Israel/Palestine: WWASD? (What Would Anwar Sadat Do?)

11/29/2012 05:14 pm ET | Updated Jan 28, 2013

During the recent Gaza conflict, a major theme of people in Israel who are older than forty was the contrast of the violence and Israeli national mood then with the mood 35 years earlier, when Egypt's President Anwar Sadat became the first leader of an Arab country to set foot in Israel officially. Sadat's visit led to the Camp David accords and a much better economic situation for Israelis and Egyptians. The mood in Israel back in November 1977 was jubilant, hopeful and generous. A few weeks ago, by contrast, Israelis largely felt panicked, frustrated and confused.

I, too, was in Israel during Sadat's visit. And like many others, this changed my life. As a teenager at the time, I was moved by Israelis whom I cared about being willing to believe the best about people in a country against which they had fought for decades. This represented a personal challenge to rethink my own possible biases. If someone I respected who had, for example, lost two children to wars with Egypt could embrace the hope of peace with the government who had taken the most precious part of his life, how should a more removed foreigner like myself respond?

Seeing the open-minded political optimism of people to whom I related easily influenced the course of my life, leading me to try to use my advantage of safe distance from the region and abilities to develop experience and expertise in Arab countries like Egypt.

As an expert, I am well-aware that Sadat was himself no saint; nor was his moment of world-changing symbolic politics grounded in altruism. The Egyptian President was an authoritarian ruler who shrewdly understood that Egypt's long-term economic and political hopes lay in strong relations with the United States and other Western countries. This mandated a formal end to costly wars with Israel. To achieve a peace with benefits to Egypt, Sadat went against what he knew was the majority will of his people and ran the risk of making worse the lives of Palestinians, who were unlikely to benefit from a more secure Israeli role in the Middle Eastern region.

In the end, Sadat paid for his political strategic calculus with his life, assassinated by members of an Egyptian Islamist group in 1981, a move that had some popular support and led to decades of the entrenched authoritarianism of Hosni Mubarak.

If the feet of the man who reduced the Arab-Israeli conflict by alighting on Israeli land were made of clay, the symbolic significance of his actions endures, as demonstrated both by the personal reaction of some Israelis and the broader regional political framework during the recent conflict. The cease fire brokered in large part through Egypt emerged as a result of recently-elected President Morsi's delicate juggling act among his country's diplomatic prestige, the continuing benefits of peace with Israel and strong ties to the West, and his population's general identification with Gazan Palestinians' suffering.

So we have lots of evidence that Sadat's grand symbolic gesture continues to ripple. What we seem not to have any more is this type of risky grand symbolic gesture that inspires political transformation by bringing out the better angels of our nature.

For sure, the Israeli-Palestinian arena is rife with symbolic gestures. Prime Minister Netanyahu evoked symbolism in warning the world at the UN about a possible invasion of Iran, and much of the talk of ground invasion during the Gaza conflict had a symbolic edge. On the Palestinian side, symbolic political gestures are all over the news, whether in the recent decision to exhume dead leader Yasser Arafat to test his remains for evidence of Israeli poison, or the symbolic Palestinian statehood quest at the UN.

Of course, this sort of symbolic politics is the opposite of what Sadat did, for it is all about delegitimizing or threatening the enemy and maintaining a wartime status quo rather than breaking through the hostility and creating a moment for transformation. Unlike Sadat's trip to Jerusalem, the current principals in the most dangerous conflict that Israel faces seem to have little reason for breaking through the status quo. And, without suggesting equivalence in a militarily asymmetrical conflict, there is lots of spilled ink, and more importantly, blood, to make it far too tempting for Israelis and Palestinians to justify firming up their bellicose bunkers, symbolic or otherwise. This, plus the reality of the fragmentation of Palestinian territorial integrity and politics, is among the reasons that many good people are giving up on the prospects of real Israeli security or Palestinian autonomy.

I have no doubt that expecting a new symbolic gesture that can break through the hatred and hostility that the Gaza conflict embodied is a remote possibility. Political risks are much riskier in today's highly interconnected, media-overladen world. Unlike Sadat, today's leaders, including Sadat's current successor in Egypt, have to be accountable to large chunks of their populations. This is a good thing. And grand diplomatic gestures are likely to have greater traction from countries with significant political, economic or military clout. All of the above may help explain that at least one government in the region, the relatively closed, small and wealthy emirate of Qatar, has undertaken major diplomatic risks, if not grand symbolic gestures, in the Middle East.

Yet we still await, and I can't help but wonder about, a grand symbolic political gesture that might actually unharden some hearts and minds in the Palestinian-Israeli impasse. Although I know it is a fantasy, what might it mean if President Obama, with a broad coalition of other leaders behind him, used the Palestinian statehood issue to announce a global initiative to work for real Palestinian autonomy, perhaps including official visits to Ramallah, Jerusalem or Gaza City?

I can think of many problems with this or something similar. Yet there were many problems with Sadat's grand gesture as well. The best that the current status quo in the area has gotten Israelis and Palestinians a respite from death and fear amid festering hatred. The lesson of 1977, on the other hand, is that self-interested leaders can transform politics in a way that is inspiring and materially helpful to a broad range of people. Perhaps experts should be exhuming Sadat and testing for whatever alchemy allowed a breakthrough in a long cycle of hate, instead of looking for even more poison in a conflict already dominated by it, as is actually happening with Arafat.