It was a solemn, momentous occasion—a moment, said Simon Peres, Israeli Labor Party spokesman, “for which Israel had been waiting 30 years.” The symbolism was breathtaking. As the world looked on and listened to the Biblical phrases in which Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and his Israeli host Menachem Begin proclaimed their wish for peace to a hushed Knesset, it seemed as if the psychological breakthrough which Sadat had said he sought from his unprecedented peace mission might really be just round the corner.
But as Begin, Sadat and their entourage made their way out of the packed Israeli parliament through a milling crowd of MPS, observers were already noting that while the Egyptian leader had been specific in stating what he expected from his hosts in the way of concessions—an end to the occupation of Arab lands, recognition of Palestinian rights and the right of all countries (including Israel) to live in peace—Begin, while rising to the emotional mood of the occasion, had been far more reticent. His only specific pledge was that “everything is negotiable,’’along with a rather vague promise to open Israel’s borders to Egyptians so that they could, as it were, follow their leader and see for themselves that the Israeli people wanted peace.
The feeling at the State Department in Washington after the speeches, Maclean’s William Lowther reported, was that Sadat had chosen exactly the right stance. The United States had feared that Sadat might either be too soft, committing himself and his fellow Arab leaders to courses of action which he could not justify, or too uncompromising-ruining the chance of negotiations.
In any event, it was felt Sadat’s speech was near-perfect, and it was particularly significant that at no time had he mentioned the Palestine Liberation Organization. In addition, Sadat’s action earlier, in laying a wreath at the Yad Vashem monument to the six million Jews killed during the Second World War (he had been given the option whether to do so or not), was regarded as particularly important in the context of the recognition of Israel.
There was rather less satisfaction with the speeches of Begin and Peres. But Washington recognized that they might have been unable to say more in public.
That left the real talking to be done in the working sessions that followed the Knesset speechifying. It also meant a cliffhanger, until very late in the Egyptian leader’s visit, over the key question of Pa-
lestinian representation at the hoped-for talks later in Geneva. The fear was that if Sadat went home empty-handed he would be finished as leader and the general situation would deteriorate rapidly. But officials in Washington were basing their hopes on the fact that both Sadat and Begin were well aware of this and that therefore the talks would somehow succeed.
Nevertheless, President Jimmy Carter, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brezhinski went into a continuous meeting, with an open line to Jerusalem to help keep the talks on track.
That American fears were well-founded was evident from the horrified reactions to the announcement of Sadat’s visit from most of his fellow Arab leaders and his own ministerial team in Cairo. Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, with whom Sadat fought a short border skirmish last summer, predictably broke off relations. Syria’s President Hafez Assad, whom Sadat visited immediately before his journey to Jerusalem, described it as “very dangerous” to the Arab cause; the PLO’s Yasser Arafat spoke of his “deep sadness that someone has thought to shake hands with the treacherous Zionist enemy”; and, perhaps most important of all, the Saudi Arabian government, which bankrolls Sadat, made it clear that it disapproved. Any deal with Israel, a statement said, should result from a unified Arab stand.
That roughly was how things stood after Sadat’s Knesset speech. It was clear that if there was to be any softening in his allies’
censorious tones it depended on the concessions, if any, he could wring in the private talks.
Such omens, however, did not affect the warmth of the Israeli welcome and anyone who watched the scene as President Sadat arrived at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion International Airport could have been forgiven for forgetting that Egypt and Israel are still technically at war. Egyptian flags fluttered from hastily erected poles and Israeli border police carried the Arab emblem as Sadat greeted Begin. “Thank you,” he said simply. Replied the Israeli leader: “It’s wonderful to have you, thank you for coming.”
It was a difficult moment for both Israelis and Arabs, brought up on an unending diet of propaganda, to swallow. “Look, he smiles,” said a young man in Cairo as he watched Sadat on his television. “Sadat shalom,” (peaceful Sadat) shouted a peanut vendor outside a soccer game in Jerusalem, in a hastily improvised version of the traditional Jewish Sabbath greeting “Shabbat shalom” (Peaceful Sabbath).
It was a lighthearted reaction in a city suddenly euphoric over the prospect, however distant, of peace. Jerusalem has been “taken over bloodlessly by the Egyptians,” said Mayor Teddy Koliek after the large Egyptian advance guard of security men and reporters had arrived. That was something of an exaggeration but there was a large, visible Egyptian “presence”—taxis sporting Egyptian flags on their radio antennae and pedlars and hucksters out to make a fast buck by selling T-shirts bearing pictures of Sadat and Begin and captioned “All you need is love.”
But behind the emotion of the airport welcome and Sadat’s pilgrimages the fol-
lowing day to the Al Aksa mosque (a sacred Arab shrine), the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Yad Vashem, lay hardheaded realism. No fewer than 10,000 Israeli troops, police and security guards took part in Operation Sh’ar (gate) to prevent any attempt by terrorists to assassinate the Egyptian leader. The King David Hotel, where Sadat and his entourage stayed, was cleared of other guests and security teams from both countries (Sadat had a party of 40 men of his own) set up their operations headquarters on the sixth floor. Planes and helicopters circled BenGurion airport before and after Sadat’s arrival and everywhere he went the roads were lined by troops and police, while other security forces posted themselves on high ground overlooking his route or his stopovers. Tight security was also forced on Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Syria to prevent incursions, and the Allenby bridge to Jordan was closed.
It was a vast operation and yet another tribute to the Israelis’ ability to improvise. For the fact was that until Sadat made his historic announcement—“I am ready to go even to... the Knesset”—in Cairo on November 9, a mere 10 days before his appearance in Israel, there had been no coordinated planning for a visit. The Israelis had been making discreet offers of talks on neutral ground (Bucharest, the Romanian capital, was one site suggested), but Sadat’s offer caught them completely off guard. Once it was made, however, events moved swiftly and the chronology went something like this:
• November 11 : Begin issues his historic invitation.
• November 16: Formal invitation extended in an exchange of letters, facilitated by us envoys in Tel Aviv and Cairo.
• November 17: Joint announcement that visit would begin in two days time.
• November 18: Egyptian jetliner brings diplomats and security personnel to prepare for visit.
• November 20: Sadat arrives.
The speed was breathtaking, but so was the fact that, at the same time, Sadat was calling a longstanding Israeli bluff. For decades, Israeli leaders have promised that peace would be around the corner if only an Arab leader would sit down and talk. Now Sadat was coming and, with the world waiting on tenterhooks, Israel would' have to come up with some answers. As Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan acknowledged, the country could not content itself merely with listening to what Sadat had to say in the Knesset.
Nevertheless, as the unprecedented applause for Sadat (there is normally no clapping in the Knesset) reverberated in the chamber there were many people around the world would find their hearts echoing a comment made the same day by Pope Paul to a crowd in St. Peter’s Square: “The event is great, the hope revives.”
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