Thirty years after his historic visit to Jerusalem, the legacy of the assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat continues to be debated in the Arab world and in Israel. In November 1977 Sadat told the Israeli Knesset "I come to you today on solid ground to shape a new life and to establish peace, but to be absolutely frank with you, I took this decision after long thought, knowing that it constitutes a great risk... " Sadat’s visit represented an extraordinary leap of faith and imagination. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he understood that Arabs could not recover the land that Israel had occupied unless, in return, they offered full and genuine peace. His bold gesture started a process that would eventually lead to a peace treaty between the two countries based on normal relations and full Israeli withdrawal from Egyptian territory.
The gesture also led, or at least contributed, to his untimely death. He knew the risk he was taking and he paid the price of peace with his own life. Sadat understood both the concept as well as the reality of ‘perception’politics; he understood that political behaviour is deeply influenced by the mental image that each side has of the other. He also understood that it is sometimes possible - indeed essential - to change the image your opponents have of you. In 1977 Sadat referred to the barrier of suspicion that existed between Israelis and Arabs, it was also, he said “a barrier of rejection; a barrier of fear, of deception, a barrier of hallucination… a barrier of distorted interpretation of every event and statement”.
Thirty years ago Sadat expressed a desire for a new approach to the way in which politics was conducted in the region. He dared to speak out for the politics of reconciliation and to talk openly about the need for recognition and mutual respect. Today both the Israelis and the Palestinians are still locked in bitter conflict, a conflict where the words respect and recognition are rarely used by any of the region’s present political leaders. In 1977 Sadat spoke of the “utter suspicion and absolute lack of confidence” between the two sides and argued that without a just solution to the Palestinian problem there could be no durable or just peace. Yet the only true solution remains the one that Sadat himself articulated in his historic speech to the Knesset thirty years ago: two States, Israel and Palestine, living side by side within secure and recognised borders. There is no doubt that Sadat showed enormous character when he did what until then had seemed unthinkable for any Arab leader: he went to Jerusalem and declared, directly to the Israeli parliament and people, that “we welcome you among us with full security and safety”.
Thirty years on and one is struck as to how desperately the region could do with some political leaders who could show the same courage, decisiveness and extraordinary political insight of Anwar Sadat.