With trumpets sounding, the red-and-gold striped Egyptian jet touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport just before 8 p.m. As it taxied in, projectors lit up the reception area filled with government ministers, soldiers and policemen.
It was November 19, 1977, and when the door opened, Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president, appeared at the top of the stairway.
He was greeted with a salute by an IDF officer who told him: “Mr. President, the guard of honor of the Israeli Defense Forces is ready for your inspection.”
This was how Sadat was received when he landed in Israel 40 years ago this week, a trip that heralded a new era for Israel, the Middle East and the entire world.
Sadat’s visit came a mere four years after the bloody Yom Kippur War, during which Israel lost its confidence – as well as 2,688 of its soldiers. While Israel managed to hold on to the Sinai and the Golan Heights that it conquered during the Six Day War, the country now carried a renewed sense of vulnerability, one not felt since the founding of the Jewish state.
On the other hand, the war was also traumatic for Sadat. It made the Egyptian leader understand that Israel could not be destroyed, and that the only way for him to retrieve the Sinai was by coming to terms with Israel’s existence and entering into peace talks with a country, that until then, was considered his arch nemesis. It was a transformative moment for Sadat, who finally realized that, in the Middle East, only peace would last.
For Israel, it also was a transformative moment, and Sadat’s visit left a deep mark on the Israeli psyche. Until then, the Jews who had returned to their homeland believed the Arabs would never come to terms with their existence and never stop trying to destroy them.
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By coming to Israel, Sadat made Israelis understand that they would not have to “forever live by the sword” – as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu famously declared a few years ago – but could actually be accepted by their Arab neighbors.
That was the true significance of Sadat’s visit. Yes, it was important for the Arabs to understand that Israel could not be destroyed; but it was just as important for Israelis to understand that a better, more peaceful future was also possible. Continued war and hostility did not have to be Israel’s destiny.
Sadat made Israelis see a better future, a vision that is lacking today when trying to achieve a sustainable peace deal with the Palestinians.
Today, Israelis appear to be mostly disenchanted with the prospects for peace. They see what happened when Israel pulled out of parts of the West Bank in the late 1990s.
That move was met by a suicide-bombing campaign and the Second Intifada.
They see the tens of thousands of rockets Hamas and Islamic Jihad have accumulated and launched from the Gaza Strip and the countless IDF operations since Israel pulled out in 2005. They think back to the summer of 2006 and the war against Hezbollah, provoked by the abduction of two IDF reservists six years after the army pulled out of its security zone in southern Lebanon.
Now, go try to convince Israelis that another withdrawal, another risk – as well as the establishment of a Palestinian state – are in their interests. There might be a potential demographic time-bomb on our hands, but that is difficult to explain and too far away to see. In the immediate-term, Israelis see mortars landing on the runways at Ben-Gurion Airport and ISIS cells slipping into the West Bank over an unguarded Jordan Valley.
The litmus test for whether people want to make a peace deal now is Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. If the right-wing camp in Israel announces a rally to protest the lack of construction in settlements, it will fill the square. If the left-wing camp announces a rally to call on the government to enter peace talks with the Palestinians, it’s doubtful the square would fill up even by half.
The reason is because Israelis suffer from a combination of disenchantment and apathy.
The economy is booming and people – while they justifiably complain about the high cost-of-living here – live a relatively safe and secure life. Who wants to think about what is happening a mere 20-minute drive from downtown Tel Aviv when you don’t have to? Moreover, 40 years after Sadat’s visit, Israelis look around the region and see that not that much has really changed.
While we now have peace with Jordan and Egypt, neither of those countries’ leaders is willing to step foot in Israel. It is true that Israel has covert contacts throughout the Gulf, but when the Israeli national judo team competed recently in Abu Dhabi, the judokas had to remove the Israeli flags from their uniforms.
And when one of the judokas won a gold medal, he had to stand on the podium and watch as the International Judo Federation’s anthem was played and its flag was raised, instead of Israel’s blue-and-white and “Hatikva.”
So Israelis ask themselves: Why would this suddenly change? Why should we take risks for something that seems so dangerous?
This apathy and disenchantment are important to keep in mind, because if people don’t demand something of their leadership, there is no reason for the leadership to take action that is politically risky. If Israelis aren’t demanding that Netanyahu make peace with the Palestinians, then why would he?
Yes, there is pressure from the United States and Europe, but all of that can be managed like it was during the eight years under the Obama administration. Without real pressure from the Israeli public, there is no real reason to expect a change.
How can this change? With a modern-day Sadat. Imagine for a moment that Muhammad bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, traveled to Jerusalem, spoke at the Knesset, visited Yad Vashem, and announced his desire to normalize ties with Israel.
This would provide Israelis with a glimpse of a reality that currently does not exist.
If the king of Bahrain or the president of the United Arab Emirates came, it would have a similar effect. A visit by King Abdullah of Jordan or Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt would also leave Israelis impressed.
So why don’t they visit? When asked, officials in the Gulf explain that they can’t just come to Jerusalem. “We have public opinion in our own countries,” they answer, saying their people would be angry if they visited the Zionist state at a time when the Palestinian people remain stateless.
In addition, these Arab leaders don’t see why they need to come to Israel without Israel first making serious concessions and taking real steps toward peace.
While they might think they have a point, they are missing a true understanding of Israel. Despite almost 70 years of statehood, Israel is the only country in the world that still faces calls for its destruction, and whose citizens hold a passport banned from travel to more than a dozen countries. Recognition by Saudi Arabia and a visit to Israel by one of its leaders, would have an impact that Gulf leaders cannot yet full appreciate.
Such a visit would tell Israelis that their country is legitimate. It would tell a people, that not long ago was on the brink of extinction, that it will continue to survive and thrive. It would give Israelis a sense of confidence not felt since Sadat came here in 1977.
While a visit by Crown Prince bin Salman would not automatically create peace, it would create a ripple effect that would force Israel to respond, an act of significance that neither the Israeli people nor its leadership would be able to ignore.
Sadat, it seems, understood just that, and ultimately paid with his life. Forty years later, the Israeli people are still waiting.
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