Marking 40 years since Anwar Sadat’s landmark visit to Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday he had yet to meet the Palestinian equivalent of the Egyptian leader who went on to sign a peace deal with the Jewish state in 1979.
“It is with sadness that I say, I have not yet met the Palestinian Sadat, who will declare his desire to end the conflict, who will recognize the State of Israel in any borders and our right to security and peace,” said Netanyahu.
“Our Palestinian neighbors refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist,” the prime minister added, speaking during a special plenary session held in honor of the anniversary of the historic visit.
Rebuking the prime minister, opposition leader Isaac Herzog said Israel lacks the equivalent of then-prime minister Menachem Begin, the Likud leader who clinched the accord with Cairo.
“We don’t only need a Palestinian Sadat, we also need an Israeli Begin,” said Herzog. “I already said two weeks ago in the plenum, if you were in the place of Menachem Begin, I doubt you would show the same bravery Menachem Begin displayed at the time.”
On November 20, 1977, Sadat made history as the first Arab leader to visit Israel and address the Knesset with a call for peace. Sadat’s visit helped pave the way for Israeli-Egyptian talks at Camp David a year later, and a full peace agreement between the two former archenemies in 1979, just six years after the painful Yom Kippur War.
Netanyahu met with Egyptian Ambassador to Israel Hazem Khairat earlier in the day.
Also on Tuesday, Khairat urged Israeli leaders to seize a “real opportunity” to normalize ties with neighboring Arab states by pursuing a peace deal with the Palestinians based on the Arab Peace Initiative.
That framework, backed by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, is an extension of the peace initiative started by Sadat 40 years ago, Khairat said at a Knesset event attended by Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein.
“I say to the Israeli side, there is a real opportunity to open a new page with the Arab neighbors, based on coexistence and mutual understanding for a better future leading to peace,” he added, speaking in Arabic.
Addressing the event ahead of Khairat, Hotovely hailed the “courageous” pact between then-prime minister Begin and Sadat.
But Hotovely argued that while there was always “an Israeli Menachem Begin” gunning for peace, having a “Palestinian Anwar Sadat” would not be sufficient to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which she maintained was not a territorial dispute but an “existential” one.
“There are more than 200 territorial disputes in the world, but the conflict between us and the Palestinians is not one of them,” said Hotovely. Even when Israeli leaders presented offers to relinquish territory for peace, Palestinian leaders were unwilling to give up on a right of return for refugees and recognize Israeli rights to the country, she added.
Hotovely further argued that the peace deal with Egypt had not been imposed by the United States, signaling that a future deal with the Palestinians should similarly not be forced on Israel.
She spoke as the Trump administration was expected to announce a bid to kickstart peace talks. The White House has stressed that it will not impose a deal on either sides.
Turning back to the Sadat visit, which took place a year before she was born, Hotovely hailed the “brave choices” by the two leaders.
“I was born into peace,” she said. “This peace is proof, in my view, that the State of Israel desires peace.”
Agencies and Dov Lieber contributed to this report.