President Anwar Sadat of Egypt traveled to Jerusalem a year ago today in search of peace with Israel, rewriting the political history of the Middle East in one stroke, sweeping aside traditional diplomacy and establishing himself as a world figure.
As the anniversary of his trip passes, however, he still has not reached his objective of signing a peace treaty with the Jewish state. And the atmosphere of electric drama created when Sadat stepped onto Israeli soil and met his old enemies face to face has been supplanted by frustration and tedium as tough negotiations sputter toward a conclusion.
The Egyptians believe that peace is surely coming - "sooner or later," as Sadat put it last week. But it is hard to predict the course of events if the Israeli Cabinet, at its meeting today, turns down the latest Egyptian proposals. Egyptian Vice President Hosni Mobarak told Israel Radio that it would create "a difficult situation," and it is believed here that it might mean temporary suspension of the negotiations.
It hardly seemed possible, in the giddy days after Sadat's dramatic trip, that a year would pass without conclusion of a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. Once theatrics gave way to negotiations, however, it quickly became clear that Israel and Egypt were approaching the negotiations from totally different perspectives and had divergent conceptions of how peace could be achieved.
Both sides miscalculated crucial points. The result has been a series of minicrises that several times brought the entire process to the edge of collapse, with only patient intervention of President Carter preventing total breakdown. For a time last summer, the "peace process," as Sadat calls it, existed only in the mind of U.S. special envoy Alfred Atherton, who was roaming the Middle East to find a basis on which negotiations could resume.
Last week again, Sadat said there was a "serious crisis" in the negotiations. His response was to send Mobarak to Washington to see Carter, underscoring once again the American president's indispensability in negotiations between two adversaries who have such difficulty talking directly to each other.
The prevailing view here is that a peace agreement is within reach, probably before Dec. 10, the day Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin are to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Sadat has said that work on a treaty is 90 percent completed. But the remaining issues are the most difficult, and, in a sense, they are the same ones that prevented Sadat and Begin from reaching agreement at their meeting in Ismailia last Christmas.
Egypt wants it specified that elections for an autonomous Palestinian self-governing authority in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which is to be created under terms of the Camp David agreements, must be held in six to nine months after the Egypt-Israel peace treaty is signed. If Jordanian or Palestinian objections make it impossible to do the West Bank at the same time as Gaza. Egypt is willing to take the Gaza arrangements first, but is demanding that the timetable cover the West Bank as well accoding to Mobarak.
Israel has agreed to elections among the Palestinians in these territories, but does not want implementation of the peace treaty with Egypt tied to a timetable that might be impossible to meet Judging from the statements of Israeli officials, they have two objections: One is that Egypt is trying to get something that was not in the Camp David accords. The other is that Egypt might abrogate or otherwise go back on its peace commitment if the West Bank and Gaza timetable is not met.
To the Egyptians, those are spurious objections aimed at the prolonging Israeli military rule in the occupied territories. Mobarak said yesterday what Sadat and other officials already have said a hundred times - that peace can only be achieved by a settlement of the Palestinian question, and that it is up to the Israelis now th decide if they want peace.
"Are you looking for peace, genuine peace?" he asked his Israeli radio interviewer. "If you are, there is no problem." The remaining issues, he said, could be settled in a week once the Israelis accept the idea of the tiemtable - and as for carrying out the timetable itself. "We could rebuild the pyramids in nine months."
In retrospect, it can be seen that the path to peace was never as easy as both sides thought it would be when Sadat took the step that no other Arab leader contemplated taking. In their speeches a year ago to the Israeli parliament, Sadat and Begin showed that their approaches to peace were so different as to make a quick settlement unlikely. Moreover, each misunderstood and underestimated the other.
The Israelis thought Sadat was so desperate for peace, because of the weakness of his armed forces and economy, that he could be maneuvered into accepting a bilateral agreement with Israel and finessing the Palestinian issue.
Israel apparently also believed its own rationalization for continuing to hold some of the occupied Arab lands, which is that since the Arab world is so big and Israel so small. Egypt could be induced to yield some parts of the Sinai Peninsula.
Sadat also miscalculated. He saw himself, as one of Egypt's top diplomats recently put it, as "a pragmatist who could do things that the ideologues of the Arab world could not." He believed his offer to recognize the state of Israel and make peace with it would, by itself, prompt the Israelis to give up the occupied territories.
He thought that by defying the other Arabs and agreeing to accept any security arrangements Israel demanded, he could allay Israeli fears of Arab treachery and thus induce them to give up the West Bank. And he badly underestimated Israels desire and determination to keep the settlements it had set up in the Sinai.
The result was a series of abortive negotiations, summit meetings and crises that could not have been forseen when Sadat initiated the process, and secured an ever-deepening American involvement culminating in the Camp David meeting and the subsequent close American watch on the treaty negotiations. Sadat has demonstrated that while he may not know how to manipulate or extract concessions from the Israelis, he is skillful at bringing in the Americans on his terms. And it has been the Americans who have kept the process alive.
The history of Middle East diplomacy quickly acquired a new set of landmarks and phrases - Aswan declaration, Athertom mission, Leeds Castle. But they seemed about to meet the same fate as their fruitless counterparts of a decade ago - the Rogers plan, put on the table by then Secretary of State William P. Rogers, or the Jarring mission, undertaken by special United Nations envoy Gunnar Jarring.
The difference was Carter's refusal to take no for an answer, which brought Sadat and Begin together with him for their summit at Camp David.
Egyptians who took part in those talks recognized that the agreements that were signed contained flaws and what they described as "constructive ambiguities." They did not directly link the Egypt Israel peace treaty to a parallel agreement on the Palestinian question they did not specify what role the United States was to play in their implementation and they sought to commit Jordan to a program King Hussein had no part in drawing up.
So it was hardly surprising that both sides should have interpreted the accords in the way most favorable to them - exactly as they did with U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, whose meaning still is in dispute 11 years after it was adopted.
Five weeks ago, Egyptian negotiators left for the Washington talks could be wrapped up in two weeks. But it has still not been completed. The Israelis have indicated that they are still suspicious of Egyptian motives and sincerity the Egyptians that they still question the Israelis' desire for peace.
What is not even being contemplated here, however, is giving it up and leaving the task uncompleted. Sadat has looked for ways to end the ruinous and repeated Middle East conflict almost from the day he took office eight years ago. He demonstrated with his trip to Jerusalem that the Egyptians individually and as a nation, share that desire.
But Sadat also is in a position, according to his advisers, where he must demonstrate to other Arabs, and his own people, that peace with Israel does not mean a sellout of the Palestinians. His personal committment and these political imperatives have prevented him from accepting a straight bilateral peace. With the other Arabs unanimous in their condemnation of the Camp David agreements. Egyptians say, Sadat must be able to show that he is not a stooge of the United States, but rather, has held out for the best possible deal for the Palestinians.