Middle East History: It Happened in November; Sadat's Jerusalem Trip Begins Difficult Path of Egyptian - Israel Peace

By Neff, Donald | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 3, 1998 | Go to article overview

Middle East History: It Happened in November; Sadat's Jerusalem Trip Begins Difficult Path of Egyptian - Israel Peace


Neff, Donald, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


MIDDLE EAST HISTORY: IT HAPPENED IN NOVEMBER; Sadat's Jerusalem Trip Begins Difficult Path of Egyptian-Israeli Peace

On Nov. 19, 1977, Anwar Sadat made his historic visit to Jerusalem and declared the next day before Israel's parliament: "We really and truly welcome you to live among us in peace and security."(1)

It was a spectacular moment, a personal commitment of the Egyptian leader's desire for peace. However, deep suspicions remained in Israel even on the day of his arrival. Atop a roof at Ben-Gurion International Airport where Sadat landed were Israeli sharpshooters. Absurd as it seems in retrospect, they were there in part in fear that the Egyptian airplane was not carrying Sadat at all but a planeload of terrorists.(2) Despite such exaggerated suspicions, the visit led within a year and a half to the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab country, mainly because of American largess.

It was not an easy journey. In public, Sadat expressed optimism that his "sacred mission" had essentially solved the Arab-Israeli conflict. But privately he was deeply disappointed by his realization that he had not managed to solve the conflict with one grand gesture. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin showed no willingness to match Sadat's imaginative gesture or even to make any serious concessions, and the Palestinians and other Arab states roundly condemned him for going to Jerusalem.(3) All factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization joined in calling his visit to Jerusalem "treasonous."(4)

Instead of gaining the instant freedom of the Palestinians and Egypt's land occupied by Israel, as he had hoped, Sadat found himself in the following months increasingly isolated. On Dec. 5, 1977, Algeria, Iraq, Libya, Syria and South Yemen jointly condemned the visit and vowed to "work for the frustration of the results of President Sadat's visit to the Zionist entity."(5) The nations said they were freezing political and diplomatic relations with Egypt and would refuse to attend meetings of the Arab League held in Egypt. Sadat's angry reaction was to sever diplomatic ties with all of them.(6)

Less than a week later, on Dec. 14, Sadat suffered another major embarrassment when he called for a conference in Cairo to unify the Arab position and receive international support for his efforts. The Arab nations refused to attend, as did the Soviet Union.(7) Only Israel, the United States and the United Nations attended. No agreements emerged from the conference, adding to Sadat's humiliation.(8)

Sadat's disillusionment was obvious when he hosted a reciprocal visit to Egypt for the Israelis on Dec. 25, 1977. Gone was the magic and drama of his visit to Jerusalem.(9) Instead of personally meeting Begin and his group, Sadat sent his vice president to greet them. There were no bands, no Israeli flags, no placards of greeting for the Israeli delegation. Even Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, who had established the warmest relations of any of the Israelis with Sadat the previous month, found the reception "frosty." Given Begin's well-known love of pomp and ceremony and his excessive concern with dignity, Weizman concluded: "The chilly welcome, the indifference toward Begin, the flouting of the most elementary rules of protocol and courtesy -- all these could only be harmful to our talks."(10)

Sadat met the Israeli delegation not in Cairo but at Ismailiya on the western bank of the Suez Canal. He and Begin immediately retired for brief private talks. Sadat accepted a Begin proposal to form two separate committees to discuss military and political issues. The Egyptian leader made a considerable concession in agreeing that the political committee would meet in Jerusalem, implying to the Israelis "some measure of recognition that Jerusalem was Israel's capital."(11)

The concession was typical of Sadat -- a grand gesture, an open show of conciliation, and underneath an impatience with details, a concentration on general principles, and most of all, a hard determination to regain every inch of Egypt's land.

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