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Events Fail to Live Up to Sadat's Initiative; Israel Quietly Marks '77 Trip

November 19, 1987|DAN FISHER | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — A mid-1970s Israeli Foreign Ministry brochure about the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat asked rhetorically: "Does Sadat Really Want Peace With Israel?"

Fourteen pages later, it concluded: "Examination of Sadat's attitude, as revealed in his statements and in those of his associates, invalidates the view that his leadership offers a prospect of settling the protracted conflict between the Arabs and Israel. . . . It appears that as a leader, he is shackled and imprisoned by a set of chauvinistic and religious concepts from which he is unable to extricate himself."

Ten years ago today, that same Sadat stunned the world with a historic trip to Jerusalem that proved to be the first step toward what is still the only peace treaty between Israel and an Arab nation.

Bold Initiative

His visit was one of the boldest initiatives in the annals of statecraft, and it demonstrated once more the limitations of long-distance political analysis.

Commented Ezer Weizman, the man who was Israeli defense minister at the time: "The feeling that most of us were victims of (was) that, 'Well, he's an Arab. What do you expect? He doesn't think like us.' "

Speaking at a seminar commemorating Sadat's trip earlier this week, Weizman, who is a minister-without-portfolio in the current government, added, "We should have seen that great leadership can also happen in the Arab world."

The seminar, sponsored by the Government Press Office, was part of a relatively low-key anniversary observance that reflects widespread ambivalence here over what is usually termed the "cold peace" between Egypt and Israel that finally evolved from Sadat's visit.

"I wouldn't say it's a big thing," conceded an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman about the commemoration. "But the same goes for Egypt."

Early last week, Cairo's ambassador to Israel, Mohammed Bassiouny, informed the Foreign Ministry that former Egyptian Prime Minister Mustafa Khalil would not be coming, as expected, because of poor health.

It was only at the last minute that, to the surprise of Israeli officials, the Egyptians reversed course and said the visit was still on. Khalil, now chairman of the Arab International Bank and No. 2 man in Egypt's ruling party, arrived for a three-day visit late Monday and met Tuesday with both Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. He was guest of honor at a dinner hosted by Peres on Tuesday night.

A second seminar commemorating Sadat's trip was held Tuesday at Haifa University, and another one, sponsored by the International Center for Peace in the Middle East, was held Wednesday in suburban Tel Aviv.

Still, the Foreign Ministry spokesman said, relative to the importance of the original event, the commemorations are "nothing." Both Peres and Shamir will be out of town on the actual anniversary. Shamir, who voted against the peace treaty in 1979 and says he still objects to some of its provisions, left Tuesday night for a visit to the United States. And Peres left Wednesday on a three-country tour of Western Europe.

Former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who welcomed Sadat to Israel that night of Saturday, Nov. 19, 1977, and who signed the peace with him 18 months later, remains a recluse at his Jerusalem home and has given no indication that he plans to emerge for the anniversary.

By contrast, the mood in the country when Sadat arrived 10 years ago was euphoric. Israelis who were on hand compare it with the exaltation of the founding of the state and the 1967 capture of Jerusalem's Old City with its hallowed Western Wall, which is Judaism's holiest site.

'To the End of the World'

The Egyptian president had announced on Nov. 9, 1977 that he was ready "to go to the end of the world . . . to the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) itself" in search of peace. But, said Knesset member Eliyahu Ben-Elissar, who was chief of staff for Prime Minister Begin at the time of the visit and who later served as Israel's first ambassador to Egypt, no one, "including Sadat's closest advisers," believed him.

It was not until early in the week of Sadat's arrival that Israeli officials really began to take his offer seriously, the legislator said.

And Peres, in a toast Tuesday night, told Khalil that even as the Egyptian delegation walked off the plane 10 years ago, it was like a dream.

"You looked to us like people coming from the moon, from a different planet," he recalled.

How the euphoria and hope of November, 1977 turned to the ambivalence of November, 1987 is a matter of sharp political debate here.

While the peace has grown stronger, relations between the two nations have not, reported Ben-Elissar, a member of Shamir's rightist Likud Bloc. There is no sentiment on either side to return to military confrontation, he explained, but at the same time relations remain formal and "cool," primarily because that's the way Egypt wants them.

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