Cotler’s ‘Cameo Role’ in Bringing Sadat and Begin Together Finally Told

Dec. 8, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Irwin Cotler may have been the matchmaker between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, the unlikely couple who forged the historic peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

Forty-three years later, Cotler, who was named Canada’s first Special Envoy for Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last month, is revealing for the first time his “accidental cameo role” in helping to bring together the two Middle East antagonists.

Irwin Cotler
Irwin Cotler

In 1977, Cotler, then a McGill University law professor and leader of Canadian Professors for Peace in the Middle East, was doing work at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, a think tank in Cairo, and travelling in Syria and Jordan – unusual at the time.

The centre’s president, Boutros Boutros-Ghali (who would later become Secretary-General of the United Nations) was close to Sadat’s office and told Cotler that the Egyptian president was curious about Begin, the Likud leader who had become prime minister in June that year, ending the monopoly on power the Labour Party had had since Israel’s founding.

Sadat wanted to meet Cotler to discuss the new political landscape, knowing his close connections to Israel and understanding of the Arab world. 

Cotler would have a few meetings; by around the third, the Egyptian ruler got down to business.

“Sadat asked me two questions,” Cotler told the CJR in an interview soon after his federal appointment. “One, did I think this government [Israel] wanted to make peace with Egypt? I said yes. Two, did I think he could make peace with the new prime minister? I said, ‘I don’t know Begin personally, but I know him to be a committed democrat and parliamentarian and think he would want to make peace with the largest and strongest Arab country.’

“Sadat then asked me to deliver a message to Begin. He wanted to reach out to Begin through informal channels, through someone, he said, the Israelis trust and I trust.”

Sadat’s confidence was flattering, but in truth, Cotler had no channel to the Israeli prime minister. Back in Israel, Cotler attended a meeting of young Knesset members convened by Jewish Agency official Uri Gordon. Cotler spoke in Hebrew about his having been in Egypt and in Syria three times. In the audience was Ariela Zeevi, Begin’s parliamentary secretary, whom Cotler did not know – yet.

“She passed a note to a colleague that I must be a spy,” Cotler recalled. “Afterward, she asked me more about Syria, and I shared with her that the Jewish community there had toasted Begin’s election, hoping their liberation would soon come.

“She said to me, ‘you have to tell the prime minister that,’ and a few days later, she arranged a meeting with Begin. I gave him Sadat’s message that he was prepared to enter peace negotiations on two conditions: that Israel withdraw from the entire Sinai and that Israel recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.

‘’Begin right off said he could not agree to that, and I said that these were only conditions for starting talks. Then he asked me if I thought peace could be made with Sadat, and I said yes.”

Cotler said he knew that Boutros-Ghali, who was minister of state for foreign affairs by then, was keen on peace, as was Sadat’s chief of staff, Tahseen Bashir. He also pointed out that Sadat’s wife, Jihan, was urging him to come to terms with Israel.

So it was that on Nov. 19, 1977, Sadat stunned the world by becoming the first Arab leader to officially visit the Jewish State. The peace agreement was signed in March 1979 and came into force the following year. It has held for 40 years.

Despite characterizations to the contrary, Cotler said Sadat and Begin did hit it off personally, and that, he believes, was crucial to the eventual agreement.

In appreciation of Cotler’s little known part, Montreal Consuls General David Levy of Israel and Hossam Moharam of Egypt hosted a virtual tribute to him on the anniversary of the groundbreaking détente.

Another match was also made as a result of Cotler’s unplanned encounter with history: Ariela Zeevi’s initial suspicion about the bachelor Canadian professor melted away. They started seeing each other and were married on the very day the peace treaty was signed.

Ariela brought into the marriage a young daughter who is today a member of the Knesset for the Blue and White party, Michal Cotler-Wunsh, elected in March.

Cotler, of course, was a Canadian Liberal MP from 1999 to 2015, serving as justice minister and attorney general in Paul Martin’s government. Boutros-Ghali went on to lead the UN in the 1990s, and Tahseen Bashir became Egypt’s Ambassador to Canada in the 1980s.

In thanking Cotler, Levy said the Israeli-Egyptian agreement laid the foundation for the recent normalization of relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan.

