The distance between Cairo and Jerusalem is some 425 kilometers (approximately 265 miles). Not much in terms of travel, but when then Egyptian president Anwar Sadat made the journey to Jerusalem in November 1977, it was as momentous as a modern Exodus.
As journalist Calev Ben-David writing about it 10 years ago pointed out, when Sadat stepped down onto the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport “to shake hands with prime minister Menachem Begin. As the first Arab leader to set foot on Israeli soil, those are probably, save for Neil Armstrong’s first moon-walk, the most famous and momentous steps of the 20th century – if not a giant leap for mankind, certainly a huge leap of faith toward resolving the Israeli-Arab conflict.”
This week, events were held to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the visit, but there was a lack of overall festive feeling. A special Knesset session marking Sadat’s address to the Israeli parliament was attended by so few Knesset members, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rebuked the House.
Netanyahu also used the man-on-the-moon metaphor, which comes to mind as naturally as the word “historic.” “Sadat’s arrival, his landing in Israel and then his arrival in the Knesset, was like the excitement I had when I saw the first person landing on the moon,” Netanyahu said.
“It was something of this initial breakthrough, the breaking of routine, the perception of the future. In those 40 minutes he spent on the plane, the distance between Egypt to Israel, he changed history. It was much shorter than the 40 years of wandering of our people in the Sinai Desert, but no less dramatic. Two ancient nations whose paths intersected in ancient times; two neighboring nations, who had waged an allout war for a generation, overcame the residue of hostility and offered each other a hand of peace.”
Egyptian Ambassador to Israel Hazem Khairat in a speech at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem this week employed the same analogy.
“Although people still entertain doubts about the utility and practical impact of landing the first man on the moon, nobody doubts the impact of Sadat’s landing in Jerusalem,” Khairat said. “We had a leader who was capable of drawing lessons from our long history and civilization and understood that war cannot go on forever.”
It’s strange to recall now that while the peace treaty created tremendous hope in Egypt and Israel, at the time Egypt was expelled from the Arab League, and even the European Community (the forerunner of the European Union) did not support the treaty because it did not provide for a Palestinian state, as Israel’s former ambassador Zvi Mazel has noted.
Forty years on, the lack of celebratory spirit in Israel could be a sign of the fact that, however cold it is, the peace with Egypt has held to such an extent that Israelis today take it for granted.
Sadat’s journey surprised many. Some warned that it could be a ruse, and security forces at the airport were prepared for the possibility that Egyptian attackers could leap from the plane. Others realized that Sadat’s declaration of his intent to come was in itself such a bold move that it was unlikely that it he would have risked so much had he not intended to follow it through.
Sadat was motivated by the need to make peace with his northern neighbor. The tragedy is that he reached this conclusion only after the crushing defeat of the Egyptian and Syrian forces in the Yom Kippur War and not following the Six Day War that preceded it. How many lives could have been saved?
Sadat’s move put the region on a different footing, recognizing that military victory was impossible and that the Jewish state was here to stay. It enabled the Madrid Conference to take place in 1991 and it is unlikely that the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan, also cold but strong and essential, could have been reached had Sadat not shown the way.
It was only natural that Netanyahu in his Knesset speech this week lamented the lack of “a Palestinian Anwar Sadat,” a leader bold enough to make a similar journey from Ramallah to the Knesset in Jerusalem.
Sadat’s willingness to be the first to make that gesture allowed Israelis to have the confidence to return the Sinai Peninsula to Egyptian control, even at the price of uprooting Jewish communities such as Yamit and Ofira. The peace has held firm enough for Israel to permit a limited Egyptian military in Sinai to tackle the Islamist terrorism based there.
Tellingly, when the peace accords were signed in the presence of US president Jimmy Carter on the White House lawn, no demand was made for the return of Gaza to Egyptian control.
When I covered a visit by the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to Cairo in the 1990s, our hosts were impressed to find in the delegation Begin’s son, Likud MK Bennie Begin, and then-Labor MK Yael Dayan, daughter of the country’s most famous general. In an extraordinary exchange, the Egyptians berated the Israelis for what they described as dire infrastructure problems and poor housing in Gaza. Egypt could have dealt with these problems before Israel took over, Dayan pointed out.
The situation in Gaza today is one of the reasons that even if a Palestinian Sadat were to suddenly step up to the challenge, returning territory as was done with Sinai is almost impossible. Since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the Hamas takeover, conditions have only worsened for the inhabitants there; thousands of rockets have been launched on Israel; terror attack tunnels have turned into a new threat; and jihadi terrorist movements have connected with their ugly siblings in Sinai.
The shots fired by Islamists that killed Sadat as he attended a ceremony marking the October War also killed many Egyptian expectations. Economic woes under Hosni Mubarak made matters worse. It is the Islamist threat from Sunni zealots and the Shi’a Iranian specter via proxies such as Hamas and Hezbollah rather than dreams of making the country once again the leader of the Arab world that has caused current Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to tighten the relationship with Israel and try to reconcile Fatah and Hamas to improve the security situation. In this, Egypt has similar fears and goals as Saudi Arabia.
True peace won’t exist until normalization of relations is, well, normal. The sight of an Egyptian judoka rejecting the outstretched hand of Israeli Olympic medalist Or Sasson shows there’s a long way to go. Nonetheless, the speech by the Egyptian ambassador at the President’s Residence as well as his participation in a commemorative seminar at the Knesset this week shows that steps are being taken in the right direction.
Ten years ago, the Israeli-French movie The Band’s Visit
became a hit with its quirky plot based on an Egyptian police orchestra getting stuck overnight in a Negev development town. With no hotel facilities, the band’s members end up being hosted by various residents. The Band’s Visit, in musical form, is now showing on Broadway. If it’s anything like the film, it will strike the right note by avoiding politics and showing how much ordinary people everywhere have in common.
For many today, Sadat’s steps are as natural as Armstrong’s. But reaching for the moon and actually getting there is a tremendous achievement that should never be forgotten. firstname.lastname@example.org