that were supposedly cleared of militants. The levelling of Gaza – more than half of the enclave’s buildings have been damaged or destroyed – might simply give rise to a new generation of violent extremists.

The United Nations warns that famine is imminent in northern Gaza, with 70 percent of the population already suffering from catastrophic levels of hunger. Aid from Israel is inadequate, forcing the United States, Britain and other countries to parachute in provisions, and there is no way to safely distribute the food and medicine to those who need it most. That’s because Israel has disrupted Hamas’s ability to govern Gaza but has not created any administration, either civil or military, to take its place. The result is a lawless, chaotic territory on Israel’s doorstep – Mogadishu on the Mediterranean.

It is easy and correct to blame Netanyahu for this failure, but the more painful truth is that, though the prime minister is personally unpopular, his policies have widespread support in Israel. Another recent poll found that 68 percent of Jewish Israelis oppose the distribution of any humanitarian aid to Gaza, even “by international bodies that are not linked to Hamas or to UNRWA.” (UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency, has been infiltrated by Hamas operatives.)

There is little criticism in Israel of its military offensive in Gaza, despite the terrible level of collateral damage, because Israelis were so traumatised by Hamas’s October attack. Though there has been a dramatic uptick of support recently in Gaza for a two-state solution, many Israelis and Palestinians have lost faith in that goal. Yet this is the only conceivable path to a lasting peace that does not involve ethnic cleansing of either Palestinians (as the Israeli far right desires) or Jews (as Hamas desires).

The failure of the peace process has opened the way for Hamas to pursue its nihilistic assault on Israel, using the people of Gaza as human shields. Hamas’s cruel leaders could pressure Israel to end its offensive by releasing their remaining 130 hostages (not all of whom are still alive), but they have driven a hard bargain in cease-fire negotiations.

Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, is apparently convinced that the suffering inflicted on his fellow Palestinians is a small price to pay for reducing Israel’s global standing and hampering its efforts to establish diplomatic relations with more Arab states. As long as Sinwar is safe in some tunnel, no doubt surrounded by terrified hostages, he gives no indication of caring what happens to the poor civilians trying to survive aboveground.

It is enough to make an observer despair. Israelis and Palestinians are trapped in a death spiral. The only way to break out of this deadly impasse is for at least one far-sighted leader to emerge who is willing to seek an alternative to endless war. In other words, another Anwar Sadat. Such a figure, sadly, is nowhere in sight. Instead, we have two cynical time-servers – Netanyahu and Abbas – and the fanatical men of Hamas.

But there is still a sliver of hope. Hamas’s power has been much reduced by the Israeli offensive, and Netanyahu and Abbas won’t be in office forever. Perhaps, just perhaps, their successors will be willing to revive the long-dormant search for a two-state solution.

It doesn’t seem likely at the moment. But then no one could have imagined when Sadat took over in 1970 after the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser that this career army officer would turn out to be a transformational figure. It is astonishing what courageous and principled leadership can accomplish – and dismaying how much suffering its absence can inflict.

* Max Boot is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. A Pulitzer Prize finalist in biography, he is the author of the forthcoming “Reagan: His Life and Legend.”

– THE WASHINGTON POST

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