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The War of Attrition: Egyptian Strategy in the War of Attrition

by Muhammad Hassanain Haykal

Haykal was a confidant of Anwar Sadat and the editor of the semi-official Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram.

..To my mind there is one chief method which cannot be ignored or avoided in tipping the balance of fear and assurance in the Arab-Israeli conflict in favour of the Arabs. This course, which meets all the requirements and necessities and is in harmony with logic and nature this main course to tip the balance in our favour, or merely precisely to adjust it, is: to inflict a clear defeat on the Israeli Army in battle, in one military battle

I should like to be more specific because there is no room under present conditions for irresponsible talk. I would make the following points: (1) I am not speaking about the enemy's defeat in the war, but his defeat in a battle. There is still a long way to go before the enemy can he defeated in the war. The possibilities for this are still not within sight. But the enemy's defeat in one battle presupposes capabilities which could be available at an early stage in the long period before the end of the war. (2) I am not speaking of a battle on the scale of that of 5th June 1967-a 5th June in reverse, with the Arabs taking the initiative and Israel taken by surprise. Most likely 5th June will not he repeated either in form or in effect. In the coming battle neither we nor the enemy will be taken by surprise ... I am speaking about a limited battle which would result in a clear victory for the Arabs and a clear defeat for Israel naturally within the limits of that battle. (3) The requirements and necessities I am speaking about, and which will impose the military battle, do not include any marked consideration for the so-called revenge for injured Arab dignity....

To these three reservations regarding the battle, which I consider necessary and vital, I should like to add more, in the hope that they swill give a clearer picture of what I am saying ( I ) The current artillery exchanges along the Egyptian front arc not the battle I am thinking of---the battle that I feel the requirements and necessities arc imposing. What I am envisaging is far greater and broader. The artillery exchanges are important. indeed very important, but they are not the battle which can achieve the aim of inflicting a clear defeat on the Israeli Army. (2) Neither are the activities of the resistance organisations at their present level the battle I am thinking of or the battle imposed by the requirements and possibilities.... (3) In simple and general terms the battle I am speaking about ... is one in which the Arab forces might, for example, destroy two or three Israeli Army divisions, annihilate between 10,000 and 20,000 Israeli soldiers, and force the Israeli Army to retreat from the positions it occupies to other positions, even if only a few kilometres back.

I am speaking, then. about a battle and not the war: about a battle that is limited as battles naturally are; about a real battle. however. resulting in a clear defeat for the Israeli Army. Such a limited battle would have unlimited effects on the war....

l. It would destroy a myth which Israel is trying to implant in the minds-the myth that the Israeli Army is invincible. Myths have great psychological effect....

2. The Israeli Army is the backbone of Israeli society. We can say that the greatest achievement placed on record by the Arab resistance against Zionism-an achievement resulting from the simple act of refusal-has been to dispel the Zionist dreams. Because of the Arab refusal. Israel has become a military stronghold and Israeli society has become the society of a besieged stronghold-a military garrison society....

3. Such a battle would reveal to the Israeli citizens a truth which would destroy the effects of the battles of June 1967. In the aftermath of these battles, Israeli society began to believe in the Israeli Army's ability to protect it. Once this belief is destroyed or shaken, once Israeli society begins to doubt its Army's ability to protect it, a series of reactions may set in with unpredictable consequences.

4. Furthermore, such a battle would shake the influence of the ruling military establishment. The establishment has the whip hand in direciting and implementing Israeli policy on the excuse of acting as Israel's sole protector and guardian of Zionist plans.

5. Such a battle would destroy the philosophy of Israeli strategy, which affirms the possibility of "imposing peace" on the Arabs. Imposing peace is in fact, a false expression which actually means "waging war."

6. Such a battle and its consequences would cause the U.S.A. to change its policy towards the Middle East crisis in particular, and towards the Middle East after the crisis in general. There arc two clear features of U-S. policy. One which concerns the Middle East crisis, is that the U.S.A. is not in a hung to help in finding a solution to the crisis. No matter how serious or complicated the situation may become. the U.S.A. will continue to move slowly as long as Israel is militarily in a stronger position. This situation would surely change once the Israel position of strength was shaken.

