In Egypt and Israel, disappointment overtakes promise of Sadat's 1977 visit
Cairo — Ten years ago today, Egypt's President Anwar Sadat stepped onto the tarmac of Israel's Tel Aviv airport and into the diplomatic embrace of his nation's arch-nemesis, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The dramatic visit shattered the psychological barriers created by 30 years of war, and paved the way for a formal peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979.
But the fleeting promise of the Sadat visit has devolved into disappointed hopes and mutual charges of bad faith.
In Cairo, today's anniversary is being scrupulously ignored. Many Egyptian officials say it was a mistake to sacrifice Cairo's standing in the Arab world to the vain hope that Israel would restore most of the Arab territory seized during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Many Israelis say the cold peace with Cairo is not worth the price of returning the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt.
Burdened by such feelings of betrayal, relations between Egypt and Israel have atrophied.
Paradoxically, Egypt's isolation from the Arab world is ending even as the anniversary of the Sadat visit is marked. Eighteen Arab League countries and the Palestine Liberation Organization cut ties with Cairo for making peace with Israel. Nine of these Arab states renewed relations within the past week to gain Egypt's help against Iran in the Gulf.
``There's no true daily profound dialogue going on between the governments,'' says one Israeli official, a top aide to Mr. Begin in 1977. ``We're keeping the peace, yes, but relations are as cool as possible.''
In the most general sense, says one Egyptian analyst, the promise of the Sadat visit was undermined by diverging political developments in Egypt and Israel. The rise of nationalistic right-wing politics in Israel and of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt stifled the spirit of the Camp David peace accords.
In turn, these mood changes have been hardened by events such as Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which have brought relations close to the breaking point.
In a more specific sense, the peace between Egypt and Israel has foundered over the failure to resolve the status of the Israeli-occupied territories.
In the euphoria of the Sadat visit Begin promised that ``for the sake of the agreement and the peace that the question of sovereignty [over the West Bank and Gaza] be left open.''
But disagreement over whether the Camp David accords promsed eventual self-government to the territories or merely partial autonomy under Israeli control has never been resolved.
When Begin reopened the West Bank to Jewish settlement after Camp David, Sadat was left vulnerable to charges that he had abandoned the Palestinian cause, note Egyptian sources.
``The land-for-peace formula that worked on the southern [Sinai] front has not worked on the western [West Bank/ Gaza] front,'' notes Ezer Weizman, who was Israel's defense minister during the Sadat visit.
Adds one ranking Egyptian official: ``Relations between Israel and Egypt can be no brighter than prospects for a settlement on the West Bank.''
Many Middle East experts explain the Sadat visit as a direct consequence of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
The conflict, which ground to a stalemate, produced a rough military equilibrium in the region.
At that moment, leaders in both nations' capitals concluded that ``now is the time to try for another way'' to settle differences between Egypt and Israel, according to Mr. Weizman, who later played a major role in the Camp David peace process.
Despite the propitious circumstances, few were prepared for the sudden chain of events that followed Sadat's Nov. 9, 1977 announcement to Egypt's parliament that he would go ``to the end of the world ... to the Knesset [Israeli parliament] itself'' to secure peace.
It was only six days after Begin issued a formal inviation to Sadat that the Egyptian president landed in Tel Aviv.
``It was like landing on the moon,'' says an Egyptian official who accompanied Sadat to Israel. ``It was unreal.''
``For 30 years we were closed in our walls,'' says Weizman. ``Then suddenly one of the great leaders knocks at our door. There was euphoria.''
Although the euphoria has long since dissipated, one senior Egyptian official says the Sadat visit and the Camp David treaties have proved that tensions in the region can be resolved through peaceful means.
``It's a reality today,'' this official says of the peace between Israel and Egypt. ``No one talks about a military solution now.''