Sadat Becomes the First Arab Leader to Visit Israel

All efforts to resolve the conflict between Israel and Arab states had foundered on Arab refusal of face-to-face negotiations until Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat decided that a dramatic gesture of reconciliation was necessary. Sadat’s visit set the stage for future negotiations between the two nations.

Summary of Event

The Arab states had opposed the creation of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948. They continued to accuse Zionist Israel of having seized Palestinian Arab land and of being an instrument of the West in the oil-rich Middle East. The Arab-Israeli wars of 1948, 1956, and 1967 had increased the fear and hatred on both sides and inflicted particularly heavy human and material damage on Egypt. The Arab peoples had experienced severe humiliation at the hands of Israel in the 1967 war, also known as the Six-Day War, Six-Day War (1967)[Six Day War] which resulted in the occupation of Egypt’s Sinai, Syria’s Golan Heights, and that part of the original Palestinian mandate still occupied by Arabs, the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and Gaza. Arab-Israeli relations[Arab Israeli relations]
Israeli-Arab relations[Israeli Arab relations]
[kw]Sadat Becomes the First Arab Leader to Visit Israel (Nov. 19-21, 1977)
[kw]First Arab Leader to Visit Israel, Sadat Becomes the (Nov. 19-21, 1977)
[kw]Arab Leader to Visit Israel, Sadat Becomes the First (Nov. 19-21, 1977)
[kw]Leader to Visit Israel, Sadat Becomes the First Arab (Nov. 19-21, 1977)
[kw]Israel, Sadat Becomes the First Arab Leader to Visit (Nov. 19-21, 1977)
Arab-Israeli relations[Arab Israeli relations]
Israeli-Arab relations[Israeli Arab relations]
[g]Middle East;Nov. 19-21, 1977: Sadat Becomes the First Arab Leader to Visit Israel[03000]
[g]Israel;Nov. 19-21, 1977: Sadat Becomes the First Arab Leader to Visit Israel[03000]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Nov. 19-21, 1977: Sadat Becomes the First Arab Leader to Visit Israel[03000]
Sadat, Anwar el-
Begin, Menachem
Carter, Jimmy
[p]Carter, Jimmy;Middle East diplomacy
Fahmy, Ismail
Dayan, Moshe
Vance, Cyrus
Brzezinski, Zbigniew
Weizman, Ezer

Hatred between Arabs and Jews was intensified by ignorance and prejudice and inflamed by propaganda. The 3 million Israelis of widely different cultural backgrounds felt isolated in a sea of 100 million hostile Arabs. The common, officially encouraged view of Arabs was that they were all backward, unreliable, and determined to push Israel into the sea. The Arab view of Israelis was equally stereotypical: All Israelis were arrogant, money-grubbing, and expansionist. Egyptians were forbidden to learn Hebrew or to listen to Radio Israel, and the mention of the word “Israel” was banned. Arab leaders vied with one another in exploiting the Palestinian issue to win popularity. It was in this environment that Anwar el-Sadat became president of Egypt in 1970, following the unexpected death of the principal Arab nationalist leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser, Gamal Abdel

Sadat had existed in Nasser’s shadow since the 1952 revolution, in which they both played a major part. Shortly after his accession to power, Sadat demonstrated that, unlike Nasser, he would place Egypt’s interests first and that his strategic goals were peace with Israel and reliance on the United States rather than the Soviet Union. Tactically, Sadat favored dramatic actions that sometimes seemed impulsive and exaggerated but invariably were aimed at achieving his strategic goals. As early as February, 1971, he had announced a peace initiative, at the end of which Egypt would sign a peace agreement with Israel. Neither the initiative nor Sadat was taken seriously at the time.

Following the 1973 war, three military disengagement agreements between Israel and the Arabs had been brokered by American secretary of state Henry Kissinger, Kissinger, Henry but no progress toward peace had taken place since September, 1975. Newly elected President Jimmy Carter and his secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, had made the convening of an international conference to negotiate a comprehensive Middle East peace a top priority. Their best efforts had, however, proven unsuccessful by the fall of 1977. They were unable to obtain agreement of all parties, particularly Israel, Syria, and the Palestine Liberation Organization Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), on such basic issues as who would represent the Palestinians.

Sadat, who had disdain for most other Arab leaders and sometimes said so publicly, became increasingly impatient with the process. He did not, in any event, wish to lose his freedom of action by going to a large conference. He was also disturbed by American actions that provided for a Soviet role and that indicated that Carter was not confident about his ability to influence Israel. Carter’s handwritten letter of October 21, 1977, urging Sadat to take some action to break the deadlock seems to have confirmed all these misgivings.

