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From the War of Attrition to the 1973 Yom Kippur War

(August 1970 - October 1973)

On the night of August 7, 1970, aided and abetted by the Soviet Union, Egypt began to move heavy weapons and constructed new sites for SA-2 and SA-3 missiles in the area declared to be a standstill military zone within 50 kilometers to the east and west of the Suez Canal. This was a flagrant and extremely grave violation of the cease-fire that had just been signed to halt fighting in what had become the War of Attrition. On August 13, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan informed the Knesset of it.

Israel complained to the U.S. which, on August 19, announced that there had been a forward deployment of missiles, but it was not until September 3 that the Department of State confirmed that there had been breaches of the cease-fire and standstill agreement. On September 6, Israel announced that in view of the new situation created along the Suez Canal, it was suspending its participation in the Jarring talks. By then it was clear that no amount of diplomatic activity would rectify the new military consequences, whose gravity was seen in the first days of the Yom Kippur War.

President Nasser died in September 1970 and was succeeded by Anwar Sadat, who, in November, agreed to an extension of the cease-fire by three months. By then, the United States, having re-examined the balance of power in the Middle East and, following a visit by Prime Minister Golda Meir to Washington, announced that Israel would get additional fighter bombers and that the Nixon Administration was seeking an appropriation of 500 million dollars as credit to Israel to enable it to purchase arms in the U.S.

On December 28, 1970 – after renewed Israel-U.S. consultations – Israel declared its readiness to resume its participation in the Jarring talks. In February 1971, Jarring made another attempt to break the deadlock created by Arab refusal to negotiate, even indirectly, prior to obtaining an Israeli withdrawal. He requested a commitment (a) from Israel to withdraw completely to the British Mandatory border; (b) from Egypt to enter a peace agreement with Israel. Israel was willing to enter into talks looking toward agreement on secure and recognized boundaries but not to agree in advance to withdraw to the former international border. Israel reiterated its desire on February 26 – to sign binding peace treaties and requested that now that both sides had stated their basic position they should “pursue their negotiations in a detailed and concrete manner without prior conditions.”

The Egyptian agreement of February 15 was made contingent on the automatic implementation of the November 22, 1967 resolution. This referred particularly to the implementation of total withdrawal. In vital respects, the Egyptian interpretation of the resolution, as spelled out in the Egyptian reply, was simply a restatement of the position taken by Egypt before the 1967 war

Egypt undertook to ensure “the freedom of navigation in the Suez Canal in accordance with the 1888 Constantinople Convention” and that of navigation in the Straits of Tiran “in accordance with the principles of international law.” The refugee problem should be settled “in accordance with United Nations resolutions.”

There were other points of this nature. Not a single issue contained in the resolution was mentioned in the Egyptian letter as being subject to negotiation.

In view of this stalemate, the Jarring Mission was again suspended.

Efforts were now concentrated on reaching a partial solution for the reopening of the Suez Canal. The idea had been raised by Israel as early as 1968, but Egypt opposed it.

On February 4, 1971, when announcing Egypt’s agreement to a final extension of the cease-fire for a period of 30 days, President Sadat made the following statement:

We demand that during this cease-fire period there should be a partial Israeli withdrawal along the east bank of the Suez Canal. This should be the first stage in a time-table which will later be drawn up for the implementation of the other paragraphs of the Security Council Resolution. If this is carried out in this period, we shall be ready to immediately commence clearing the bed of the Suez Canal in preparation for reopening it to international shipping and to serve the national economy.

In a policy statement in the Knesset on February 9, 1971, Prime Minister Meir outlined the Israel position as follows:

We are in favor of opening the Suez Canal to free navigation and would even willingly discuss proposals aimed at normalization of civilian life in that area and mutual de-escalation of the military line-up.

Early in May 1971, when U.S. Secretary of State Rogers visited the area, the Egyptians elaborated their position. The principal points were:

a. The Egyptian initiative for opening the Suez Canal was still in force, but the partial withdrawal was not a separate solution and not a partial solution.
b. Immediately following the beginning of partial withdrawal, Egypt was ready to clear the Canal and to agree to a cease-fire of a limited period to allow Jarring to prepare a time-table for full withdrawal
c. The Egyptian armed forces will cross the Suez Canal.
d. The purpose of the limited cease-fire which Egypt agrees to was to allow Jarring to bring about full Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territories.

