November 18, 2016 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 110

Sadat In Jerusalem: A View From Behind The Scenes

November 18, 2016 | By Menahem Milson*
MEMRI Daily Brief No. 110

Today, November 19, 2016, is the 39th anniversary of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's historic Israel visit. The following article is a first-hand account of preparations for this visit. The author, MEMRI academic advisor Prof. Menahem Milson, who is Professor Emeritus of Arabic Literature at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was at the time Advisor on Arab Affairs to the Israeli military government in the West Bank, and was on leave of absence from the university. He was appointed by the government to be Sadat's Israeli aide-de-camp during the visit.

Press conference with Sadat. On left, Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin. The author is behind Sadat on the right.  

On November 19, 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat landed in Israel for his historic two-day visit. In the following lines, I wish to recount an episode that has remained unknown despite the intensive media coverage of that visit - an episode that may shed light on a little-known aspect of the history of Israel's relations with the Palestinians.

I recount this tale not as a researcher relying on archival materials, but as a participant and eyewitness.  Sixteen months before Sadat's visit, I joined the IDF as an advisor on Arab affairs in the West Bank, that is, as the head of the Arab Affairs Department at the area headquarters. From academic work in the field of Arabic literature, I moved in one fell swoop to daily involvement with Palestinian society and politics.

At that time, in the mid-1970s, Palestinian public life was dominated by the October 1974 resolution of the Arab Summit in Rabat, according to which the PLO was the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people everywhere. We at the Department of Arab Affairs in the West Bank were fully aware of the momentous implications of this decision for the Palestinians in the Territories. However, this realization was not shared by many of Israel's decision makers at the time, including some senior officials in the Israeli military government and defense establishment, who apparently failed to understand and internalize its importance and impact. The reason for this failure is unclear. Perhaps it was the natural tendency of self-proclaimed pragmatists to underestimate the importance of programmatic, ideological declarations; alternatively, perhaps it stemmed from the simple fact that so many Arab summit resolutions were never implemented. In any case, these officials failed to take into account a unique quality of this resolution, namely that it confirmed and consolidated the PLO's international standing as the representative of the Palestinians. Unsurprisingly, the PLO fiercely enforced compliance with this resolution, threatening to kill any Palestinian who dared to defy it.

As many will recall, Sadat's announcement that he was willing to visit Israel was met with shock and anger in the Arab world, especially from the PLO. The Arab press in the Territories reflected the PLO's fierce opposition to the Sadat initiative and the threats against any Palestinian who dared cooperate with it. Yet we at the Department of Arab affairs noticed that, despite the impression that the entire Palestinian public in the Territories was unanimously opposed to the Sadat initiative, in reality there were extensive circles who hoped for political change and were willing to welcome his visit.

On Wednesday, November 16, 1977, I was instructed by General Orli, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, on behalf of Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, to invite a number of Palestinian figures from Jerusalem and the West Bank to be in the reception line welcoming Sadat at the Ben Gurion airport. The list I was given included pro-PLO mayors who had been elected about 18 months before. I immediately told General Orli, that all the figures on Dayan's list would refuse the invitation. He impatiently replied, "Dayan knows the Arabs better [than you] and he says they would accept the invitation." I should add here that Dayan was held by his many admirers to possess uncanny insight into the so-called "Arab mind." I did as I was told, and invited these figures - including Nablus mayor Bassam Shak'a, Ramallah mayor Karim Khalaf, and Hebron mayor Fahd Qawasmeh - and, as I had anticipated, they all refused.

I notified the Coordinator, who soon got back to me and said: "The Foreign Minister asks that you prepare a list of people you believe will accept the invitation." As it happened, I had such a list ready. I had anticipated this development and had been prepared for it, because I had gone through a similar experience only a few months earlier, when U.S. secretary of state Cyrus Vance visited Israel and Dayan held a reception in his honor at his residence. On that occasion, too, I was asked to invite a number of people from the West Bank according to a list prepared by Dayan. Then too Dayan asked me to invite the pro-PLO mayors and dismissed my assessment that these figures would refuse. And when they did indeed refuse, I was urgently asked to find alternative candidates who would accept. I did this, and a number of Palestinian personalities attended the reception for Secretary Vance.

