November 19 marked the 40
anniversary of the visit of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem. The historical importance of that visit cannot be overstated. As the very first visit to Israel by an Arab head of state, the visit paved the way to eventual peace agreements with Egypt and with Jordan and the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and a number of Muslim countries.
But it was historical in a more important way: the visit signaled the start of a process of recognition of Israel by its neighbors-including the Palestinians.
For the first three decades of its existence, Israel was shunned and boycotted by the entire Arab and Muslim world. The Khartoum conference of 1967 laid out the three guidelines for all Arab nations: no negotiation with Israel; no recognition of Israel; no peace with Israel. Egypt, leader of the Arab world, was the main impetus behind the adoption of the so-called "three no's" at Khartoum.
The early 1970s saw the rise of Palestinian terrorism, the War of Attrition in the Sinai, and the economic boycott of Israel, including the oil crisis of 1973 organized by OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) as a way to put international pressure on Israel. But what Israel failed to understand was the extent to which Egypt felt humiliated after the 1967 defeat in six days of war. When President Gamal Abdel Nasser passed away in 1970, he left behind a legacy and a commandment to his successor, Anwar Sadat: exert payback from Israel. Humiliate them as they humiliated Egypt.
President Sadat, together with President Assad of Syria, planned and executed the operation flawlessly, launching a coordinated surprise attack against Israel on Yom Kippur of 1973, the holiest day of the Jewish year- with most soldiers fasting and the majority of the army on home leave. While the war failed to destroy Israel, total defeat was not Sadat's objective: he knew that defeat was unrealistic; all he wanted was to surprise Israel and cause humiliation.
Once Sadat had achieved his goal of "getting even" with Israel, the road was paved for a peace overture. After all, what he really wanted was to get back the Sinai desert lost to Israel in the Six-Day War. In a speech before the Parliament in Cairo, Sadat proclaimed he would "go as far as Jerusalem" in order to get the desert back. Prime Minister Begin, in a bold and courageous move of his own, decided to call Sadat's bluff, inviting Sadat to Jerusalem "at his earliest convenience." The rest, as they say, is history.
The very next week, the hastily-prepared visit took place. President Sadat, along with the heads of his government and military, stepped off an Egypt Air plane at Ben Gurion Airport and were received by Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin, President Ephraim Katzir, and the top echelons of the government and the IDF.
I remember my own feelings as a 12-year-old, living a thousand feet from the President's house in Jerusalem. After watching the arrival ceremony in black and white on Israel's single television channel, I ran down to the street with a small Egyptian flag and stood with thousands of Israelis lining the streets to welcome the first Arab head of state to set foot in our country. A mere three years earlier, Sadat was the vilified public enemy number one, the head of the mighty Egyptian army which almost defeated Israel and brought her to her knees.
And yet, as soon as Sadat said he was willing to visit Jerusalem, Israelis saw him not as the enemy but as a peace partner. Two years later, peace was signed and Egypt received the Sinai desert.
The peace with Egypt is not warm and does not encompass millions of Egyptian citizens who still view Israelis as the enemy. But a cold peace is better than a ceasefire. Today, political and security relations between Israel and Egypt are very advanced, President Al-Sisi defining the situation as "a strategic peace."
Both countries respect the agreements and cooperate politically, militarily, and commercially, especially in the face of common enemies such as ISIS in the Sinai Desert and the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza and in Egypt. As Sadat once remarked, it may yet take generations for Egyptians to truly embrace co-existence. But the stability of our relations is stronger than ever.
A number of Arab countries opened diplomatic relations with Israel after Egypt led the way. Jordan would follow suit in 1994 with its own peace treaty- and paid a heavy price, as it was shunned by its Arab allies. Then, President Sadat paid the ultimate price and was assassinated by a Muslim Brotherhood gunman in 1981, at the ceremony marking the "victory" of the Yom Kippur War.
But, already in 1977, he signaled to the rest of the world that talking to Israel was not only possible-it was a strategic move. He proved that negotiation was better than war, peaceful co-existence preferable to costly conflict. Today, Arab and Muslim countries need statesmen like Sadat more than ever.