Forty years ago, I worked in Washington as the Director of Research at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. My work focused on arguing against the Carter Administration’s push for an international peace conference in Geneva that would include the Soviet Union and radical Arab states and opposing American arms sales to Egypt. At the same time, I was intrigued by a smattering of articles by Egyptian writers who hinted at prospects of co-existence with Israel.
In November 1977, I visited Israel for meetings and to attend a Tel Aviv conference of Israeli and Palestinian “peace activists.” Suddenly, like a lightning bolt, we heard Sadat might be coming to Israel. Some Palestinians were dazed. “If it’s true,” one activist pledged, “I will kill the traitor with my own hands.” At the time, I relayed a more moderate message from the activist.
I went up to Jerusalem for Sadat’s electrifying visit, and I filed this dispatch, “Cautious Optimism in Jerusalem” for the Washington newsletter, Near East Report.
Cautious Optimism in Jerusalem
Jerusalem, November 23, 1977
Not since Ben Gurion’s reading of Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948, have the people of Israel concentrated on the words of one man with so much anticipation and cautious hope. And while Israelis were disappointed initially in President Sadat’s hardline Knesset speech, guarded optimism nevertheless persists here, for, after all, a major breakthrough has occurred.
There is no doubt that barriers of belligerence have begun to crack. Incredulous as it seemed to everyone in Jerusalem – and throughout the world – Egyptian flags were flying in Israel, planes were flying from Cairo to Tel Aviv, and the President of Egypt was negotiating face-to-face with Israel’s Prime Minister.
Sadat’s speech here on Sunday reiterated basic uncompromising Arab positions – Israeli withdrawal from “every inch” of occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Ruling out a separate Israeli-Egyptian peace, the Egyptian President made no mention of the long-sought sulkh – normalization of relations as out-line by President Carter.
For his part, Begin emphasized Israel’s desire for complete normalization of relation. Begin reiterated Israel’s promise to negotiate and compromise on all issues in contrast to Sadat’s firm preconditions. Reminding Sadat of the failure of the world to come to the aid of European Jews trapped in the Nazis’ annihilation program, Begin vowed to never again expose Jews to the threat of destruction – a clear rejection of the international guarantees suggested by Sadat.
The optimism expressed here, despite the apparent wide gulf, is based on the conviction that Sadat, faced with vociferous opposition in most of the Arab world, was forced to state a firm position to assure his Arab brethren of his devotion to the Arab cause. Moreover, the clear friendship and ambience of Begin and Sadat at the joint press conference could not but encourage all people desirous of Middle East peace.
With few exceptions, Sadat’s Arab counterparts denounce his historic visit. Attacks against Egyptian facilities erupted in Iraq, Libya, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Jordanian and Saudi Arabian officials initially voiced muted criticism of the visit. In Greece, Arabs attacked the Egyptian Embassy, and were repulsed by gunfire.
On the West Bank, Palestinian Arabs failed to heed the PLO order for a general strike. Many dignitaries participated in prayers at the Al Aqsa Mosque with Sadat and met with him on Monday. Among Palestinian Arab activists, however, there was bitterness and a sense of betrayal. In an interview with this writer prior to the Sadat arrival, one Arab – who spent over a year in an Israeli prison – refused to believe that Sadat would indeed come. And if Sadat arrived, the radical continued, he would then base his estimate of Sadat’s allegiance to the Palestinian cause on Sadat’s actions and posture during the ceremonial playing of the Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem expressing the Zionist dream.
As the entire world witnessed, Sadat stood at attention.
In Egypt, Sadat’s visit was widely acclaimed. Some observers here noted that the resignation of Foreign Minister Fahmy and his temporary replacement indicated an undermining of Sadat’s position. Zaglul Nasser, press secretary to Sadat, however, told reporters here that Fahmy resigned because “he feared for the well-being of the President and didn’t want the responsibility of his safety on his shoulders.”
Sadat’s most important pillar of support, of course, in his army, and prior to leaving for Israel Sadat met with officers and troops to reinforce their essential support.
Following Sadat’s unprecedented visit, the feelings here are that the cause of peace has been advanced. And thus, there is cautious optimism in Jerusalem.