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The War of Attrition: Background & Overview

(1967 - 1970)

Immediately after the Six-Day War, Israel renewed its quest for a peace agreement with the Arab States. From the outset, its policy was clearly stated by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol: The ceasefire agreements should be replaced by a permanent peace to be negotiated directly between the parties. So long as the Arab States persisted in their belligerency, Israel would stand fast on the ceasefire lines; these would be replaced only by secure, agreed, and recognized borders anchored in peace treaties. To those borders, negotiated directly between Israel and the Arab States, the Israel Defense Forces would withdraw. The Arab response came shortly afterward in the Khartoum Declaration of September 1, 1967. It barred peace with Israel, recognition of Israel, and negotiations with Israel.

As early as July 1, 1967, Egypt began shelling Israeli positions near the Suez Canal. On October 21, 1967, Egypt sank the Israeli destroyer Eilat using Russian-made missiles, killing 47. Less than a year later, Egyptian artillery began to shell Israeli positions along the Suez Canal.

Egyptian President Gamal Nasser believed that because most of Israel’s army consisted of reserves, it could not withstand a lengthy war of attrition. He believed Israel would be unable to endure the economic burden, and the constant casualties would undermine Israeli morale.

Meanwhile, Israel fully subscribed to the formula of President Lyndon Johnson, who, in his June 19, 1967 speech, stated:

The nations of the region have had only fragile and violated truce lines for twenty years. What they now need are recognized boundaries that will give security against terror, destruction and war ... There are some who have urged. ... an immediate return to the situation as it was on 4 June (1967) ... This is not a prescription for peace but for renewed hostilities.”

But as more clashes with Egypt occurred, it appeared that Israel would require additional American military aid. To deepen the understanding with the United States and be assured of continued American support, Premier Eshkol travelled to the United States for a meeting with President Johnson. At the conclusion of the meeting, a joint communique was issued that mentioned America’s agreement to study with sympathy Israel’s arms needs, weapons which Israel urgently sought in view of the massive airlift of Soviet weapons that flowed to Egypt and Syria from the USSR. The Johnson Administration also declared itself fully behind Security Council Resolution 242 and expressed the hope that Ambassador Gunnar Jarring would succeed in his endeavors, which were then getting underway.

Even before Dr. Jarring arrived in the Middle East, basic differences in interpreting Security Council Resolution 242 developed. Israel held that the resolution was a framework of principles within which both sides must arrive at mutual agreement, freely negotiated, on the matters provided for in the resolution. The two principal issues were the establishment of permanent peace and an agreement for the first time on the delineation of secure and recognized boundaries.

The Arab States held that the resolution was self-executing: that it did not require negotiations between the parties and, if necessary, was to be imposed. They argued that the resolution demanded the withdrawal of Israeli troops from all the territories captured in the war, its central provision being, therefore, the restoration of the status quo ante, and once this was attained, the other provisions might be discussed through third parties.

An authoritative interpretation of the resolution was later provided by its author.

Meanwhile, the first phase of the Jarring Mission began. On December 27, 1967, upon Ambassador Jarring’s appointment as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative, Foreign Minister Abba Eban conveyed to him elaborate proposals on an agenda for peace discussions Eban’s letter suggested informal exploration with the Egyptian Government and invited comments and counter-proposals. On January 7, 1968, a similar document was conveyed to Jordan. Egypt and Jordan replied, “that there could be no question of discussion between the parties until the Israeli forces had been withdrawn to the positions occupied by them prior to 5 June 1967.”

On February 12, 1968, Israel notified Ambassador Jarring that it was prepared to negotiate on all matters included in the resolution. There was no response from the Arab side. In March 1968, the Israeli government responded affirmatively to Ambassador Jarring’s proposal for the convening of a conference. Egypt rejected the proposal, while Jordan failed to notify acceptance. A statement by the Permanent Representative of Israel in the Security Council on May 1, 1968, offering to seek agreement with each Arab State, was “not regarded as acceptable by the Arab representatives.”  Israel thereupon went further and stated that it did not stand on procedure, and would be prepared for informal separate discussions on the “Rhodes precedent” and confidential exchanges. Again, there was no response.

Attempts by Jarring to get negotiations going remained to no avail. To avoid even the semblance of contact, or even of undue weight attached to the Mission, the Arab States engaged in a protracted altercation on formalities, such as the venue and level of contacts with Jarring. In March 1969, Jarring undertook a last attempt to elicit replies that might enable him to continue his mission by means of a questionnaire. The attempt was unsuccessful. Egypt and Jordan continued to insist on prior withdrawal. On specific questions, the Arab replies indicated additional difficulties. Questioned about their concept of “secure and recognized boundaries”, the replies referred to the borders of 1947. Nor were Egypt and Jordan prepared to sign a multilateral document. Upon receipt of the replies, the mission was suspended.

