October 7, 1997

I am pleased to be visiting here today and to be giving the first lecture in memory of the late President of Egypt, my friend, Anwar Sadat, as part of the Sadat Chair Program.

I have come here today to pay tribute to the cause of peace and to the brave persons who relentlessly worked so hard in trying to achieve it.

I derive pleasure from the fact that the Sadat Chair will be in the hands of Professor Shibley Telhami, a son of my country, who comes from a Christian-Arab family, from the village of Ussefiya on Mount Carmel, and I wish him success. Professor Telhami's family and my family have had ties since the First World War and I even knew his grandfather, Shibley, after whom Professor Telhami is named. His excellent scholarship and public policy record and his enduring commitment to peace make him especially suited for this important position.

There are greater historians than I who believe that there are large currents in history and that it is just a matter of time until they occur. But originality of leadership is called for on the part of one leader or more to ride these historical waves in order to realize them. Otherwise, this moment of realization may move to a later period. And if it is correct to view history as a flowing river, it will continue to flow.

Twenty years ago, in 1997-78, we found ourselves at a time of three strong and significant leaders, who headed the elements influencing the flow of history in our region. Prime Minister Menachem Begin and President Anwar Sadat, may their souls rest in peace, and President Jimmy Carter. The three of them aspired to reach an agreement. Each of them I do not know this for a fact, but I do have a firm basis for believing so for his own reasons.

With the end of the Yom Kippur War, and particularly in 1975, following the signing of the second Disengagement of Forces Agreement with Egypt, a new era began in the Middle East. It continues to this very day and focuses on the attempts to achieve peace. In this era of aspiration for peace, a number of significant events occurred. The United States has been an active partner in all of them. The main, and most exciting event was 20 years ago, when President Sadat visited Israel in November 1977.

The second most significant event happened in 1993, here in Washington, on the White House lawn. It was the historic handshake of the late Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, with the Chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Yassir Arafat. It took place under the auspices of the President of the United States of America, Bill Clinton.

There are clear lines of similarity between Anwar Sadat's historic act in coming to Jerusalem and Yitzhak Rabin's historic act in shaking Arafat's hand. Both Sadat and Rabin understood that one has to "grab the moment," and to rise above personal feelings, above memories of the past, above the expected opposition at home and perform an act that for them personally was very difficult at the time. They did so out of a correct reading of the situation and with foresight.

These two great leaders, Sadat and Rabin, paid with their lives for their actions. They fell for the sake of peace. Both were gunned down by religious zealots who were afraid of progress and who wanted to turn the Middle East back to the past.

Another significant event that has to be mentioned occurred in 1995, in the Israeli-Jordanian Arava desert, namely the signing of a peace treaty between Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan.

The Oslo Accords and the Peace Treaty with Jordan would never have occurred had it not been for the Peace Treaty with Egypt.

I would like to tell you something about President Sadat. At the many meetings I had with him, I found an unusual man. He spoke about the future with the confidence of someone who could actually see it.  For me, the peace process with Egypt was complex. It was strange to sit with a leader of an enemy country and, after some time, to reach and understanding and a common denominator with him. I had never even imagined that such a thing could happen to me. I learned from him a few things that to us, the Israelis, were unclear. For example, that Egypt was the leader of the Arab world. More than once I heard him say that there will be no war and no peace without Egypt. I also sensed that he felt himself to be an integral part of the people. He intimated to me more than once that he saw Mubarak as his successor, as he wanted what he started to continue after him. From this point of view, he was successful, because President Mubarak, with all the difficulties, continues to favor the peace process and tries to promote it.

In the lengthy talks that we had, I also understood that Egypt's leadership would not be satisfied with a bilateral peace between Israel and Egypt but that the Palestinian issue also had to be resolved. A solution to the Palestinian matter was necessary factor for overall peace with the Arab world. And so indeed it was. Menachem Begin, who, like so many of us, favored a Greater Israel, recognized the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people by adding his signature to the Camp David Accords. In the bonds that were formed between Sadat and myself, and between his wife Jehan and my wife, Reuma we also got to know members of the family, the warmth he gave and the importance he attached to them.

Let me try and explain the background that led to the peace talks between Israel and Egypt. From my many meetings with President Sadat, I came to realize that at the beginning of the seventies he wanted to escape from Soviet influence and replace it with American. There was no great love between the Egyptian regime and the Soviet advisers in Egypt.

It would be an understatement to say that Sadat did not like the Soviet presence in Egypt. He once told me that a year before the Yom Kippur War, he had instructed them to leave Egypt. He asked them to leave within two weeks and they left within ten days...and the whole war (he added with undisguised pride) was waged under Egyptian command.

A second point was Sadat's desire to break the political ice. This was in fact one of his aims when he went to war in 1973. He had no intension of conquering the State of Israel, but he certainly had the intention of inflicting a painful blow on us and this he did. After the Yom Kippur War, he put it into words: "Now I can speak with a clear conscience towards my people."He crossed the Suez Canal and took a foothold on the eastern side. Despite Israel's success in encircling the Third Army, the first Disengagement of Forces Agreement resulted in Egyptian forces remaining east of the Canal and, in the course of time, to its re-opening.

