Analysis: Anwar Sadat and the visit that polarized Israeli politics
Hundreds of thousands of words have been dedicated to describing and analyzing the immensity of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Israel on November 19, 1977. And rightfully so. The landing of the President of Egypt was even compared, by both supporters and opponents, to the landing of the first spacemen on the moon.
Much less has been dedicated to the long-term political and social implications of that day forty years later, in November 2017. In fact, Israel's contemporary political and social scene has undoubtedly been shaped by that day and the days that followed, beginning the moment Sadat touched Israeli soil. Nothing remained the same since that fateful day, and though now long dead, Sadat continues to shape Israeli politics.
The landmark visit was a major turning point that shattered old ideological dogmas. For both the political left and right in Israel, it put to rest the prevailing assumption, up to that time, that no Arab state would ever make peace with the Jewish State. From the moment Sadat’s plane touched down at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport, both sides were bound to deal with changed basic assumptions.
The collective lesson is still quite confusing for both political camps. The right will have, from that day forward, the legitimacy to make peace; there is no protest of the left on that point. The left will have legitimacy to make wars; there is no protest on the right against wars. As strange as it sounds, this is the reality shaped by Sadat’s visit and the peace agreement with Egypt that followed.
After all, it was the leader of the right, the now legendary Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who signed the peace agreement with Sadat and gave back in return the last grain of sand in Sinai conquered by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War with Egypt. The same Begin went into the First Lebanon War in June 1982 and succumbed years later to growing pressure from peace movements born out of Sadat’s visit to Israel.
Thus, the historic visit changed not only parliamentary politics in Israel, but gave birth to an active extra-parliamentary political scene that today goes hand-in-hand with official politics.
The best-known peace movement directly affiliated with Sadat’s visit is Peace Now, which remains active to this day. The organization started with a letter addressed to Begin by young IDF officers and combat soldiers in reserve six months after Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, demanding that he not miss the opportunity to make peace.
“We had a feeling peace is going to fall through our fingers,” reminisces Professor Galia Golan, a founding member of Peace Now and author of the book 'Israeli Peace Making Since 1967'.
"We couldn’t let a government miss another opportunity," Golan continued. "Ezer Weizman [Minister of Defense in Begin’s first government] wrote we were a nice bunch of people with no impact on the government. I do not think so."
"Begin himself said after our 30 thousand person demonstration that he understood that he cannot come back empty handed from Camp David."
Public opinion was supportive of a bold and courageous move. Polls before and after Sadat's visit showed a dramatic shift in public opinion. And while that dramatic momentum may have faded away, Peace Now remains as an umbrella organization to all peace movements that accompanied right-wing policy. All of them had, over the years, some impact on decision makers.
The left was not the only camp changed by Sadat’s visit. So was the more radical right, more specifically the then young settlers’ movement. From their point of view, the visit was bad news they could predict in real time.
The lesson they derived from that experience continues to drive their activity until today. In simple words, they learned that there is no government they can rely on, not even one considered right-wing.
“We knew right away that we are on our own,” says Pinchas Wallerstein, one of the veteran leaders of the settlers’ movement.
"We were suspicious of that visit right from the start. We knew evacuation and destruction of settlements are to come even before Sadat actually came, even when Begin vowed later Sinai is not precedent for future evacuation of settlements," Wallerstein says.
"We lost trust. The lesson we learned was that it does not really matter if the government is right or left oriented. What really matters and makes a difference is Israeli society. Since then, this is the main focus of our activity,” he explains.
On both sides of the political spectrum, street activism gained power. Just like the mass protest of the left against the Lebanon war, so the seeds of right wing protests against the 1993 Oslo accords were planted the day Sadat landed in Israel.
No Israeli leader embodies that change more than Ariel Sharon. As Minister of Defense in Begin’s second government, he was in charge of the evacuation of Israeli settlers from Sinai following the Camp David accord.
Angry representatives from agricultural settlements in the region served Sharon a plate of bull’s balls along with a note: “If you have them - stop the evacuation.”
But the plan went forward and in April 1982, Sharon accomplished the job with the overwhelming support of the left.
Just two months later, however, he launched the controversial First Lebanon War which spawned mass demonstrations of the protest groups born out of Sadat’s visit.
Now, the left called him “murderer”.
Forty years later, the euphoria that accompanied Sadat's visit has long faded away. For the generations born after November 19, 1977, the visit is just a footnote in the history of the region.
Yet, the deep embedded impact of that day is still very much alive in Israel's daily political realities.
Lily Galili is a feature writer, analyst of Israeli society and expert on immigration from the former Soviet Union. She is the co-author of "The Million that Changed the Middle East."
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