Sadat, in keeping with his love of the dramatic, announced on November 9, 1977, to a stunned audience of the People’s Assembly that he was willing for the sake of peace to go to Jerusalem and speak in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. At first, the announcement was not taken seriously. President Carter was surprised by it, as was PLO leader Yasir Arafat, Arafat, Yasir who had been in the audience. After initial hesitation, the Israelis responded. Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s official invitation arrived via the American ambassador on November 15, and Sadat accepted it over the vigorous objections of his foreign minister, Ismail Fahmy, the only person with whom he had discussed it in advance. The visit immediately became the biggest international media event of the year.

Sadat and his entourage, minus Fahmy, who had resigned in protest, arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport on a civilian Egyptian airliner at 8:30 p.m. on November 19. The Boeing 727 was escorted into Jerusalem by four Israeli Kfir jet fighters. Israeli snipers manned the rooftops. Such precautions were necessary because many Israelis feared that the visit was part of a grand deception. Sadat stepped from the plane and received the ceremonial courtesies due a chief of state. He greeted the former Irgun “terrorist” leader Menachem Begin, the eye-patched Moshe Dayan, and the dreaded Golda Meir, Meir, Golda for whom he had a kiss on the cheek. The arrival was a gesture of human reconciliation unparalleled in history.

Anwar el-Sadat (standing) shakes hands with Menachem Begin after addressing the Israeli parliament, Knesset, in Tel Aviv on November 20, 1977.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The delegation proceeded to the famous King David Hotel in Jerusalem to spend the night. Sadat was up early to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third most sacred in Islam, on the occasion of the Feast of the Sacrifice, one of Islam’s major holidays. At 11:00 a.m., he paid his respects to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust by visiting the Yad Vashem memorial. Sadat and Begin met for a small working lunch at noon, after which Sadat retired to prepare for his speech before the Knesset at 4:00 p.m. Meanwhile, excitement and jubilation reigned in Jerusalem. Hawkers sold out of hastily produced “All you need is Love” T-shirts that portrayed smiling images of Begin and Sadat with a big red heart, Israeli and Egyptian flags, and other souvenirs.

Sadat’s entrance into the Knesset was dramatic. He spoke in Arabic and told his audience of his regret over any life lost in war, Arab or Israeli. He went on to reiterate Egypt’s requirements for peace: total Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Begin’s reply was shorter, an uninspired reiteration of Israeli positions, as was that of opposition leader Shimon Peres. Peres, Shimon The world was left to wonder whether anything had really changed.

At the state dinner on November 20, Sadat was glum, apparently because his hope that Israel would respond to his presence with an equally dramatic move had not been realized. The next morning, he requested a private meeting with Ezer Weizman, the Israeli defense minister with whom he had developed a personal rapport. Following a meeting with Knesset and party leaders and a joint news conference with Begin, Sadat returned to Cairo. He was greeted by millions of joyous Cairenes and again demonstrated his physical courage by rejecting a bulletproof car in favor of a convertible for the ride from the airport to his residence on the Nile.


Sadat was widely denounced in the Arab world as a traitor for having broken Arab solidarity and for meeting with the Zionist enemy. In Egypt, however, there was widespread support. Egyptians hoped that peace would result from the trip and bring prosperity. Average Egyptians talked disdainfully about “the Arabs” (as opposed to Egyptians) who had done nothing in the wars against Israel and grown rich from oil while Egypt had suffered more than 100,000 casualties. It was time, they said, for Egypt to look after its own well-being free from the threat of war.

Most of the three million Israelis were exhilarated by Sadat’s visit and the prospects it held for peace with the major Arab state and an end to decades of isolation. The possibility of visiting Egypt, with its special place in Jewish history, was especially enticing. Only officials and journalists were permitted at first, and they were surprised to find that most Egyptians reacted to them with indifference. Israeli enthusiasm was dampened too by the realization that Israel still faced formidable enemies in Syria and Iraq. Israelis continued to suspect Arabs’, including Sadat’s, true intentions.

The most significant political consequences of Sadat’s trip were the Camp David Accords Camp David Peace Accords (1978) of September 17, 1978, and the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty of March 26, 1979. Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty (1979)[Israel Egypt Peace Treaty] Although these historic agreements flowed from Sadat’s initiative, neither would have been possible without the active intervention of the United States and President Carter personally. For the world at large, the removal of Egypt from the military confrontation virtually eliminated the risk of another major Arab-Israeli war and a superpower conflict in the Middle East. These alone were enormous achievements.

The agreements did not, however, have the positive impact on people’s lives that Sadat had envisaged. Both Israelis and Egyptians benefited from substantial increases in foreign aid, and Egypt removed its economic boycott of Israel. Israelis were free to travel to Egypt, and by 1985, thirty thousand a year were doing so. Visiting Israel continued to have little attraction for Egyptians. In Israel, the peace movement grew in strength, but not sufficiently to counter the ruling right-wing Likud. The great disappointment for those who sought peace in both countries was that Sadat’s initiative had not led to a comprehensive regional peace.

