The Middle East peace train this week delivers Arab and Israeli leaders to Annapolis, Maryland, but I’ve headed in the opposite direction to Tel Aviv, Israel. I’m here to retrace the footsteps of a journey towards peace from exactly thirty years ago, which continues to both encourage and taunt its modern successors.
On Nov. 19, 1977, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat broke rank with fellow Arabs and took Israelis by surprise by flying to Israel to tell its parliament, the Knesset, that he wanted peace. Egypt and Israel had spent the previous 30 years fighting four wars but Sadat had hinted how far he would go to prevent a fifth war in a parliamentary speech in Cairo on November 9, 1977.
"I am ready to travel to the ends of the earth if this will in any way protect any Egyptian boy, soldier or officer from being killed or wounded,” Sadat said. "I say that I am ready for sure to go to the ends of this earth. I am ready to go to their country, even to the Knesset itself, and talk with them."
Shortly after that, then Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin invited Sadat to Jerusalem. The visit led to the first peace treaty between an Arab state and Israel – in 1979 – but it also left Sadat a marked man. His peace deal with Israel was on the list of grievances of the Islamic militant soldiers who assassinated him during a military parade on Oct. 6, 1981, which ironically enough marked the anniversary of the start of the 1973 war between Egypt and Israel.
One thing Sadat’s peace journey has in common with this week’s talks is the state of Maryland, which is home to Annapolis. After Sadat’s visit to Israel, Egyptian and Israeli negotiators were nudged towards their peace deal in Camp David, also in Maryland, under the mentoring of U.S. president Jimmy Carter.
Sadat was not a democratically elected leader and he didn’t consult with his people before getting on that plane to Israel. The same can be said of most of the Arab leaders heading to Annapolis this week, with the exception of Mahmoud Abbas who was voted into office as president of the Palestinians. That said, even he must contend with the fact that he controls only the West Bank, since rival Hamas took over the Gaza Strip this summer.
Other than that, there are few other similarities. Who at Annapolis can be said to be as bold, outrageous even, as Sadat? His peace deal with Israel got Egypt kicked out of the Arab League and he was accused of destroying Arab unity. But some of those same Arab countries that raged at Egypt – such as Syria and Saudi Arabia – will be there at Annapolis trying to do what Sadat did in the 1970s.
Even the Israelis and the talks’ American hosts pale in comparison to Sadat and his boldness. Ehud Olmert is the weakest Israeli prime minister in decades and George Bush has little of the cachet that Carter enjoyed at the time of the Camp David talks.
To mark the 20th anniversary of Sadat’s visit to Israel, I interviewed his family and officials who went to Israel with Sadat. One of those officials was Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then Egypt's minister of state for foreign affairs who later became U.N. Secretary-General. He was acting foreign minister in place of Ismail Fahmy, who had resigned to protest at the Jerusalem visit.
"For decades and decades we were in a state of war. They were the enemy. There was a psychological distance between Egypt and Israel, but in less than 45 minutes... we were landing in Israel," Boutros-Ghali told me in 1997.
Despite the peace deal, it’s clear that that psychological distance still exists and has become one of the most stubborn factors that continuously scuttle Arab-Israeli peace talks.
I was just 14 when Sadat was assassinated. My family had been living in London for seven years, so I barely have any memory of him as a leader and cannot describe myself as a fan or a critic. But I am a fan of his boldness. While I might not remember his years in power, my life - like that of many of my peers in the Middle East – is bookmarked by wars, too many of them.
I was born in Port Said shortly after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and one of my earliest and most vivid memories is that of my baby brother screaming at the sound of an air raid siren during the 1973 war. Two of my uncles were rocket engineers during that war.
As my plane took off last week from New York to Tel Aviv, I was already deep in conversation with the Israeli man sitting next to me, an economics professor flying from Australia to Israel to attend his daughter’s wedding. He told me he knew Port Said well. He was 17 during the 1967 war and spent many of his army national service hours pointing his binoculars at the city of my birth.
“I went to Egypt many times after that, uninvited,” he joked. He was stationed in Sinai, which Israel occupied from 1967 till 1982 when it returned it to Egypt under its peace deal with Sadat. He was also a member of the unit that Ariel Sharon had led in the 1973 war. A U.N. ceasefire brought that last Egyptian-Israeli war to an end.
“These young people have no memory of war,” my seatmate said, pointing to our fellow passengers. “We have had enough of it.”
That would be my message to the leaders at Annapolis.
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