On Nov. 19, 1977, I stood on wooden risers at Ben Gurion Airport waiting to see if the circling plane carrying Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was really going to land.
Israelis were in a state of shock and disbelief that the head of the largest Arab country had made a historic decision to visit Jerusalem. He was the first Arab leader to do so since the establishment of the Jewish state.
Next to me, an Israeli foreign ministry staffer was sobbing. Another asked me if I thought the Egyptian plane might actually be carrying a bomb that would explode on landing, killing the entire Israeli political leadership assembled several rows below us. Instead, Sadat disembarked, advanced toward the Israelis, shook hands and wrapped his arms around the bulky ex-Prime Minister Golda Meir.
Forty years later, as the Mideast implodes, that moment still stands as a turning point for the region. In my office, I keep a framed copy of a poster that was tacked on every Jerusalem building, wall and light post, displaying Israeli and Egyptian flags topped by the world Peace in English, Arabic and Hebrew. The Egyptian leader hoped peace would extend to the entire region.
His dream didn’t come true. But Sadat’s trip opened the door to a broader peace, under the right conditions: If Arab and Israeli leaders emerge who have the guts and foresight he did. That holds true for the future, even if the current landscape looks very bleak.
What was so striking about Sadat was that he had a clear vision and was pragmatic about how to get there. Israel’s hawkish prime minister, Menachem Begin, also had the courage and pragmatism to agree to return the Sinai to Egypt, the prerequisite to cementing a peace.
(The only Mideast leaders to display such pragmatism since were Jordan’s King Hussein, along with Israeli premiers Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Olmert and, to a lesser extent, Ehud Barak. Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat did so briefly, but then reverted to the pursuit of illusions.)
Sadat recognized that, after heavy military and economic losses in 1967 and 1973, most of the Egyptian public had lost interest in fighting on behalf of the Palestinians. He believed his army had regained its honor by crossing the Suez Canal in 1973, which ultimately led to his decision that the time was ripe for a dramatic overture to the Israelis.
The Egyptian leader hoped his stunning move would persuade Begin to return all lands captured in 1967 from the Arabs, including Gaza and the West Bank. Begin nixed that idea even before Sadat had concluded his emotional visit to Jerusalem.
Yet that trip created openings, some seized, some not, that deeply affect the stability of the region until today.
On the side of missed chances, I list the opportunity that Sadat’s visit did present to the Palestinians. His trip ultimately led to the 1978 Camp David Accords, brokered by President Jimmy Carter, that provided a road map for Palestinian autonomy on the West Bank and Gaza, at a time when there were hardly any Israeli settlements. The accords called for an elected “self-governing authority” and negotiations over final status of those territories. Some West Bank Palestinians believed that elected authority could garner international recognition and pressure on Israel to contemplate the establishment of a Palestinian state.