31 years have passed since the moment — one of the greatest in Israeli lives.
When I told this to Anwar Sadat, he laughed: “The moment the door of your airplane opened, all Israelis held their breath. I live on a main street in Tel Aviv, and at that moment I looked out at the street below. It was totally empty. Nothing moved, except one cat which was probably hurrying home to the television.”
(White House photo: Nobel Peace Prize winners Sadat and Begin, at Camp David w/ President Carter)
Egypt and Israel were in a state of war. In the previous 30 years, four major campaigns had been fought, with thousands of Israelis and tens of thousands of Egyptians killed and maimed. Radio Cairo’s incitement against Israel was vicious. Only four years earlier, the Egyptians had launched a surprise attack against Israel and dealt us a heavy blow. And here, without any prelude, was the Egyptian president standing up in his Parliament and announcing that he intended to fly to Jerusalem and make peace. Many did not believe their ears.
And here he was. The unbelievable was happening before our eyes. A date to remember: 17 November 1977. The entire Israeli leadership stood in a row on the tarmac. The Egyptian airplane landed and slowly taxied toward the red carpet. The stairs were attached. For a moment the atmosphere was surreal. And then the door opened, and there stood the Egyptian leader, slim, erect and solemn. Israeli Army buglers sounded the salute. An unforgettable moment.
I have looked for a historical parallel and found none. It could even be compared with the first steps of man on the moon. Anwar Sadat had done something that was without precedent.
Most opinions of people are not based on rational thought, but on emotion. If there is a contradiction between the two, then logical thought is subordinated to the existing emotional pattern. Therefore, in order to really change a person’s opinion, one has to address his emotions, too.
Sadat did it. He had addressed the emotions of every Israeli.
This bold deed was the shock to the emotions and consciousness, without which the peace with Egypt would not have been possible. Sadat captured the hearts of a whole people. Sadat was a genius. That does not mean that he did not make serious mistakes, that he did not entertain illusions, that he did not say quite foolish things together with very wise things, sometimes in the same breath.
But no one who met him face to face could avoid the feeling that they were in the presence of an historic figure. How did he arrive at his decision? As he told me (and many others), he had an almost mystic illumination. He was on his way back from a visit to the Romanian ruler. Flying over Mount Ararat in Turkey he was struck by the idea: Why not go to Jerusalem and speak directly to the Israelis at home?
Before he took his fateful step, he had secret negotiations with Begin. Egypt’s Deputy Prime Minister Hassan Tohami was sent to Morocco to meet with Moshe Dayan, Begin’s foreign minister. Dayan assured him unequivocally that Begin was prepared to give back all of Sinai, to the last grain of sand.
In simple words: before the dramatic gesture, before the start of the official negotiations, Sadat knew that he would get back all the Egyptian territory occupied by Israel. He was walking on solid ground.
That is the reverse side of the coin, the Israeli side. Sadat’s initiative would not have succeeded without Begin.
It is enough for an Israeli to imagine what would have happened if Sadat had not undertaken his historic journey. How many wars would have broken out? How many soldiers and civilians on both sides would have been killed or maimed? How many hundreds of billions would we have been compelled to spend on the defence of our southern border?
It was said at the time: this is Sadat’s peace. It will disappear when he goes. We have given back all of Sinai, and tomorrow a new Egyptian Pharaoh will attack us. Well, Sadat was assassinated, and his successor is keeping the peace.
But Sadat proved one thing, which in my eyes is more important than anything else: One can change the emotional state of an entire people. One can cut the psychological knot with one bold stroke. For that one needs leaders, on both sides. Barack Obama could prove to be a kind of American Sadat.
Uri Avnery is a journalist and peace activist. He is the founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement and may be reached at email@example.com. This abridged article originally appeared on the Gush Shalom website and is distributed with permission by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews). The full text from 15 November 2008, can be found at www.gush-shalom.org
(Reprinted with permission)