40 years after Sadat's visit to Jerusalem: A hard wall to break down?

Dina Ezzat , Monday 20 Nov 2017

Forty years after Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem, it is hard to say that the ‘psychological barrier’ between Egypt, and for that matter all Arabs, and Israel is gone

File photo: Egyptian Pres. Anwar Sadat addressing the Knesset, November 20, 1977 AFP


Dalia was not yet born when Khaled El-Islanbouli, a conscript with Islamist affiliations, assassinated Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat in October 1981 during a military parade to commemorate the 6 October War of 1973.

The killing was over the peace treaty Sadat signed with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, with whom he had shared a Nobel Peace Prize for signing the deal.

Dalia's parents had just gotten married when Sadat made his earth-shattering visit to Jerusalem on 19 November 1977. They had just come back from a short honeymoon, and all the well-wishers visiting with bridal gifts talked about only one thing: Sadat’s visit to Israel.

“My mother always told me that as a new bride, she was not at all amused that my father would get too involved in this political talk with the visitors, but she knew it was simply unavoidable because this was the only thing that the entire country was talking about,” Dalia said.

Dalia's birthday on 19 November, 1981 marked the fourth anniversary of Sadat's visit to Jerusalem. 

“I don’t like the fact that this is my birthday; I really dislike it when I tell someone for the first time and they associate the date with the visit. Luckily, however, this is only the case with older people,” Dalia said.

Only in history books

Dalia, a banker, is turning 36 today. Her take on Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, on the overall account of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty for that matter, is one that she developed through the narratives of her father. He was, like most of her other family members, “very opposed to this move.”

Dalia's own reading about the history of the Arab-Israeli struggle had put her squarely on the side of the men and women who took to the streets to demonstrate solidarity with the Palestinian people against Israeli occupation.

“It is true that history books referred to Sadat's visit to Israel as historic, but I grew up in a house where my father was always playing these cassettes of Sheikh Imam,” she said.

Imam was a famous composer and singer who worked together with prominent poet Ahmed Fouad Nejm to produce politically satirical songs.

Last July, the national census showed that one-third of the Egyptian population is under 15 years of age, over half of the population is under 25, and close to two-thirds are around 30.

This means that over 75 percent of Egyptians alive today were not born when Channel One broadcast black-and-white images of Sadat's landing at Ben Gurion Airport. The images showed Sadat meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin, Israeli President Ephraium Katzir, as well as others including Golda Meir – who was prime minister during the October War – Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.

None of these young Egyptians would have any personal recollection of the speech that Sadat had made 10 days before the trip in front of the Egyptian parliament, where he said that he would be willing to go the Knesset to talk to the Israelis about the need for peace.

They also would not recall a very awkward looking Yasser Arafat or the subsequent negotiations that culminated in the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in Washington on 26 March 1979, a little over a decade before Arafat himself went to the White House to sign the Oslo accords with Rabin.

Today, Dalia is convinced that these deals and whatever they brought about in terms of changes in the official stance on Israel could not have convinced her that there is “real peace between us, as Arabs, and the Israelis.”

“History books at school were never convincing either – not when one thought about it,” Dalia said, adding that this is also “certainly the case for subsequent generations.”

“Remember those young men who went to express their anger in front of the old [offices] of the Israeli embassy after the January Revolution in 2011? They were around 18 or 20, born way after Sadat was killed and during the days when relations with Israel were more normalised,” she added.

File photo: Protesters knock down a concrete wall built in front of the Israeli embassy in Cairo September 9, 2011 Reuters

No 'complete normalisation'

Egyptian officials and diplomats who worked on the many aspects of Egyptian-Israeli relations under Hosni Mubarak would never speak of “complete normalisation.”

A former trade minister under Mubarak said shortly after the January 2011 Revolution that “it was never seen as a good thing to propose any kind of enhanced cooperation with Israel. It was always a very sensitive matter, and when we proposed it we had to be ready with a clear plan on how this would be presented to the public.”

He added that the rule was that “peace with Israel was about the end of hostilities – just as Sadat said, the October War was the last war. Beyond that, however, there was not much to be done beyond the framework of security coordination and mediating in the talks with the Palestinians.”

According to this former cabinet member, anything that was done out of this context had to be hushed or at least downplayed, be it cooperation in agriculture, energy or industry.

"It could not have been otherwise given the fact that Mubarak himself was very reluctant about visiting Israel,” he noted.

