Foreign Policy Blogs

Sadat's Principles and My Hope for Peace

By Jehan Sadat

As the widow of Anwar Sadat, I cannot count myself an objective analyst of his policies; but I am not the only one who believes that the world is poorer for his absence, nor am I the first to note that statesmen of Sadat’s caliber are in short supply. Perhaps then, it is not so surprising that nearly 29 years after his death, Anwar Sadat still has leadership lessons to impart. Indeed, today we would be well served to apply Sadat’s principles for peace:

Accept that People Want Peace: Sadat pursued peace, because he knew it was what most Egyptians, who were exhausted by war and desperate to turn their energies toward less destructive pursuits, wanted. Likewise, he knew it was in Egypt’s, and the region’s, best interests. He put peace before his own political position, personal popularity, physical safety, or relationship with his fellow heads of state. Although the details of the Arab-Israeli conflict have changed, this fundamental truth—that people want peace—remains the same. Poll after poll confirms that majorities of Israelis and Palestinians alike support a peaceful two state solution, though they believe that the other side is unwilling or unready to meet them. The fact that peace is in the interest of both sides is undeniable.

At the time of the Cairo Conference and the ’79 Camp David Summit, minds and hearts were preparing for peace. Although I have dwelled much on the angry minorities in Egypt and the Arab world who opposed Sadat’s dialogue with Israel, it bears repeating that most Egyptians supported their President’s initiative. There was a remarkable energy generated as we practiced—slowly at first—envisioning a future in which our shared border was not a suppurating wound, our Ministry of War was merely a Ministry of Defense, and our sons and daughters might inherit a world less hateful, less fearful, and more whole. Inside Israel, the Peace Now Movement had taken root and was flourishing. Indeed, the effect of Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem is hard to overstate. In his book The Missing Peace about the 2000 Camp David meetings, veteran Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross describes Sadat’s trip as “a transforming experience for Israelis. All of Israel, not only the center-left, saw peace as possible. The effect on Israelis of all stripes was electric.” In the United States, the powerful Jewish lobby was willingly adjusting their position, becoming more understanding of the Egyptian point of view. Even the world media, which had heretofore portrayed finding a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict on the order of likelihood of, say, discovering the fountain of youth, or inventing a time machine, underwent a great shift. Inspired by what they witnessed between Sadat and Begin, they too were preparing popular opinion for the emergence of a solution to the complex problems of the Middle East.

Needless to say, such optimism has vanished. In its place, we see an overwhelming sense of discouragement, cynicism, and apathy. But this situation is reversible; if, from the ranks of the men and women whose decisions affect the lives of millions of lives, someone would step forward and publicly pledge, “I am ready to do whatever it takes to achieve a just, honorable and durable peace” then follow through.


Be Realistic, and Correspondingly, be Real: Sadat was a realist. Unlike so many leaders who define themselves according to a playbook of political theory, my husband was never rigidly ideological. He was an Egyptian patriot, who would not subjugate his own perceptions to political dogma. He had supported Abdel Nasser and the socialist revolution in Egypt, but years later he would not, for the sake of ideology, remain blind to the evidence of its failure as an economic model for Egypt. Although our country had maintained a strategic partnership with the USSR, Anwar Sadat was far from a communist, and conversely, though he was a devout Muslim, he was not an Islamist. He believed in the possibilities of the Pan-Arab movement, but he could see that the Arabs were divided, and he didn’t want Egypt to suffer for a fiction. He knew his Arab brothers would punish Egypt for breaking ranks, and he knew, too, that they would someday return. He rightly perceived that only peace with the enemy—the same people he had spent his adult life struggling against—could achieve his goals.

At that time, there were many who believed, including me, that making peace with a Likud leader would be all but impossible; Likud was synonymous with security, settlement, and the religious dream of “Greater Israel.” I did not believe Begin had the political will and personal determination required for making peace with the Arabs. Anwar, however, assured me that Begin would be a workable partner. He was right.

Sadat was also genuine. His straightforward approach to negotiating perplexed and aroused suspicion in the international and diplomatic community. Sadat understood the value of compromise, kept his sights set on the big issues—the return of Egyptian land, the idea of a comprehensive peace—and so in Dr. Henry Kissinger’s words, he was willing “to cut through trivia to the essential, to make major, even breathtaking, tactical concessions in return for an irreversible psychological momentum.”

Today, such breakthroughs are nowhere in evidence. Realism has, on the one hand, been replaced with empty rhetoric on the part of political leaders, who claim they want peace but impose unrealistic preconditions for achieving it, or they continue to act in ways that threaten the viability of the two-state solution they endorse. And it has been eclipsed by cynicism on the other, by press and people who say that peace in the Middle East is an impossible dream. By making it so, we absolve our leaders of all responsibility for delivering something that is—with hard work, political will, and courage—achievable.

