"These are the myths and lies that Americans hear and read day after day," wrote New York Times columnist A. M. Rosenthal in June.
"Israel blocks peace. Israel will not negotiate with the Arabs or give an inch to Palestinians." Those myths, Rosenthal wrote, distort several realities of Arab-Israeli relations:
"One is that Israel has been saying yes to peace talks with Arabs decade after decade -- as Anwar El-Sadat proved, to Egypt's everlasting gain. Second reality: for all those decades every other Arab nation refused to make peace, refused to talk...."
In fact, it takes an enormous evasion of reality to believe this. Arab leaders have repeatedly tried to make peace. Even Egyptian President Sadat's famous effort in late 1977 was not his first. He made a significant peace overture in 1971 and was rebuffed. But neither was Sadat's earlier offer the first from Egypt. His predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, made "a major effort for a settlement with Israel" in the spring of 1955. The words are those of Elmore Jackson, a Quaker representative to the United Nations, and the go-between in Nasser's initiative.
Jackson wrote about what could have been an historic breakthrough in his 1983 book, Middle East Mission: The Story of a Major Bid for Peace in the Time of Nasser and BenGurion. That little book alone refutes Rosenthal and anyone else who blindly chants, as though it were a mantra, that the Arabs have always wanted to destroy Israel.
In April 1955, the Egyptian ambassador to Washington and a friend of President Nasser's, Dr. Ahmed Hussein, asked the Quakers to inquire whether grounds for a settlement with Israel could be found. Jackson met with Egyptian officials first, then with Israelis, including then-Prime Minister Moshe Sharett.
The Egyptians' terms included some repatriation of Palestinian refugees, compensation for those unwilling or unable to return, and boundary adjustments to link the Arab communities. Sharett's response was generally favorable, and each side regarded the other as serious.
"Our meeting closed with his saying he would go anywhere to talk to President Nasser -- even to Cairo," Jackson wrote. "He [Sharett] said, `Nasser is a decent fellow who has the interest of his people genuinely at heart.'"
In conversations with Nasser, Jackson learned that Egyptian leaders had conducted informal discussions with the Israeli government after Prime Minister David BenGurion retired and Sharett succeeded him in 1953. But the discussions broke off when Ben-Gurion returned to the cabinet as defense minister and Israel resumed attacks against Palestinian guerrillas and Egyptian soldiers in the Gaza Strip. (Palestinian refugees would infiltrate Israel to retrieve crops and property as well as to exact vengeance for their dispossession.)
The biggest Israeli attack occurred Feb. 28, 1955, at the town of Gaza, ostensibly in retaliation for Egypt's hanging of two saboteurs in the 1954 Lavon affair, in which Israeli agents tried to sabotage Egyptian-American relations by planting firebombs in US diplomatic installations in Cairo and Alexandria. (Israel denounced the Egyptian charges as fabrications, only to come clean six years later. The surviving agents, released from Egyptian prisons, were welcomed as heroes in Israel.)
Nasser's confidence in the possibility of a settlement was shaken by the Israeli escalation of violence. …