Myths & Facts Online

The War of Attrition, 1967-1970

By Mitchell G. Bard


“The Palestinians were willing to negotiate a settlement after the Six-Day War.”
“After the 1967 war, Israel refused to negotiate a settlement with the Arabs.”
“According to Security Council Resolution 242, Israel’s acquisition of territory through the 1967 war is ’inadmissible.’”
“Resolution 242 requires Israel to return to its pre-1967 boundaries.”
“Resolution 242 recognizes a Palestinian right to self-determination.”
“The Arab states and the PLO accepted Resolution 242 whereas Israel rejected it.”
“Israel was responsible for The War of Attrition.”
“Egypt terminated the War of Attrition and offered peace to Israel, only to have Jerusalem spurn these initiatives.”

MYTH

“The Palestinians were willing to negotiate a settlement after the Six-Day War.”

FACT

The Arab League created the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Cairo in 1964 as a weapon against Israel. Until the Six-Day War, the PLO engaged in terrorist attacks that contributed to the momentum toward conflict. Neither the PLO nor any other Palestinian groups campaigned for Jordan or Egypt to create an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. The focus of Palestinian activism was on the destruction of Israel.

After the Arab states were defeated in 1967, the Palestinians did not alter their basic objective. With one million Arabs coming under Israeli rule, some Palestinians believed the prospect for waging a popular war of liberation had grown. Toward that end, Yasser Arafat instigated a campaign of terror from the West Bank. During September-December 1967, 61 attacks were launched, most against civilian targets such as factories, movie theaters and private homes.1

Israeli security forces gradually became more effective in thwarting terrorist plans inside Israel and the territories. Consequently, the PLO began to pursue a different strategy — attacking Jews and Israeli targets abroad. In early 1968, the first of many aircraft was hijacked by Palestinian terrorists.

MYTH

“After the 1967 war, Israel refused to negotiate a settlement with the Arabs.”

FACT

After its victory in the Six-Day War, Israel hoped the Arab states would enter peace negotiations. Israel signaled to the Arab states its willingness to relinquish virtually all the territories it acquired in exchange for peace. As Moshe Dayan put it, Jerusalem was waiting only for a telephone call from Arab leaders to start negotiations.2

But these hopes were dashed in August 1967 when Arab leaders meeting in Khartoum adopted a formula of three noes: “no peace with Israel, no negotiations with Israel, no recognition of Israel....”3

As former Israeli President Chaim Herzog wrote: “Israel’s belief that the war had come to an end and that peace would now reign along the borders was soon dispelled. Three weeks after the conclusion of hostilities, the first major incident occurred on the Suez Canal.”4

 

“The Arabs say they want their territory back, but they don’t want to talk to us, and they don’t want to negotiate with us, and they don’t want to recognize us. They want peace by immaculate conception.”

 Abba Eban4a

MYTH

“According to Security Council Resolution 242, Israel’s acquisition of territory through the 1967 war is ‘inadmissible.’”

FACT

On November 22, 1967, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 242, establishing the principles that were to guide the negotiations for an Arab-Israeli peace settlement. This resolution was a tortuously negotiated compromise between competing proposals.

The first point addressed by the resolution is the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” Some people take this to mean that Israel is required to withdraw from all the territories it captured. On the contrary, the reference clearly applies only to an offensive war. If not, the resolution would provide an incentive for aggression. If one country attacks another, and the defender repels the attack and acquires territory in the process, the former interpretation would require the defender to return all the land it took. Thus, aggressors would have little to lose because they would be insured against the main consequence of defeat.

“This is the first war in history which has ended with the victors suing for peace and the vanquished calling for unconditional surrender.”

 Abba Eban5

The ultimate goal of 242, as expressed in paragraph 3, is the achievement of a “peaceful and accepted settlement.” This means a negotiated agreement based on the resolution’s principles rather than one imposed upon the parties. This is also the implication of Resolution 338, according to Arthur Goldberg, the American ambassador who led the delegation to the UN in 1967.6 That resolution, adopted after the 1973 war, called for negotiations between the parties to start immediately and concurrently with the cease­fire.

MYTH

“Resolution 242 requires Israel to return to its pre-1967 boundaries.”

FACT

The most controversial clause in Resolution 242 is the call for the “Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” This is linked to the second unambiguous clause calling for “termination of all claims or states of belligerency” and the recognition that “every State in the area” has the “right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”

The resolution does not make Israeli withdrawal a prerequisite for Arab action. Moreover, it does not specify how much territory Israel is required to give up. The Security Council did not say Israel must withdraw from “all the” territories occupied after the Six-Day War. This was quite deliberate. The Soviet delegate wanted the inclusion of those words and said that their exclusion meant “that part of these territories can remain in Israeli hands.” The Arab states pushed for the word “all” to be included, but this was rejected. They nevertheless asserted that they would read the resolution as if it included the word “all.” The British Ambassador who drafted the approved resolution, Lord Caradon, declared after the vote: “It is only the resolution that will bind us, and we regard its wording as clear.”7

