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Sunday, March 24, 2019

This is a fascinating book that was written in 1981, shortly after Ezer Weizman served as defense minister. Why the strange title? Battles are usually about wars. But this book is the story of how Egypt and Israel had to suddenly psychologically switch gears in the face of Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in Nov. 1977. Egypt and Israel had been mortal enemies for 30 years. Now all of a sudden, they had to see if they could view the hated other as a peace partner!

Weizman was a pilot during the 1948 war. He was commander of the Israeli Air Force from 1958-66. In the 1967 war he directed the critical early-morning surprise attack against the Egyptian air bases. In 1969 he retired from the military and entered politics. In 1977 he became defense minister under Menachem Begin. In 1993 he was elected president of Israel. He was the nephew of Chaim Weizmann, who was the first president of Israel.

It was in November 1977 that Sadat came to Jerusalem and spoke in the Knesset. The next step, in order for the peace process to maintain momentum, was for Israel’s defense minister to visit his Egyptian counterpart in Egypt. But Weizman had recently badly injured his leg and ribs in a car accident. The last thing he wanted was for himself, the defense minister, to hobble painfully on crutches on his first encounter with Egyptian officials.

This meeting of the defense ministers was to be a secret. Weizman made life miserable for his doctors at Tel Hashomer Hospital. They told him that a plaster cast on a broken leg has to stay on for six weeks. That’s what it says in the books. He yelled back, “In that case, get a new book!” He writes that “he urged them to work miracles, telling them to defy medical history and speed up the rebonding of the fractures” in his leg and ribs. They had not the faintest idea of why he was in such a hurry! After endless pleading, the doctors gave in and took the cast off after four weeks, and Weizman was willing to do the visit with a walking stick. (There was a time when a walking stick was a sign of importance!)

But how should he get to Egypt? There was no airline with a route at this time between the two countries! Eventually, it was decided to utilize the help of the United States. A U.S. Air Force plane was summoned from Frankfurt. The crew had no idea why they had been summoned in such haste to come to Israel, and why they were to fly on to Egypt!

Now comes the critical question: What present should Weizman bring to Sadat? After much consultation with his wife and friends, he decides on a large, handsome clock. Why? Because he thought of the following inscription: “To President Sadat, the leader who moved the clock forward.” He also remembered that Sadat was pipe smoker, so Weizman had a top-quality pipe brought in from Paris. He had it inscribed: “May you always smoke this pipe peacefully.” His present to the Egyptian minister of war was a Galil assault rifle, manufactured by the Israeli military industry. The inscription on it said: “May you never have to use it.”

On his flight to Egypt, all he could think about was the first time he was there. It was May 29, 1948, and he was a young pilot. The state had been proclaimed two weeks before, and Israel was fighting for survival. An Egyptian army column was heading toward Tel Aviv. The situation was desperate, as there was almost no effective Israeli force separating the Egyptian column from Tel Aviv. The air force had four planes supplied by Czechoslovakia. Weizman and three other pilots were ordered to bomb the Egyptian column. This was Israel’s first air force mission. The attack was successful and significantly delayed the march of the Egyptian column. Now, here he was flying to Egypt again—under such different circumstances!

He had spent his military career studying Egypt from afar. Now was getting shockingly close views of everything. But he had to constantly remind himself not to act like a spy, but like a potential peace partner.

After greeting the Egyptian minister, he was taken to meet Sadat at Ismalia. The city he recalled was full of smoke and rubble from Israel’s incessant bombardment. Now Ismalia was totally changed, looking vibrant and full of life.

When Weizman was brought to Sadat, Weizman was walking with his walking stick and was in intense pain. “Ya Ezra!” Sadat shouted. (Sadat mistook his first name for “Ezra,” a common name among Egyptian Jews.) “Are you still walking on that stick of yours?” Weizman could not take the subtle insult. The idea of the defense minister of Israel limping to meet the Egyptian president was not to his liking. Weizman continues: “I twirled the walking stick around my head. With an agonizing heave, I flung it across the lawn, speeding it on its way with a resounding Arabic curse: “Yahrab beto!” (=damn the stick!) After a tense pause of a few seconds, Sadat burst out laughing!

What exactly happened at Camp David during those 11 days in Sept. 1978 with President Carter?

As to clothing, the guests were requested to dispense with ties. But this was too informal for Begin. When you go see the president, he proclaimed, you should always be properly dressed. He would never let himself be seen in less-than-formal clothing. On the other hand, Carter walked around in jeans or running shorts, and Sadat normally wore his tracksuit.

Weizman was once lying down in his cabin, almost nude, when Carter entered. What is the protocol in such a situation, Weizman wondered.

Weizman was perturbed by the large number of lawyers in the various delegations. He observed that there are lawyers who find a solution to every problem, and there are those who find a problem for every solution. Camp David, he observed, teemed with the second kind!

The camp’s medical unit was on constant alert. Two of the conference’s leading figures, Begin and Sadat, suffered from heart ailments.

After the first three meetings of Carter, Begin and Sadat together proved fruitless, it was decided not to have any more direct meetings with Begin and Sadat together. Begin and Sadat each remembered with anger the harsh demands and statements made by the other. It was felt better to have the further negotiations conducted by ministers and aides.

Today we know that the summit worked out. But the Israeli delegation did not know that at the time. Reading this book you see the tremendous pressure that they were under! Until the end, they felt that not only would the summit fail, but Israel would be blamed.

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My favorite observation in the book is one that Weizman made about circling in an airplane before one is given permission to land. In a tense period in the Egyptian-Israeli relationship, he observed that the Egyptian airport controllers kept his plane in the air a long time before giving it permission to land. He suggested that this was a good way to measure the relations between two countries: how long you are kept in the air before you are given permission to land!

By Mitchell First


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected] He recalls going to a large pro-Israel rally in Washington, D.C., about 20 years ago, where one of the speakers from the U.S. government confused Ezer Weizman with Chaim Weizmann!