Israelis and Arabs: the Sadat precedent

David Govrin
27 November 2006

The history of the Israeli-Arab conflict is full of formative events of historical, cultural and religious significance. It is too early to say whether the Gaza ceasefire, which came into effect at 6am on 26 November 2006, will prove to be one. What can be said is that the many wars between Israelis and Arabs have captured most of the focus in the analysis of the conflict's turning-points and its division into various periods. However, the significance of peaceful events, such as former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem on 19 November 1977, has not always been appreciated.

This visit was an event of tremendous importance, the results of which are still evident. Anwar Sadat's exceptional political wisdom taught us that a considerable part of the Israeli-Arab conflict is actually a psychological barrier - composed of a mixture of alienation, suspicion and mistrust - and that we can progress to a better future if we can only find a way to overcome it.

When Sadat announced his willingness to come to Jerusalem, people argued that there was an ulterior motive to his visit, and that, in reality, his views had not changed significantly. The shock that spread among some of the Egyptian and the Israeli public proved how difficult it was to believe in a genuine move for peace and reconciliation in the existing whirlpool of hostility and hatred.

David Govrin joined Israel's ministry of foreign affairs (MFA) in 1989 and served in Israel's embassy in Cairo during 1994-97. At present he is deputy director of the policy planning department of the MFA in Jerusalem. The views expressed in this article are his own.

A shortened version of the article was published (in Hebrew) in Ha'aretz on 21 November 2006

Also by David Govrin in openDemocracy:

"Arabs' democracy dialogue: an assessment"
(16 November 2005)

Hassan Nafaa, an Egyptian lecturer at Cairo University, wrote recently about his reflections on the twenty-ninth anniversary of Sadat's visit. In this article (Al-Masri al-Youm, Egypt, 19 November 2006), Nafaa says that "no one could have ever imagined in his wildest dreams or nightmares" that the leader's brain of the greatest Arab country would think of such a way to end the conflict. "I have to admit", writes Nafaa, "that until this very moment I find it difficult to wipe off this scene from my memory".

It seems that the psychological barrier in the Israeli-Arab conflict is still in force today, as is the necessary conclusion: breaking this barrier is essential for developing a constructive dialogue.

The repercussions of Sadat's visit were far-reaching: for the first time in the history of the conflict, an Arab leader expressed his willingness to recognise Israel unequivocally, to live with it in peace and security, and to accept it into the family of nations in the region. Thus Israel was given the opportunity to become part of the middle east. Moreover, by publicly addressing Israel, Sadat demonstrated his acceptance of the principle of direct negotiation.

On the bilateral level, the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt paved the way to additional peace agreements between Israel and other Arab countries. It also led to more cooperation in the domains of politics, security, economy, agriculture and tourism. On the domestic level, Israeli society became more open-minded than in the past about absorbing Arab language, literature, music and cinema. Another aspect worth mentioning related to Israeli society itself: Sadat's visit awaked among Jewish immigrants from Arab countries hidden feelings which granted them a sort of legitimacy to associate themselves, once again, with their lost roots.

But apparently the results of Sadat's visit were not sufficiently internalised by the generation born after the event. This generation tends to treat the strong, peaceful relations between Egypt and Israel as self-evident, and occasionally even tries to minimise the importance of the fact that the Israeli flag flies in the heart of Cairo. One might say it's a good thing that this generation is not familiar with any other reality.

The historical perspective of almost three decades reinforces the impression of the farsightedness of the Egyptian leader, and particularly of his words on the Knesset (Israeli parliament) dais on 20 November 1977, that "peace is not a mere endorsement of written lines, rather it is a rewriting of history". To a certain degree, it is ironic that while Israel repeatedly claimed that its hand was stretched out for peace, it was Sadat who so well expressed the desire for a new life and taught the younger generation in the region a new chapter in history: a chapter of reconciliation, recognition and mutual respect.

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