Anwar Sadat’s speech to the Knesset in Jerusalem on November 20, 1977 came as a historic thunderclap. It led to an American supported peace treaty between Egypt and Israel two years later.
A driving force behind the unexpected storm was Stephen P. Cohen, a Canadian-American Jew and Harvard-trained social psychologist. Starting in 1975, he worked with top-level elites in the two warring states, Egypt and Israel, building personal contacts and trust, providing ideas and intelligence, and guiding the two leaderships away from adversarial approaches, including warfare.
Steve Cohen significantly impacted relationships in the Middle East. He made peace possible.
With strategies and adroit, relentless tactics, Cohen played a significant and singular role in peacemaking. His recent death at a young age is a great loss to those of us who admired his active passion for building peace processes.
Cohen’s one-man role of peacemaking is recorded in the newly published The Go-Between: Memoir of a Mideast Intermediary. This memoir is succinct and substantive, a series of highly readable dramas among Israel, Egypt, the PLO, and Syria.
Steve Cohen commenced his mediation efforts in response to the trauma of the regional war of 1973. He hit his full diplomatic stride in the late 1970s through the mid-1990s.
After a generation of work to bring an end to war in the Levant, serving as a self-motivated intermediary among national rulers and encouraging opposing political and military leaders to listen and acknowledge each other, his legacy of step-by-step mediation has become an expected and enduring norm in dealing with protracted conflict in the region. In this brief but brilliant narrative, Cohen shares his stories and his successful methodology of building person-to-person familiarities – and trust – in order for substance to become the concentrated subject. This meant talking in truths, including facts, being realistic about what could and could not happen at a particular time, returning to Jerusalem, Cairo, Beirut, Tunis, Damascus, and points in Europe over and over again – always establishing trust.
Cohen’s personal journey of peacemaking commenced in Cairo in 1975, meeting people at the Al-Ahram newspaper, the Center for Political and Strategic Studies, and the American University of Cairo. He was accompanied on this trip by two like- minded scholars, Harvard colleague Herb Kelman and Ed Azar of UNC-Chapel Hill. At the Al-Ahram Center, this team met with its head, Boutros Boutros-Ghali. There, Cohen reflects, Boutros jumpstarted “my life’s work” and remained “a key presence for year’s to come.” Boutros wrote the book’s Afterword.
While looking for conflict resolution interlocutors at Cairo University, Cohen was arrested. “My inquiries made the faculty highly uncomfortable,” he writes, because it was not acceptable at the time to talk about peace with Israel. However, “(g)etting arrested, at the time, was the best thing that could have happened.” Tahseen Bashir, President Sadat’s spokesman, got word of the arrest and intervened; Bashir became fascinated by the mediation goal of direct talks between Egyptians and Israelis. Bashir and Cohen befriended each other.
A year later in 1976, cultivating civil society in Cairo, Cohen was invited back to the Al-Ahram Center. He spoke to a select roundtable about the possibility of an Egyptian-Israeli peace. “I told them the Israelis would be shocked by an Egyptian peace initiative,” asserting “much as they had been shocked by Egypt starting a war three years earlier…. (A) surprise step by Egypt toward peace might cause Israel to reconsider its ironclad vow to hold on to the Sinai.” Seated at the roundtable were Boutros and presidential aide Osama el Bas, who would push the possibility of peace on Sadat. The session was tape-recorded, translated into Arabic, and published in the Al-Ahram newspaper.
In Israel, Cohen used conflict resolution tools, such as providing hard information about his visits to Egypt to political and security leaders. He debriefed Yitzhak Rabin and Shlomo Gazit, the head of military intelligence at the time. Cohen tried to widen communications between Egyptians and Israelis, bringing Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman into the discussions. Cohen focused on and pressed these four Israelis to understand that Osama and Boutros were the “staunchest supporters in Egypt of the peace process.”
In the spring of 1978, Cohen brought Mustafa Khalil, a future Prime Minister, Boutros, and other Egyptians together at a meeting Rabin hosted at the Tel Aviv house, where David Ben-Gurion had once lived. Another key meeting took place between Shimon Peres and Anwar Sadat in Vienna, with Austrian Prime Minister Bruno Kreisky as host. Cohen was play-calling actions inside Israeli politics that avoided Menachem Begin and his circle, and inside Egyptian political tension-points that avoided the anti-Zionists in Cairo.
Cohen found a way to bring Begin into the reconciliation process. He had an in-depth talk with Sadat in Alexandria in July 1978, advising the Egyptian leader that Dayan was the key to Begin’s thinking about peace and direct dealings with Egypt – and with the Palestinians. This discussion in turn led to a meeting between Dayan and Osama al Bas at Leeds Castle in the U.K. It was here that the two discussed not only a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, but the Egyptian notion of Palestinian autonomy and political rights – to which Israel agreed.