Sadat’s detractors claimed that an international conference and comprehensive peace were near attainment when his impulsive act scuttled them. The evidence to support this claim, however, is unconvincing, since the parties had not even agreed on the modalities for a conference, let alone substantive issues. Begin was criticized for failing to respond to Sadat’s initiative in a commensurate manner and losing the opportunity for greater peace. Begin shunned grand gestures, and he negotiated every word to obtain maximum benefit. He also adamantly refused to accede to two of Sadat’s key demands that might have won some Arab support: linkage between the bilateral peace treaty and the framework agreement for the occupied territories, and a moratorium on settlements in the occupied territories. Begin did, however, overcome his deep suspicion and strongly held convictions, and he agreed to a total withdrawal from the Sinai, including the unprecedented dismantling of settlements and giving up of air bases and oil supplies.

In the West, particularly in the United States, Sadat’s trip and the subsequent agreements were seen as great foreign policy accomplishments even though a comprehensive peace remained elusive. Sadat had from the beginning exaggerated Egypt’s ability to lead the other Arabs in such a dramatically different direction. He had also overestimated Carter’s ability to influence Israel in opposition to the powerful American Jewish community and Israel’s supporters in Congress. Thus, the trip to Jerusalem became a necessary gamble. Here too, Sadat had miscalculated how Israelis, after centuries of persecution, genocide, and wars, would respond. Consequently, his unprecedented act of peaceful reconciliation failed to achieve the comprehensive peace that had been his original goal.

His visit did, however, bring peace between Egypt and Israel, and, though a “separate peace,” it guaranteed that other Arab countries without Egyptian military support would never again mount an effective military campaign against Israel. Rather, one by one, various Arab countries, like Egypt, sought separate means of peace or modus vivendi in subsequent years. Arab-Israeli relations[Arab Israeli relations]
Israeli-Arab relations[Israeli Arab relations]

Further Reading

  • Brzezinski, Zbigniew. Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser, 1977-1981. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983. Several chapters contain views from Washington of Sadat’s initiative and the negotiating process. Extensive critique of key players and the importance of domestic political pressures on Carter. Index and interesting annex containing weekly memos to the president.
  • Carter, Jimmy. The Blood of Abraham. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985. Carter’s personal reflections on the Middle East and the role he played in its recent history. Highly critical of Israeli actions since the Camp David Accords of 1978. Includes appendixes, historic chronology, maps, and index.
  • _______. Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President. New York: Bantam Books, 1982. President Carter’s firsthand account of the events surrounding Sadat’s trip. Highly favorable to the American role. An essential source. Includes chronology and index.
  • Dayan, Moshe. Breakthrough. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981. Personal account by Israel’s foreign minister of Sadat’s visit and subsequent negotiations. Discusses the role of the American Jewish community. Somewhat critical of Americans. Gives reasons for Dayan’s resignation in 1979. Contains index and many key documents with maps.
  • Fahmy, Ismail. Negotiating for Peace in the Middle East. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983. Relates the Egyptian foreign minister’s relationship with Sadat and the other key players leading up to the trip to Jerusalem. Contains a scathing attack on Sadat to justify the author’s resignation. Essential reading to understand why Arabs objected to the trip. Includes chronology and index.
  • Finklestone, Joe. Anwar Sadat: Visionary Who Dared. New York: Routledge, 1996. A compassionate and highly favorable biography of the Egyptian president.
  • Hasan, Sana. Enemy in the Promised Land: An Egyptian Woman’s Journey into Israel. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. A highly personal account by an upper-class Egyptian who preceded Sadat by four years in visiting Israel. Incisive insights into the reasons for Arab-Israeli hatred and fears. No index.
  • Quandt, William B. Camp David: Peacemaking and Politics. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1986. The most comprehensive and scholarly analysis of Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem and the subsequent agreements. It also emphasizes the importance of American domestic politics. Based on all available sources, including previously classified documents. Contains a bibliography, index, chronology, and texts of key documents.
  • Sadat, Anwar el-. In Search of Identity: An Autobiography. New York: Harper & Row, 1981. Contains Sadat’s explanation of how and why he decided to go to Jerusalem. This is a highly subjective treatment, and the facts do not always mesh with other accounts. Contains index and texts of some key documents relating to the 1973 war.
  • Weizman, Ezer. The Battle for Peace. New York: Bantam Books, 1981. The subjective and fascinating account of the only Israeli leader who established close personal rapport with Sadat. Very frank in discussing Israeli personalities and the reasons for Weizman’s resignation in 1980. Includes index and maps.

Yom Kippur War

Camp David Accords

Sadat and Begin Receive the Nobel Peace Prize

Palestinian Intifada Begins

Rabin Is Assassinated