During his three decades in office, and despite continued political, diplomatic and security communications with Israel, Mubarak made only one very brief visit to Israel in November 1995 to attend the funeral of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“This was not really a visit; Mubarak just joined world leaders for the funeral – and this was almost 20 years after the visit by Sadat; relations with Israel were never really happening under Mubarak despite what I would say was clear American pressure,” according to a former foreign minister. 

Mubarak would always offer the same answer every time an Israeli journalist asked him about when he would visit Israel: when there is enough progress in the peace process.

During the 30 years of the Mubarak's rule, Israeli diplomats in Cairo constantly complained to their Western counterparts about their sense of “isolation.” They complained that there was no breakthrough on the political or any other front, whether cultural, scientific or in tourism.

An Egyptian surgeon in his late 50s agrees.

“This is very true; I would not at all engage in a one-on-one chat with an Israeli doctor when we meet in any medical conference in any country, be it in the Middle East or Europe. If one tries to talk to me on the sideline of the conference, I would politely excuse myself, as such a chat could qualify as a normalisation of relations.”

According to a tour guide in his early 40s, “no one I know would agree to take assignments with Israeli tourists. I am not saying that nobody does it at all, but most would decline such an assignment, either because they do not like it or they think they would be criticised for it.”

According to the former trade minister, the same goes for the very few members of the business community who directly engaged in business with Israel.

“It was clearly an uncomfortable thing to do; some actually did it on the condition that it would not be public, because they feared their families would be shamed.”

Cold peace

Last September, on the sideline of the New York UN General Assembly, El-Sisi had his first public meeting with Netanyahu as part of a concerted diplomatic effort to re-launch the peace talks as early as the start of 2018.

Despite the appreciation expressed by Israeli diplomats in Cairo over El-Sisi and Netanyahu’s meeting in New York, they still expressed dismay about Cairo’s reluctance to show any special recognition or hold any special event to acknowledge the 40th anniversary of El-Sadat’s visit.

According to an Egyptian diplomat in a European capital, “my Israeli counterpart complained to me in the presence of several other diplomats that the Egyptian-Israeli peace is still cold despite the many advances that Israel had made in its relations with most, if not all, Arab countries.”

“I told him that things could change when we take the path towards establishing a Palestinian state, but he shrugged off my remarks as not being serious. He said that he is perplexed about this psychological wall between the peoples of Arab countries and Israel.”

According to Basma Abdel-Aziz, a psychologist and author of several titles on the mentality of oppression, “psychological walls between nations are not torn down by state visits or peace treaties; they break down with the achievement of equality and the elimination of oppression; clearly this is not the case with Israel.”

“In the collective memory of Egyptians, for the most part, Israel is still the enemy that killed Egyptian soldiers who were trying to defend Egyptian and Arab land during four consecutive wars,” says Abdel-Aziz. “In many households, a man of 20 would have probably seen a black and white picture of a deceased uncle or grandfather who was killed during a war with Israel.”

Abdel-Aziz argued that until quite recently, there was a considerable number of series and films broadcast on TV – at least during the anniversary of the October War – reminding us of “our only too recent history with Israel.”

She says that this is in addition to “the endless and almost daily influx of news showing grave atrocities committed by Israel against the Palestinian people.”

This is the case despite “any negative views that some, or many, Egyptians may have developed about the Palestinian people recently. When all is said and done, the Palestinian cause is still a very serious issue in the Egyptian collective consciousness.”

This was precisely the point that prompted Hassan, a 19-year-old university student, to join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which works to eliminate international support for Israel as long as it continues its occupation of Palestinian territories seized by military force in the 1967 War.

Hassan is convinced that “this is the least one can do,” adding that the land seized in 1967 is only a fraction of the Palestinian territories taken over by Israel bit-by-bit since the establishment of the country in 1948.

Hassan had wanted to convince some of his activist friends to solicit a permit for a demonstration marking the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration earlier in November.

“Then I thought that this would not be the best thing to do at this time. Now is not the time for marches and demonstrations, but the time for action, and the BDS movement is certainly a reasonable path to take,” he argued.

Hassan is convinced that Arab people have enough strength to “send a clear message to their governments about the commitment to the Palestinian cause.”

Hassan was speaking on Saturday evening, the eve of the anniversary of El-Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. At the same time, a group of Arab Gulf activists were meeting in Kuwait to announce an appeal for Gulf governments to end any financial dealings with companies that support Israel and Israeli construction of illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territories.

Sadat's speech in the Israeli Knesset

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