The Israeli position was set out in detail by Foreign Minister Eban in the nine-point peace plan he outlined before the General Assembly on October 8, 1968. In that statement, Eban also dealt with the Arab refugee issue. In the course of the Six-Day War and in the weeks following the hostilities, about a quarter of a million Arabs left refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza. In August 1967, Israel offered to repatriate many of them from the East Bank, where they had relocated themselves. The repatriation scheme was started in the middle of August 1967 and, by the end of 1968, some 25,000 Arabs had returned to the West Bank. After having been sealed off in the Gaza Strip for almost twenty years under the Egyptian military administration, which denied them the right to travel, about 35,000 Arabs from the Gaza Strip left for Jordan and other Arab States in the first year after the Six-Day War. Israel also launched a plan of summer visits to the West Bank and later extended the plan on a year-round basis.

A massive artillery barrage, which began on September 8, 1968, signaled the beginning of the second phase in Egypt’s efforts to undo the defeat of the Six-Day War. In the fall of 1968, Nasser proclaimed a new strategy based on three phases: the first was to stand fast; the second to deter Israel; the third, a war of liberation. In the first phase, stress would be laid on the reconstruction of the destroyed Egyptian army with the help of Soviet weapons and instructors. The second phase would be marked by a preventive defense which would ultimately lead to the crossing of the Suez Canal and a victory over Israel.

The Egyptian effort aimed mostly at preventing Israel from building a defense line along the Canal’s east bank. Strafing, sniping, and occasional shelling in the course of 1968 were designed to disturb Israel’s entrenchment works. But, as time went on, it emerged that Egypt was also aiming at undermining the morale of the Israeli forces and telling the world that the situation had become intolerable for Egypt, thus hoping to generate international pressure on Israel to withdraw from the administered areas. On March 8, 1969, Nasser proclaimed that the ceasefire was dead and that a third phase was in progress.

In late 1968, Israel began the construction of a line of defense known later as the Bar-Lev line, and began to strike back at Egypt with its air force, at first in the Canal zone and afterwards, in the beginning of 1970, deep inside Egypt. Israel also carried out amphibious raids across the Red Sea, and in the process won superiority in the air and on the ground. In the course of this War of Attrition, the main cities on the west bank of the Canal were destroyed, and about a million inhabitants had to be evacuated deep into Egypt.

Along the Israel-Jordan and Israel-Syria ceasefire lines, there was a systematic effort by the regular forces of Jordan and Syria, as well as by Palestinian terrorists, to assault Israel. For almost three years, from 1967 to the summer of 1970, life along the Beit She’an Valley was acutely affected by terrorist activity from Jordan. Bazooka and Katyusha missiles were fired from close range into cities and villages, and long-range Jordanian artillery shelled the area. The IDF launched a number of operations across the Jordan, and the shelling of Irbid by Israeli artillery in June 1968 brought some relief to this front. At the same time, constant patrolling of the border and the construction of an electronic fence along the 100-mile river line resulted in a steady diminution of terrorist acts from across the river. The failure of the terrorists to win shelter, food and information, or to arouse a substantial following in the administered areas, lessened their menace. Their efforts to create bases inside Israel and inside the administered areas or to turn the border zones of Jordan into “liberated areas,” failed.

The inability of the terrorists to disrupt life inside Israel was due to effective control by Israeli security personnel and, above all, to the Open Bridges policy and gradual improvement of the economic situation in territories under Israeli control. The normalization of life in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and on the Golan Heights was achieved with minimal interference in the life of the areas.

In the summer of 1970 – Black September – Jordan was threatened by a Palestinian effort to overthrow the government. King Hussein’s forces, backed by Israeli threats to intervene, drove many of them into Syria and southern Lebanon (where they would later provoke a war with Israel).

The arrival of thousands of terrorists in late 1968 and, especially in 1970, presented Lebanon with a grave situation. Beirut became the open center of terrorist groups: they were able to move freely there, armed and in defiance of local authority. When raids were launched from southern Lebanon into Israel, the IDF took action and, on occasion, destroyed terrorist centers. Beirut also became the departure point for saboteurs on their way to Europe on missions to attack Israeli personnel and offices. In response to an attack on an Israeli airliner in Athens airport in December 1968, Israeli soldiers destroyed 13 civilian planes at Beirut airport without causing the loss of a single life.

In November 1969, the Lebanese Government signed an agreement with the leaders of Al-Fatah (the so-called Cairo Agreement), which permitted the terrorists to operate against Israeli targets from across the border. Israel announced that it would not tolerate such attacks and that Lebanon would be held accountable for any attack originating in its territory. From Beirut came the terrorists who killed innocent travelers at Lod airport in May 1972, assassinated Israeli athletes in the Olympic village at Munich in September 1972 and carried out many other attacks on Israelis in Europe. Most of the hijackers of civilian airliners came from Beirut, which was the scene of an IDF attack in 1973 in which a number of terrorist leaders were killed.

