By Khaled Diab
1 March 2010
Nearly three decades after his death, the former Egyptian president, Anwar el-Sadat, remains a controversial figure. In Israel and many parts of the West, he is best remembered for his daring trip to Jerusalem, where he became the first and only Arab leader to address the Israeli Knesset, and his deadlock-breaking peace accord with Israel.
But the rosy image of Sadat as world statesman, visionary and peacemaker overlook his questionable domestic human rights record, his dictatorial bent, his disastrous economic policy, the insipid corruption of his regime and his aloofness and arrogance towards other Arab countries.
In Egypt and the Arab world, he is celebrated for the victories he scored in the early parts of the 1973 war, the first time an Arab power had shown the titan of Israel's military might to be vulnerable and so soon after the crushing defeat in 1967.
However, Sadat's subsequent peace deal with Israel was far more controversial. Although many Arab leaders privately accepted that peace with Israel was necessary and inevitable – including Sadat's predecessor Gamal Abdel-Nasser who conducted promising secret peace contacts with then Israeli Prime Minister Moshe Sharett – none at the time were bold enough to say it publicly. Rather than working with Sadat to create a unified Arab position to negotiations, they turned on him instead.
In Egypt, opinion was and remains divided, with many viewing the Camp David Accords as a betrayal. However, most Egyptians, tired of what is widely viewed as the Arab desire to defend the Palestinian cause to “the very last Egyptian”, grudgingly accept the benefits of a cold peace.
Today, with a general Arab consensus on the need for a settlement with Israel, as embodied in the Saudi peace plan, criticism of Sadat has become more muted and nuanced: his vision is accepted, though his unilateral tactics are still widely questioned.
Now, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict looking as dire and insoluble as ever, what lessons can be learnt from the Sadat experiment?
One important lesson is the importance of symbolism and gesture politics in helping prospective peacemakers scale the walls of paranoia and distrust that separate Israelis and Arabs.
On both sides, many will say that the obstacles to peace – an ultranationalist, right-wing government in Israel, the rise of ultra-conservative Hamas in Gaza, the deadly Israeli siege of the Strip and the disarray and infighting among the Palestinian factions – are insurmountable. But things didn't look particularly rosy back in the mid-1970s either, when war seemed to be the only show in town.
Then, as now, Israel was led by an ideologically rigid right-wing prime minister who, though he talked of the need for peace, was reluctant to negotiate with the Arabs or give up an inch of the dream of creating Eretz Yisrael. By going to Jerusalem and appealing to the Israeli people directly, Sadat forced Menachem Begin's hand with a deft masterstroke.
Today's Arab leaders could do well to learn that, faced with a powerful opponent who nevertheless fears them, a standoffish offer of peace, no matter how attractive, means little when it comes from a great distance. It needs to be delivered in person wrapped in olive branches.
In fact, the need for direct contact and negotiations between politicians from Israel and the frontline Arab states, not to mention the Arab and Israeli peoples, is greater than ever, given the level of mutual dehumanisation and distrust. That does not mean that economic and political ties should be immediately normalised – that will be one of the fruits of eventual peace – but there should be a broad and sincere dialogue and cultural exchange between those on both sides who wish to build enduring peace.
Israel could also draw similar lessons about the value of direct contact. Separated as they are behind physical and ideological walls, ordinary Israelis have negligible contact with their Palestinian neighbours, the people they most need to understand and coexist with. Israel needs to learn the language of its neighbourhood and start dealing with the Palestinians and Arabs in a way that will win them over – a good start would be to end its destructive and counterproductive blockade of Gaza.
In addition, both Israelis and Palestinians need to learn that violence has failed to resolve the conflict and will continue to do so. Israel needs to learn that its gung-ho “deterrent policy” deters little but the prospect for peace, while the Palestinian factions who advocate and employ violence need to realise that it achieves little beyond provoking the wrath of their powerful neighbour. Both sides would do well to learn from the tactics employed by their non-violent peace movements.
In the end, pragmatism is the only solution. As Sadat said in a 1978 speech in Cairo: “Peace is much more precious than a piece of land… let there be no more wars.”
It's high time for Arabs to overcome their reticence to talk directly with Israel and for Israel to overcome its reluctance to negotiate a simultaneous settlement on all fronts. What we need, but are unlikely to get, is a comprehensive settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
This article was written for the Common Ground News Service on 25 February 2010.