The other phenomenon concerns the Middle East after its present crisis. It is that the U.S.A. sees in Israel an instrument for attaining its aims in the area. No matter how far the Arabs go in their revolt against the U.S. influence and how much they defy this influence, the U.S. aims are guaranteed as long as Israel remains capable of intimidating the Arabs. If Israel's ability to intimidate becomes doubtful, U.S. policy will have to seek another course. Israel has proved to the U.S.A. that for the time being it is more useful to it than the Arabs. Although all the U.S. interests in the Middle East lie with the Arabs, the U.S.A. continues to support Israel. The strange contradiction in the Middle East at present is that the U.S.A. is protecting its interests in the Arab world by supporting Israel. Israel is thus the gun pointed at the Arabs, the gun which the U.S.A. is brandishing to attain its aims and protect its interests....

After all this, the question remains: is such a battle possible?

The answer is: I do not claim military experience, yet I say that there is no doubt or suspicion as to the possibilities of such a battle which could inflict defeat on the Israeli Army. My belief is based on the following considerations:

1. The only myths in the Israeli system are those fabricated by bold and daring propaganda or by great imagination. Israeli society is not a straw as some believe, nor a rock as others imagine.... Israeli society cannot live independently. It is a society which cannot produce any genuine economic or political force. What matters most is the intrinsic force and not the apparent force, which is deceptive in most cases. Myths that are based on apparent force are bound to be dispelled by experience, especially if met by a capable force.

2. Israel has lost its once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. After 5th June 1967 its myth acquired all the elements it needed. Yet Israel could not attain its goal of turning the end of the battle into the end of the war. Arab steadfastness proved that the battle has ended but the war will continue. Thus Israel has lost its opportunity.

3. In any future battle, the Israeli Army would fight under conditions different from those in all previous battles. The Israeli Army would not he able to advance easily from its present positions along the Jordan river, the Suez Canal and the Golan Heights without finding itself passing through densely populated Arab areas. with the danger that these would absorb all its striking forces, exhaust it and make it easy to pounce on the Israeli Army's scattered remains one by one. With the exception of the Air Force effort, the Isriaeli Army would have to fight a sustained battle or a defensive battle, whereas it is accustomed to fighting offensive battles with its characteristic tactics of indirect approach and fast oulflanking, movements. The Israeli lines of communication between the bases and the fronts have become long and arduous, especially in times of operations. As a result of the long lines of communication it would he impossible for the Israeli Army to nurse quickly on the Arab fronts as it did in the past when it was able to strike on one front and then switch its forces by its short lines of communication to strike at another Arab front... .

4. In any future battle the Israeli Army would face Arab armies with different standards of fire power and its use, different command structures benefiting from past experience, and a higher morale, as the Arab forces would be aware of fighting for the heart of their homeland and not only for its borders.

At the beginning of my article I said that a battle ending in a clear defeat for the Israeli Army should he the chief method of tipping the balance of fear and assurance.... I did not say it is the only method because there are other secondary methods.... I will give the following examples in this respect:

1. Our acceptance of the Security Council resolution on the Middle East-the resolution which international society has endorsed-is a valuable step, particularly since Israel has rejected the resolution and thereby defied the whole of international society. Despite Israel's daily proclaimed disrespect for the international organisation, the question is not so simple. I mean that the Israeli citizens' awareness of being at odds with the entire world will undoubtedly influence their mood, and so affect the balance of fear and assurance in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

2. The Soviet Union's support for the Arabs and its continued help to them in rebuilding their military forces after the tragedy of June 1967 will undoubtedly affect the feelings of the Israeli people in the balance of fear and assurance.

3. France's stand cannot fail to affect the balance of fear and assurance for the Israeli inhabitants who realise that the greater part of their military power in 1967 came from France and that-from 1954 to 1964 at least France was an ally of Israel joined by special ties.

4. The current four-power talks in New York arouse Israel's suspicions, to say the least, because they indicate clearly that the Middle East crisis cannot for long remain confined to the Middle East and that it might lead to a nuclear confrontation between the great Powers. The talks may produce a solution to the problem which-to put it at its lowest-will fail to give Israel everything it feels to be within its reach. Irrespective of their results and what the Arabs think of these results, the talks will play their part in affecting the balance of fear and assurance in the Israeli people's feelings.

Sources: Walter Laqueur and Barry Rubin, ed, The Israel-Arab Reader, (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2001