Before we all accept the notion that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat is the "world's foremost peacemaker," while Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin is the opposite, it might be well to pause and check the record.
If, as now seems improbable, there should be a resumption of the aborted peace talks between Egypt and Israel, it will largely be due to the willingness of a supposely unbending Begin to send his defense minister to Cairo in the hope of persuading Sadat to negotiate again. Meanwhile, it should be kept in mind that it was Sadat, not Begin, who first broke up the peace negotiations that developed in the wake of the Egyptian leader's trip to Jerusalem and the Israeli leader's return visit to Ismailia.
Sadat, on Jan. 18, abruptly terminated the efforts of a special joint Egyptian-Israeli political committee to negotiate a new compromise agreement. It was a surprise, not only to the world, but even to Sadat's own negotiating team, especially in view of the hopeful progress that the Political Committee had reportedly made.
The reasons for Sadat's peremptorily recalling his representatives from the Jerusalem talks are still in dispute. He simply blamed Israeli "intransigence." In the diplomatic world, however, the more accepted view was - and still is - that the Egyptian president wanted time to soften up Israel by first precipitating American pressure on Begin for more concessions.
It now seems doubtful that Sadat ever took seriously the talks he torpedoed. Four days before the negotiators were to convene, Sadat was saying in Cairo that he had "absolutely no hope" that the joint Political Committee would achieve anything. He also indicated that he was already planning a "different strategy."
That statement was synchronized with personal attacks on Begin in the Cairo press, where he was insultingly referred to as a "Shylock." Sadat likewise became personal, saying, "My initiative for peace is not the King David Hotel, which Begin blew up in his youth."
The scornful reference was to Begin's underground activities in the Irgun resistance forces before Israel's independence. The Irgun blew up a wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, where the British military had its headquarters during the Palestine Mandate.
There was no reason for Sadat to be surprised at the position taken by Israel at the Jan. 18 Political Committee discussions, for the Egyptian leader had been fully advised of Begin's views well before he flew to Jerusalem, on Nov. 19 for his now famous appearance before the Israeli Parliament.
When Sadat, last Nov. 8, let it be known that he would be willing to visit Israel, Begin quickly extended him an invitation, but in doing so he said, "Israel categorically and absolutely rejects the conditions named by President Sadat - i.e., total withdrawal to the June 1967 lines and the establishment of a so-called Palestinian state."
Nevertheless, Sadat still chose to go to Jerusalem, but, as can be seen, he went with his eyes open. Likewise, when he later sent his representatives to the joint peace talks, he knew in advance what conditions the Israelis would present.
Moreover, he knew by then that Begin was more flexible than he had been pictured. When the Israeli prime minister went to Ismailia in December to see Sadat, he took with him an offer that had been checked with President Carter, who saw it as a "long step forward" and a "constructive approach."
Although Begin maintains that U.N. Resolution 242 does not require Israel to give up the territory it has occupied since winning the 1967 war, the peace plan he took to Ismailia offered to give back to Egypt nearly all the land it had lost.
As to Judea and Samaria on the West Bank, Begin suggested that for the first time in history the Palestinian Arabs residing in those areas be given self-rule. As Begin said, that has no precedent. And he added:
"For centuries, the Palestinian Arabs were directly ruled by the Turks, then by the British, and then for nearly two decades by the Jordanians in the East and by the Egyptians in the South. It never occurred to either of the two later ruling Arab regimes to offer autonomy to the Palestinians. It is Israel which suggests self-rule for the first time in the context of an administrative autonomy that will enable the Palestinian Arabs to freely run their daily lives."
All that was made known to Sadat at Ismailia, where, Begin says, he heard "encouraging expressions" from the Egyptian president, who then readily agreed to the establishment of the joint negotiating committee.
"We parted in warm friendship," Begin says, but only a few weeks later, Sadat, with no warning to Begin or anybody else, killed the negotiations and launched his campaign to get the United Stated to turn the screws on Israel.
Yet, in the face of this, it was Begin who only a few days ago began a new effort to revive the aborted peace talks with Egypt. It is not hard to see why the Israeli prime minister has just won a new vote of confidence from his Cabinet and the Knesset.