Realize that the Peace Process is Not Self-Sustaining: Historian Kenneth Klein described Sadat as the “engine driving peace,” and moreover, a “man in a hurry,” who would not allow efforts to derail peace. When the proposed 1977 Geneva convention was being crushed beneath the weight of a thousand tiny, niggling decisions—the shape of the table, the seating arrangements, the order of the agenda—Sadat decided to go to Jerusalem to negotiate directly with the Israelis. He would not allow the “psychological momentum” that Kissinger discussed to evaporate. As we know, the periods of pause, of neglect, and of indifference to the Arab Israeli peace process have been costly to both sides: we have seen the rollback on previously agreed-to compromises, a widespread loss of faith, and the creation of power vacuums quickly filled by increasingly militant players.

Both Arabs and Israelis need to be kept, and remain, on track. When my husband and Begin reached times of seeming impasse, Sadat recognized the role the US could play as an honest broker and mediator. His intuition that the world’s sole superpower must be involved in bringing lasting peace to the Middle East is no less true today than it was in 1979. In fact, given the US entanglements in the Middle East, the US role as peacemaker is in desperate need of rehabilitation.

Forgive: President Jimmy Carter said Sadat was “more inclined to look toward the future than to dwell on the hate-filled and often bloody past.” Because Egyptians are secure in a national identity that is ancient, vibrant and overwhelmingly peaceful, we are free to be more expansive and forward-looking than many other nations. Sadat took a long view of history, and his view fueled relentless efforts to make peace with Israel and kept him focused when he encountered stumbling blocks. Sadat did not hold grudges, for he realized that they are ultimately more confining to the grudge-holder than his object, trapping him in outdated thinking, holding him hostage to a moment in time. Henry Kissinger wrote, “Sadat seemed free of the obsession with detail by which mediocre leaders think they are mastering events, only to be engulfed by them.”

Today, the slogan “war is supreme” seems to be the motto of too many nations and movements, with equally calamitous results. More bloodshed in the Middle East is precisely what we do not need. If we adopt Sadat’s long view, American military action in Iran as a follow-up to Iraq is ludicrous; Israeli military crackdown against Hamas in Gaza and indeed all collective punishment of Palestinians, counterproductive; militant terrorist attacks against Israel, misguided. Each escalation, no matter how seemingly “justified,” is disastrous to all. All parties must agree to open a dialogue with the partners they’d prefer to ignore. If they have a part in the bloodshed, they must be included in its cessation. Sadat knew this, and accordingly, tried to assemble all the relevant players in peace talks in Cairo.

Have Faith: To include “Faith” as a principle for peace in the Middle East seems, at best, counterintuitive. How can religion, which seems the source of so much misery in the region, do anything other but prove a divisive, countervailing influence to efforts toward peace? For me, the answer is simple: God, whether according to the Muslim, Christian, or Jewish tradition, enjoins us to treat others as we would want ourselves be treated, to be compassionate, to be forgiving, to love our fellow man. God does not need to lead us to confrontations or brutality in His name—these actions represent the formulations and frailties of humankind. Political scientists and historians have commented on Sadat’s peace initiative in terms of strategy—his grasp of realpolitik on one hand and political theatre on the other—and although I do not always agree with their analyses, this is appropriate. But speaking as Sadat’s wife, I understood his desire for peace with Israel stemmed from something more profound than pragmatism. Sadat believed peace was God’s will, he believed in Islam’s injunctions to create a just and tolerant society. He believed Arabs and Jews are brothers, sons of Abraham descended from Ishmael and Isaac, who should be reconciled. In his address to the Knesset, Sadat said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, before I came to this place, with every beat of my heart and with every sentiment, I prayed to God Almighty. While performing prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and while visiting the Holy Sepulcher, I asked the Almighty to give me strength and confirm my belief that this visit may achieve the objective I look forward to for a happy present and happier future.”

Some years ago, I participated in an original choral for which, I wrote: “We are all human and fallible, all mortal and frightened and weak. That is the truth. We are all manipulated by myths and partial truths about one another. Within our souls, we must remember that people are people and that we have been created in God’s likeness. We all share a common dream, a dream of universal harmony and peace. Let us keep our dream alive and strive together to fulfill it. Let us unify our actions in one direction and move the world, day by day, bit by bit, closer to our goal. I put it to you, dear sisters and brothers, that we can really contribute to peace and reconstruction and reconciliation. The tragic yet exciting times we live in require more than ever that we as women and men of Good Will should stand together as one. Peace, true peace, is not the result of the balance of terror or a tactical pause in the armaments race or a cynical disregard of human need and aspirations by a strong power. Peace is a desire to fulfill oneself, by giving purpose and creative meaning to our short lives. It is a recognition that we are born to die, that we are all truly brothers and sisters and parts of the design of an infinitely Compassionate Maker.”

This except from My Hope for Peace was reprinted with permission from Simon & Schuster.

Jehan Sadat , Ph.D., is senior fellow with the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park, and author of My Hope for Peace. She was the first lady of Egypt from 1970 to 1981.