Tuesday was a very rare day for the Israeli Knesset: a day of discussion about peace, characterized by agreement.
Admittedly, the benefit of four decades’ distance from the event being discussed made it easy for politicians to unite in enthusiasm for peace. The day was all about the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, as this week was the 40th anniversary of Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem, which paved the way for the peace agreement.
In November 1977, the then-Egyptian president became the first Arab leader to visit the State of Israel, and spoke in the Knesset in a move that prepared the Israeli public for the final peace deal, which was reached in 1979.
“Dozens of foreign heads of state visited the Knesset both before and since Sadat’s visit,” said Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein during Tuesday’s events. “Every visit has its memorable moments, but what happened here 40 years ago was extraordinary.”
The anniversary came at a relatively stable time in Israel-Egypt ties. Between 2011 and 2013 the relationship was problematic, as a Muslim Brotherhood politician, Mohamed Morsi, was the country’s president. Israel has a solid relationship with the current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, even if his growing dialogue with Hamas and recent opening of the Rafah crossing to Gaza concern some in the Israeli establishment.
On Tuesday, even the famously hawkish Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, who used the platform to reiterate her well-known opposition to a two-state-solution deal with the Palestinians, lauded “brave choices” that led to the Israel-Egypt treaty.
Would Likud’s Hotovely and her allies have regarded the choices as “brave” now, or would they have fought them with the same zeal that they fight concessions to the Palestinians?
Let’s remember exactly who it was who entered the Knesset 40 years ago.
Just four years earlier Sadat had been leading Israel’s enemies against the Jewish state in the Yom Kippur War. And it’s not as if Sadat was all sweetness and light when he spoke in the Knesset.
“If you have found the legal and moral justification to set up a national home on a land that did not all belong to you,” he said in a bitter snipe at the lawmakers he was addressing, “it is incumbent upon you to show understanding of the insistence of the people of Palestine on establishing, once again, a state on their land.” In one swoop he lashed out at Israel’s establishment and twisted the history of the region by saying that the Palestinians should have a state “once again,” implying that they had a state in the past, which they didn’t.
As well as this, let’s remember that the peace deal involved pulling Israelis out of their homes in Sinai. How did Hotovely square praising the Israel-Egypt peace while rejecting efforts with the Palestinians? By focusing on the Palestinian demand for a “right of return” to Israel, a demand that was never relevant for the Egyptians to make.
This allowed her to judge resolution ideas for two conflicts by different standards. Hotovely is normally far more fired up on the issue of not withdrawing from settlements than on the “right of return,” and it is a fair guess that if the Sinai withdrawal were today, she would be up in arms. But she quashed parallels between the Egyptian and the Palestinian cases by insisting that Israel and Egypt had a territorial dispute while Israel and the Palestinians don’t — they have an “existential” conflict instead.
And so, listeners were distracted by the fact that she was embracing one settlement evacuation while rejecting all others.
The fact that Hotovely used these acrobatics on Tuesday points to the complex legacy of Israeli-Egyptian peace. It was a treaty made by a right-wing Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, who didn’t want to see a Palestinian state — but it actually boosted pressure for a Palestinian state, and is today seen as a key source of inspiration for those who want to see an Israeli-Palestinian deal.
Egypt’s ambassador to Israel, Hazem Khairat, told the Knesset that the speech Sadat delivered there “was and will remain a pact for all those who call for peace.” He declared: “After 40 years, this speech should be read over and over again so that we can take from it what we have been unable to implement until now.” Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has said that his country’s peace deal with Israel can serve as precedent for an Israeli-Palestinian deal.
The linking of Israel-Egypt peace with the Palestinian issue is nothing new. Not only did Sadat speak about the Palestinians in the Knesset, but the Camp David Accords, signed during the negotiations, laid down principles on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Accords recognized Palestinian claims, discussed a “self-governing” authority for Palestinians, and stated that “negotiations will take place to determine the final status of the West Bank and Gaza.”
At the end of the Knesset’s commemorative events, one was left wondering what the events for a half-century since Sadat’s visit will look like in 10 years’ time. Will times have changed to make politicians more insistent that the Israel-Egypt peace doesn’t offer a lesson for the Palestinian relationship, or will there perhaps be cause to celebrate 50 years since the start of Egypt’s push to bring Israelis and Palestinians together?
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.