If “one man of courage makes a majority, as Andrew Jackson said, then 30 years ago, in November 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was such a man. His peace overture to Israel stunned the Middle East. He had, as he put it, gone “to the end of the earth (the Knesset in Jerusalem), and in doing so transformed the region’s politics beyond recognition.
From that moment, the question for the Arabs was no longer how to destroy Israel, but how to reach an accomodation with it. In his dramatic leap into the future, Sadat taught Arab leaders the realities of a changing world.
For Sadat’s peace overture was born out of a sober strategic analysis of the regional balance of power. It was clear to him that Israel was a nuclear power that, in October 1973, had once again proven itself to be unbeatable in a conventional war – a war Sadat himself had never expected to win when he launched it.
Understanding Clausewitz’s dictum that war is a continuation of politics by other means, Sadat had sent the Egyptian Army across the Suez Canal in order to unleash a peace process. He was defeated militarily, but his decision to go to Jerusalem meant that he would succeed politically.
During all of their abortive attempts to destroy Israel, the Arabs had relied on the military backing of the Soviet Union. But a strategy of peace with Israel, Sadat knew, required an alliance with the United States. This alliance was so vital an objective for Sadat that one may rightly wonder what came first in his strategy.
Perhaps Sadat might have opted to secure the American alliance without making peace with Israel if he had been able to do so. But he could not, and he knew it. Indeed, in 1974, when General Gamasy, the architect of the 1973 war, questioned Sadat’s flexibility in the disengagement talks with Israel, Egypt’s president calmed him down by saying, “Don’t forget, General, we are talking here about peace with the Americans! Another shift implicit in Sadat’s strategy was to keep Egypt at a distance from pan-Arabism. Weary of inter-Arab politics, and tired of the high price Egypt had paid for the Palestinian cause, Sadat wanted to move away from Nasser’s pan-Arab ambitions and an excessive focus on the question of Palestine toward an emphasis on Egypt’s role as a power lying at the strategic crossroads between Asia and Africa.
Sadat would, of course, continue to champion the Palestinian cause as the heart of an Arab consensus and sometimes as a fig leaf for his own Egypt-focused foreign policy. But, for all practical purposes, Sadat had embarked on a path leading to a separate peace with Israel.
One lesson of Sadat’s initiative is that in protracted conflicts where deep emotions and historical hatreds are involved, when almost every conceivable diplomatic formula has been tried and failed, the shock of a visionary, generous, and imaginative step can open new paths. The major problem in the Arab-Isreli conflict, as in many other intricate disputes, has always been the incapacity or unwillingness of leaders to conduct a peace policy that is not supported by their societies’ prevailing, and frequently paralyzing, consensus.
Leaders, more often than not, are hostage to the socio-political environment that produces them, rather than its shapers. Sadat gained a privileged place in history and achieved immortality the moment he fled from the comfortable prison of inertia, and from the pantomime solidarity and hollow rhetorical cohesion of Arab summits.
The test of statesmanship did not end there. Sadat’s spectacular leap into the future needed to be met by Israel’s prime minister, Menachem Begin, at almost every juncture down a tortuous road to peace. Arguably, only a political “hawk like Begin, a man with a keen sense of the dramatic and a political romantic with a beady eye to the judgment of history, could have responded in such a way to Sadat’s initiative.
That Begin was able to rise to the occasion had much to do with the psychological impact of Sadat’s astonishing initiative. Through his visit to Jerusalem, Sadat made more ordinary the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Sadat’s initiative transformed the conflict from a fight about Israel’s right to exist into a negotiation of interests between legitimate sovereign states.
Here, indeed, is the central point: the need to move away from mythological, mutually exclusive rights of existence, conflicting historical narratives, and religious claims of ownership. Sadly, this is where the Palestinian-Israeli tragedy remains stuck to this very day, thus making the conflict practically insoluble. Through his visit to Jerusalem, Sadat shook away Israel’s siege mentality and gave psychological living space to an otherwise claustrophobic nation in the midst of a hostile Arab world.
Peace is never a zero-sum game. In its peace with Israel, Egypt reached its strategic objective of an alliance with the US. But Israel was wrong to believe that Egypt could be a gateway into the Arab world. The gate to Israeli-Arab reconciliation remains where it was always been – in the hands of the Palestinians.
Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister who now serves as the vice-president of the Toledo International Centre for Peace, is author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.This article is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).