An unlikely intermediary played a pivotal role toward that end: Walter Cronkite, at the time the anchorman of the CBS News.
From Rhetoric to Cronkite
Addressing the Egyptian Parliament in a long and emotional speech on On Nov. 9, 1977, Sadat blamed Israel for sabotaging a peace conference the Carter administration was attempting to organize between several Arab nations, the Soviet Union and Israel in Geneva. But Sadat was determined to break through the maneuvers. “I am ready to go to the Israeli parliament itself and discuss it with them,” he said. The declaration was interpreted (even and especially by Arab leaders, who included the Palestine Liberation organization’s Yasser Arafat, who was sitting in the Egyptian parliament as Sadat spoke, as a rhetorical flourish or an offhand expression of frustration, not a sincere offer.
Five days later, Cronkite interviewed Sadat by satellite. Sadat repeated that he was not only ready to go to Jerusalem and address the Israeli parliament directly, but that he was ready to do so within a matter of days. “I’m just waiting for the proper invitation,” Sadat told Cronkite, who asked: “You must get something direct from Mr. Begin, not through the press?”
“Right, right,” Sadat replied. Cronkite asked: “And how would that be transmitted, sir, since you do not have diplomatic relations with Israel?”
Sadat: “Why not through ouyr mutual friend, the Americans? … The only condition is that I want to discuss the situation with the 120 members of the Knesset and put the full picture and detail the situation from our point of view .”
Cronkite: “If you get that formal invitation, how soon are you prepared to go?”
Sadat: “Really, I’m looking forward to fulfill this visit in the earliest time possible.”
Cronkite: “Would that, that could be, say, within a week?”
Sadat: “You can say that, yes.”
Cronkite Tags Menahem Begin
CBS taped the interview that morning and aired it during the regularly scheduled time slot of the CBS Evening news that night. In the meantime, Cronkite interviewed Israeli prime Minister Menahem Begin by satellite as well. “I asked him,” Cronkite told the camera, “when he would take the necessary steps to move this new peace initiative from long-distance dialogue to a person-to-person meeting.”
Begin’s answer: “Tomorrow I will make a statement in our Parliament in the afternoon and I think that immediately after this statement I will get in touch [with the] American ambassador, and so find out. […] But I can assure you, Mr. Cronkite, as we really want the visit of President sadat, we really want to negotiate peace, to establish permanent peace. I will not hesitate to send such a letter.” Begin added of Sadat’s plan to go to Jerusalem, “any time, any day he is prepared to come I will receive him cordially at the airport, go together with him to Jerusalem, also present him to the Knesset and let him make a speech to our parliament.”
How Cronkite Scooped Carter
President carter was dumbfounded by Sadat’s initiative. He’d been working to convene the Geneva conference to work toward a comprehensive Middle East peace—between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and toward a permanent settlement of the Palestinian issue, including the potential establishment of a Palestinian state. The conference was to include Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and a Palestinian delegation, and to be mediated by the United States, with a role reserved for the Soviet Union. Sadat’s direct opening to Begin meant that Egypt might carry out its own separate peace.
That, in fact, is what developed.
On Nov. 20, 1977, just six days after the Cronkite interview on CBS, Sadat went to Jerusalem. On March 26, 1979, Egypt and Israel signed their separate peace treaty in Washington. Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994.