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The miraculous pilgrimage of peace

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin after their first conference at Sadat's residence in Ismallia in December 1977. (YAACOV SAAR ISRAEL GOVERNMENT NATIONAL PHOTO COLLECTION)

To celebrate Chanukah, The CJN is running a series, eight miracles for eight days. In this instalment, Erol Araf looks back at the historic pilgrimage of peace in 1977.

During U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972, apocryphally, the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, was asked about the impact of the French Revolution. Speaking of an event that took place nearly two centuries previously, Zhou famously commented that it was “too early to say.” However, if we accept Spinoza’s observation that “Peace is not the absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, disposition for benevolence, and justice,” then it would be reasonable to argue that it is “too early” to assess whether or not peace between Egypt and Israel would endure the calamitous vicissitudes of the “Middle Earth.” But, considering how the Yom Kippur war almost turned into an existential conflict, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s historic pilgrimage of peace in 1977 could be construed as a miracle.

Suffice to recall that in October 1973, Israel’s youth mounted the crumbling ramparts as Egypt and Syria launched a surprise and spectacularly successful offensive against Israel. Israeli forces were retreating, or being annihilated, at the Suez Canal and the Golan Heights.

Under such dramatic circumstances, the war triggered three nuclear confrontations which might have had incalculable consequences: the first one came when Israel feared that the Third Temple was about to fall and allegedly readied nuclear weapons to stem the tide; the second one erupted when Israel knew that the Soviets had introduced nuclear-tipped Scud missiles in Egypt as deterrence and the Russians recklessly fired conventional ones which might easily have been interpreted as nuclear escalation; and, the third crisis flared-up when the Soviets threatened to intervene unilaterally to save Egypt’s Third Army and the U.S. responded by issuing the Def Con III nuclear alert thus sheathing America’s nuclear sword.

The world held its breath as a thermonuclear cauldron threatened to erupt from the abyss of perdition.
And this is the context within which Sadat’s epoch making visit to Jerusalem, displaying a preponderance of bravery, should be evaluated, remembered and celebrated. His pilgrimage of peace was nothing less than a latter-day miracle in the history of the modern Middle East.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat addresses the Knesset during his historic first visit to Israel in November, 1977. YAACOV SAAR. ISRAEL GOVERNMENT NATIONAL PHOTO COLLECTION

“President Anwar Sadat”, ever since his ascension to power, wrote Shimon Shamir in his essay, Nasser and Sadat, 1967-1973: Two Approaches to a National Crisis, “convincingly demonstrated political sophistication and shrewdness, capacity to make difficult decisions, a good sense of timing, and flexibility in the choice of methods coupled with an adherence to ultimate targets.” As a student of both Clausewitz and Machiavelli, he understood that war was the continuation of politics by other means. By compelling the Soviets to resume arm shipments after he had expelled them in 1972, he positioned himself to wage limited war with the objective of turning to the U.S. after the conflict to implement his central policy diplomatically through negotiations with Israel.

The Elazar-Gamazy Disengagement Agreement at Kilometre 101 on Friday, Jan. 19, 1973, 2100 hours broke the taboo of Khartoum, sanctified as the “Three No’s:” “No peace with Israel, No recognition of Israel, No negotiations with Israel.” What followed from that fateful encounter along the Cairo-Suez road has become an epic quest for peace. The list is formidable: disengagements agreements in the Sinai and the Golan Heights; peace treaties between Israel and Egypt and Jordan; Israel’s recognition of the “legitimate rights of the Palestinian People and the resolution of the Palestinian problem in all its manifestations;” Palestinian Autonomy; the Madrid Peace Conference; the Oslo Accords; the recognition of the PLO as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians;” PLO’s recognition of Israel; the Hebron Agreement; the Wye River Memorandum; the Camp David Summit; Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza; the Clinton Parameters and the Taba Talks; PLO’s acceptance of the two-state solution; the Beirut Summit; the Road Map for Peace; the Fahd and Abbas Peace Plans; the Barak and Olmert plans encompassing wide ranging Israeli concessions; and a series of direct talks as well as ongoing U.S.-mediated discussions throughout the years since Sadat’s visit to Israel.

