‘So, what is the human heart? Simply, it is a pump. And I thought, God Almighty, as long as this pump is working a human being feels, thinks, speaks, writes, loves his family, smiles, weeps, enjoys life, gets angry, gives friendship, wins friendship, prays, dreams, remembers, forgets, forgives, influences other people, is influenced by other people – lives. But when this pump stops – no more! What a wonder in the Cosmos is this frailty of the human body, without which the mind, too, becomes still, helpless or hapless.’
Menachem Begin, 4th August, 1980.
The file reading ahead of the annual New Year releases of thirty year-old government files can provide a number of surprises. Much of the media coverage on the 1981 releases in December, perhaps unsurprisingly, focussed on the civil unrest of that year, discussions about the mooted ‘managed decline’ of Merseyside, and – of course! – Margaret Thatcher’s ironing board.
Indeed, I was drawn to a particular file – PREM 19/451– due to its promising and intriguing title: ‘Egypt: Visits to UK by Vice President Mubarak in June 1979, May 1980 and September 1980: calls on the Prime Minister’, and the file did not disappoint. Some of the headlines drawn from it include the Foreign and Commonwealth Office character description of Hosni Mubarak (‘he is no intellectual but is always friendly and cheerful’, though, ‘his affable exterior evidently conceals a degree of ruthlessness’); his wife’s Welsh heritage and her love of the ballet; and Thatcher’s appreciation of the gifts he left behind: a carpet for her study, and some fruit.
However, my eye was drawn to an extraordinary series of letters – copies of which were included in the file for Thatcher’s perusal – exchanged between Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, during August 1980. Since 1977 Begin and Sadat had embarked on an unprecedented, fragile, and sometimes fractious, peace process. In a number of ways their communication was extraordinary, demonstrating as it does the philosophies, details, frustrations, and complexities of power politics and negotiation.
Exchanged over the course of around three weeks the letters reveal a relationship under strain, with several tropes emerging throughout. Both – in order to underline their arguments, and seemingly accuse the other of breaking promises – demonstrate an unsurprising but nonetheless remarkable attention to detail, apparently recollecting exact terminology used in discussions several years before. They both also use emotive language at times. Begin claims a UN General Assembly resolution equates ‘…Zionism with racism (of which we, the Jews, have been and are the first victims)’, while Sadat is certain that his ‘…peace initiative was a sacred mission’.
There are positive signs, with both expressing fraternal rapprochement (Begin: ‘Of course, we Arabs and Jews are all Semites’; Sadat: ‘The story of the Israelites began in the land of Egypt’, even if the latter did end with another argument) 1, but ultimately the exchange ends with a distinct cooling in their relationship as one accuses the other of contravening agreements made in earlier peace discussions.
So, what can we take from this? The consideration that Begin gives to his rhetorical question on the human heart, posed while suffering from illness earlier in 1980, illustrates to us neatly some of the rarely considered issues which drive decision-making at the highest level of government. So often we are far detached from the emotions and thought processes experienced by presidents and prime ministers, but access to governmental files – and the occasional personal communication within them – can illuminate, and show the humanity within the powerful. Further poignancy emerges when we consider the assassination of Sadat in October 1981.
That frailty again.
- 1. Begin unleashes a lengthy theological polemic, correcting Sadat thusly: ‘The history of the people of Israel did not begin in Egypt. It started in the country from which I write this response. In those ancient days the country was called Canaan. Abram (he was not yet Abraham) arrived in Canaan directly from Haran, which he reached after having left Ur-Kasdim (Mesopotamia).’ This carries on for three pages. ^