Please read Part I first if you have not yet here.
On October 6, 1981, Anwar Sadat sat in a reviewing stand in Cairo, a commanding figure in gold-braided hat, starched dress uniform and green sash. As the Egyptian President watched an extravagant military parade celebrating his 1973 surprise attack on Israel, a junior lieutenant in crisp khakis stepped from a truck and walked toward him. Sadat rose, expecting a salute. Instead the young officer tossed a grenade and a band of accomplices scrambled from the truck and opened fire. Sadat fell mortally wounded, thus leaving the Middle East facing a dangerous political void and the world without one of the few leaders whose bold imagination and personal courage seemed to have made a difference to history.
As far back as 1971, Sadat displayed his willingness to break Arab taboos about Israel.
He suddenly offered to negotiate a peace treaty with the Israelis, going far beyond his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, whom he succeeded as President in 1970. While a radical step forward, his terms were stiff and preconditions unacceptable. With no progress toward peace, Sadat considered war with Israel inevitable.
On October 6, 1973, while Israelis fasted on the Jewish high holy day of Yom Kippur, Egyptian and Syrian forces attacked Israel. The account and political outcome of this war can be read in part one.
In 1975, President Assad of Syria, personal friend and chief ally of Sadat, broke with him, angered that Israel was returning more land to Egypt than to Syria under the disengagement agreements negotiated through the shuttle diplomacy of Henry Kissinger.
As overall Arab unity dissolved, Sadat became more realistic, and more devoted to settling issues alone with Israel.
Egypt’s rapprochement with Israel began with a vision in Sadat’s mind: he saw himself praying in the Al Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem. For Sadat, the decision was made, the rest was only timing. Fellow Arabs at first believed he had lost his senses when he informed the Egyptian People’s Assembly that he would go “to the ends of the earth,” even to the Israeli Knesset, for peace. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin would later take him at his word and extend an invitation.
“This man is either truly great or he is mad” one of Sadat’s aides said just before the President left for Jerusalem. “Everyone will know he is great if he succeeds. Only his friends will know he is great if he fails.”
Sadat was certain of his own greatness. “I am Egypt,” he said. “I am going to Jerusalem and others will have to fall in line.” This from the man who once said “He who cannot change the very fabric of his thought will never be able to change reality and will never, therefore, make any progress.”
On November 19, 1977, Anwar Sadat arrived in Jerusalem and addressed the Knesset. It is difficult to understate the impact of Sadat’s gesture. It was a remarkable psychological breakthrough that could not have been accomplished with regular diplomacy. For the first time, Israelis saw an Arab leader extend his hand in friendship-and in their capital.
Talks would continue even amid growing tensions in the region. This would eventually lead to the summit meeting at Camp David inspired and arranged by US President Jimmy Carter.
On September 5, 1978, the three heads of state and their aides arrived at Camp David. A news blackout was subsequently imposed for the duration of the talks. They argued, they haggled and at one point personal relations became so badly strained it appeared that the talks might collapse. In the end there were breakthroughs and the framework of a successful peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Two agreements were signed on September 17, 1978 that came to be known as the Camp David Accords.
Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians lined Cairo’s streets when Sadat returned from Camp David. He was hailed as the “hero of peace” and called a Pharaoh by some, but in the rest of the Arab world, not so much. Seventeen hard-line Arab nations, reacting to the separate peace with Israel, adopted political and economic sanctions against Egypt.
To the end, Sadat continued to back the Camp David process.
Throughout his life, one of the supreme virtues for Sadat was loyalty. It was demonstrated in his earlier friendship with Nasser. One of the meaningful examples was his courageous offer of hospitality to the dying Shah of Iran. He felt he owed a debt to the Shah because the Shah had supplied emergency oil to Egypt in an oil crisis after the October War. In 1980, an ailing Shah was given brief sanctuary by the governments of Mexico, the United States and Panama. Despite the fact that Sadat would be dangerously exposed to the fury of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Muslim fundamentalists, he never hesitated in urging the Shah to live out his life in Egypt. After offering refuge to the dying Shah, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, asked him why he was risking certain vilification from fellow Arabs. Sadat replied: “I don’t understand you. He was my friend. Of course, I will give him sanctuary.”
Following the assassination at the hands of a radical faction of Islamic fundamentalists called Al Taqfir wal Hijra, the extremist Arab camp greeted the news with macabre jubilation. In war-torn Beirut, left wing Lebanese militiamen and Palestinian guerrillas paraded and celebrated in the streets. In Palestine, PLO officials called Sadat’s slaying an “execution” with PLO security chief Salah Khalaf boasting that he would “shake the hand of him who pulled the trigger.” In Damascus, the government newspaper Tichrin headlined “Traitor Falls, Egypt Remains.” and in Libya, Col. Muammar Kaddafi joined in the chorus.
Throughout the long process of pursuing peace, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, himself viewed as a grizzled hardliner, became close. Close enough to exchange personal notes about family events such as the birth of a grandson or Jihan Sadat receiving her master’s degree. They addressed extremely difficult political issues, shared moments of humor and developed an enormous measure of mutual respect, one for the other. In 1978 Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin would both be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In Jerusalem, Begin’s sorrow at Sadat’s death “went beyond matters of state” said an Israeli policymaker. “Begin mourned the death personally.” When official word of the assassination reached Jerusalem, Begin immediately instructed his staff to organize a trip to Cairo to attend Sadat’s funeral on Saturday. The decision was more complicated than it seemed. As a religious Jew, Begin could neither fly nor ride on the Jewish Sabbath. Thus he was forced to fly to Cairo a day early and spend the night, multiplying the security risks. He wanted to demonstrate his respect, both for Sadat and for his successor.
In Washington, the decision was made that President Ronald Reagan would not attend the funeral because of the security risks and neither would George Bush. Instead, the blue chip delegation of former Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter was a safer security risk than a sitting President or Vice President.
Anwar Sadat was buried in a muted ceremony under tight security. New President Hosni Mubarak led the funeral procession, taking the hand of Sadat’s son, Gamal.
Sadat’s body would be entombed under a black marble tombstone inscribed with the simple epitaph: “President Mohammed Anwar Sadat, hero of war and peace. He lived for peace and he was martyred for his principles.”
It has been 36 years since the Camp David Accords and 33 years since a courageous leader would be cut down for his role in bringing peace between his country and the State of Israel.
I’ve often wondered how many lives have been spared and how much hell averted in the 36 years following this historic step.
If the accumulation of evil is what condemns us, making the consequences of our actions inescapable, would not the biblical injunction to turn from evil and do good-from injustice to justice, bear a measure of redemptive fruit?
Or as Sadat expressed: “changing the very fabric of our thought to change reality and bring about progress.”
Please read Part I of Tears of the Sphinx here.
Ralph Buntyn is executive vice president and associate editor of United Israel World Union. A historian and researcher, his many articles and essays have appeared in various media outlets.