Forty Years Ago President Sadat Visited Israel

tags: Israel, Anwar Sadat

Yoav J. Tenembaum is a lecturer at the Diplomacy Studies Program, Tel Aviv University. He obtained his doctorate in Modern History from Oxford University and his Master’s degree in International Relations from Cambridge University. He read for his B.A. in History at Tel Aviv University. His articles have been published in journals, magazines and newspapers in various countries. 

Forty years ago this month, Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat, astounded the world by paying an official visit to Israel.

Sadat's visit represented both a diplomatic and a conceptual volte-face by Egypt. From the long-held stance of refusing to hold direct negotiations with Israel, Sadat now consented to deal with Israel's leaders face-to-face, and in Jerusalem. Having refused to recognize Israel in any way or form, Sadat now appeared before the Knesset and in his speech explicitly welcomed Israel as an integral part of the region.

Few are the cases in modern history in which public diplomacy has played such a dramatic role reflecting a radical change of positions as it did during Sadat's visit to Israel.

In a sense, it could be said that Sadat was the only Arab leader who truly understood the collective psychology of the Israeli people. In the eyes of Israelis, Sadat's visit transformed the Arab-Israeli conflict from an intractable conflict into a manageable dispute. Not in vain did Sadat emphasize, while he was visiting Israel, that “90 percent of the Arab-Israeli conflict is psychological.” He exaggerated, but that is irrelevant. Sadat was not speaking as an objective observer. What is important is that Sadat acted as though the conflict was ninety percent psychological.

He understood the singular importance of public opinion in the decision-making process of a parliamentary democracy. He realized that by visiting Jerusalem he would capture the hearts of the people – particularly in Israel and in the United States – and thus greatly facilitate the achievement of his diplomatic objectives. 

His aim was twofold. He knew that by capturing Israeli public opinion he would elicit the support of the people of the United States and their Congress. This would then pave the way for Egypt to get the Sinai Peninsula and a more comprehensive settlement, while creating the basis for a special relationship between Egypt and the United States. Sadat's thinking was as strategic in concept as it was creative in form. 

The Yom Kippur War of October 1973 is said to have afforded Sadat the diplomatic launching pad for a gradual peace process that culminated with his visit to Israel. Although the war did not end with an Egyptian military victory, the effect provided by the surprise attack on Israel and the fact that Egyptian forces managed to remain on the east side of the Suez Canal when the cease fire was agreed upon, were enough to restore Egyptian national pride, so badly lost in the Six Day War of June 1967.

Following the Yom Kippur War, two interim agreements were signed between Egypt and Israel with the active mediation of Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. This gradual diplomatic process, though, could not anticipate what was to take place in November 1977.

The Yom Kippur War, and the ensuing accords with Israel, allowed Sadat to remain committed to a non-violent, diplomatic path, but did not necessarily lend him any legitimacy in the eyes of the Arab world to visit Israel. Thus, though historically understandable, Sadat's visit to Israel was still a major surprise to everyone concerned.

Sadat’s visit to Israel was not only the corollary of his own imaginative thinking, but also of an Israeli pro-active diplomacy conducted by then Israel’s Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, and Foreign Minister, Moshe Dayan.

Following the election of the center-right Likud alignment in 1977, which ended an uninterrupted period of twenty-nine years of the Labor Party's domination, there was trepidation throughout the international community. It was feared that any prospect for peace, however tenuous, would be dashed; indeed, that war might be resumed.

Likud's leader, Menachem Begin, was seen as an obdurate, extreme politician, who would alienate the Arab leadership, which until then had refused consistently to recognize Israel, from engaging with Israel in peace negotiations.

Begin's first concrete act in the realm of foreign policy following his election in May 1977 was to appoint Labour Knesset Member Moshe Dayan as Foreign Minister. A singularly bold and original appointment, Dayan, renown world-wide as a former Defence Minister and Army Chief of Staff, would introduce a pragmatic dimension to Begin's foreign policy.

Begin and Dayan set out from the outset to enquire through secret diplomatic channels whether there was even the slightest possibility for an opening leading to peace with any of Israel's Arab neighbors. This led to secret meetings in Morocco between Dayan and Hassan Tuhami, Egypt's Deputy Prime Minister and Sadat's special emissary, a meeting that took place two months prior to President Sadat’s announcement in November 1977 that he would be ready to speak before the Knesset in Jerusalem.

One of the reasons leading Sadat in his quest for a direct dialogue with Israel was the joint statement issued by the United States and the Soviet Union on the 1st of October 1977 on the principles for the re-convening of the Geneva Peace Conference, first convened in the wake of the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Seeing it as an attempt by the United States to re-introduce the Soviet Union into the peace process, Sadat, who had endeavored to distance Egypt from Soviet influence, believed that he should pursue a direct diplomatic path to offset the effects of this joint statement. Israel issued a critical response to the US-Soviet statement thus finding itself in tacit agreement with Egypt. 

Indeed, in a meeting that took place in the wake of President Sadat's visit to Israel with Prime Minister Begin and Foreign Minister Dayan, the United States Ambassador to Israel, Samuel Lewis, was reported to have said (in a jocular tone): “We have to think of this in  historical terms. Perhaps because of the joint communiqué we helped bring Sadat to Jerusalem."  

Sadat’s visit, and the subsequent peace agreement signed on the 26th of March 1979 thanks also to the indefatigable mediating efforts of the then United States President Jimmy Carter, constituted a major diplomatic breakthrough for Israel.

For the first time since its inception, Israel was to have normal diplomatic relations with an Arab state; not just any Arab state, but the most powerful and influential one. The implications were not only diplomatic, but also strategic. No major war against Israel had been fought without Egypt. Egypt's leadership had been essential in the forging of the various anti-Israel diplomatic coalitions and military alignments. With Egypt out of the anti-Israel diplomatic and military equation, Israel's position became seemingly stronger, the dangers facing it less ominous.

The strategic importance entailed in the peace agreement with Egypt has led every Israeli government since then to adopt a benign attitude towards Egypt even when the latter pursued a reserved, if not hostile, posture towards Israel.

The current strategic rapprochement between Israel and Egypt, and its wider regional implications, in the light of the menace represented by both Sunni and Shia radical Islamic forces, might have been considerably less likely without Sadat’s visit and the peace agreement that followed it.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill: Never have so many owed so much to so few – Sadat and Begin.

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