So now we invited to Sadat's reception a number of figures who were willing to take a public stand opposed to that of the PLO, and they accepted. There is a detail regarding the preparation of the list that is noteworthy. When Dayan asked me to select Palestinian invitees, he added one restriction: not to include lawyer 'Aziz Shehade from Ramallah, who was one of the prominent public figures in the West Bank, known for his opposition to the PLO and his willingness to negotiate with Israel.[1] Dayan's insistence not to invite him was symptomatic of his aversion to public figures known for their readiness to negotiate peace with Israel. On numerous occasions, he made it publicly known that he regarded Palestinian terrorism and support of terrorism as a "natural response." Hence, in his eyes, those Palestinians who openly demonstrated their rejection of terrorism were not to be taken seriously.

President Sadat's announcement of his readiness to come to Israel engendered turmoil and tension among the Palestinians in the territories. The atmosphere was one of apprehension and uncertainty. On the one hand, here was an unexpected opportunity for peace, heralded by the president of Egypt, which since 1945 had been the main Arab patron of the Palestinian cause. On the other hand, the PLO, which was recognized by all the Arab countries as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, had firmly declared its objection to Sadat's initiative. The Arab media - including the Arabic papers published in Jerusalem - were full of incitement against Sadat, and the PLO directed fierce threats at anyone daring to express support for him in any way. One needed a great deal of personal courage, and extensive backing from one's clan, to deviate from the official PLO line.

The question of which Palestinian figures should be invited to welcome Secretary Vance, or who should be invited to welcome President Sadat may appear to be trivial matters of protocol - and indeed they were. Yet this affair highlighted the substantial difference between two political approaches: that of Dayan - the man who had determined Israel's policy in the territories since the 1967 war - and the very different approach that I believed in and implemented in practice while in office.

It so happened that I had yet another involvement in Sadat's visit. On the same Wednesday, November 16, 1977, a few hours after I received the instruction to prepare a list of Palestinians for Sadat's reception, I received a call from Prime Minister Begin's military secretary, Brig. Gen. Ephraim Poran, who informed me that the government had chosen me to be the military aide-de-camp for the visiting president. Accordingly, I was asked to join the committee coordinating the visit, which was chaired by Poran himself and also included the director-general of the prime minister's office, Eliyahu ben Elissar; the commander of the police southern district, Aryeh Ivtzan; the deputy chief of the Shin Bet (the Security Agency), Avraham Shalom; the head of the foreign office protocol department, Rehavam Amir, and the prime minister's press secretary, Dan Patir.

One of the sensitive problems was how to ensure Sadat's safety during his visit, and during his prayer at the Al-Asqa mosque on Sunday, prior to his speech in the Knesset. That Sunday was 'Id Al-Adha, the most important holiday of the Muslim year. At the meeting of the coordinating committee on Thursday (November 17), Poran informed us that, following the recommendation of the security services and the police, it had been decided to bar all worshippers from the Al-Aqsa compound during Sadat's visit, except for his entourage and bodyguards, the heads of the Muslim Waqf, and a small number of correspondents and TV teams. That was the planned solution for the security problem.

The decision to forbid Muslim worshippers from praying with Sadat struck me as misguided and harmful. But the other committee members did not at first grasp the political implications of this decision, namely, that Sadat would be seen on TV screens across the Arab world praying at the mosque in isolation. Such a scene, of the president praying in an empty mosque, would in itself be a political and media victory for those who called to boycott him. I understood the security considerations behind the decision, of course. But I believed that a different solution should and could be found.

