Sadats historic visit to Israel in 1977 still elicits awe and joy

He leans forward and spreads his arms. "This shows the true gap of the Middle East. We had known Egyptians very well through books, intelligence papers, reports, newspapers. But we never came in touch with Egyptians. And all of a sudden, we see the president of Egypt…stepping in front of us.

"He was very elegantly dressed, smiling," he says. "He didn't show any tension, which is quite amazing."

Ben-Elissar, 65, in his second year as ambassador to the United States, is inevitably, matter-of-factly introduced at public appearances here as Israel's first ambassador to Cairo. He would never have anticipated having that distinction early in his tenure as director-general of the Prime Minister's Office under Menachem Begin. Nor would he have predicted being assigned to arrange Sadat's welcome, or heading the Israeli delegation to Cairo three weeks later.

Disbelief prevailed in the government for a week, beginning when the Jerusalem Post's Middle East affairs editor, Anan Safadi, phoned Ben-Elissar on Wednesday, Nov. 9, seeking a reaction to Sadat's reported offer to travel to Israel for peace talks. Ben-Elissar scoffed at the revelation as the usual propaganda. Only the next morning did he break the news to Begin.

That Saturday night, speaking at the Tel Aviv Hilton, Begin stated that Sadat would be welcomed. CBS-News anchorman Walter Cronkite then interviewed both leaders, with Sadat repeating the offer and Begin the invitation. On Monday, Nov. 14, Begin conveyed an official, oral invitation to Sadat to visit, through U.S. Ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis, who passed it onto Hermann Eilts, the ambassador to Egypt. The next day, Lewis told Begin that Sadat wanted more.

"When he asked for a written invitation, we started believing that he meant it," Ben-Elissar says. "Begin put me in charge of the whole thing, and I went out and I started to come up with all kinds of instructions and orders."

One order was for the military band to learn the Egyptian national anthem. Problem: No one had the sheet music. Ben-Elissar chuckles. "I don't want to say the word I used, but it was a nasty word. `You take it from Cairo radio and start [practicing.]' The Americans, by the way, flew in the music through Cyprus. This is how we got it."

From the airport welcome, Begin and Sadat proceeded to the latter's suite at the King David Hotel for an hourlong, one-on-one meeting. Ben-Elissar waited outside. Begin popped out to ask that Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan join them, but Dayan had gone home, so Ben-Elissar sent in Yigael Yadin, deputy prime minister.

"That meeting was a decisive meeting," he says, "because they agreed on what actually gave the tone to the whole process that's being felt to this very day. They decided that whatever differences arose between the two countries would be solved by peaceful means.

"Each in his own style. Begin said, `No more war, no more bloodshed,' and Sadat responded by saying, `No more war after the October [1973] War.'"

Surely, Ben-Elissar must have had a lot to tell his wife, Nitza, when he arrived home that night. But he recalls being "too involved" with the job at hand, and he has no clue what impressions he conveyed to her.

The following month, the small Jewish community warmly greeted the 35 Israelis on the reciprocal visit to Cairo.

During Friday night services at the Cairo synagogue, Ben-Elissar says, "everybody was shedding tears" — the locals, guests and visiting Israeli and foreign Jewish reporters.

In the two decades since, Ben-Elissar says he has stayed in touch with some of his Egyptian colleagues. But Ben-Elissar is especially proud of how close his relationship with Sadat was.

As ambassador, he had access to Sadat "any time I wished to see him," and even visited Sadat at his home in the "God-forsaken village" of Mit-Abu-el-Kom in the Delta, where they held a "very important" two-hour conversation in the garden.

Whenever they met in Alexandria, Ben-Elissar stayed overnight rather than returning immediately to Cairo so he could rush to his hotel room and jot notes on the discussion.

The two men, whose meetings were all private, didn't banter much. But here and there, the conversations drifted to history, in which Ben-Elissar holds a doctorate, and to Islam and Judaism. Sadat didn't have a vast knowledge of history, he says, but he did have a "sense of history." "Sadat knew very well that he was changing destinies, the direction of history…[But] he didn't understand the Jews. I don't think the Egyptians or the Arabs understand the Jews. So these talks had to be led with a lot of sensitivity."

Sadat was "very, very polite. He never ended the meeting. When you are received by a head of state, it's not the guest who ends the meeting, it's the head of state who ends the meeting…I was [always] preparing several subjects to raise and several subjects [to hold] in reserve. I used to finish all of them!

"He never dealt with details. He loved talking about these big issues. This is probably why he could get along with Begin so nicely, after they [got to know] each other. It didn't happen automatically, not at all. It took time. They were both men of vision, with deep thoughts."

Ben-Elissar enjoyed good relations with the government and people of Egypt. But given Israel's hopes for a warmer peace, he regrets the distance at which the Cairo intelligentsia and professional classes have maintained. The Egyptians wanted peace and the Sinai's return, but "didn't want other relations" with Israel, he says.

"It's not that the peace is cold. It's that the relations are cold. There is peace, and there is no Egyptian today, except probably very small minorities, who would change Egypt's policies."

In speeches in the United States, Ben-Elissar continually contrasts Sadat's manner with that of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, who has not unequivocally renounced war.

"But there is no rapport between [Egyptian and Israeli] societies. I probably expected better."

There is another letdown of the post-Sadat era: Two decades after Sadat took Israel by storm and 17 years after Ben-Elissar was posted to Cairo, the ambassador and Ahmed Maher Sayed, his Egyptian counterpart in Washington, do not speak.