Nabil Fahmy, Egypt’s Diplomacy in War, Peace and Transition, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, pp377
The Arab-Israeli political settlement talks that were officially initiated in Geneva in the mid-1970s after the 1973 October War took a more advanced turn in the 1990s with the Madrid Peace Conference. Former Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Fahmy’s book Egypt’s Diplomacy in War, Peace and Transition offers the insights of a diplomat who was there at the negotiating table.
Foreign minister during a crucial point in the negotiations in 2013, Fahmy is one of the best-informed Middle Eastern diplomats on the ins-and-outs of the Egyptian-Israeli peace journey and its impact on the overall state of affairs in the region. His book provides unique insights on how the path towards a political settlement, which effectively started when his father Ismail Fahmy, then former president Anwar Al-Sadat’s foreign minister, resigned to contest what he thought were unnecessary political compromises.
While Fahmy’s book is not entirely about the Arab-Israeli struggle, a good section is dedicated to this issue that Fahmy has attended to for the best part of his diplomatic career that started in the early 1970s and came to a close in 2014 after he had served as foreign minister.
“Upheaval in the Middle East” is the title that Fahmy chooses for the section of his book on the Arab-Israeli struggle. The starting point of the story as lived through and perceived by Fahmy is the devastating defeat of the Arab armies in the 1967 War that allowed Israel to occupy all of historic Palestine, all of the Sinai Peninsula, and large parts of Syrian and Jordanian territory.
A second equally unsettling moment that Fahmy’s book moves to after the 1967 War is another war and a “moment of tectonic change in the Arab region [that] came with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990.” This war, Fahmy, then a diplomat at the Egyptian mission in New York, had seen signs of and had feared its overwhelming impact on the region.
“The Iraqi invasion entailed drastic and traumatic regional repercussions on the Arab world. It divided the Arab world, but most importantly it prompted the Arab Gulf states to focus on sub-regional cooperation and become fully dependent on American security. For them, this was not simply a territorial disagreement between neighbouring Arab states but a fully-fledged existential invasion from within the Arab world itself, which was an anomaly in contemporary political relations in the Arab world,” Fahmy writes.
Theories about certain connections between the October War and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait are neither overlooked nor embraced by Fahmy. He writes that “some Middle East experts suggest that after being shocked by the Arab oil embargo in 1973, the United States intentionally encouraged [former Iraqi president Saddam] Hussein to invade Kuwait in order to decimate the burgeoning Iraqi military capacity and emerging nuclear programme. This is perceived by them as an attempt to preempt the emergence of a strong, more independent Arab regional player with control over substantial oil reserves and the potential to pose a security threat to Israel.”
However, Fahmy’s book is more about dissecting what really happened on the ground than what the experts thought. According to this part of his book, the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait crushed whatever semblance of pan-Arabism had survived the crushing military defeat of 1967.
Consequently, a new regional order was in the making and the pursuit of a political settlement for the entire Arab-Israeli struggle, with the participation of all the countries that had boycotted Egypt after Sadat’s peace-making with Israel.
However, it is in Chapter 3 of his book, entitled “No War”, that Fahmy shares with the reader how the October War made peace possible, at least on some fronts of the Arab-Israeli struggle that had started in 1948 and had brought several wars with incredible human suffering and material losses.
“In war and peace, Egypt was at the forefront of the regional dynamics in this regard,” Fahmy notes.
From his first year in office as Egyptian president, Sadat, coming to power after the death of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1970, “quickly announced a series of diplomatic initiatives.” Sadat knew that the hands-on man for the Middle Eastern file in Washington was former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger and that he was of the opinion that for the US to be able to help with the settlement of the post-1967 situation “Egypt had to help itself first,” Fahmy writes.
For Sadat, this meant the October War in 1973. “The Egyptian army did not take control of the Mitla and Gidi passes, but it broke the perceivedly impenetrable Bar-Lev Line that Israel had built on the Suez Canal’s eastern shore. That in itself created a new military-political dynamic, shattering the presumptions of Israeli invincibility and Arab incompetence which had prevailed after the 1967 Israeli victory,” he says.