Three weeks later President Jimmy Carter invited Begin and Sadat to Camp David.
Cohen next pressed hard on the Israeli- Palestinian case. A grueling task, it was also a lesson in how to mediate conflict. Cohen developed a personal “trusting relationship” with the PLO’s ambassador to Cairo, Saeed Kamal, which developed into Cohen having multiple meetings with Yassir Arafat, both in Beirut and in the underground PLO headquarters in the Tunisian desert. These face-to- face meetings occurred not only with Arafat, but also with Abu Iyad, Abu Jihad, and Khalid al-Hassan. These sessions, Cohen writes, “allowed me to show the Israelis that I had real access to Arafat and his thinking.”
Between 1983 and 1984, the meetings were crucial to what Cohen was attempting – to create direct contacts between the PLO’s leadership and Israel.
Cohen set up secret meetings between senior Shabak operative Yossi Ginossar and the PLO’s Kamal in New York City, once even in Cohen’s professorial office at City University of New York’s Graduate Center on 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan. According to Cohen, while not a power within the PLO inner circle, Kamal gave him a window into Palestinian thinking. “I got to know,” he records, “how the Palestinians operated and related to each other.” Ginossar had the respect of Israel’s prime minister and cabinet – Shimon Peres, Yitzak Rabin, Shlomo Gazit, and the intelligence community – for keeping secrets.
The goal, eventually achieved, was to create direct Israeli-PLO contacts. This occurred in a shabby apartment at a Mossad safe-house in Paris on February 21, 1986. Attending were Hani al-Hassan and Saeed Kamal for the PLO, Shlomo Gazit and Yossi Ginossar for Israel, and Steve Cohen, who took 40 pages of notes by hand. As agreed, he gave one copy to each side, but kept the secret, hand-written copy for himself.
There were two follow up meetings in Brussels on March 12th and April 3rd. These stopped when Yitzak Shamir returned, as agreed in the rotation accord, to the prime ministership in May. In that spring period, however, Arafat missed the peace crest, refusing to call publicly for an end to violence. On October 30th, two days before the Israeli election, a lethal bomb attack on an Israeli bus passing through Jericho ensued, burning alive a mother and her young children. The Israeli media covered the tragedy thoroughly and the incident swung undecided voters away from the Labor Party to Shamir’s Likud Party. The attack, and Arafat’s failure to denounce it, went to prove Likud’s case that Israel needed a strong-armed leader. Likud has since been in power for much of the following three decades.
Steve Cohen’s efforts to moderate hostility and engender dialogue between Syria and Israel, was at first hopeful, but came apart owing to Hafez Al- Assad’s death in June 2000. Once again, Cohen gradually developed relationships with five top-level Syrians, Assad himself, key aides Bouthaina Shaaban, Farouk Sharaa, Walid Muallem, and Mohammed Nasif, facilitated by Syrian-American Abe Soliman of Bethesda, Maryland, an old friend of Assad.
Cohen saw a way to facilitate Syrian-Israeli contact, linking Nasif to Shas party leader Aryeh Deri. Nasif, on behalf of Hafez al-Assad, wanted the return of the Golan in exchange for a binding peace accord with Israel. Israel’s third largest political party, Shas, in the 1998-1999 period, wanted to secure the return of Eli Cohen’s remains in Syria to Israel. Eli Cohen, a Sephardic Jew, was a celebrated Israeli spy who had been executed in Damascus years before. He became a national hero allowing the Sephardim to claim a small piece of Israel’s Ashkenazi-dominated history. All that was required would have been Shas leadership to support publicly Israel’s full withdrawal from the Golan Heights. This in turn would have meant the Labor-Shas coalition would carry the Golan’s return on a Knesset vote.
But then, when Ehud Barak won the prime ministership on a platform that was to take the Education ministry away from Shas, the coalition fell apart. Simultaneously, the health of Hafez al-Assad rapidly declined; he died in June 2000. No one in Syria had the political clout to come to an agreement with the “enemy-neighbor,” except the elder al- Assad.
Stephen P. Cohen worked relentlessly to create understanding between Egyptian and Israeli power holders, as well as Palestinians and Israelis, and Syrians and Israelis. He gave credence to compromise as a win-win for all sides. No other contemporary individual or civil society group has developed the personal, trusting relationships that Cohen put together in the Levant and then applied to moderating hostility and engendering dialogue.
Cohen was at the forefront in making peaceful change in a conflict-oriented part of the world. Significant and singular, for sure.