Sadat’s faith was at the core of his epiphany about going to Israel

The results of these herculean efforts have been disappointing as the ideal outcome of “two states living side by side in peace” appears remote and unattainable. But pessimism also brooded over the land during the “Thirteen Days in September” when U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Sadat met in Camp David in 1979. It took the labours of Benedictine monks, dexterity of craftsmanship, goodwill, conversations that did not result in sterile transcriptions but metamorphoses, and, above all a certain messianic zeal to bridge the Kingdom above with the darkness below. Indeed, a devout Jew, a devoted Muslim and a faithful Christian, united in their common heritage, forged a fellowship determined to beat their sword into ploughshares. Sadat’s faith was at the core of his epiphany about going to Israel. He wrote in his memoirs, how a spark ignited his imagination while flying over the land of prophets in 1976: “I don’t know whether this thought [pilgrimage of peace] came to me merely because the aeroplane was passing over Mount Ararat where Noah’s ark came to rest and the dove of peace, released from the ark by our forefather Noah, returned with an olive branch as a sign that the flood waters were retreating and that the shore was near.”

When he announced his decision, he was condemned and excoriated by the Arab world. But he insisted on bringing his olive branch to Israel and Jews who had been yearning for such a miraculous gift for centuries welcomed him with open hearts when he finally arrived.

I was in Israel at the time and will never forget all those who paid him the tribute of their tears of joy as his motorcade travelled through the City of Peace after he landed portentously on the Muslim holiday celebrating the Feast of Sacrifice. We all felt that this was the fulfilment of ancient prophecies and a miracle no less.


I was reminded of Rupert Brooke’s poem: “And think, this heart, all evil shed away, a pulse in the eternal mind, no less,” as I deeply felt that our hearts were pure as white doves on that day.

And on that day, the Middle East was transformed forever.

While every act of violence in the Middle East inundates the airwaves like a flood of ill omen, precious little coverage is given to Israeli-Palestinian co-operation in every imaginable domain of human endeavour since Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. New modern Palestinian cities are built; security co-operation continues; Israeli Palestinian high-tech ventures are multiplying; water agreements are vitalizing Palestinian agriculture as Israeli and Palestinian agronomists are working on growing new species of fruits; the Red to Dead Sea canal is under consideration as Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority are committed to save the Dead Sea and generate electricity for desalination; free trade and custom union ideas are debated to increase Palestinian exports; the Peace Valley Plan, a joint effort of the Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian governments to promote economic co-operation, and new business initiatives which can help both sides work together, and create a better diplomatic atmosphere and better economic conditions is in the works; investments in industrial zones are encouraged; thousands of Palestinian professionals are trained in Israel and in Israeli firms Palestinian and Israelis workers enjoy exactly the same rights and work conditions; and, a visit to any Israeli hospital would clearly demonstrate how Palestinians referred by the Red Crescent from the West Bank and even Gaza receive state of the art medical treatment every day, 24/7. And without Begin and Sadat such outcomes would have remained impossible dreams.

Indeed, as the Bard said in Julius Caesar: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat.” The peace treaty has turned out “to be the most durable feature of the Middle Eastern landscape, and the bedrock on which the stability of the region rests” concluded Dr. Martin Kramer in a recent Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA) position paper. Although today, the challenges remain indomitable, the future uncertain and the days of awe never far in the north, in spite of these strong adverse currents, we are “now afloat” on the sea of peace.

But our anxieties about the future, in the shadow of Iranian imperial nuclear reach, find repose in the story of a courageous Egyptian, Sgt. Mahmud Nadeh. Abraham Rabinovich, in his Yom Kippur War relates the story of Nadeh who found himself surrounded in the Third Army after the ceasefire came into effect. He decided to go to Israel; his path illuminated by Spinoza’s lantern, to make his own salaam but was mistaken for an armed intruder and tragically shot. His diary was eventually returned to his parents in Egypt by Israeli journalists who sought their permission to publish it. It makes for heartbreaking reading. He wrote, “I fought for my country. Millions of my countrymen dream of peace. It may be that the unknown is beautiful. But the present is more beautiful.”

Those inspired by scripture understand that the celestial sphere often touches the “affairs of men,” making “the present more beautiful,” in miraculous ways, beyond the comprehension of mortals. This is why, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben- Gurion, although not a religious man, conceded that “In the Middle East, if you don’t believe in miracles, you are not a realist.”

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