How Sadat came to talk to Begin

By Dan Patir, April 17, 2008
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1977: Sadat in Jerusalem

On November 9 1977, following a secret meeting between Israeli and Egyptian officials in Morocco in September that year, Anwar Sadat told the Egyptian Parliament that he was willing to go as far as the Knesset in Jerusalem in order to obtain peace for his people.

I informed the Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, about that the next morning, and he responded with a public statement saying that Sadat would be welcome, in time. On November 12, I got a call from Walter Cronkite, the famous broadcaster, who said that he had a great scoop: Sadat had just told him that if he got a written invitation from Begin, he would come to Israel the next week.

Begin was speaking at the Hilton Tel Aviv to a group of Canadian Wizo women, and I hurried there to inform him of that. He stayed very cool, and said: “You know what, I’ll mention it in my speech.” I told him that it wasn’t enough; Sadat wanted something in writing. Cronkite, naturally, wanted an interview with Begin. So the hotel arranged a temporary studio, from which Begin told Cronkite, right after the Wizo dinner, that he was sending Sadat a written invitation “right now”.

I was commissioned the next morning to go London to arrange Begin’s first visit there as Prime Minister. For Begin, former head of the Irgun underground, this UK visit was of a great emotional significance. He suggested that I go there as planned. If Sadat actually set a visit for next week, Begin said, he would summon me back.

I went to London, and the next day I got a call from the office — Sadat was definitely coming. Thus, I was privileged to be the first to tell the press secretary of British Prime Minister James Callaghan that Sadat was coming to Israel, and therefore that Begin must postpone his London visit. The British did not believe me. They thought that Begin simply got cold feet.

Twenty-four hours before Sadat’s planned arrival, on Friday 18, a major concern was raised in Israel. According to military intelligence, the Egyptians were moving heavy military forces towards the Suez Canal.

In a tense consultation in headquarters in Jerusalem on Friday at noon, one of the ministers suggested a partial army mobilisation to prevent any surprise. Begin listened to everybody, and then made a very bold decision: everything to go as scheduled.

Later, we learned that the Egypt-ians moved their troops after finding out that the Israeli army had training manoeuvres in Sinai a few days earlier, and they suspected that the Israelis were preparing something.

Last updated: 2:57pm, March 2 2009