On 31 October 1973, then US president Richard Nixon received Sadat’s envoy Ismail Fahmy at the Oval Office, with Kissinger present, to discuss post-war diplomacy. Fahmy was appointed foreign minister that day. The mission that Sadat and Fahmy were embarking on was “to leverage America’s new interest in the Middle East to lay the groundwork of the Arab-Israeli diplomatic process.”
According to Fahmy’s book, Sadat was “more pro-West, and particularly more pro-America, than his newly appointed foreign minister, who believed in engaging, but also in preserving, a healthy distance from the major world powers.” It is this chapter of the book that shows how determined Sadat was to work with Kissinger and the US in general to get a settlement underway.
During Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy and while Ismail Fahmy was in Aswan with Sadat for talks with the US envoy, he received a letter from his son, Nabil Fahmy, then a fresh graduate from the American University in Cairo, appealing to him not to give in to whatever Kissinger had to offer. According to the book, at one of the Aswan sessions, Ismail Fahmy was so nonplussed by what Kissinger had to offer that he pulled out his son’s emotional letter to show it to the then US secretary of state.
Ismail Fahmy did not identify the author of the letter, but said it reflected how the young people of the country perceived Kissinger’s mission.
According to Fahmy’s book, it was not just against Kissinger whose unfair plans for a possible settlement were only too obvious that Ismail Fahmy had to push back against, but also against the sometimes exaggerated accommodation that Sadat showed towards his US interlocutor. Ismail Fahmy was not blind to the fact that concessions had to be made, but it was the volume and the timing of them that he worried about.
At one meeting, Ismail Fahmy was taken aback by how far Sadat went to accommodate Kissinger. He “silently collected the papers before him on the table and abruptly left the room, settling in the garden just outside, visible to all through the large glass windows of the meeting room,” the book says.
“Indeed, Sadat’s increasing dependence on the United States and his exaggerated expectations of White House support raised concerns among the Egyptian opposition. Thereafter, the prominent poet Ahmed Fouad Negm and the composer-singer Sheikh Imam released the song Sharraft ya Nixon baba (Welcome Daddy Nixon) to criticise Nixon’s visit to Egypt, which occurred in the midst of the Watergate scandal,” Fahmy writes.
This chapter of the book in particular is rich in details of the negotiations of what could fairly be described as the beginning of the US-designed path for the Arab-Israeli negotiations. It offers a close up on the dynamics of diplomacy, involving Egypt, the US, and other Arab countries, particularly Syria, Egypt’s partner in the October War.
It also offers a close view of the dynamics around Sadat’s offer to visit Israel and the visit itself, upon which Ismail Fahmy decided to resign.
MADRID AND AFTER
The path between Sadat’s November 1977 visit to Jerusalem through the Egyptian-Israeli peace negotiations and the signing of the Peace Treaty in 1979 is brought together in the same section of the book.
The next part is dedicated to what Middle Eastern diplomats used to call the “second phase” of the Arab-Israeli negotiations, the Madrid Peace Conference that convened in October 1991.
“The Madrid Peace Conference was an attempt to revive the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations by merging bilateralism, regionalism, and multilateralism all under one umbrella. In two different tracks, it brought all the Arab and Israeli parties together with international support. It also attempted to tackle conflict resolution and peace building simultaneously,” Fahmy writes.
“The basic logic behind this approach was that a three-day conference would become the stepping stone to both the bilateral and multilateral negotiations to follow. The bilateral negotiations, which started on November 3, 1991, would be about conflict resolution between Israel and Syria, Jordan, the Palestinians, and ultimately Lebanon respectively, with the cosponsors’ support as necessary. The multilateral discussions, on the other hand, were about how to expand regional cooperation with a view to facilitating the bilateral negotiations and illuminating what real peace would look like once the conflicts were resolved.”
By that time, Fahmy was a diplomat in the highest circles of foreign policy in Egypt, namely the cabinet of the foreign minister himself. Since he was also a member of the Egyptian delegation to Madrid, this makes his testimony that of an actor and not just of an eyewitness.
