Sadat’s Leadership: Lessons for the Palestinians?
President Sadat addresses the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem, November 20, 1977. Photo: Flash90

Ken Stein

Leadership is about knowing your objectives and adjusting and implementing the tactics to accomplish them. Leadership is also about choices and consequences. It is about making political trade-offs. 

November 2020 marks the 43th anniversary of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem and his historic speech to the Israeli Parliament.  Those were heady days in Israel. There was a genuine hope for a broad Middle East peace.  However, only Egypt was ready to acknowledge Israel’s legitimacy, the rest of the Arab world remained totally unaccepting of Israel or a Jewish state in their midst. 

The Jerusalem visit and speech were means to ends, not ends in themselves. Sadat saw negotiations as the vehicle to regain Sinai from Israel’s control. He saw the United States as a critical partner in achieving that goal. His long term objective aimed at bettering the Egyptian economy, therefore improving the lives of average Egyptians. His most difficult task was pivoting Egypt away from failed priorities of his high-profile charismatic predecessor, Gamel Abdul Nasser. 

Nasser was the pan-Arab leader that chose Arab socialism to drive his economy; it did not work. Nasser had closely aligned Egypt with Moscow during the Cold War and proclaimed the liberation of Palestine to be his central cause, but that cost Egypt large sums of money and in loss of life. In leading Egypt to a crushing defeat from Israel in the June 1967 War, Nasser suffered the Sinai Peninsula’s loss as well as incurring a black mark on Egypt’s national honor. 

What is certain, Sadat negotiated with Israel because he needed to do so, not because he had some hidden love for Zionism.  Fortunate for Sadat, he had willing Israeli leaders in Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin, and Moshe Dayan who dearly wanted to end the war with Egypt; they each sought creative ways to reach interim agreements and ultimately a peace treaty with Israel’s most dangerous existential threat.  Sadat knew from the outset that the key to Egypt’s future could be found through Washington as mediator, guarantor, and banker. He abruptly moved away from Moscow, distanced himself from his immovable Arab colleagues, and put Egypt’s national interests ahead of the Palestinian cause, giving up the destruction of Israel.

By embarking on a limited war in October 1973, Sadat had a narrowly defined purpose. The previous April, he had sent his National Security Adviser to meet with Secretary of State Kissinger and found the US definitely uninterested in launching a negotiating initiative to have Sinai returned to Egyptian sovereignty. Sadat gambled that by going to war, he could get Kissinger and Nixon’s attention. He did.  Through the CIA in the first week of the war, he reportedly told Kissinger of his interest in negotiations. This was reaffirmed by a member of Kissinger’s State Department team at the time, Joseph Sisco. He told me in a February 1992 interview that Sadat’s “decision to go to war was precisely to get what he wanted, a negotiation started with the Americans.”

After the 1973 War, Sadat told his Chief of Staff, “Egypt was not making peace with Israel, but with the United States.” In Arabic, the Egyptian Chief of Staff told an Israeli counterpart at that time, “Halasna Filastin!”- We are finished with Palestine! Between 1973 and his assassination in 1981, Sadat made other bold moves to keep the engines of negotiations moving forward, including his trip to Jerusalem.

At the time of his death, Sadat’s tally sheet showed that he had successfully focused on Egypt first. He had negotiated Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai, had Israeli settlements removed from Sinai, received large sums of American foreign aid, moved his economy slowly toward capitalism, and entered into a long-term military supply relationship with Washington. The US secured a rewarding Egyptian friendship, perhaps the most important success for Washington over Moscow in the Cold War. By embracing Israel, Sadat was assassinated in 1981.  

In the 1980s, Egypt was boycotted and severely rebuked by Arab leaders. PLO leader Abu Iyad, said in January 1991, “worst day in the life of every Palestinian was when Sadat went to Jerusalem as an Israeli flag flew over his head.”  

And yet in 1993 the PLO and Israel mutually recognized each other, paving the way for Jordan to do so with Israel in 1994 and the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan to follow in 2020. No Arab state rebuked the PLO when it recognized Israel. But the Palestinian leadership roundly condemned the UAE and Bahrain for doing what it did a quarter of century earlier.

In November 2020 speculation is widespread about what a Biden presidency might do in the Palestinian-Israeli realm. All issues domestic and foreign will be subsumed of course by trying to successfully exit from the long pandemic tunnel that has taken enormously high tolls in our lives.  Whatever time is devoted to managing the Palestinian-Israeli issue, the Palestinians must as many of their most articulate thinkers have suggested over the last month, reform their politics and political institutions. No Israeli leader regardless of political outlook will negotiate with Palestinian entities, -Hamas, the PLO, the PA –  or leadership that Palestinians themselves acknowledged in a September survey remains fragmented, distrusted, and profoundly self-serving. 

Before the Biden administration or another entity rekindles attempts at the conflict’s mediation, the Palestinians must reform their institutions.  Palestinian analysts have argued that their corrupt and crony ridden leadership must be replaced. Jump-starting mediation before that occurs would be like trying to build a house of dreams on quick-sand. 

Steadfast commitment to reaching Egypt’s objectives required Sadat to exhibit qualities of leadership. He had to take risks, be pragmatic, discard crippling ideologies, and look over the horizon for the good of his people. He reached out to the United States. 

If the Palestinians sincerely seek to end the conflict with Israel, embracing and implementing these elements of Sadat’s leadership formula deserve serious consideration.