Exactly forty years ago, on November 20, 1977, then-Egyptian president Anwar Sadat addressed the Israeli parliament in what is considered a watershed moment in the Jewish state's history. His call for peace with Israel turned on its head the conflict with the Arab world which to that point had played out in four major wars—in 1948, 1956, 1967 and just a few years earlier, in 1973. In all of these conflagrations, Egypt played a leading role as the region's most populous and important country and thus the torch-bearer of Arab nationalism, the predominant political system in the Middle East at the time.
In his speech to Israeli lawmakers, Sadat "declare[d] to the whole world that we [Egyptians] accept to live with you in permanent peace based on justice." Months later, on March 16, 1979, Sadat and then-Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin shook hands on the White House lawn after signing a formal treaty brokered by former US president Jimmy Carter.
The enormity of the event cannot be overstated both because since that time, Israel's southern border has remained relatively quiet, effectively removing an existential threat, thereby allowing Jerusalem to reallocate resources away from defense and towards building a prosperous country. It also paved the way for the signing of the 1994 peace agreement with Jordan, which secured Israel's eastern flank.
According to Zvi Mazel, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, "Sadat's visit was probably the most important moment up to that point in Israel's short existence. Out of the blue," he told The Media Line, "the president of Egypt decided to come to Jerusalem and very quickly did so—it was like a dream, we could not believe it was happening. The leader of the biggest Arab country with whom we fought only wars comes and says he wants peace."
Itzhak Levanon, another former top Israeli envoy to Cairo, described the feeling in Israel at the time as if "the Messiah was coming." He highlighted to The Media Line the risk that Sadat was taking, "as he faced a lot of antagonism within Egypt [and ultimately was assassinated by Islamic extremists in 1981]. There were two ministers who resigned and the Muslim Brotherhood was against the move. Most of the public sphere was also very critical of him.
"So from the beginning there was a dichotomy between the two peoples," Levanon elaborated, a reality which in his estimation accounts for the "cold" peace that currently persists.
Despite the absence of meaningful co-existence, today there appears to be a renewed thawing in ties between the Jewish state and the Arab world, driven by a confluence of interests, primarily the shared desire to curb Shiite Iran's expansionism.
Hence, the context and timing of Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman's comments over the weekend, in which he urged the heads of Sunni Muslim states to publicly visit Israel. "I call on the leaders of the region to follow in [former] president Sadat's steps by coming to Jerusalem and opening a new page.… Sadat was courageous [and] stood against the tide [thereby] pav[ing] the way for [others to] recognize the importance of the strategic relationship with the state of Israel," Liberman wrote.
His statements came after IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot last week gave a much-publicized interview
to the Saudi Elaph newspaper, in which he asserted that "[Israel is] ready to exchange experiences with Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab countries [as well as] intelligence information to confront Iran."
For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long trumpeted that Jerusalem is on the precipice of a "new era" in its relations with Arab states.
This apparent rapprochement is occurring on the backdrop of efforts by US President Donald Trump to jump-start Israeli-Palestinian negotiations,
with multiple reports claiming that White House point men Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt have started devising the parameters of a comprehensive deal that will incorporate regional countries into the mix.
And herein, according to many analysts, lies the key to Israel's ability to unlock the full potential of prospective ties with the Arab world; namely, that so-called "normalization" can only occur when the Palestinian issue is resolved.
Sadat himself emphasized during his visit to Israel that peace with Egypt could not be separated from the fate of the Palestinians. "In the absence of a just solution to the Palestinian problem, never will there be that durable…peace upon which the entire world insists," he affirmed.
To this end, the subsequent agreement with Israel gave birth to the "Palestinian autonomy talks" that aimed to resolve the status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which had come under Israeli control in the 1967 war. The Framework for Peace in the Middle East, a section of the 1978 Camp David Accords, called for elections in the territories and the formation of a Palestinian "self-governing authority" within one year.
To date, progress has been made on this front as the Palestinian Authority currently governs ninety-eight percent of its own population in the West Bank and Israel withdrew military and uprooted some 8,000 of its citizens from the Gaza Strip in 2005. However, an end to the conflict has proven elusive despite comprehensive Israeli peace offers that were rejected by former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2000 and his successor Mahmoud Abbas in 2008.
In this respect, Mazel blames the issue on a longstanding refusal by the greater Arab world to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state. "All of the Arab countries are united against Israel over the Palestinian issue but there is a very important point that should be understood," he explained to The Media Line. "This position in many ways has offered cover for the Arab states to continue denying the permanence of Israel.
"No Arab country has had the courage to tell the Palestinians: end the conflict," Mazel continued, "as Arab nations know very well that what the Palestinians want cannot happen. For example, the right of return [which entails the relocation of millions of Palestinian refugees to Israel] is a non-starter as is the creation of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. They have to change their way of thinking but are unwilling to do so. Otherwise, a deal could be had."
Mazel points to a long history of Arab rejectionism beginning with the repudiation of the 1947 United Nations partition plan that would have divided British Mandatory Palestine into two states, one Palestinian and one Jewish. There was also the infamous Khartoum Resolution—commonly referred to as the "Three Nos"—in which Arab nations resolved following the 1967 war that there would be "no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it."
However, the power of interests—especially converging ones—cannot be underestimated in the context of breaking down barriers. "Sadat's trip to Jerusalem was partially motivated by a desire to relieve the shame of the loss of the Sinai Peninsula [to Israel in 1967]," Levanon noted to The Media Line.
"Additionally, Sadat hated the Soviets and wanted very much to return to the American orbit. Finally, he wanted to be the one to lead Arab countries along the path of peace after leading them [unsuccessfully] on the path of war."
As per the present regional alignment, he expounded, "there are two main rival camps, the Sunni and the Shiite axis, with the latter comprising Iran, Hizbullah and Syria. Israel feels more comfortable with the former, which consists of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan [and other Gulf states]. Making peace with the Palestinians will help Israel's relations with the Sunnis, as these ties will be brought above the table."
And so Netanyahu finds himself in a bind, knowing that at the end of the peace process lies a theoretical pot of gold that could, over time, forever transform Israel while reshaping the entire region. This, as he remains restrained from maneuvering politically due to the composition of his right-wing coalition and by the many risks associated with making the necessary concessions to press ahead with an accord.
Moreover, the Israeli premier is a keen historian, cognizant of the fact that Jerusalem has in the past repeatedly acceded to Palestinian, Arab and American demands only to be left weakened or even under attack. That Netanyahu has on multiple occasions called on the Palestinian leadership to recognize the Jewish state likewise evidences his mindfulness of one of the main stumbling blocks to ending the conflict.
Perhaps the backing of Arab countries out of an overlapping fear of Iranian hegemony will sufficiently embolden Netanyahu to overcome his reservations about Palestinian statehood. However, as Sadat previously proved, such a breakthrough may first require another bold regional leader to blaze his own trail to the Israeli parliament.