When the pandemic is over, Cotler hopes he can facilitate a meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, now that the latter has signaled he wants to reopen talks.

Campaign Seeks to End ‘Illegal” IDF Recruitment in Canada

Oct. 28, 2020

By RON CSILLAG

Progressive activists want Canada to prohibit what they call “illegal” recruitment by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in this country.

In an Oct. 19 letter to federal Justice Minister David Lametti, they called on the government to conduct a “thorough investigation…of those who have facilitated this recruiting for the IDF, and if warranted, that charges be laid against all those involved in recruiting and encouraging recruiting in Canada for the IDF.”

The campaign is being waged by the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute, Palestinian and Jewish Unity, and Just Peace Advocates.

An open letter signed by the American linguist and public intellectual Noam Chomsky, Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, author Yann Martel, and more than 170 Canadians was delivered to Lametti this month asking him to investigate recruitment taking place in Canada for the IDF.

“It is a crime in Canada to recruit anyone for a foreign military,” says a statement from Just Peace Advocates. “It is also a crime to aid and abet such recruitment by offering incentives and encouraging any person to serve in a foreign military.”

The groups cite Canada’s Foreign Enlistment Act, which states that “any person who, within Canada, recruits or otherwise induces any person or body of persons to enlist or to accept any commission or engagement in the armed forces of any foreign state or other armed forces operating in that state is guilty of an offence.”

The groups note that the only exception would be the recruitment of Israeli citizens who are not Canadian.

On “several occasions,” they allege, the Israeli consulate in Toronto “has advertised that they have an IDF representative available for personal appointments for those wishing to join the IDF.”

The consulate has “gone further” and arranged for IDF soldiers and veterans to be present in schools, summer camps and other venues in Canada “with the goal of inducing people to enlist.”

They add that according to one estimate from the CBC, 230 Canadians were serving in the IDF in 2017. “It is unclear how many of these individuals were recruited in ways that violate the Foreign Enlistment Act,” they say.

The campaign made front-page news in Montreal’s Le Devoir newspaper on Oct. 19.

Asked about the effort at an unrelated news conference in Ottawa on Oct. 19, Lametti said “diplomats from another country, therefore the diplomats of Israel who are here, follow Canadian law,” adding that the issue is “a question for investigators [and] the police, to decide whether there have been violations… I will leave the decision to the institutions we have in Canada to monitor the situation.”

Asked by Le Devoir whether he “completely wash[es] his hands” of the matter, Lametti replied that “we have institutions in Canada that are responsible for reacting to such situations. They are not exactly the same institutions in other countries and so as I said in the first answer, I will leave room for the responsible people in Canada to do what needs to be done.”

In a statement to the CJR, Galit Baram, Consul General of Israel in Toronto and Western Canada, said: “In Israel, the law requires compulsory service. Every Israeli, male or female, must serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Israeli citizens living abroad are obligated to settle their status with the Israeli authorities.

“As part of the consular services provided to Israelis living abroad, Israeli diplomatic missions assist in connecting with the IDF authorities. In large Israeli communities abroad, such as Toronto, which is the largest in Canada, a recruiting office representative may be dispatched at times to conduct in-person interviews.

“Israel and Canada are steadfast allies. Any allegations against Israel in this matter are unfounded,” Baram said.

In a similar vein, Israel’s Consul General in Montreal, David Levy, told Le Devoir that “these consular services we provide are reserved for Israeli citizens and do not apply to non-Israelis who volunteer for the army.”

Winnipeg-based lawyer David Matas points out that the Foreign Enlistment Act prohibits enlistment “in the armed forces of any foreign state at war with any friendly foreign state.”

Israel, said Matas, “is not at war with any foreign state which is a friend of Canada.”

He said the prohibition described in the act is limited to recruitment or other inducement.

“The behaviour of the Israeli consulate described in the [letter to Lametti] is not a recruitment or other inducement, since the Israeli announcement is limited to persons who wish to join the Israeli armed forces,” according to Matas, who’s considered an expert in the intersection of Canadian and international law, particularly as it applies to Israel.

“These persons would already have formed the wish to join the forces. There is no inducement nor [does there] need be any for persons who have already formed the wish to join the [IDF].”

Matas said those people “are self induced, not induced by the Israeli consulate.”