WASHINGTON -- Independence Day is a major event for any country. For Israelis--many of whom escaped persecution in other nations--it means even more. Although Israel recently celebrated its 61st birthday as a modern nation, it has not been an easy ride.
For most of those years, Israelis have fought off attacks from Muslim neighbors committed to their destruction.
Egypt once led the charge to push Israel into the sea. But after four costly wars, the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat decided he'd seen enough.
Sadat Speaks Before The Israeli Knesset
Sadat stunned the world in 1977 by traveling to Jerusalem and speaking before the Israeli Knesset. Two years later, on March 26, 1979, he stood alongside Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin and U.S. President Jimmy Carter on the White House lawn, where he became the first Arab leader to formally recognize Israel as a nation. Despite what seemed like overwhelming odds, the agreement reached by Sadat and Begin still stands today-thirty years later.
"The first thing he said was, 'There will be no more war between Egypt and Israel,'" Sadat's widow, Jehan Sadat, told CBN News recently. Her new book, My Hope for Peace, describes her late husband's reasons for finally accepting Israel's right to exist:
"Both sides are losing their sons. Our economy is affected by war. Why are we going through war every few years?" she recalled him saying. "And he wanted.to put an end to the bloodshed."
She added: "This is something from a military man who turned from being a military man, for war, to being a man for peace."
Peace Initative Proves Risky
Israel soundly defeated Egypt in three major wars before the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In that conflict, a surprise attack led to initial gains for Egypt and Syria until Israel eventually recovered and pushed them back.
Sadat says Egypt's performance in this war restored a sense of pride, making it easier for her husband to pursue peace.
But he had few supporters.
"Everyone around him--the people in the government, the friends, the family--everyone was telling him, 'Don't do it. Don't go. It is too risky.'" Sadat recalled. "'You will lose your friends--you will lose the Arabs. You will lose even your position. You will lose your life.' But he never, ever wavered. He never hesitated."
Many of those warnings came to pass. After the treaty, Egypt was kicked out of the Arab League , and, one by one, Arab nations cut off relations with Egypt entirely.
The worst was still to come.
"I knew I was going to lose him" said Ms. Sadat.
Constant Threats, Constant Warfare
Indeed, Sadat's new relationship with Israel infuriated Islamic radicals worldwide. A group of Egyptian terrorists assassinated him in 1981 as Ms. Sadat looked on. Al-Qaeda's current second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri-a native of Egypt-served three years in an Egyptian prison for his role in the plot before being released.
Many analysts believe Sadat's legacy can be seen in the 1994 peace agreement between Israel and another longtime foe, Jordan.
Beyond those two countries, however, Israel has found few neighbors willing to extend the olive branch.
"Do they really want to make peace with Israel?" asked Jonathan Peled, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. "Are they willing to accept Israel, recognize Israel's existence living here in the region, as Sadat did? The other question is whether they're willing to learn from what Sadat made, his historic visit to Israel, and to really reach out to Israeli public opinion. If you ask today's Israelis who Sadat was, the vast majority will tell you he is the great peacemaker, the great Arab leader who made peace. And everyone has really forgotten the times when he was Israel's arch enemy."
Peled told CBN News Israelis would welcome Arab leaders who, like Sadat, might change tactics and turn away from violence.
"I think there is nothing the Israeli public would like more than to really embrace and Arab leader," he said. "By the way, the King of Jordan--the late King of Jordan--was also very popular in Israel because of his outreach to the Israeli public. There is definitely a great, great desire among the Israeli public to finally reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians, with Syria, with Lebanon, because we are tired of living under constant threats and constant warfare."
In the case of Syria, the price may be too steep.
"The contours for peace are drawn," Syrian Embassy spokesman Ahmed Salkini told CBN News. "We are very, very clear. It's land for peace, with all that that entails."
That would require Israel to give up the Golan Heights region, a strategic and protective buffer along its border with Syria.
Should Israel Give Up Territory?
Jehan Sadat believes that Israel should also give up territory to the Palestinians-including the West Bank and East Jerusalem--just as it relinquished the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in 1979.
Peled says it is not that simple. Tiny Israel gave up land twice in this decade alone--pulling out of Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005. Attacks against Israel from those areas increased dramatically in both instances.
"Both our withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and our withdrawal from Gaza in 2000 have not brought the desired results that we were hoping for," said Peled. "We thought that these two very, very important policies that Israel executed would bring about, would encourage, peace efforts--would encourage the Palestinians, the Lebanese and everyone to really sit down and negotiate a peace treaty with Israel. Unfortunately, all we received in return was more terrorism: rockets, missiles being shot out from both Lebanon and from Gaza."
"Cold Peace" Continues
Ironically, the same forces aligned against Israel are now threatening Egypt as well.
Iran, Syria and Hezbollah have harshly criticized Egypt for its refusal to allow Hamas members to enter the country from Gaza.
In addition, Egyptian authorities recently arrested 25 Hezbollah operatives for planning attacks on Egyptian soil. Another 24 remain at large.
Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak blamed Hezbollah's benefactor, Iran, and warned its leaders not to meddle in Egyptian affairs.
"I think there is a growing understanding now between most of the Arab countries that Iran is undermining any kind of efforts for peace, for reconciliation, for negotiation." Peled said.
Israel's peace with Egypt has been described by analysts as a "cold peace." Other than government contacts, the two nations still don't have much interaction. The Egyptian media also remains notorious for its steady output of anti-Semitic content.
But Jehan Sadat cautioned that the imperfect relationship is still a work in progress; one that, despite its flaws, would have made her husband proud.
She added that Arab leaders today can learn much from his example.
"They should think about the people for whom they are responsible to give peace," she said. "And let a new generation be brought up in a peaceful atmosphere."