Reuters Egyptian President Anwar Sadat announcing to the Egyptian parliament his upcoming visit to Israel, November 9, 1977.

A Tale of Two Sadats

What Israel and Saudi Arabia Can Learn from Egypt

With varying degrees of vehemence, the United States’ Middle East allies all oppose the budding U.S.-Iranian détente. At the head of the pack, of course, is Israel, followed closely by Saudi Arabia. But when the calendar strikes June 30, the Pickett’s Charge will come to an end and they will have to reluctantly pivot from accord prevention to accord mitigation. As one senior Gulf official said, “We’re not going to do a Netanyahu. We are not wasting time confronting that agreement. . . . Instead we are bracing ourselves for the post-agreement world.” In such a world, Israel could decide to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, and Saudi Arabia could decide to acquire its own bomb, but both states, cognizant of how costly these actions might be, will likely consider other options first. 

And there, they have a model to look to. Four decades ago, Egypt’s Anwar al-Sadat faced a similar state of affairs. Twice, he took bold action to blunt the fallout of U.S.-Soviet détente. In 1973, Sadat, feeling abandoned by Moscow, plunged the Middle East into regional war, leading to a permanent rise in global oil prices and putting the United States on nuclear alert. In 1977, Sadat, this time distressed by U.S. actions, sidestepped a U.S.-Soviet process to forge a peace agreement with Israel, ending regional Arab-Israeli wars. In both cases, it was not détente itself but Sadat’s reactions that shaped the region. The tale of the two Sadats crystallizes the options before the United States’ allies today.

THE FIRST BETRAYAL

By the time Sadat assumed power in late September 1970, Egypt had become a Soviet protectorate in all but name. In order to prevent a sequel of Egypt’s devastating defeat at Israel’s hands in 1967, the Soviet Union deployed tens of thousands of military advisers to Egypt. Soviet antiaircraft missile batteries and fighter jets defended Egyptian skies; a few times, they even got tangled in dangerous dogfights with Israeli planes.

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