The picture that he provides in the book is one in which Egyptian diplomacy was willing to support the Arab countries and the Palestinians to work on making reasonable and intelligent compromises, but not to blindly accommodate whatever was being offered and certainly never to succumb to attempts by the Israeli delegation to force its views on others.
The book shows that the US remained in control of the diplomatic process. “The Madrid bilateral negotiations were followed by other associated bilateral meetings in Washington as part of the same conference efforts. The United States essentially took charge of these negotiations, especially between Israel and the Palestinians and Syrians,” he writes. “Jordan and Israel had had long-standing secret contacts. Thus, they handled most aspects of the negotiations themselves, with their bilateral peace agreement later signed in October 1994 under king Hussein bin Talal and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.”
According to Fahmy’s analysis, “although the Madrid Conference did not lead to conclusive results in terms of comprehensive peace, it inaugurated a new reality in the Middle East and was thus nevertheless highly significant.”
Details of the parallel Oslo Process that led to the signing of the Oslo Accords between the Palestinians and Israelis at the White House in September 1993 are also in Fahmy’s book. And so are details of the subsequent rounds of talks, mostly inconclusive, that the US managed in the same way that it had managed the Arab-Israeli negotiations right from the beginning even after the Arab Peace Initiative and the negotiations that followed.
While Fahmy draws no parallels between the performance of Kissinger and that of then US secretary of state Madeline Albright in the 1990s, and while he makes no comparisons between the politics of Sadat and those of his successor former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak on the Arab-Israeli struggle, he offers volumes of detail that could help readers draw their own conclusions.
The book draws a broad picture of the Arab-Israeli Peace Process as it was initiated in the 1970s, before and after the October War, and confirmed in the 1990s: economic cooperation between Israel and the Arab countries and a lot of discussion on making the Middle East a zone free of weapons of mass destruction.
These two aspects are generally overlooked in many other volumes in English on the Arab-Israeli Peace Process. This book, however, shows how Israel benefited from its new-found accommodation within its Arab milieu and how it still insisted on sticking to its self-proclaimed policy of “nuclear ambiguity” despite the accommodation it had secured.
Since 1974, and through UN mechanisms, Egypt has been in the pursuit of making the Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, as Fahmy reminds the reader in his book. Egypt, he adds, has made sure to bring up the issue on every possible occasion, not excluding peace talks with Israel and certainly during the meetings of the Committee on Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS), one of the five multilateral committees established within the Madrid Peace Process Framework.
“Throughout the ACRS Process, the essential point of contention between the Egyptian and Israeli delegations was Israel’s rejection of any serious discussion on nuclear disarmament. Even when the ACRS Committee developed a draft declaration comprising of numerous items that would have allowed for a multidisciplinary, extensive, and a comprehensive peace in the region, the Israelis rejected it because of its inclusion of references to nuclear weapons disarmament as well as the Palestinian request to refer to self-determination,” Fahmy writes.
Meanwhile, Israel has always been reluctant to join the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), even in the heyday of the peace talks in the mid-1990s when it had just signed the Oslo Accords and the Wadi Araba Agreement in 1994 and 1995. Egypt, Fahmy explains, had to push back against this, but again the US applied pressure to prevent agreement.
Chapter 5 of Fahmy’s book is packed with detail about the squabbling between Israel and Egypt, Egypt and the US, and at times even within the circles of Egyptian decision-making. And “yet no peace” followed.
This is the title of Chapter 4 of the book, and in a way it could serve as a concluding remark on the failure of all the mostly US-sponsored talks to replace a state of conflict with a state of peace in the Middle East, despite the role that Egypt has played since the launch of the Madrid Peace Conference to help find a political settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli struggle, which is the core of the Arab-Israeli struggle.
The book’s other chapters are not directly related to the issue of the Middle East conflict. However, in many ways every chapter of the book, including the first, which is a self-introduction, shows the weight that this has had not just on the region, but also particularly on Egypt and many of its political choices. They also show the political weight that Egypt has gained through its role in promoting a political settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli struggle.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.