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A Moment in History: Egypt Becomes a Friend

March 26, 2009 By:
Ted Mann
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March 1979: Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (left) and communal leader Ted Mann after the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

EDITOR'S NOTE: March 26 marks the 30th anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Retired Philadelphia attorney Ted Mann, who was the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations at the time, recalls his front-row seat as the drama unfolded. This column marks the introduction of a new Exponent feature, 'First Person,' in which individuals reflect on issues and experiences shaping their lives.

My wife, Ronnie, and I were vacationing in Puerto Rico on March 12, 1979, when Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin tracked me down in my hotel room to tell me that he and President Jimmy Carter had resolved their differences over a peace agreement with Egypt, that he would urge his Cabinet to accept the resolution, and that it would then be up to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to accept or reject the final treaty terms. He was indescribably happy. So was I.

There was much high drama over the next two weeks, in my view totally manufactured, as Carter shuttled between Cairo and Jerusalem, wrapping up the details. A peace treaty was finally signed by Sadat and Begin on the White House lawn on March 26.

Begin and I met after the signing, and he told me that he had been invited by Sadat to come to Cairo the next week to celebrate. He even asked me to join him. I replied that regrettably I could not, as Ronnie and I would be celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary. So he said, "Bring Ronnie, too, and we will all celebrate together in Egypt."

Ronnie and I flew to Israel, where we boarded Israel's more modest version of Air Force One with the prime minister and his immediate family; Abba Eban and his Egyptian-born wife, Susan; Alexander Schindler, my predecessor as chairman of the Conference of Presidents, and his wife, Rhea; and 15 or 20 of the prime minister's old compatriots from the wars that preceded and followed the birth of Israel more than 30 years earlier. It was a short but unforgettable flight from Tel Aviv to Cairo, with Israeli fighter planes flying alongside us. The Israelis on board -- by then, mostly in their 50s and 60s -- were singing the songs they sang together in the pre-state days. In our grand suite at the Heliopolis Salaam, a new hotel in the outskirts of Cairo, we found silver gifts from Sadat in celebration of our 25th anniversary.

At a reception at one of Sadat's palaces, he and Begin stood next to each other in a reception line. When Begin introduced me, Sadat, tongue in cheek, said: "I know this man; he actually attacked me in my own embassy in Washington last week."

He was referring to a meeting that had followed the peace-signing. The Anti-Defamation League -- America's best-known and highly regarded Jewish organization -- had arranged a meeting between its leadership and Sadat, and then apparently changed its mind about having a separate meeting, and asked me to chair it and to invite leaders of other organizations as well.

Nineteen of us met with Sadat at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington. I had expected it to be a purely pleasurable gathering since the agreement between Israel and Egypt had finally been reached. But as he spoke, it soon became clear that he was testing us.

Very calmly smoking his pipe, the president casually commented that in the negotiations, Begin had been unreasonably stubborn on the subject of Jerusalem. (In negotiating peace with Israel, Sadat had insisted that issues related to the Palestinians be included.) When he repeated it a second time, I lit a cigarette to calm my nerves, sharing with him the one ashtray between us.

None of us wanted to disagree with anything Sadat said. We were, after all, his guests, at his embassy. But when he repeated it yet again, I interjected that while we held various opinions about how peace between Israel and the Palestinians might ultimately be achieved, I wanted him to know that every one of us in the room fully shared Begin's view that Jerusalem must remain a united city and be the undivided capital of Israel.

He vehemently denied that he was trying to separate American Jewish leadership from the prime minister, which he correctly assumed I was suggesting. The moment passed, and the rest of the meeting was as pleasurable as we had hoped it would be.

The reception in Egypt was outdoors in the beautiful gardens of the palace. The Israeli and American Jewish guests mingled with Egyptian business and governmental leaders -- all male, their wives sitting on chairs on the periphery. Then we moved to tables nearby, where we all mixed together for dinner. We were entertained by belly-dancers, and Ronnie, to this day, has never let me forget that I promptly fell sound asleep!

But the most memorable part of the trip happened back at the hotel bar, where Egyptian musicians were playing "Haveinu Shalom Aleichem" and other Israeli songs of peace. Israelis and Egyptians danced together, clapped hands together and sang together. It was simply unbelievable. Even now, 30 years later, I have tears in my eyes as I recall it.

It was the end of a remarkable week. 

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