Analyze This: In Sadat's footsteps?

Thirty years later, not enough people are willing to follow.

Sadat Begin 224.88 (photo credit: Archive photo)
Sadat Begin 224.88
(photo credit: Archive photo)
On November 19, 1977, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat emerged from a plane that had flown directly from Cairo to Ben-Gurion Airport, and stepped down onto the tarmac 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. Yet no official commemoration of this event is planned (as of this writing) in Egypt. "I'm amazed; it should be a major occasion," Ahmed Abushadi, a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Relations, told UPI. It was Sadat's first sudden, surprising visit to Israel that laid the groundwork for his subsequent Camp David summit with Begin and US president Jimmy Carter, at which Egypt regained control of the Sinai it had lost in the Six Day War. Today, that sizable area's Red Sea tourist spots and oil and gas fields contribute significantly to the Egyptian economy. Yet no mention of that, or any benefits at all of the Camp David agreement, are mentioned in a lengthy article devoted to the consequences of Sadat's first Israel visit published last week by Egypt's leading Al-Ahram newspaper. Instead, the article, "Sadat and Annapolis," (weekly.>) focuses on contemporary criticism of Sadat's actions in the context of their impact on subsequent Israel-Arab relations, especially negotiations with the Palestinians. "According to critics of Sadat and [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas, it is Sadat that should be held responsible for a good part of Abbas's dilemma today since it was through the marginalization of Egypt in the years between 1977 and now that the Palestinian cause was most challenged," writes Al-Ahram's Dina Ezzat. Among those she quotes is Talal Salman, editor-in-chief of the Lebanese daily A-Safir: "This is [why] after 30 years I still think that Sadat's visit to Jerusalem was more than a crime. It was a huge political miscalculation that was based on a shockingly shallow understanding of the nature of the Israeli enemy and that caused, among other things, the destruction of any future collective Arab standing [on the Palestinian cause]." This is nonsense, of course, and Orwellian nonsense at that. Though he was certainly acting from his own national interest, and not those of other Arabs, Sadat did more for the Palestinians, intentionally or not, than any of his peers. It is inconceivable that the Oslo Accords, or any Israeli withdrawal from any part of the West Bank or Gaza, would ever had happened had he not taken his bold step 30 years ago. Indeed, as in the past, any future concessions, territorial or otherwise, that Jerusalem might make will be done so in the hope that this or that Arab leader is "another Sadat." Alas, as courage and vision go, there has been only one Sadat, an assessment that includes his successor. President Hosni Mubarak may have achieved the feat of staying alive and in power for the past three decades, of keeping his domestic radical Islamic opposition at bay and of maintaining a minimal "cold peace" with Israel that has avoided any reoccurrence of the four major wars that proved costly for both nations. But a legacy based largely on negative achievements is not likely to be remembered for long, especially in comparison to the deeds of his predecessor. What does it say about the two Egyptian leaders that Sadat was willing to visit at a time when his country was still practically in a state of undeclared war with Israel, while Mubarak has not set foot here since assuming power, save for a brief three-hour courtesy visit to attend Yitzhak Rabin's funeral? Sadat's actions earned him the confidence of both Israel's leadership and people to such a degree that Jerusalem felt comfortable returning every inch of the Sinai to his hands - a process that included the uprooting of the Yamit settlement by a Begin government committed to settlement-building. But Mubarak's failure to move Egypt beyond a cold peace with Israel in which little is done to encourage deeper links between the two nations has surely been a factor in the subsequent slower development of the peace process. The Egyptians, of course, see it differently. I recently had a discussion with an impressive Egyptian intellectual who, of course, placed Mubarak's refusal to visit here in the context of what he saw as Israeli intransigence in moving forward in negotiations with other Arab parties, in particular the Palestinians. I responded that even if this were the case - even if Cairo thought (mistakenly) that this kind of strategy would motivate Jerusalem to be more flexible (rather than the opposite) - what disturbed Israelis far more was the Egyptians' seeming reluctance to prepare the groundwork among its people for a true normalization between the two states, even if that doesn't lie in the near future. Mubarak's refusal to follow Sadat's path to Jerusalem certainly hurts less than the expressions of hostility, and sometimes outright hatred, toward the Jewish state and its people originating from various sectors of Egyptian society, including its intellectual and professional elites - and the way in which they go unchallenged by any official response. Take, for example, the recent Egyptian reaction to the award-winning film The Band's Visit, which depicts the misadventures of an Egyptian police orchestra on a trip to Israel. A moving attempt to depict in simple human terms the complexities of the Israeli-Egyptian relationship, it has been screened to great acclaim in film festivals around the world - but not in Egypt, where the Egyptian actors' association protested any attempt to show it as violation of the cultural boycott they support against Israel, or in Abu Dhabi, where they pressured the organizers of a festival there this month to also disqualify its entry. The irony is so sharp it would be funny, were it not symptomatic of a much deeper and tragic problem. Despite the ban, Israel's ambassador to Egypt, Shalom Cohen, is reportedly planning to hold a special screening of The Band's Visit at the Cairo embassy next month for some of those Egyptians who do want to see it; perhaps that will be the most fitting memorial for the anniversary of Sadat's own visit here 30 years earlier. And when Abbas travels to Annapolis, he will achieve the most for the Palestinians if he does so in the bold spirit of a Sadat, the rare Arab leader who truly acted at great personal risk not for the perpetuation of his own rule, but in the interests of his people - even if so many of them have yet to appreciate it as they should. [email protected]