Israel, too, amplified its position in discussions with Mr. Rogers in the beginning of May. At their conclusion, it was clear that disagreement regarding the interim agreement reflected disagreement on the fundamental issues regarding the overall settlement. To Egypt it was linked to the final recovery of all territories. It was part of its execution; the remainder being left to modalities to be worked out by Jarring. To Israel it was only acceptable if it did not confirm that territories would be returned without negotiations on secure borders. The U.S. position was that an interim agreement offered the most effective chance for progress if it could remain unconnected with the contentious fundamental issues.

This view was given expression in President Nixon’s Report to Congress of February 9, 1972. In the section on “Issues for the Future,” he said: “The interim approach, if it is to succeed, must find a way to make progress on practical and partial aspects of the situation without raising all the contentious issues that obstruct a comprehensive solution.”

This position was reiterated by Secretary of State Rogers in a speech delivered in New York on January 18, 1973, when he said that 1973 was “a favorable time for negotiations,” that the American proposal (on an interim agreement) would be but “a first decisive step” to reaching the final settlement of the Arab-Israel conflict, but that an interim step was needed first and “the most realistic approach, we continue to believe, would be to begin with negotiations on an interim Suez agreement. We will be active in ascertaining if and how we can help the parties initiate a genuine negotiating process.”

Despite Egyptian reticence, Israel consistently announced that in its view an interim agreement would have a wholesome effect on the situation and that it was ready to make every effort to achieve it. At the same time, Israel remained prepared to engage in peace negotiations with every Arab state that indicated its willingness.

In the meantime, there had been a radical change in the situation in other Arab states. Jordan was able to fight off the Palestinian groups that menaced the regime and, in another round, in the summer of 1971, the remnants were driven off to Syria and Lebanon. Terrorist activity against Israel and Israeli personnel and installations in Europe and Latin America increased. No Arab state was ready to dissociate itself from the many crimes committed by the Black September and other organizations. On the contrary, the terrorists were aided materially and morally by Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria and Iraq. But there had been few acts of terror inside Israel or the administered areas since late 1969.

The Jarring mission having bogged down, and Israeli policy in the administered areas achieving noted success, King Hussein was moved, in March 1972, to announce a new plan for a federation between Jordan, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip when the Israeli occupation should end. But the plan did not mention any peace with Israel. On March 16, Prime Minister Meir told the Knesset that the king must deal with Israel, and only then could he proceed to discuss new territorial and political arrangements.

In the course of 1971-73, President Sadat entrenched his position. In spite of a fifteen-year mutual defense treaty between Egypt and the Soviet Union, relations between the two States grew cooler. Sadat’s demands for assault weapons were not always met, and his incessant threats to start hostilities against Israel did not provoke the pressures he had hoped would be exerted upon Israel. He realized that important changes were occurring on the international scene. The United States policy of rapprochement with China and the Soviet Union ushered in a new era of detente and the solution of conflicts by negotiation and recognition of new realities. The two superpowers tried their utmost to avoid another war in the Middle East and a possible confrontation between them. At the Soviet-American summit in Moscow in May 1972, President Nixon and Party Secretary Brezhnev issued an appeal to the parties to renew the Jarring mission and seek a peaceful settlement of the conflict. Following the summit, President Sadat announced in July 1972 that he had asked the Soviet Government to recall most of its technicians and advisers from Egypt. This move prompted Prime Minister Meir to renew her appeal to Sadat to seek peace.

There was little diplomatic activity in 1973. Israel’s major concern became the fight against terror. Israeli leaders began to formulate their views on the Palestinian issue. In the summer of 1973, while Israel was engaged in an election campaign, Sadat and Syrian President Hafez Assad were already completing plans for the resumption of the war. Israel had called up reserves in May 1973 because of an alert which proved to be false.

By late summer, the Syrian and Egyptian forces were deployed in battle positions along the Suez Canal and the Golan Heights cease-fire lines. Israel was repeatedly asked by the United States not to take any pre-emptive action to forestall an attack on it.

On September  22, 1973, Sadat informed Party Secretary Brezhnev of his intention to renew the war on October 6. As Israelis were observing the Day of Atonement, Egypt and Syria struck – the Yom Kippur War had begun.

Source: “The War of Attrition and the Cease Fire-Introduction,” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs.