Forty years ago — on Nov. 19, 1977 — Egyptian President Anwar Sadat embarked on a groundbreaking visit to Jerusalem. The 1979 peace treaty he later signed with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin set in motion the unmistakable dynamic of the Israeli-Arab rapprochement we witness today.
Prior to Sadat’s visit, Bahrain’s king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, would have never openly expressed his opposition to the Arab boycott against Israel, and Israeli flags would have never flown openly throughout the streets of Iraqi Kurdistan. Today, Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli emergency response teams participate in joint exercises on our soil, while Israeli high-tech firms hire engineers from Gaza and our military teams and doctors treat refugees on the Syrian border.
But even with such progress, there is no room for complacency; Israel must remain vigilant. Iran and its jihadist proxies in Hezbollah and Hamas are committed to our destruction and will go to the ends of the earth to see it through.
There are other — albeit less threatening — signs that Sadat’s vision has not yet reached fruition. Take the scandal that surrounded this year’s Judo Grand Slam in Abu Dhabi. The International Judo Federation and the United Arab Emirates made a mockery of the very essence of sport when they refused to fly the Israeli flag, play our national anthem, and properly deliver the medals to the five Israeli athletes who earned them.
What made the snub all the more frustrating was that Israel opened an official mission to the International Renewable Energy Agency in the UAE in 2015.
Yet even here lies a silver lining. In a meeting following the Judo competition, officials from the Judo Federation, Israel and the UAE met to discuss the events that took place. The UAE apologized for the athletes who had refused to shake hands with their Israeli competitors and even congratulated our team on its success.
Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, refers to matters of the like as delicate “balancing acts.” Recalling the moment he was elected to chair the UN Legal Committee, Danon stated: “When I put my name in I had to listen to the ambassadors from Iran, Yemen and Syria say why Israel could not hold this position, but it was a secret ballot.” He won 109-44, with 12 ambassadors from Muslim states either voting for Israel or abstaining.
Sadat deserves much credit for this positive shift in behavior toward Israel. He believed that Arab States should view Israel as we truly are — an asset to strengthen the Middle East, not a country to be destroyed.
The success of Sadat’s journey to Jerusalem was replicated in 1994 between Israel and Jordan when King Hussein formally recognized Israel, pursued direct negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and ushered in peace between Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom.
Israel and Muslim states have come a long way in the past 40 years. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emphasized at this year’s UN General Assembly, Israel stands “shoulder-to-shoulder with those in the Arab world who share our hopes for a brighter future.”
Last week I hosted in Boston recently-retired Israeli Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, who was part of the Israeli team at the Camp David talks with Egypt. He described waiting for Sadat at Ben-Gurion Airport as the most significant experience of his professional career. In his words, it was as if he could “hear the wings of history.”
Rubinstein recalled being told at the time by an otherwise skeptical Israeli minister: “Look, if this is hopeful in another 15 years, I’ll think the price was worthwhile.” Forty years later, with tensions between Israel and Arab States on the decline, I believe that the price was categorically worthwhile.
For me, that hope for rapprochement capsulizes the importance of what Sadat pursued. We should all take a moment to remember him.
Yehuda Yaakov is Israel’s Consul General to New England.