On the 40th anniversary of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Israel, the Defense Ministry has revealed that a dramatic and until-now classified meeting with IDF officers was held that was closely followed by an order to “prepare the brigades for war.”
The General Staff meeting on November 22, 1977, a few days after Sadat’s visit, included intelligence and strategic assessments by senior officers, including then-IDF chief of staff. Lt.-Gen. Motta Gur and then-defense minister Ezer Weizman, who were divided on whether the trip was a “brilliant” trick or a sincere Egyptian initiative with potential for forging peace.
All the generals who took part in the meeting were veterans of the Yom Kippur War, so their cautious attitude toward Sadat was no great surprise, as only four years earlier he had initiated a bloody war against Israel.
Then-head of IDF Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Shlomo Gazit, who had been debating whether the trip was an Egyptian deception, began the meeting with an intelligence review and presented reactions to Sadat’s address to the Knesset by various Arab countries.
According to Gazit’s assessment, Sadat’s goal was to come to Israel and say to the Israeli public and the Arab world: “When I say hello to you, I mean it very seriously.”
“He [Sadat] was brave enough to come and say, ‘You are right. We intend to enter into peace agreement with you, that there will be coexistence. Israel will have the right to exist as a recognized state in the Arab world,’” Gazit said. “He played very hard on the tone of striving and yearning for peace, precisely because he is aware of the great sensitivity in Israel following the Yom Kippur War on the subject of losses.”
According to the late Gur, the Egyptian delegation had expressed “great dissatisfaction with [then-prime minister Menachem] Begin’s speech [to the Knesset replying to Sadat’s],” and that following the speeches, an directive was given to the chief of staff from the Defense Ministry, members of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and to a very large number of Knesset members: “Prepare the brigades for war.”
But while Sadat and his entourage, as well as the 38 million Egyptians watching the visit on TV, mighty have been disappointed with Begin’s speech, Gazit said the Egyptians were “very impressed” by the warm hospitality they received in Israel.
“IN EGYPT, there is total support for Sadat and the step he has taken,” Gazit said, adding that of the entire Arab world, only the Libyans and Iraqis opposed the visit. Sadat’s speech was well received in Syria and in Jordan, Gazit said, while there had been no public reaction to it by the Saudis or the Palestinians.
Maj.-Gen. Herzl Shafir, then-commander of the Southern Command, told the generals, “The military situation is quiet. According to our data, there is a good and optimistic atmosphere.”
Maj.-Gen. Avigdor “Yanush” Ben- Gal, who led the IDF’s Northern Command from 1977 to 1981, had also been skeptical about the visit, but expressed his admiration for Sadat and the address the Egyptian leader gave in the Knesset.
“A visit to the Land of Israel and a speech before the Knesset is a breakthrough. It’s a very serious historic step,” Ben-Gal said.
“This is not a propaganda move, but a sincere step in terms of the complex political personality of the Egyptian president,” he continued, and added: “In my opinion, the State of Israel, with its lack of flexibility, did not understand the great opportunity that it had in the very fact that the Egyptian president visited the State of Israel.”
Maj.-Gen. Rafael Eitan, then-deputy chief of staff and shortly thereafter chief of staff, was also optimistic following Sadat’s visit.
“We have direct and open negotiations for the first time in history. Let us do this and see what comes of it,” he said.
Eight days later, another meeting took place in the presence of Weizman. He concluded that while Sadat was disappointed in the Americans, the disconnect from the Russians and Cairo’s growing closeness to Washington played a role in his decision to visit Israel.
“I say that this detachment from Russia and the attachment to America is one of the factors that brought him here [to Israel]. He was somewhat disappointed in America, but there is a military situation inside Egypt that makes him anxious, a situation of his armies,” Weizman said. He was alluding to the fact that Sadat’s armies had not improved since the Yom Kippur War and, therefore, he had no interest in going to war with Israel again in the near future.
“If you were to ask me how I would like to see the future Middle East in our time? Then I would like to see Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Persia [Iran], Morocco, Sudan and Israel [as a bloc] opposed to Syria, Iraq, Algeria and Libya,” Weizman said.