An Unforgettable Moment
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:
And here, without any prelude,
was the Egyptian president standing up in his Parliament and announcing that he
intended to fly to
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
Until that moment, there
was a complete consensus in
overnight, all this was wiped out. Who needs Sinai, who needs Sharm-al-Sheikh (and who remembers today that the place was
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
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
(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
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
According to this map,
the land beyond the
But Begin was unable to give
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
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
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.
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
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
We shook hands.