Sadat and the Road to Jerusalem: Bold Gestures and Risk Acceptance in the Search for Peace (Published in International Security)

Why do leaders undertake bold, risky conciliatory gestures? In international relations, states are cautioned against extending such olive branches to rivals since they denote weakness, leave the state vulnerable to noncooperation, and expose decisionmakers to personal and political dangers.  Despite these risks, leaders still initiate conciliation by undertaking bold instead of small or modest gestures, raising questions over why leaders accept such gambles when much less costly avenues exist to engage adversaries. To shed light on this puzzle, I examine Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s shocking decision to travel to Jerusalem on November 19, 1977.  This article distinguishes itself from the many others that have been written on this case study because it makes use of recently declassified archival sources from Israel and the U.S. to provide a more thorough and nuanced historical account of Sadat’s decision. I find that prospect theory explains Sadat’s willingness to accept risks but is insufficient to account for Sadat’s adoption of a reassurance-based influence strategy. Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem was motivated by a desire to reduce Israel’s mistrust of Egypt by showing the latter’s ability to empathize with the Jewish state’s fears and security concerns. Together, these explanations provide a distinct psychological explanation of the process through which Sadat reached his consequential decision.

Dissertation Summary

The conventional argument in the international relations and social-psychological literature maintains that states should employ an incremental, or step-by-step, approach to initiate conciliation with their adversaries. Decision-makers are cautioned against making large, costly conciliatory gestures since they denote weakness, embolden rivals, and expose them to political pressure. Given these risks, it is puzzling why some leaders undertake bold conciliatory gestures when smaller, less radical avenues exist to engage rivals.  My dissertation applies theories and approaches from political psychology to examine why, and the conditions under which, decision-makers extend these types of olive branches in international relations. I employ a least-similar cases research design and select several rivalries – Egypt-Israel (1973-1979), the U.S.-the Soviet Union (1985-1988), and India-Pakistan (1998-2004) – to examine these questions. I found that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee undertook bold moves when they confronted strong, hawkish governments; when they found the rivalry costly to sustain; and when negotiations reached a deadlock. In each case, the leaders were personally involved in shaping and deciding on these initiatives since they were disillusioned with either their foreign policy bureaucracy or with third-party intermediaries. Showing considerable empathy, they were motivated to undertake such gestures to mitigate their rivals’ insecurity and remove the psychological barriers such as fear and mistrust that, they believed, had stalemated negotiations.

Book Project

The premise for my book project originates from my dissertation, in which I studied  Sadat’s, Gorbachev’s, and Vajpayee’s motivations to undertake bold gestures.  I am presently expanding on this foundation I have already laid to explore how receivers, or targets, perceive these signals and more generally, ascertain what short and long-term effects bold gestures have on the rivalry dyad.