Forty years after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem in November 1977, the Defense Ministry released the minutes of meetings held by top army officers at the time.
There were sharp differences of opinion among the Israel Defense Forces General Staff over the seriousness of the Egyptian president’s intentions and regarding “the Palestinian problem” that Sadat put on the negotiating table. The minutes from the IDF archives were released on Sunday.
On November 20, 1977, Sadat delivered a speech at the Knesset in which he spoke about his decision “to go to the land of the adversary while we were still in a state of war” and about his desire to tear down the walls of hostility and suspicion dividing Israelis and Egyptians.
The minutes reveal that, two days later, not all of the IDF general staff were optimistic about the prospects for peace with Egypt. It was only four years after the Yom Kippur War and some the generals, who had been through the war, raised questions as to the Sadat’s intentions. The chief of staff, Mordechai Gur, took a cautious stance, saying that he had received a directive from the Defense Ministry to prepare emergency supplies for war. The head of the IDF Southern Command, Herzl Shafir, said: “My first question is whether we can know what Sadat really wanted to achieve.” The answer is no, Shafir said. “It’s one big unknown.”
On the other hand, Maj. Gen. Avigdor Ben-Gal showed greater understanding of the historic visit, which ultimately paved the way for a peace treaty between the two countries. “The very act of the Egyptian president coming to the Land of Israel and speaking to the Knesset is a breakthrough of the most serious historic [kind]. It’s not a propaganda step but rather a sincere and genuine step when it comes to the Egyptian president’s complex political personality.”
The speeches made at the Knesset, Ben-Gal said, were “a dialogue of the deaf.” He took the Israeli cabinet to task, saying that it had shown “a lack of understanding and flexibility and didn’t understand the major opportunity that had fallen into the country’s hands by the very fact of the appearance of an Egyptian president in the State of Israel.”
Maj. Gen. Shlomo Gazit, the head of Military Intelligence, shared that view and also voiced criticism of the Knesset speech of the prime minister at the time, Menachem Begin, which he perceived as more hard-line than Sadat’s. “It’s not my job to analyze Israeli policy in Israelis’ speeches,” he said, “but it can be clearly said that the prime minister’s speech was not one that in any way approached the positions that Sadat presented.”
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Deputy Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan was optimistic: “I think the divergent positions demonstrated by the two sides is natural and such negotiating is extraordinary,” said Eitan. “The very fact of the visit is an achievement in that it is direct negotiations the first time that such a thing that we have been seeking and pressing and working for is now coming about .”
Eitan also suggested that the visit of the Egyptian leader could be a precedent for other Arab leaders, adding wryly, “If the Arab kings and rulers have any sense, one of them will be brought here once a month, and everyone here will stop working and they [the Arab countries] will gain a lot from that.”
The subject of the Palestinians was also put on the table with Sadat’s call for an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, and the establishment of a Palestinian state. On this subject, Ben-Gal said: “I acknowledge and confess that there is a Palestinian problem and history will prove that ultimately that the Palestinian pretext will need to [be responded to with] a state. So we can defer it in proceedings of one kind or another,” he said, but “a national movement that exists and is awakening” is “ultimately not based on politicians but on the sincere desire of the Arabs to obtain an independent state.”
Intelligence chief Gazit also said there “must be a solution to the Palestinian problem.”
IDF Chief of Staff Gur spoke about prior general staff meetings when Golda Meir was prime minister and Moshe Dayan defense minister and how the generals told them: “You cannot ignore the Palestinian problem and you need to provide a response for this.” And Gur added: “Golda, who was sitting in this seat here, was pushed to the wall.”
Brig. Gen. Uri Simchoni also acknowledged the need to recognize the existence of the Palestinians. “Even killing the Palestinians requires [recognition] that they exist,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what you think needs to be done with them, whether they should be given a state or not. First of all, [you need to acknowledge] they exist.”