Democracy Lab

What I Left Out

I wrote a book about 1979, but I left out the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Here’s why.

John Kerry is back in the Middle East this weekend. While there, he'll be confronting the lingering civil war in Syria as well as an Arab-Israeli peace process that once again seems to have lost its steam. As the secretary of state tries to leverage American power to infuse new life into the talks between Israel and the Palestinians, he may have occasion to consider one of the moments in recent history when an American president managed to intervene in Mideast politics to powerful effect -- and still failed to find a lasting solution to the problems that bedevil the region. 

In 1977, Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat visited Israel, where he paid a historic visit to the Knesset -- the first by a reigning Arab leader -- and told Israeli parliamentarians of his country's will for peace and the need to satisfy demands for Palestinian self-determination. The following year, U.S. President Jimmy Carter persuaded Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to meet at the presidential retreat in Maryland in order to thrash out a framework for peace between their two countries. In March 1979, Begin and Sadat finally came together at the White House to sign the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, which ended 30 years of hostilities and allowed for mutual diplomatic recognition. The Camp David Accords have been described as "one of the great diplomatic achievements of recent American history." Maybe, but it's not nearly one of the most important events of that most important year. 

My book about 1979, the year in which Begin and Sadat signed that treaty, just came out. (For the record, the title is Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century.) In it, I tell the stories of five big events that roiled politics that year: Margaret Thatcher's election as British prime minister; the Iranian Revolution; Pope John Paul II's fateful pilgrimage to his Polish homeland; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; and the start of economic reform in China. But I didn't include the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. Now why would I do a thing like that? 

It's a good question. The answer has two parts. First, when I set out to write my book, I quite consciously decided that I wasn't going to write a history of the year. There were a number of other important events over those 12 months that I opted to leave out. Nicaraguans staged a Marxist revolution that overthrew the long-ruling Somoza family, shaking up the politics of Latin America. The president of South Korea, Park Chung-Hee, was assassinated by his chief bodyguard, ending an 18-year stint in power that transformed his country. The former Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was executed by his successor, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. It was, in short, a pretty eventful moment in twentieth-century history. 

All three of the moments I describe above were important; each had a profound effect on the situation in its respective region. But I don't think that any of them had the same profound impact on world history as the five stories that I chose to concentrate on. That's because my five stories -- Afghanistan, Britain, China, Iran, and Poland, -- didn't just change the world. They also changed something far more fundamental: the very terms in which we think about global politics and economics. 

My book tells how events in these five countries ushered in the beginning of the end of communism and also signaled the arrival of the twin forces of free-market ideology and politicized religion as defining forces on the world stage. The year 1979 was also a watershed in the history of ideas. Before that year, terms such as "political Islam" and "privatization," "jihad" and "deregulation" barely figured in global discourse. After 1979, it was almost impossible to imagine the world without them. They still define the world in which we live today. 

Which brings me to my second point: Was Camp David really such a game-changer? Did it redefine the very vocabulary with which we describe the world of international affairs? 

Those who defend its importance might well argue that it did. In their terminology, Camp David signaled the end of the "rejectionist front," the first crack in the unified bloc of Arab countries that had, until then, denied Israel's very right to exist. Sadat's willingness to accept Israel as a negotiating partner and to recognize it diplomatically marked the first occasion since Israel's founding in 1948 that any Arab state was willing to do so. It's certainly true that the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty served as the foundation for subsequent negotiations between Israel and its neighbors. 

Israel itself certainly benefited hugely from the treaty. With the threat posed by Cairo's huge military machine removed from the scene, the Israelis were able to shift vast resources from defense to the civilian economy, laying the foundation for the remarkable prosperity of the past few decades. Not having to worry about the Egyptians also made it easier for the Israelis to divide and rule the rest of their Arab foes. It's highly unlikely that the Israelis would have been able to invade Lebanon in 1982 if the Egyptian army had still been poised on their southern flank. The "cold peace" between Israel and the Egyptians has held throughout. 

