World awaits a Palestinian like Egypt’s Sadat to lead

M By Koby Nahmias

making peace with one’s enemy is sort of like making love, there can only be one first time.” For most Israelis the first time came 25 years ago when Anwar Sadat President of Egypt, took the historic route from Cairo to Jerusalem to speak before the Israeli parliament.

As Anwar Sadat rode from Ben-Gurion Airport into Jerusalem 25 years ago this month, thousands of Israelis lined his route, cheering and shouting “salaam” (peace) and “ahlan wa-sah’lan” (welcome). I remember seeing all of this from our living room, watching it all on a black and white television set and seeing my grandmother, ruling the family from her armchair, shedding a rare tear in a private memory of fleeing Egypt three decades earlier.

Only now, when I look back on those images I ask how it is that 25 years ago Israelis released such an outpouring of love for a man who four years earlier on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar launched a war in which thousands of soldiers died? How could my grandmother, who was forced to leave her life and possessions back in Egypt of 1949, shed a tear of joy for a man who supported Hitler in World War II?

One has to understand that up until then Israelis felt utterly alone, living in a free country the size of a matchbox in the middle of a football field that is the Arab world, an Arab world that refused to even recognize Israel’s right to exist. Companies such as Coca-Cola that were willing to work in Israel were boycotted across the Arab world. The local Coca-Cola producer in Iraq was even hung in the city square.

But Sadat did what was needed, what Israelis were only dreaming about: He came to Jerusalem and made a clear statement he was ready to make peace with Israel. Sadat openly said Egypt was willing to accept Israel’s existence in the Middle East. “These were the words Israelis had been waiting decades to hear,” said Proffessor Shimon Shamir, Israel’s ambassador to Egypt from 1988-90. I couldn’t agree more.

Anwar Sadat cut an imposing figure when speaking in front of the Israeli parliament. He won the hearts of all Israelis in a heartbeat. The 1973 war, in which Israel was almost brought to its knees, was not forgotten but gave Sadat a credibility with Israelis. He said he was going to attack and he attacked, so when he said he wanted peace, people believed him.

Sadat’s visit changed the way most Israelis thought about the area captured from Egypt during the war – the Sinai Peninsula – as well as the settlements built there. Just before his visit, a majority of Israelis were against dismantling the settlements and returning Sinai. Just after the visit, there was a clear majority to return Sinai and dismantle the settlements.

Following the peace treaty, Israel began to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula in stages for a period of over three years. Egypt kept its promise of peace throughout the entire period. Finally, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon completed Israel’s side of the treaty by forcibly removing thousands of settlers in the Sinai Peninsula.

This giant of a man, President Anwar Sadat having gone out on a limb by making peace with his sworn enemies, was vilified by the entire Arab world. Several years later, in an event I will never forget, Sadat was assassinated. The democratic nations of the world mourned the passing of a great man that had the courage to stand up in a sea of hate and extend the hand of peace.

How different is Anwar Sadat compared with Yasser Arafat? Although Sadat’s troops killed far more Israelis than Arafat’s have, there is a fundamental difference. One was a leader of a country who sent his soldiers to kill other soldiers, while the other was a leader of a nation who sent terrorists to kill women and children.

There is another, more basic difference between the two men. Anwar Sadat was a man of his word, when Israel withdrew from Sinai he kept the peace, established relations, and opened the borders. Yasser Arafat proved that his word does not mean a thing. When Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, terrorist attacks actually grew in number. In fact, the first suicide bomber appeared in the scene right after the Israeli withdrawal.

Perhaps the most telling difference happened on the lawn of White House. When Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin signed the peace treaty in 1979, they were both wearing suits. But when Yitzchak Rabin and Yasser Arafat signed the Declaration of Principles on the lawn of the White House in 1993, Yasser Arafat refused to wear a suit. Yasser Arafat came dressed in military uniform and only at the insistence of then President Bill Clinton agreed not to wear his gun.

One has to wonder at the intentions of a man who wishes to wear his pistol when signing a peace treaty on the lawn of the White House. The world is still waiting for a man of Sadat’s stature to rise out of the Palestinian nation and lead us to peace.

Koby Nahmias is a doctoral candidate in biomedical engineering. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]