Sunday, November 18, 2007

Yehuda Avner of the Sadat Visit

Bygone Days: The night Sadat came


Nov. 17, 2007

At 7:58 on the Saturday night of November 19, 1977, a 72-man guard of honor, drawn from officer cadets of every branch of the IDF, dipped its flags and presented arms while buglers sounded a fanfare signaling the arrival of the president and the prime minister of Israel. The chatter among the multitude of the other high-ranking dignitaries lining the unusually long red carpet clanked with animated anticipation until all eyes turned to watch in silence the two approaching white lights suspended in the sky. The roar of the descending aircraft drowned out the scattered applause as the plane touched down, slowed, turned, and taxied toward the waiting throng.

The presidential Boeing arrived exactly as prescribed - eight o'clock - and on its fuselage were emblazoned the words ARAB REPUBLIC OF EGYPT. Even the dourest beamed with delight at the sight of it, like Mona Lisa breaking into a grin.

A marshal's voice barked, "ATTENTION! PRESENT ARMS!" and the officer cadets froze with choreographic precision, their weapons clasped rigidly upright as the aircraft drew to a halt at the red carpet's floodlit edge.

Never had Ben-Gurion Airport been more embossed and festooned than on that Saturday night, a sea of light and of color, hung with a hundred flapping flags, Israeli and Egyptian. Deep rows of parading troops, their regimental ensigns aloft, framed the tarmac, and at one end was arraigned a military band, its brass instruments flashing in the floodlights. (The conductor, unable to find a copy of the Egyptian national anthem, had hastily transcribed its notes from an end-of-day Radio Cairo broadcast).

A RAMP WAS quickly rolled into position and an expectant hush settled on the assembly. Even the air seemed to be holding its breath. For reasons unknown, however, the aircraft's door failed to be opened and the anticipatory adrenaline gradually gave way to people leaning their heads together along the length of the red carpet, their faces faintly unsettled, muttering softly about the inordinate amount of time passing by.

Might something untoward be afoot? A few knowing eyes cast speculative glances at the chief of staff, General Mordechai (Motta) Gur, who had publicly suggested that the Egyptian president's sudden impulse to visit Jerusalem might be a ruse, a subterfuge for an advantageous starting point for the next Israel-Arab war.
Might Egyptian commandos be poised behind that door readying to mow down the entire Israeli cabinet? (Four years later President Sadat himself would be assassinated in a not entirely dissimilar fashion when his own commandos mowed him down while taking the salute at a parade).

Notwithstanding, prime minister Menachem Begin stood stolidly at the foot of the ramp looking up at the sealed door with no hint of restiveness in his demeanor, his face as impassive as a Sphinx. Unbeknown to most, it was he, Begin, who had initiated the steps, overt and covert, that had brought Sadat to Israel and he knew it was no ruse.

AND THEN the door swung ajar and out of it burst an unruly horde of journalists who jostled each other for strategic positions at the base of the ramp. This caused the mass of correspondents, television crews and photographers contained behind the barriers of the official press pen to holler their frustration, their line of vision of the impending first handshake of the first meeting between the leaders of Egypt and of Israel being entirely blocked by the just-landed Cairo crowd. So they surged forward through the police barrier causing such a crush along the red carpet that numerous VIPs were pushed back into the second and third rows of the receiving line.
But still, the plane's doorway remained empty and dark, and the hubbub continued to swell, until, like a dazzling firework, a thousand camera shutters sliced the night with a blazing light engulfing the lone figure who had just stepped into it.

Tall, erect, groomed, mustached, hair short and black on a balding brown skull, nose Semitic, cheekbones sharp, eyes black and deep-set, president Anwar Sadat stood there blinking in the glare and basking in the fanfare of trumpets and fervent applause which greeted him.

As if in extreme slow motion he descended the steps amid the popping camera bulbs, like paparazzi at a premiere, accompanied by the chief of protocol, Rehavam Amir, who formally introduced the president to president Ephraim Katzir and prime minister Begin, waiting at the foot of the ramp.

Stampeded by the crush of the pressmen I ended up at the side of Golda Meir, who remarked sarcastically to Yitzhak Rabin, "Now he comes! Couldn't he have come before the Yom Kippur War and save all those dead, his and ours?"

Rabin's reply, whatever it was, was drowned out by applause as premier Begin introduced his guest to his ministers lining the carpet. Reaching Ariel Sharon - the commander who led the Israeli counter attack across the Suez Canal in the Yom Kippur War - the Egyptian president paused, and bantered, "Aha, here you are! I tried to chase you in the desert. If you try to cross my canal again I'll have to lock you up."

"No need for that," laughed Sharon. "I am glad to have you here. I'm minister of agriculture now," and they shook hands warmly.

To foreign minister Moshe Dayan I heard him say, "Don't worry Moshe, it will be alright." But someone in earshot claimed he had also quipped, "You must let me know in advance when you are coming to Cairo so that I can lock up my museums" - a dig at Dayan's penchant for helping himself to ancient relics.

To the chief of staff General Motta Gur, he grinningly said, "See, general, it is no trick. I was not bluffing," The general's response was a formal salute.
And now he stood face to face with Golda Meir. They looked at each other solemnly, he half bowing as he took her hand. "I have wanted to talk to you for a long time," he said. "And I have been waiting for you for a long time," she answered. "But now I am here," he said.

"Shalom. Welcome," she said.

HE CONTINUED along the carpet, shaking the hands of the rest of the ministers and of the other notables, until, at a given signal, a young captain of the guard, head high, chest out, marched forward, and with a whirling salute reported to the president that the guard of honor was ready for his review. Walking with measured steps, president Sadat inspected the serried ranks, semi-bowed to the flag, and then, side by side with president Katzir and premier Begin, heard the band play his national anthem followed by "Hatikva," their discordant notes punctuated by the thumps of a twenty-one gun salute.

A burnished black armored limousine pulled up alongside the Egyptian president, but yet again, a pack of pugnacious newsmen of every sort mobbed the vehicle, overwhelming president Katzir, Sadat's intended traveling companion. He, being an elderly, genteel man, slow of gait, was pushed aside and almost left behind, had it not been for the quick wittedness of a security agent trotting alongside the car who saw him safely inside.

And thus did the presidential motorcade set off for the drive up to Jerusalem where excited, flag-waving, cheering crowds were gathered along the route.

A WEEK later, in an address to the Knesset, prime minister Begin summarized his personal initiatives which led to Sadat's 36-hour historic visit and which would, in time, culminate in a peace treaty. Elucidating why eight o'clock was deliberately chosen as the hour for the Egyptian president's arrival, he explained: "President Sadat indicated he wished to come to us on Saturday evening. I decided that an appropriate hour would be eight o'clock, well after the termination of the Shabbat. I decided on this hour in order that there would be no Shabbat desecration. Also, I wanted the whole world to know that ours is a Jewish state which honors the Sabbath day. Deeply moved, I read again those eternal biblical verses, 'Honor the Sabbath day to keep it holy…' These words echo one of the most sanctified ideas in the history of mankind, and they remind us that once upon a time we were all slaves in Egypt.

"Mr. Speaker: We respect the Muslim day of rest - Friday. We respect the Christian day of rest - Sunday. We ask all nations to respect our day of rest - Shabbat. They will do so only if we respect it ourselves."