All that said, I simply don't see that Camp David altered anything fundamental about the terms of dispute in the Middle East. Arab-Israeli tensions have been reduced but hardly eliminated. Today, 34 years later, the majority of Egyptians still disapprove of the peace agreement; 89 percent of Egyptians say that they have a "very unfavorable" view of their neighbors to the north. (Nonetheless, the new Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government has vowed to maintain the peace treaty, presumably because of the billions of dollars in U.S. aid that Cairo receives every year as a reward for sticking to the 1979 agreement.) Opinion surveys throughout the Muslim world (and not just among the Arabs) show consistently that resentment of the Israelis remains persistent and deep. Nor has the treaty entirely kept the peace. Israel has fought a whole series of small wars with hostile elements in its neighborhood since 1979. 

We can argue over why this is the case. Many Israelis would contend that the other peoples in the region hate them essentially for being who they are: Jews who had the temerity to build a non-Muslim homeland in the Middle East. And many would say that there won't be real peace until the Islamic world can break through its own lingering legacy of religious intolerance and anti-Semitism. (They note that Sadat was pilloried as a traitor by the other Arab countries, who immediately expelled Egypt from the Arab League as punishment for making concessions to Israel.) 

Many Arabs, of course, would point to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians -- contending, among other things, that the Israelis have yet to extend meaningful self-determination to the Palestinian people. (The original Camp David framework included discussions on affording some sort of autonomy to the Palestinians, but the talks never really amounted to anything -- though some elements of that process were later picked up again in the 1993 Oslo Accords.) Post-Camp David, the Israelis showed their good faith toward Egypt by fully dismantling the settlements they had built in the occupied Sinai after the 1967 Six-Day War. Settlement activity on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, by contrast, has continued to this day with nary a pause. (Today there are some 534,000 Israelis living in the occupied territories.) 

Sadat himself, of course, was assassinated in 1981 by Islamists who condemned him for signing the peace treaty. That sort of religiously fueled terror was still something relatively new at the time. In the 1960s and 1970s, Arab terrorist groups tended to consist of secular ultranationalists and revolutionary Marxists; by the 1980s, their ranks were dominated by the new religious extremists. But that shift had more to do with larger forces at work in the Muslim world, and less to do with Camp David itself -- though the fact that Egypt's betrayal was orchestrated by the secular nationalist Sadat (a professed admirer of Turkish modernizer Mustafa Kemal Atatürk) certainly aggravated matters. 

So yes, the Camp David process was important but ambivalent. Though the accords delivered peace between Israel and its most powerful foe, they left the more fundamental issues of Middle East discord unaddressed. Nor did they fundamentally change the way we think about Israel, Egypt, or the Middle East. Camp David reduced tensions and the threat of all-out war, but the underlying problems in the region continue to fester. From today's perspective, the Egypt-Israeli Peace Treaty looks less like a turning point than an important way station on a journey that has yet to end.     

AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Weren't Buddhists Supposed to Be Pacifists?

Their religion may stress peace, but some Buddhists are showing that they’re entirely capable of violence in the name of faith.

The man's body lies on a blanket striped in white and blue. He's wearing a dark brown tank top and a dark blue flowered sarong. Someone has tied his hands behind his back with rope. There are deep red gashes on his head and shoulders -- some of them presumably the wounds that ended his life. 

The man in the photo is a Muslim. The people who killed him were almost certainly Buddhists. He was a victim in last fall's sectarian bloodshed in western Burma, which pitted members of the two religions against each other. The image comes from a new report by Human Rights Watch that carefully documents the violence that took some 200 lives and resulted in the forced displacement of some 125,000 people. (A more recent wave of violence within the past few weeks has taken some 40 additional lives and triggered another surge of refugees.) The report argues persuasively that state institutions, including the police, often stood by while Buddhist rioters went after their Muslim neighbors -- and in some cases may have even helped to organize the attacks. A mere 4 percent of Burma's population of Burma is Muslim, while well over 90 percent are Buddhists. Perhaps the fact that the government sided with the majority probably shouldn't have come as a surprise. (The allegations didn't stop the International Crisis Group, a leading western humanitarian organization, from giving an award to President Thein Sein earlier this week.) 

But wait: Isn't Buddhism a religion that places respect for life and the embrace of peace at the very center of its worldview? The Buddha himself placed compassion at the root of his teachings, and in Burma itself, it was Buddhist monks who set the rigorously non-violent tone of the massive anti-government demonstrations back in 2007. The chants of the saffron-robed protestors were powerfully moving: "May all beings living to the East be free; all beings in the universe be free, free from fear, free from all distress!" 

