With historic 1977 visit, Egypt's Sadat turned Israel’s reality on its head
An air of disbelief hung over Israel's Ben Gurion Airport that chilly November evening in 1977. Most people were hopeful. Others thought Israel was falling for an elaborate bluff.
Then the forward cabin door of Egytpain-01 opened, and a man in a grey suit emerged, standing stiffly at first, then smiling and raising his right hand to acknowledge the burst of applause from the crowd. Only then did it finally sink in – Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was making an open visit to Israel, the country whose existence Arab states refused to recognize.
Sadat’s warm handshakes with Israeli President Ephraim Katzir and Prime Minister Menahem Begin, both waiting at the foot of the plane’s steps, was the culmination of days of frantic activity which began on November 9, when Sadat addressed a packed Egyptian People’s Assembly.
Some two hours into his speech, Sadat departed from his prepared text. No one in his audience -- or anywhere else for that matter -- was quite prepared for what he said next:
“I am ready to go to the ends of the earth for peace. Israel will be astonished to hear me say now, before you, that I am prepared to go to their own house, to the Knesset itself, to talk to them," he declared.
In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Menachem Begin got wind of the speech and the next morning signaled his willingness to meet the Egyptian leader. After a week of diplomatic jingle-jangle between Jerusalem and Cairo, it was announced that Sadat would come to Israel on November 19.
Preparations had to be made from scratch. Security was a problem. Sadat’s visit was widely seen in the Arab world, and especially the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as a betrayal. He would make a tempting target during the visit – so Israel surrounded the Egyptian delegation with a security ring unlike anything yet seen in the country.
More than 10,000 policemen and thousands more soldiers secured the visit. An armored limousine was borrowed from the US embassy. Jerusalem’s Haddassah hospital was given blood supplies marching those of Sadat and his entourage. Operating rooms were placed on emergency stand-by.
The army had another problem – or at least its orchestra did. No one had the score for the Egyptian national anthem. The snag was finally solved when someone taped it off the radio. Rehearsals began using the tape until the US managed to fly a copy of the score in from Cyprus.
The streets of Jerusalem were to be decorated with Egyptian flags, but there weren’t any. Flags were snatched from the sewing machines as fast as they could be made.
A commemorative t-shirt was hastily produced depicting Begin and Sadat surrounded by hearts and bearing the message “all you need is love.” Given the acrimony which was to quickly develop, it’s one of the few times a cheap T-shirt lasted longer than the message it touted.
Israeli musicians quickly wrote and recorded songs about peace, not all of which were as instantly forgettable as others. Travel companies began preparing itineraries for tours to Egypt.
On the Friday before the visit, an advance team from Egypt arrived in Israel. Millions watched the special broadcast on television. The Egyptians were enthusiastically applauded and an air of excitement, even optimism, was overtaking the country.
But it was not a feeling shared by everyone. Lieutenant-General Mordechai Gur, then military chief of staff, told an Israeli newspaper that the visit could be a ruse by the Egyptians and warned the public not to “get carried away with too much enthusiasm.”
Gur was not alone in his apprehension. “We didn’t know what was going to happen when the plane landed,” a then-Israeli official told this writer some years after the event. “Maybe the doors would open and a bunch of Egyptian commandos would leap out and open fire on the Israelis. We really didn’t know.”
But the foreboding vanished as Sadat stood at attention for the Israeli and Egyptian national anthems, and a 21-gun salute, and then, inspected a 72-man military guard of honor.
“A new era has begun,” Israel Television intoned. There were no airport speeches, but it didn’t matter. The televised ceremony was enough. Almost everyone in Israel watched it.
Those unable to watch found other ways. Current Labour Party legislator Eitan Cabel, who was undergoing his military basic training at the time, made do with a transistor radio. When he interrupted a military lecture to announce, “that’s it, he’s landed,” his fellow recruits burst into applause.
Watching the ceremony on US television from New York, Haim Herzog, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations cried. So too did his Egyptian-born wife.
Sadat was unaware of the tears, but he must have felt the emotion in the atmosphere. His stiffness and formality vanished as he moved down the receiving line of waiting dignitaries.
“I wasn’t bluffing,” he told Gur as the two shook hands.
“I wanted to catch you over there,” he smilingly told Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, who had led the Israeli counter-attack across the Suez Canal and into Egypt during the Yom Kippur War four years previously. “I’m glad to welcome you here,” Sharon replied.
But battlefield memories, especially from the Yom Kippur War only four years earlier, still lingered. Ariyeh Naor, at the time cabinet secretary, remembers being “very excited” when Sadat emerged from the aircraft. But at the same time, as he shook Sadat’s hand, and looked him in the eye, “I thought about the friends that I personally lost in the wars,” he said.
Not content with watching the arrival on television, thousands of Israelis took to the Jerusalem streets to applaud Sadat’s convoy as it entered the city and made its way to the King David Hotel, which has been cleared of all other guests to house the Egyptians.
The euphoria continued to the next day. Israeli newspapers, which had initially warned against getting carried away, now went all out. “Ahlan Wa Sahlan Bi-Rais Sadat” (“Welcome to President Sadat”) read a special Arabic banner on the front page of the English- language Jerusalem Post. The Ma’ariv daily had the same message, but in Hebrew.
But the visit did not pass without hitches. Sadat was angered that only 500 Arabs and members of his party would be allowed to pray with him at Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque. He asked that more be let in, and the number swelled to 6,000.
On the Monday morning of his visit, an Egyptian security guard was found dead in his hotel room. Israeli and Egyptian doctors concluded he had died of a heart attack. In those far-off days, before social media gave a platform to conspiracy theorists, both sides were able to keep the death a secret.
There were also some dark murmurings about the tie Sadat wore to the state dinner given in his honor, whose pattern, from certain angles, appeared to depict a series of interlocked swastikas.
The highlight of Sadat’s visit was without doubt his speech to Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. It too went off as planned, although not all legislators applauded the Egyptian president as he entered the chamber.
Despite Begin’s assertion that “we like each other”, it was clear that the two sides remained far apart. They would remain that way for much of the tortuous negotiations which would follow the visit, until a peace treaty was signed in March 1979 – 15 months after Sadat first set foot on Israeli soil.
But at the time, it was enough for Israelis that the leader of the largest Arab nations, and Israel’s main adversary in five previous wars, had announced he was willing to end the belligerency between them.
Sadat left Israel having won over the vast majority of the country with his dignity, his warmth, and his message. Predictably, Israelis had difficulty returning to their everyday existence after the excitement of the weekend.
“Post-Sadatal depression,” Dry Bones, the Jerusalem Post cartoonist, called it. It was also Dry Bones who best summed up how Israelis – and much of the world – felt about the surreal events of the past few days.
A cartoon published the day before the visit had a character musing about the abolition of Israel’s foreign currency restrictions and travel tax. “And tomorrow night Sadat comes to Jerusalem,” the character says. “I think they’re putting LSD in my coffee.”
Jeff Abramowitz is a Senior Producer at i24NEWS.
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