OUTSPOKEN, iconoclastic and brash, Ezer Weizman always seemed something of an odd man out in Menachem Begin's Herut party -- a General Patton among Yeshiva scholars. He was a former RAF Spitfire pilot, chief of the Israeli airforce and architect of the stunning air victories of 1967; "swashbuckling" was a word often heard to describe Weizman in Israel. But his current book, The Battle for Peace, does not reveal the happy-go-lucky Weizman of his earlier book, On Eagle's Wings . This is a dark and brooding memoir.
Except for an occasional flashback, The Battle for Peace takes place between May 1977, when Begin came to power after 30 years in the political wilderness, through the great episode of Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem and the subsequent negotiations culminating at Camp David. It ends with his own resignation as Begin's defense minister in bitterness and frustration in May of last year.
It is the story of a battle lost, or at best only partly won. For in Weizman's view, Begin and his government failed to grasp the opportunity for a greater peace that the Sadat visit offered and settled instead for what Weizman fears will be a "half-baked peace" at best.
Weizman's differences with Begin on the peace process were summed up by their erstwhile colleague, Geula Cohen, whom Weizman quotes as saying: "The trouble with you, Ezer Weizman, is that you took the prime minister's peace plan seriously and you ran ahead with it. For Begin, it was the last word -- but for you, it was the beginning of the road you raced on."
And so it was. For above all this is the story of the transmogrification of a self-styled "raging hawk," who advocated the Israeli occupation of Damascus, Cairo and Amman, into a dove who was willing to take great risks for peace.
Not that Weizman would accept the appellation. "When people say to me: 'Weizman, whatever happened to you? Have you turned into a dove?' they do not understand what a hawk really is. A dove bills and coos, fluttering about in hesitation and uncertainty, while a hawk swoops down, seizes the initiative and takes advantage of changing situations to serve his cause."
As defense minister and the one Israeli whom Sadat took into his confidence more than any other, nobody with the possible exception of Moshe Dayan (who also resigned over Begin's failure to follow the peace process through) could have written such an insider's glimpse of those years.
Weizman comes back again and again to the comparison between the Sadat initiative and war -- that Sadat's challenge was similar to an armed attack and that Israel needed to respond with the same qualities that made her successful in wars: boldness, innovation and speed.
"My job had changed; instead of a war room I found myself in the negotiating chamber -- and again I urged full speed ahead to take advantage of the momentum and strike at the chink in the psychological barrier for a speedy breakthrough."
Weizman and Sadat were apparently in agreement. "'Ezer,' Sadat once said to me in an almost pleading tone, 'if we go about it in the right way, the Arab world will follow, Egypt is still the leader of the Arab world, but if we don't move quickly toward peace we shall lose that position too.'"
In contrast, Weizman despaired of his own government's lack of perception that the Sadat visit represented a chance to make the great breakout.
"The chairs around the Cabinet table were occupied by men who had built their careers on Israel's isolation from the Arab world. There were some you could wake in the middle of the night and with their eyes closed they could reel off the minutest detail of events in Plonsk in 1910 -- but they had not the slightest inkling of what went on in an Arab village within Israel last week."
It was strange to see Israelis, so resolute in war, "afraid of peace," Weizman writes. Indeed, many of us who were in Jerusalem during and after the Sadat visit could sense, once the great hysteria of joy had passed, a partial paralysis in dealing with a whole new set of realities. One was reminded of the Alexandrian poet C. P. Cavafy's "Waiting for the Barbarians": And some of our men just in from the border say there are no barbarians any longer. Now what is going to happen to us without barbarians? Those people were a kind of solution.
Weizman himself was stunned by Egyptians in Jerusalem. I found myself waiting to see whether they'd wipe their mouths on the tablecloth," Weizman recalls of his first encounter with his former enemies. "What strange thoughts can run through a man's mind after so many years of hostility."
Weizman does not take credit away from Begin for achieving a peace with Egypt; perhaps no other Israeli prime minister could have carried off a complete withdrawal from the Sinai. But, Weizman observes: "Begin's position was clear: he was giving up the Sinai to protect himself against any eventual concession in the West Bank."
And Sadat's initiative, in Weizman's view, could have meant so much more. "Whereas the Egyptians saw the Sinai agreement as the model for similar understanding with Jordan and Syria over the West Bank and the Golan Heights, Begin saw it as the precise opposite. As far as he was concerned, the withdrawal from the Sinai would be the end of the story."
Although Sadat was never able to deliver any other Arab countries of the Palestinians to the negotiating table, Weizman believes that was partially the fault of his own government. Sadat was never given any carrots to offer the rest of the Arab world.
My subsequent disappointment in [Begin] was . . . that he later backed off from implementing the autonomy agreements [for the West Bank] because his desire for annexation under the old Herut dream ultimately overcame the visionary in him that would strive for peace," Weizman writes.
Weizman's acerbic comments about his colleagues have already received much attention. But perhaps more memorable are the touching exchanges between Egyptians and Israelis recalling their wounds and their war dead, using their bitter past and mutual grief in order to grope towards mutual understanding. Weizman's own son was badly wounded on the Suez Canal and his still precarious health has profoundly affected Weizman's life.
Weizman's summing up is devastating: "By 1980, the state of Israel found it hard to look in the mirror. The reflection was less than attractive. Pursuing policies that turned friends into enemies, we had isolated ourselves internationally and even alienated Jewish communities whose support had until now been unswerving.
"For thirty years we lived in a beleaguered society, growing accustomed to dwelling in the shadow of the wall of hostility enclosing us. Unfortunately, when the wall was torn down, the light was too bright for some eyes. Many of my former colleagues, blinking in the sun of peace, hastily fumbled for their dark glasses. Instead of conducting the battle for peace with open-eyed zest, they are now groping their way backward into their familiar -- and unlit -- dugouts.