I pointed out to my fellow committee members that one measure of the success of this event would be the coverage in the media, namely, how it would be reported and seen on TV. It was extremely important, I said, that the images of Sadat's prayer at Al-Aqsa, just before his visit to the Knesset, would show him surrounded and applauded by many Palestinian Muslim worshippers. Poran asked jokingly: "So what do you propose, Menahem? Do you think you can train an Israeli infantry unit to pray the Muslim prayer and we will dress them up in kefiyyehs?" "No," I answered, "I am talking about real Arab Muslim worshipers. According to our inquiries in the last few days, there are thousands who would be willing to come and pray behind Sadat and cheer for him." My fellow committee members were persuaded by my argument, but the big question was what the heads of the security apparatuses would say.

Official responsibility for the security arrangements during the visit lay with the police, but in reality, the decision was up to the Shin Bet. Both Ivtzan, representing the police, and Shalom, representing the Shin Bet, said that, in a matter of such sensitivity, the final word would have to come from the heads of these organizations, Police Chief Haim Tavori and Security Agency head Avraham Ahituv.

The decision was postponed until Friday morning. In the meantime, my staff in the Arab Affairs Department and I continued to appraise the public climate, and were assured that, despite the threats and the incitement of the PLO, there were indeed thousands who would come to pray with Sadat if given the chance. On Friday morning, I spoke with Tavori and Ahituv, and they accepted my position and agreed to let Arab worshippers attend the prayer at the Al-Aqsa mosque on Sunday. Ahituv made two conditions. The first was that all worshippers entering the compound would have to undergo a physical search. The second, largely stemming from the first, was that the number of worshippers would be limited to 1,500. I naturally agreed, and happily informed Yigal Carmon (my deputy at the Department for Arab Affairs) that our proposal had been accepted and that we should notify a number of figures in the Hebron and Bethlehem districts that they would be able to come with their men and pray with Sadat.

On Saturday night, when Sadat landed at the airport and approached the reception line, a number of Palestinian figures from the West Bank were waiting to shake his hand, among them the mayor of Bethlehem, Elias Freij; the mayor of Beit Jala, Farah Al-A'raj; Mustafa Dudeen from the Hebron area; two personalities from Nablus; and Sheikh Muhammad Ali Al-Ja'bari, the former mayor of Hebron, who was known for his good relations with the Jordanian king. The next day, when President Sadat and his entourage arrived at the Al-Aqsa mosque, it was full of Muslim worshipers who had arrived early in the morning in busses and trucks from the districts of Bethlehem and Hebron. When he entered the compound, a cheer went up: "Long live the hero of peace, we shall sacrifice our blood and life for you, O Sadat." Sadat's face lit up and his companions smiled in satisfaction. Press and TV photographers captured the moment. The next day, Sadat met with several of the Palestinian figures who had welcomed him at the airport, and with two other very prominent persons: Anwar Al-Khatib, the governor of Jerusalem under Jordan and Hikmat Al-Masri from Nablus who had been the chairman of the Jordanian parliament. Upon his return to Egypt, Sadat declared: "In Jerusalem I met the real Palestinians." This was a sharp barb aimed at Yasser Arafat and other PLO leaders who had called to boycott him, and an expression of support and esteem for the Palestinians who had met him despite all the pressures and threats. 


The principle that guided me in the events recounted above, and in all my work as Advisor on Arab Affairs and later as head of the Civil Administration in the West Bank, was that Israel must encourage and protect those Palestinians who favored coexistence with Israel, be they pro-Jordan or proponents of Palestinian independence. The episodes described above had a happy ending. On these occasions, I was able to help moderate Palestinian leaders come to the fore. However, these were only isolated episodes. The full story of Israel's relations with Palestinian moderates does not have a happy ending. Israel's governments, both left-wing and right-wing, rejected Jordan as a partner for an agreement on the West Bank.[2] Moreover, they treated with impatience and disdain Palestinian elements who courageously took a stand against the PLO. Sadly, efforts to persuade Israel's policy makers that it was right to encourage moderate Palestinian elements were unsuccessful.


[1] Shehade was assassinated on December 2, 1985.

[2] Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan rejected King Hussain's March 1972 Federation initiative, and Begin rejected Reagan's 1982 plan.

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