On the diplomatic front, there was no sign of any progress in the Jarring Mission. In early 1969, France proposed a Four-Power conference on the Middle East and, in April 1969, the United Nations ambassadors of the Four Powers – the United States, France, Britain and the Soviet Union – began a series of consultations in New York. The two superpowers soon assumed the decisive role. Most of the powers feared military tensions would increase if the Jarring Mission failed and hoped the talks might prevent war. The Arab States became convinced, however, that their belligerence would bear fruit and that they could achieve by diplomatic pressure what they were unable to gain on the battlefield.

Israel was opposed to an imposed settlement by the United States or anyone else, which the government believed would create unsurmountable grievances and carry with it the seeds of a new conflict. Likewise, Israel objected to any move that might result in a change in Jarring’s mandate and grant the Powers the status of a body authorized to dictate terms to the UN envoy. Furthermore, as long as the illusion was maintained that a solution was possible without negotiations, the cause of peace was not being advanced.

The pressure on Israel was partly relieved by the inability of the Soviets and the Americans to agree on a way to move forward in the early months of 1970, with the former more interested in dictating the outcome and the latter in negotiations. “The Soviet Union tried to draw a final political and territorial blueprint, including final boundaries, instead of launching a process of negotiation,” according to President Richard Nixon.

Nixon also complained about the Soviet military build-up and refusal to consider an agreement on arms control to the Middle East added to the disagreement:

The Great Powers also have a responsibility to enhance, not to undermine, the basic conditions of stability in the area ... Injecting the global strategic rivalry into the region is incompatible with Middle Eastern peace. . . “ (President Richard Nixon’s Report to Congress of February 9, 1972).

Meetings between the representatives of the powers became sporadic in 1970 and lost their significance.

Prime Minister Eshkol died suddenly on February 26, 1969. He was succeeded by Golda Meir, who pledged herself to carry out the policies of her late predecessor. Shortly after assuming office, the new premier paid a visit to Washington and held talks with President Nixon and senior members of his cabinet. She reasserted Israel’s willingness to enter into Rhodes-type conversations with the Arab States (referring to armistice talks following the 1948 War). The Egyptian Foreign Minister declared in Washington on September 25 that his country was willing to adopt something like the Rhodes formula, but Cairo disavowed his words. Egypt still declined to enter into any kind of negotiations with Israel.

Meanwhile, as the War of Attrition was being fought with aircraft, missiles, artillery and commando units, the United States took an initiative. On December 9, 1969, Secretary of State Rogers presented a plan for an Israel-Egypt settlement; it was the same plan that the U.S. submitted to the Soviets on October 28. A day later, Israel rejected the plan because it disregarded the essential need to determine secure and agreed borders through the signing of peace treaties by direct negotiations. On December 18, the U.S. submitted proposals for an Israel-Jordan settlement to the Four Powers. Israel declined to accept this plan, as well.

In early 1970, the Two-Power and the Four-Power talks were stalemated by basic differences of view among the powers. The Soviet Union was by then fully committed to Egypt and, in the first months of 1970, Soviet pilots began to fly Egyptian aircraft and Soviet ground personnel manned Egyptian anti-aircraft missile batteries mounted some forty miles from the Suez Canal. In April 1970, Soviet pilots were flying operational missions over Egypt.

American efforts to reach an accord with Moscow on the basis of the Rogers Plan, efforts that began in September 1968, failed. Attempts to reach an agreement with the Soviets on the control of arms and new border lines in the Middle East also failed.

As the military situation was becoming precarious for Egypt, Nasser told the United States, through Assistant Secretary Sisco, that he would be willing to welcome new diplomatic moves from Washington. Israel, too, was willing to explore new ideas. On June 19, 1970, Secretary Rogers announced a new plan. It contained an acceptance by Israel and Egypt of a 90-day ceasefire and of a military standstill zone on each side of the Suez Canal; Israel, Egypt, and Jordan would again seek Ambassador Jarring’s good offices to reach an agreement based on Resolution 242. After obtaining further clarification, Israel accepted the idea in principle. Egypt and Jordan also accepted it, and the ceasefire went into effect on midnight August 7.

The bloody War of Attrition lasted roughly three years. Israel lost 15 combat aircraft, most shot down by anti­aircraft guns and missiles. The Israeli death toll between June 15, 1967, and August 8, 1970, was 1,424 soldiers and more than 100 civilians. Another 2,000 soldiers and 700 civilians were wounded.

Source: Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Photo: INS Eilat, קודקוד צהוב, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.