The sequence of events leading to Israel’s landmark peace agreement with Egypt is, today, fairly well known: On November 19, 1977, then-Egyptian president Anwar Sadat visited Jerusalem and spoke in the Knesset; less than a year later, then-prime minister Menachem Begin met with Sadat at Camp David in the United States; and in 1979, Begin and Sadat met again on the White House lawn to sign the deal.
But on the morning of November 22, 1977, the IDF’s top generals were thoroughly flummoxed by the meaning of Sadat’s visit, picking apart the nuances of the words he used — and didn’t use — in his speech to the Knesset in an attempt to divine whether it was a true olive branch or an elaborate ruse ahead of a war.
The extent of the generals’ confusion can be clearly seen in previously top-secret transcripts of that November 22 meeting that were released for publication — with a few redactions — by the Defense Ministry archive on Sunday.
In the meeting, Mota Gur, the IDF chief of staff at the time, said the opinion shared with him by the political echelon following the speeches in the Knesset by Sadat and Begin was not one of optimism.
“What was the instruction that the chief of staff received from the Defense Ministry, from the members of the security cabinet, from many members of the Knesset? Get the emergency warehouse units ready for war,” Gur said, speaking of himself in the third person.
In their meeting, the generals debated the meaning of Sadat’s speech, if it had one at all.
The head of the IDF’s Southern Command at the time, Maj. Gen. Herzl Shafir, expressed that uncertainty best, asking his fellow General Staff members, “What was [his speech] really trying to achieve? Can we even know?”
They wondered: What could be understood from the fact that the Palestinian issue was only discussed briefly in the speech? And why did Sadat say the Palestinians were entitled to “legitimate rights” instead of “basic or fundamental rights?” And what did the Egyptians think of all this?
Some of their questions had fairly straightforward answers.
For example, the generals determined that Sadat’s comments could be seen as de facto recognition of the State of Israel, even though he never used the term “State of Israel.”
“He wasn’t talking about Israel, who came of Jacob or anyone like that, but rather Israel, with the international understanding [of the name],” Shafir quipped, referring to the biblical story of the patriarch who earned the name Israel.
The top brass also argued whether Sadat was truly calling for a peace agreement, since his five requirements for an agreement did not include the term “peace” (though he did use the word 82 times throughout his speech).
But in general, the military officers found few answers, and those they did find were often contradictory.
On one hand, the Egyptian people were found to have appreciated the warm reception Sadat received in Israel. On the other, they were apparently seething at Begin’s speech.
“[The prime minister’s] speech was tough, without any concessions, not on the withdrawal [to 1967 lines], not on the Palestinian issue. And regarding the large step made by Sadat [in coming to Israel], there was no complementary Israeli offer,” said Maj. Gen. Shlomo Gazit, then the head of IDF Military Intelligence.
Shafir, who doubted the generals’ ability to suss out meaning from the speeches, noted that there was no immediate cause for alarm, as the military situation along the Egyptian border was “quiet” and, based on intercepts of Egyptian communications, the atmosphere on the other side seemed “optimistic.”
Nevertheless, the general said he “couldn’t escape the feeling” from Sadat’s remarks that “there were some hints about the next war.”
Maj. Gen. Avigdor Ben-Gal shrugged off any attempt to find meaning in the speeches.
“In my opinion, there was a dialogue of the deaf in the Knesset. Each speech was a traditional one, and at the end of the day neither side showed flexibility. The sole move that until now has shown flexibility wasn’t a speech, but in the fact that the president of Egypt arrived in Israel and spoke before the Knesset,” Ben-Gal told his fellow generals.
Though Gazit, the chief intelligence officer, spent an extended period of time explaining the different implications of Sadat’s speech, he generally seemed to agree with Ben-Gal’s opinion that the speech’s content took a backseat to the fact that it had taken place.
“The most important aspect of the visit was its very existence,” Gazit said. “I have no doubt that this visit was a test, the breakthrough on how to accept and treat Israel in the future.”
He told the other generals that in his view the point of Sadat’s trip was to show that he was serious about an agreement, “first, to Israel and the internal Israeli public. Second, to the West’s public, the world’s public. Three — and here it really was, I have to say, courageous on the part of Sadat — the Arab world’s public.”
Ultimately, those generals seeing the visit as monumental were correct: It heralded the coming of a peace agreement that remains strong nearly 40 years later, though still fairly despised by most Egyptian citizens, who hold overwhelmingly negative views of Israel.
However, the view that it was a landmark in larger Israeli-Arab peace accords seems incorrect, as not only was Sadat the first Arab leader to appear before the Knesset; over 40 years later, he is still the only one.