An Unforgettable Moment

By Uri Avnery – Israel

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."

The day after tomorrow, 31 years will have passed from that moment, one of the greatest in our lives.

Through the eyes of an Israeli, this is how it looked: 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. The hatred between the two peoples was deep and bitter. Gamal Abd-al-Nasser, Sadat’s predecessor, had been officially designated as "the Egyptian Tyrant", whose effigy Israeli children used to put on bonfires. 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. The Israeli Chief of Staff thought it was a trap. No one took it seriously.

And here he was. The unbelievable was happening before our eyes. A date to remember: November 17, 1977. The entire Israeli leadership stood in a row on the tarmac. The Egyptian airplane landed and slowly taxied towards 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.

This week, I remembered this event in a topical context, separate from its political significance.

I was sitting with a group of friends discussing, as usual, the chances of peace. Somebody said that the negotiations would not bear fruit if we could not change the attitude of most Israelis to the Palestinians. Another doubted that this would be possible and added that even a serious crisis would not help – after a crisis everybody returns to their original opinion as if nothing has happened.

I said that 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.

I needed a real example, and that’s where Sadat came in.

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. Emotional attitudes that had been frozen for decades melted like butter in the midday sun, clearing the path for a completely different way of looking at things. People who hated the Egyptians – and, indeed, all Arabs – liked him on sight. From this moment on he could talk to the Israeli public and persuade it – they hung on his lips.

Until that moment, there was a complete consensus in Israel that we must not, under any circumstances, "give up" the Sinai Peninsula. That this would amount to national suicide. That we would lose our essential "strategic depth". Moshe Dayan, then serving as Defense Minister and national idol, declared that he "preferred Sharm-al-Sheikh without peace to peace without Sharm-al-Sheikh". Nobody was ready to give up the Sinai oil fields. The Labor Party ministers had built a large settlement bloc in North Sinai, centered on a new town, Yamit, considered our most beautiful and well-planned. And Sadat himself was known to have collaborated with the Nazis in World War II and to have spent time in prison for that.

Now, practically overnight, all this was wiped out. Who needs Sinai, who needs Sharm-al-Sheikh (and who remembers today that the place was known in Israel at the time as "Ophira"?), who needs the oil, who needs Yamit – when we can have peace instead? All was gone. All was evacuated. Nothing remained but the pictures of Tzachi Hanegbi’s ridiculous last stand on a tower and Meir Kahane’s unfulfilled promise to die in a bunker.

Without a doubt, Sadat was a genius. He had a specifically Egyptian wisdom, the 6000-year old wisdom of a people who have seen it all and lived through it all. 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 a 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. He had posed to his host two questions: Can one believe Menachem Begin? Will Begin be able to carry out his decisions? Nicolae Ceaucescu answered both questions in the affirmative.

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?

That is a nice story. But it does not cover all the facts. Sadat was neither naïve nor a gambler. Before he took his fateful step, he had secret negotiations with Begin. The Egyptian deputy prime minister, Hassan Tohami, was sent to Morocco to meet with Moshe Dayan, Begin’s foreign minister at the time. Dayan assured him unequivocally that Begin was prepared to give back all of Sinai, to the last grain of sand.

(When I published this long ago, it was denied by both sides. Recently, however, General Binyamin Gibli, Dayan’s confidant, confirmed it on his deathbed.)

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 Menachem Begin.

When I saw the two standing together, it struck me that no two people could be more different.

Sadat was an impulsive person, a man with a wide vision. He was not interested in details. He believed in people. He was a quintessential Egyptian, a village boy with a dark complexion (inherited from his Sudanese mother).

Begin was a quintessential East European Jew. He never quite became an Israeli. He was a lawyer by temperament, a stickler for details, suspicious by nature.

But they shared one crucial trait: they were both very dramatic types. They loved the great gesture and believed in its effectiveness. They were very conscious of being actors on the stage of history. They both had a gift for touching the deepest emotions of people.

Unlike Sadat, Begin had a fixed and rigid ideology. It was expressed by a specific map of the Land of Israel, the one drawn by the British when they received their mandate over the country. It had nothing to do with the map of the Holy Land as depicted in the Bible, but it was adopted by Vladimir Jabotinsky and incorporated in the emblem of the Irgun underground army long before Begin took over its command.

According to this map, the land beyond the Jordan (today’s Hashemite Kingdom) belongs to Eretz Israel, too, but Sinai does not. Neither do the Golan Heights. Therefore it was easy for Begin to give back Sinai, and, I believe, it would have been easy for him to give back the Golan, if events had not taken another turn.

But Begin was unable to give back the West Bank. Autonomy to the inhabitants – yes. Fair treatment of the Arabs there – why not? After all, it was Jabotinsky himself who had laid down that if the president of the Jewish state was a Jew, the prime minister should be an Arab – and vice versa. But withdraw from the West Bank? Out of the question!

Sadat was certain that he could get Begin to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state. Begin did indeed officially recognize the "Palestinian people", but added at once that what he meant was the "Arabs of Eretz Israel". The Egyptians later believed that Israel had betrayed their trust. Dayan resigned in protest when he realized that Begin had no intention of implementing the Palestinian aspect of the agreement. But anyone who knew Begin realized that he could not have behaved differently. (I spent some hours in an effort to explain to the Egyptian acting foreign minister, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, an extremely intelligent person, what Begin was, what his map of Eretz Israel signified and what "autonomy" meant in the Likud lexicon.)

The Palestinian issue was the stone of controversy which knocked the Egyptian-Israeli peace off course.

Deflected perhaps, but immensely successful nevertheless.

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 defense of our Southern border?

One small example should suffice: a few days ago the Egyptian navy held an exercise, the largest in its history. The Hebrew newspapers dismissed it in a few lines. If there had been no peace, all alarms in Israel would have sounded. The Egyptian navy is larger than ours, and in the past has dealt us some very painful blows.

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 much more important than even the change on the political map was the change on the psychological one. As Sadat himself used to say, the psychological dimension of the conflict is much more important than all the others put together.

True, Sadat did not succeed in getting the Israeli public to change its attitude towards the Arab world, and towards the Palestinian people in particular. The emotional opposition to that was too strong, and Begin’s ideology reduced the momentum before it could reach the Palestinian issue. Also, the Israeli attitude towards the West Bank is unlike the attitude towards the Sinai desert. This part of the conflict is longer and deeper even than the bitter conflict with Egypt.

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. Such leaders can appear quite suddenly, in the most unexpected place and at the most unexpected time. Barak Obama could prove to be a kind of American Sadat.

Personally, my most emotional experience connected with the Sadat visit took place in Cairo. Begin had invited me, as the editor of a news magazine, to take part in the gala state dinner given by Sadat in his palace. During the meal, my former brigade commander introduced me to an Egyptian general who in 1948, as a young captain, had been in command of the position from where I was shot and seriously wounded.

We shook hands.

-Uri Avnery is a journalist, peace activist, former member of the Knesset, and leader of Gush Shalom. He contributed this article to Contact him at:

(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)
Our Vision For Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders & Intellectuals Speak Out