Monday, November 19, 2007

Anwar Saadat in Israel - 30 Years Later

Anwar Sadat's truly historic visit to Israel began thirty years ago today. For all of us old enough to remember it, it was a truly awesome event, unforgettable down to small details.

Context: by 1977 Israel had fought four full wars with Egypt. In 1948 Egyptian forces whose mission was to destroy Israel were stopped some 30 miles south of Tev Aviv, while others reached as far north as the southern suburbs of Jerusalem. The explicit goal of eradicating Israel led to the next two wars, in 1956 and 1967. After the resounding Israeli victory in the Six Day War in 1967, the Egyptians couldn't credibly plan to destroy Israel, but the war they launched in October 1973 was more devastating for Israel, in many ways, than any of the previous ones. It was launched by Anwar Sadat - the same man. Some 2,500 Israelis died in that war - more than in any other campaign between 1949 and today.

In 1977 I was an instructor in the Armour Academy; previously, I had served in an armoured brigade in Sinai, facing the Egyptians. Our training was all geared against the Egyptian enemy; anyone more than two years older than us, meaning all our officers when I was in training, had fought against them. November 19th 1977, if I remember correctly, was a Saturday. On the previous Wednesday, when I announced to the soldiers we were training, who had no access to the media, that by the end of the week the Egyptian president would be in Israel, they gave an incredulous shout of astonishment.

That Saturday evening we suspended whatever had been planned and crowded around (black and white) TV sets. What followed were two days of unbelievable events: An Egyptian airliner on the tarmac; the Egyptian President appearing in the opening, then descending the steps, then shaking hands with our entire leadership; the next day, the President of Egypt standing in the Knesset, talking, in Arabic, about peace, and his immortal sentence in English, which I can still recite today with his accent and inflections: "No more war. No more bloodshed".

Gideon Levy, with whom I rarely agree, writes about the same events here, in similar terms. It's a fine description, until near the end he implies that the wars were the result of brainwashing. This is a fallacy easy to fall into: that once warring sides have made peace, they gain a new perspective on their wars, which seem foolish and unnecessary. I have no doubt that this can happen, but it doesn't have to. Sometimes, no matter how much perspective one gains, and even with all the possible hindsight, past wars steadfastly remain justified.

Present and future ones too, potentially.

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