Sadat's Historic Visit to Israel: 40 Years Later

The cold peace persists.

In history, there are days of infamy and days of glory. Forty years ago, on November 19, 1977, was definitely a day of glory.  It was the day Egyptian President Anwar Sadat landed at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport.  For Israelis who witnessed the spectacle of the bitter enemy arriving in peace to Israel, it was no less than a miracle.  The drama of Sadat’s arrival was without a doubt a major historical event.

One only needs to remember the national trauma Israel experienced after the Yom Kippur war, in which nearly 3,000 Israeli soldiers were killed.  It impacted on a vast number of Israeli families.  Then came the Arab oil boycott and the caving of the European states to Arab pressure, as did the African states that Israel aided in the early 1960’s.  Israel was isolated internationally, its economy was in tatters due to the war, and the mood in the country was gloomy.  The period from 1973 to 1976 brought nothing but gloom and doom, so on July 4, 1976, Israel proved once again its ingenuity and resourcefulness in the rescue of Israeli hostages held in Entebbe, Uganda.

Jimmy Carter was President of the United States (U.S.) in November, 1977, and he was pushing for a “Geneva Peace Process” with the Soviet Union.  His conceived “peace process” sought to include all Arab nations and Israel.  Anwar Sadat, who had previously removed the Soviet advisors from Egypt, was not keen on the Soviets participation.  He saw the Geneva formula as an “empty showcase,” in which the Arabs would not be able to arrive at a united negotiating bloc, particularly with Syria, Iraq, and Libya.

On November 9, 1977, Sadat delivered a speech in Egypt that stunned the world.  He stated that he would travel anywhere, “even to Jerusalem” to discuss peace.   Menachem Begin, who became Israel’s Prime Minister in May, 1977, in what was considered a political earthquake in Israel, ended 19-years of the Labor (Mapai) Party dominance.  Begin responded to Sadat’s peace offer by saying that Israel would be happy to invite him should Sadat accept the invitation.  The famed CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite negotiated details between the two governments. 

Like Sadat, who rejected multilateral negotiations, Begin had his own reasons for seeking bilateral negotiations. He knew that a larger Arab delegation would make unacceptable demands that would breakdown the “Geneva” talks.  Moreover, with the Soviet Union as a clear advocate for the Arabs, and President Carter preaching a “Palestinian Homeland,” Israel would find itself attacked from all sides.  The Carter administration had no clue about the secret talks in Morocco between Moshe Dayan, then Israel’s Foreign Minister, and Sadat’s national security advisor, Hassan Tuhami.  These talks led to Sadat’s peace initiative.  In a sense, both Begin and Sadat wanted to derail Carter’s Geneva Peace Conference.

President Sadat was given a full state welcoming ceremony, followed by a motorcade to Jerusalem.  Ephraim Katsir, Israel’s President and Sadat shared the ride while school children filled the streets with Egyptian and Israeli flags, throwing flowers as the motorcade passed them.  After his arrival in Jerusalem, President Sadat had his first meeting with PM Begin.  The next morning, after prayers at the Al Aksa mosque, he visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and Yad Vashem.  A special session of the Knesset was scheduled and the place was packed like never before with visiting press, dignitaries, and all 120 Knesset members.  President Sadat, PM Begin, and Labor Party chair Shimon Peres spoke. 

Sadat addressed the audience in Arabic, and concluded his speech with, “I have chosen this difficult road which is considered, in the opinion of many, the most difficult road. I have chosen to come to you with an open heart and an open mind. I have chosen to give this great impetus to all international efforts exerted for peace. I have chosen to present to you, and in your own home, the realities devoid of any schemes or whims, not to manoeuver or to win a round, but for us to win together, the most dangerous of rounds and battles in modern history - the battle of permanent peace based on justice.  It is not my battle alone, nor is it the battle of the leadership in Israel alone. It is the battle of all and every citizen in all our territories whose right it is to live in peace. It is the commitment of conscience and responsibility in the hearts of millions…”

After Sadat’s assassination on October 6, 1981, followed by the 30-year rule of his successor Hosni Mubarak, and now since 2013, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s presidency, the “cold peace” between Egypt and Israel has persisted. Albeit, the current Egyptian president is probably the most well disposed toward Israel of all previous Egyptian leaders since Sadat. 

Israeli diplomats in Cairo express their appreciation over the recent open meeting between President El-Sisi and PM Netanyahu in New York.  Yet, they stated their dismay at Cairo’s reluctance to show any special recognition or acknowledgement of the 40th anniversary of Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. 

According to Al-Ahram online, a former trade minister under Mubarak said shortly after the January, 2011 Revolution in Egypt that “It was never seen as a good thing to propose any kind of enhanced cooperation with Israel.  It was always a very sensitive matter, and when we proposed it, we had to be ready with a clear plan on how this would be presented to the public.”  The former minister added that the rule was that “peace with Israel was about the end of hostilities – just as Sadat said, the October War (Yom Kippur War as Israelis call it -JP) was the last war.  Beyond that, however, there was not much to be done beyond the framework of security coordination, and mediating in the talks with the Palestinians.”

According to Egyptian psychologist Basma Abdel-Aziz, “Psychological walls between nations are not torn down by state visits or peace treaties…” In the Arab-Muslim world, religious prejudice still pervades the masses.  With low literacy rates in most of the Arab countries, the imams in Egypt’s mosques still preach religious hatred of Jews and Israel.  Abdel-Aziz added that despite “any negative views that some or many Egyptians may have developed about the Palestinian people recently, when all is said and done, the Palestinian cause is still a very serious issue in the Egyptian collective consciousness.”

The role of the Egyptian media in fomenting anti-Israel feelings is certainly a factor in the cold peace. And yet, El-Sisi’s Egypt has been putting pressure on the Palestinian Authority and its chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, to move away from terrorist elements including partnerships with the likes of Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and the affiliates of the Islamic State (IS), and negotiate in earnest with Israel.

We will never know what might have been, had Sadat not been assassinated.  Would he have overcome the inherent religious prejudice against Jews so inculcated in Egyptian minds?  Perhaps, the growing alliance of moderate Arab states including Egypt, with Israel, against Iran’s aggression would finally compel El-Sisi to take the ultimate step and turn the cold peace into a warm, cooperative, and beneficial alliance for both Egyptians and Israelis.