It turns out, sadly, that some Buddhist monks don't see this as a binding ethical imperative. Monks have been prominent among those inciting the recent bloodshed. The most notable is U Wirathu, a monk at a prominent monastery who's made a name for himself lately as an apologist for anti-Muslim sentiment and the organizer of the "969" movement, which has been issuing stickers and signs emblazoned with that number (which has symbolic significance for Burmese Buddhists) to identify businesses that refuse to serve Muslims -- exactly the kind of policy the monk is aiming to promote. He's said to have referred to himself as "the Buddhist Osama bin Laden." How can this sort of bigotry possibly be reconciled with the teachings of the Enlightened One? 

I'm happy to say that there are plenty of other Buddhist monks in Burma who have been pushing back against their chauvinist colleagues. But to understand what's been happening, we also need to take a closer look at those who claim to be standing up for Buddhism even as they've doing things that don't seem to be easily reconcilable with their religion. 

First of all, the notion of Buddhism as an inherently pacifist religion has a strong element of Western oversimplification. Buddhist teaching has never prohibited believers from fighting in defense of a just cause. As the scholars Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer show in their book Buddhist Warfare, Buddhists have participated in wars ever since their faith came into being. Militant monks have fought for Chinese rulers (and against them) for centuries. Japan's samurai warriors were ardent Buddhists, men who cited the Buddha's teachings on the impermanence of physical existence as a good argument for soldiering. 

When the Dalai Lama urges his fellow Tibetans to maintain non-violence in their struggle against Chinese rule, his fans in the West tend to see this as a typically Buddhist attitude. But, as some astute observers have pointed out, the Dalai Lama's embrace of civil disobedience may owe as much to Gandhi and Martin Luther King as it does to his fellow believers. (Nor, intriguingly, did it stop His Holiness from approving the killing of Osama bin Laden, though he later qualified his position when it became clear that the al Qaeda leader was unarmed when he was shot.) Indeed, his religious authority hasn't been enough to prevent over 100 Tibetans from killing themselves as a protest against Chinese policy despite his injunctions against suicide. (Happily, in the wake of the Human Rights Watch report, he has been urging the monks in Burma to end the violence there.) 

But doctrine is only part of the problem. All religions -- Buddhism included -- tend to create a powerful sense of collective identity among their followers. All of the great world religions emphasize the sanctity of human life, and strive to limit the use of violence to what's admissible in certain cases. But those careful distinctions tend to go out the window when a group of believers feels that its values are under threat. 

As the current crisis in Burma demonstrates, modern Buddhists are just as susceptible to identity politics as anyone else. In March, police in Sri Lanka stood by as Buddhist monks led a mob that pillaged a Muslim-owned garment warehouse. Sri Lanka, which has been convulsed for years by a civil war between majority Buddhists and minority Tamils, is home to several hard-line Buddhist political movements, including something called the "Buddhist Strength Force," which has recently made a name for itself with vitriolic anti-Muslim rhetoric. "It is the monks who protect our country, religion, and race," said Sri Lankan Defense Minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in a recent speech -- reinforcing suspicions that militant monks enjoy tacit government support. 

The government in Thailand, meanwhile, has armed local Buddhist groups to counter a simmering Muslim insurgency in the south of the country. The militias, which are distinct from the regular army and the police, have the job of defending Buddhist communities against potential attacks -- and perhaps deepening the sectarian dimension in that long-running conflict. 

What all three of these countries have in common is an ominous trend in which governments and religious institutions are lending support to destructive sectarian forces. Muslims may well bear some of the responsibility for the killings in Burma, but the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that most of the violence was committed by far more numerous Buddhists who enjoyed crucial support from local officials and religious leaders. 

None of this, of course, is to argue that Buddhists are uniquely evil. It's merely to point out that some of our idealized notions about the purity of Buddhism don't live up to real-world scrutiny. We shouldn't give Buddhist extremists a pass any more than we would their Muslim, Christian, or Jewish equivalents; otherwise we run the risk of becoming complicit in their crimes. Just because the conflicts they create are in far-away, exotic places is no excuse for complacency.

The world is too small for that.