On 19 November, it will be 41 years to the day that the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat embarked on his stunning and controversial visit to Israel. His trip had a major impact on the political and military situation in the Arab-Israeli conflict and, indeed, the entire Middle East.
When Sadat’s aircraft landed at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, not even his most senior advisers knew about it much in advance. No one was expecting it until the last minute. The visit will go down in history as the most controversial and divisive of visits in the Arab world, if not beyond.
At the time, it was regarded as treason in Arab political culture even to meet Israeli officials accidently during international gatherings in the UN, for example. Some Arab states used to boycott all meetings of any nature if the Israelis were present. The Arab League, a Cairo-based coalition of Arab states, was in the vanguard of the united Arab stand against Israel; its objective was to isolate the Zionist state as much as possible internationally, particularly in Africa, Latin American and Asia. Some European countries like Greece used to limit their contacts with Israel out of respect for the collective Arab policy, and many African, Asian and Latin American countries took decades to start talking to its government.
All of a sudden, in November 1977, the president of the biggest Arab country visited Israel to talk peace and speak in its parliament in front of the world’s media. Angry and disappointed countries like Algeria, Libya, Iraq, South Yemen and Syria, as well as the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), acted quickly to isolate Egypt as a form of punishment. They set up a coalition called the Steadfastness and Confrontation Front with the single aim of isolating Egypt and Sadat. They even moved the Arab League headquarters to Tunis, the first time that it had not been in Cairo since it was established in the Egyptian capital in 1945. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Libya, meanwhile, suspended all financial aid to Egypt.
The outrage across much of the Arab world at Sadat’s move was so bitter that some countries like Libya, for example, refused to welcome Egyptian citizens and banned its own people from traveling to Egypt. Libyan passports under Muammar Gaddafi were marked “invalid” for Egypt.
Sadat’s visit came only four years after the October 1973 War which pitted a coalition of Egypt, Syria and Jordan against Israel. The war was the first Arab victory — although incomplete — since the creation of Israel in 1949. It represented true Arab solidarity and unity, with Libya, Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and others supplying troops, financial aid and supplies such as weapons and free oil.
However, 41 years later the political landscape across the region has changed beyond recognition, as has the Arab political view of Israel. Meeting with Israelis openly is no longer treasonous, and even receiving Israeli officials in Arab capitals is no longer condemned as it was during the Sadat era.
Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994 and the PLO signed its own deal with Israel under which the late Yasser Arafat was able to go back to the occupied West Bank. Just last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Oman and met Sultan Qaboos Bin Said.
Sadat himself was killed in October 1981. His murder at a military parade commemorating the October 1973 War was broadcast live on television around the world. His killers accused him of treason for his peace deal with Israel and made him pay with his life.
Four decades on, is Sadat viewed as a visionary statesman who saw the future like no other Arab leader did? Or was he simply a gambler believing that all of the Arabs combined could not win against Israel; that Egypt, in particular, had paid dearly for all Arab wars against the Zionist state and it was time to invest in peace and development?
It is hard to have a clear answer to such questions. Sadat was certainly a daring visionary if we judge him by the number of Arab countries which today have some sort of contact with Israel. While only Egypt and Jordan have diplomatic relations with their neighbour, others like Bahrain, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Tunisia have all had, at one time or another, trade links with Israel. Israeli officials now find it easier to visit Arab countries, under the cover of participating in international events. As MEMO reported last month, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, a former general, visited Abu Dhabi on 26 October to watch the Israeli team take part in the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam Judo tournament.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE also now have contact with Israeli officials. Even since Iran turned from being a close friend of Israel during the Shah’s reign into a sworn enemy after the 1979 Islamic revolution, many members of the Saudi royal family have toyed with the idea of opening back channels with Tel Aviv. The Saudis and Israelis regard Iran as a major threat, albeit for arguably different reasons.
Israel today also enjoys a wider network of full diplomatic relations with dozens of countries, including Muslim states, in Africa, Latin American and Asia. Undoubtedly, Sadat’s visit encouraged many of them to recognise Israel.
From this perspective, Anwar Sadat was certainly a visionary with futuristic views of the region and the Arab-Israeli conflict. He believed peace with Israel was possible for his country Egypt without forgetting the benefits for the Zionist state.
Nevertheless, for most of the Arab public Sadat symbolises a rogue adventurer who gave up the very idea of resistance, which was particularly popular with the masses playing a leading role. Civil society movements in Egypt made tremendous efforts to boycott Israel despite the peace agreement with their country. Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, both non-state actors, but popular movements nonetheless, continue to use unconventional tactics in resisting Israeli aggression and occupation. Israel was forced to end its occupation of Southern Lebanon in 2000 and five years later it did the same in the Gaza Strip, although legally and practically-speaking it is still the occupying power. Israeli propaganda efforts to project this as anything but defeat have failed. Had it not been for popular resistance away from the state actors, who can doubt that Israel would be still be physically occupying both Gaza and southern Lebanon?
Sadat’s visit to Israel helped push the PLO into negotiating the disastrous Oslo Accords which not only benefited Israel immensely, but also divided the Palestinians as they have never been split before. Should he be honoured for this, and maybe pardoned posthumously, or should he be condemned? This will always be as controversial a question as the visit itself.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.