I imagine that, following these achievements, he said to himself: "Now I am ready to talk to the Israelis." and this he did.

To these points should be added, of course, the economic and demographic situation of Egypt, of which Sadat was always aware. He looked for ways to change it from its foundations.

On the other side was Menachem Begin. The year 1977 was the first time since the establishment of the State of Israel that a man of the Right was elected to its leadership. A large part of the public was convinced that if a person such as he were to come to power he would take us back to the cycle of war. I do not examine innermost thoughts, but I guess that, apart from his burning desire for peace and that is the complete truth, Begin also wanted to prove that he, of all people, an out-and- out Right Winger, would be the one to bring peace. And so he agreed to welcome President Sadat in Jerusalem.

Regarding the third leader, President Jimmy Carter, I have more evaluations than facts. First, there is a clear American interest for peace and quiet in the Middle East, both because of the sources of oil and, no less important, because of the Suez Canal. Closure of the Canal doubled and tripled the price of oil. Another factor, which is perhaps of prime importance, is that Carter is a religious man. His desire for peace stemmed from his belief that it was his duty to bring peace to the "Children of Abraham," as he put it. It is a fact that Carter devoted much time, thought and effort to attaining peace in the Middle East.

There is one more thing that I must add. On the internal political level in Israel: the opposition of the Labor Party made a wide common denominator possible. I don't think we could have reached unanimity of one hundred percent, because democracy by its nature divides rather than unites. But in important moments, when historical decisiveness is possible, one has to aspire for a maximum common denominator and that was achieved in 1978.

At the beginning, the meetings between Israel and Egypt were good and moving but already on his historical visit to Jerusalem, Sadat gave a speech that was very difficult for us Israelis to digest. About a month later, we set off for Isma'ilia, Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan and myself, Minister of Defense, as well as our aides and advisors. There we found a President facing a Prime Minister, ministers facing ministers, one group facing the other, and we sat down to cope with the serious problems. It was winter then in Isma'ilia but in the room it was rather hot. We sat in a closed room. The tension rose. Begin started to bring examples of peace treaties from the past. I saw Sadat wipe the perspiration from his forehead with a handkerchief.

I already knew him somewhat by then and I realized that he was tense. Begin continued his lengthy talk, quoting from a book by an expert on international law, when suddenly Sadat clapped his hands. One of the attendants than entered the room. "Iftah ishubak" (Open the window), Sadat commanded. "He's very tense," I whispered to Begin. "So am I," he replied tersely.

The meeting at Isma'ilia ended, one might say, without undue success. But the meetings continued. In the following months, I traveled to Egypt fifteen times. Moshe Dayan did too and he also met with Egyptians in England. There were crises. Moods of disappointment began to sweep through the Israeli public which had put so much hope on the negotiations. And then Carter moved -- it might have been a one-time act that would not be repeatable -- and invited us to Camp David, with the explicit request that no one would leave the place until an agreement was reached. (It must be added that Camp David is not a prison; one has everything there -- a swimming pool, cinema, sport facilities and the conditions are certainly comfortable, all here in the State of Maryland). I imagine that President Carter thought that if he could convene us all together under one roof, eventually white smoke would emerge.

By then it was already clear to us that Sadat was vehemently insisting on the return of the whole of Sinai. The hope that we might be able to retain something (the settlements of Pithat Rafiah, Sharm e Sheikh) was quickly shelved. Both Moshe Dayan and I had been in the military for decades and had fought against Egypt more than once. In 1948 during the War of Independence, I had attacked the Egyptian army's columns between Ashdod and Yavneh, about 30 km from Tel-Aviv. Therefore, a very strong mental effort was needed to come to Camp David with a new perception of the situation, that differed from the one we had developed in the army. In addition, it was clear to us that Sadat's intention was not just a bilateral agreement between Israel and Egypt, but an agreement in which the Palestinian issue would be included. Something should be mentioned here that people tend to forget: the Camp David agreement was a framework agreement for peace between Israel and Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinians. Matters such as the removal of settlements featured in it. Before we set out, Begin summarized at a cabinet meeting the subject of the autonomy that was to be offered to the Palestinians.

After twelve difficult and tense days at Camp David, the agreement was signed. In principle, it determined a return to international borders, a return of the Israeli settlers to Israel (it did not refer to the removal of settlements, but to a return of people), and, of course, diplomatic relations and normalization between the countries.

The agreement set milestones for the autonomy. Everyone understood that the autonomy was supposed to be an interim situation of three to five years, before the final status was to be resolved, including the borders. The autonomy, therefore, did not feature as a permanent solution but as an interim stage before the permanent arrangement. (We were very careful not to use the terrible expression "final solution"). It was decided not to include a number of issues in the document but to send letters about them to the United States. One of the most prominent of these was the issue of Jerusalem. Begin, in his letter, had declared Jerusalem to be "one indivisible city." Sadat did agree that "essential functions in the city should be undivided, and a joint municipal council composed of an equal number of Arab and Israeli members can supervise the carrying out of these functions."

The second issue of importance that was raised in the exchange of letters was the evacuation of the Israeli settlers from Sinai. Begin announced in his letter that evacuation of settlers would be conditional on agreement being reached on all the outstanding matters, namely only as the final subject. He was furious when it was published that he had easily agreed to concede on that matter and re-emphasized that it would be decided only by a Knesset vote and that coalition members of the Knesset would be given freedom to vote as they wished on this matter.

Begin was torn on the mater of the settlements. I have no doubt as to his integrity, when he said in the Knesset debate: "With a heavy and grieving heart, but with a clear conscience, I will recommend [evacuation of the settlements] because this is the way that leads to peace." As he spoke, I could almost hear his heart break.

And then a difficult process began, one of tiring discussions about various sections. Moshe Dayan and I stayed at the Madison Hotel, here in Washington, facing Boutros-Ghali, as the Deputy Foreign Minister and Kamal Hassan Ali, as the Minister of Defense, and after negotiating and arguing, in the end, we again needed Jimmy Carter to close the gaps. On March 26, 1979, on the White House lawn, we signed the first peace agreement between Israel and an Arab country.

There are those who will say that we should have stood firm, not given in, not conceded and not moved. I don't think so. The greatness of leaders is measured in their ability to shake free of slogans, of their standing orders, of opinions that have been left behind, and to understand the historical currents. And that was the greatness of Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin, and Jimmy Carter, as witnessed at Camp David.

In the last fours years since the signing of the Oslo Accords, we have gone a long way with the Palestinians. There have been many obstacles and many difficulties, including very serious attacks against the civilian population in Israel, causing grave damage to the national morale. We are now in a very complex crisis between us and the Palestinian leadership with which we signed an agreement. This crisis is also causing a worsening of relations between us and Egypt and Jordan.

Over the years, we have gone through a difficult and ongoing war in Lebanon, along Israel's northern border. On this issue, I fully believe that, without and agreement with Syria, we will not have peace and quiet in Lebanon, as Syria in a key country in the Middle East.

I permit myself, from this podium, to call upon President Assad and the leaders of other Arab countries, to join the long journey that President Sadat started.

The attacks on the Israeli population are very severe and the two sides are in a crisis of mistrusting each other. But, despite the tribulations, the troubles and the killings that the people of Israel have faced, we must not lose faith. At the same time, we have to ensure that any political solution will contain within it components of security, both general and personal.

It must be recalled that, when one talks about the final status of the Palestinian issue, one is also talking about the permanent status of the state of Israel. And it is worth stating here, both to my people and to the Palestinian people, that we need not receive everything and they will not receive everything. In the final resort, we will find ourselves drawing a map with borders on which will be determined what is ours and what is theirs.

Just as Sadat wanted cooperation between Egypt and Israel, so we too have to attain cooperation between the Palestinians and Israel today. I am certain that the Prime Minister of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, who is committed to the Oslo Accords, will do and is doing his utmost to promote cooperation between us and the Palestinians. The subject of peace is at the top of the national list of priorities for the Prime Minister of Israel and I am sure that he and the Government of Israel will realize the aims of the Government by establishing peace and security with the Palestinians and with all our neighbors.

I prefer a satisfied neighbor, living a peaceful life, to a dissatisfied one. Just as President Carter, with his strength and wisdom, promoted the peace between Egypt and ourselves, and the first buds of a solution of the Palestinian issue, so President Clinton was best man of the Oslo Accords. He promoted and was a partner in the peace treaty with Jordan, and it is clear that the influence and power of the United States of America, on the same lines as twenty years ago, led to the Oslo Accords. I am convinced that the Oslo Accords, which are to no small extent a continuation of the Camp David Accords on the Palestinian issue, will be put into effect.

President Sadat's first, brave step for peace meant that he was unpopular in the Arab world but, with time, the recognition grew amongst some of the Arabs of the merit of joining this path. There are currently four partners in the process Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians and they are so deeply involved in the process that they would really have to be insane to pull out of it. Even though a new misfortune occurs almost daily, everything has to be done to prevent us from being dragged into a war of a religious extremist nature.

I hope that the currents of history are stronger than anything else and that they will overcome the crises and we will succeed in achieving arrangements that will ensure us and our children of a secure and true peace in the Middle East.

It is the duty of all and of all the parties involved to continue believing in peace and to do our utmost to attain peace in our region.

In conclusion, I should like to thank you, sir, the President, the Administration and the Faculty of the University for honoring me today on this auspicious occasion with the honorary Degree of Doctor of the University of Maryland.

And finally to my good lady and friend, Mrs. Jehan Sadat, I want to pay my respects for your tireless efforts to carry on the legacy of your great husband. 

Last modified
06/29/2021 - 12:38 pm