This literal interpretation, without the implied “all,” was repeatedly declared to be the correct one by those involved in drafting the resolution. On October 29, 1969, for example, the British Foreign Secretary told the House of Commons the withdrawal envisaged by the resolution would not be from “all the territories.”8 When asked to explain the British position later, Lord Caradon said: “It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of June 4, 1967, because those positions were undesirable and artificial.”9

Similarly, U.S. Ambassador Arthur Goldberg explained: “The notable omissions — which were not accidental — in regard to withdrawal are the words ‘the’ or ‘all’ and the ‘June 5, 1967 lines’...the resolution speaks of withdrawal from occupied territories without defining the extent of withdrawal.”10

The resolutions clearly call on the Arab states to make peace with Israel. The principal condition is that Israel withdraw from “territories occupied” in 1967. Since Israel withdrew from approximately 94 percent of the territories when it gave up the Sinai, the Gaza Strip and portions of West Bank, it has already partially, if not wholly, fulfilled its obligation under 242. The Arab states also objected to the call for “secure and recognized boundaries” because they feared this implied negotiations with Israel. The Arab League explicitly ruled this out at Khartoum in August 1967, when it proclaimed the three “noes.” Amb.Goldberg explained that this phrase was specifically included because the parties were expected to make “territorial adjustments in their peace settlement encompassing less than a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied territories, inasmuch as Israel’s prior frontiers had proved to be notably insecure.” The question, then, is whether Israel has to give up any additional territory. Now that peace agreements have been signed with Egypt and Jordan, and Israel has withdrawn to the international border with Lebanon, the only remaining territorial disputes are with the Palestinians (who are not even mentioned in 242) and Syria.

The dispute with Syria is over the Golan Heights. Israel has repeatedly expressed a willingness to negotiate a compromise in exchange for peace; however, Syria has refused to consider even a limited peace treaty unless Israel first agrees to a complete withdrawal. Under 242, Israel has no obligation to withdraw from any part of the Golan in the absence of a peace accord with Syria.

Meanwhile, other Arab states — such as Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Libya— continue to maintain a state of war with Israel, or have refused to grant Israel diplomatic recognition, even though they have no territorial disputes with Israel. These states have nevertheless conditioned their relations (at least rhetorically) on an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders.

Although ignored by most analysts, Resolution 242 does have other provisions. One requirement is that freedom of navigation be guaranteed. This clause was included because a principal cause of the 1967 war was Egypt’s blockade of the Strait of Tiran.

“There are some who have urged, as a single, simple solution, an immediate return to the situation as it was on June 4….this is not a prescription for peace but for renewed hostilities.”

President Lyndon Johnson, speech on June 19, 1967

MYTH

“Resolution 242 recognizes a Palestinian right to self-determination.”

FACT

The Palestinians are not mentioned anywhere in Resolution 242. They are only alluded to in the second clause of the second article of 242, which calls for “a just settlement of the refugee problem.” Nowhere does it require that Palestinians be given any political rights or territory.

MYTH

“The Arab states and the PLO accepted Resolution 242 whereas Israel rejected it.”

FACT

The Arab states have traditionally said they accepted 242 as defined by them, that is, as requiring Israel’s total, unconditional withdrawal from the disputed territories.

In a statement to the General Assembly on October 15, 1968, the PLO rejected Resolution 242, insisting, “the implementation of said resolution will lead to the loss of every hope for the establishment of peace and security in Palestine and the Middle East region.”

By contrast, Ambassador Abba Eban expressed Israel’s position to the Security Council on May 1, 1968: “My government has indicated its acceptance of the Security Council resolution for the promotion of agreement on the establishment of a just and lasting peace. I am also authorized to reaffirm that we are willing to seek agreement with each Arab State on all matters included in that resolution.”

It took nearly a quarter century, but the PLO finally agreed that Resolutions 242 and 338 should be the basis for negotiations with Israel when it signed the Declaration of Principles in September 1993.

MYTHMYTH

“Israel was responsible for the War of Attrition.”

FACT

Egypt’s President Gamal Nasser thought 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. To pursue this strategy of slowly weakening Israel, Nasser ordered attacks on Israel that were calibrated so that they would not provoke an all-out Israeli war in response.

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, killing 47. A few months later, Egyptian artillery began to shell Israeli positions along the Suez Canal and Israeli military patrols were ambushed. This bloody War of Attrition, as it became known, lasted three years. The Israeli death toll between June 15, 1967, and August 8, 1970 (when a cease-fire was declared), was 1,424 soldiers and more than 100 civilians. Another 2,000 soldiers and 700 civilians were wounded.11

MYTH

“Egypt terminated the War of Attrition and offered peace to Israel, only to have Jerusalem spurn these initiatives.”

FACT

In the summer of 1970, the United States persuaded Israel and Egypt to accept a cease-fire. This cease-fire was designed to lead to negotiations under UN auspices. Israel declared that it would accept the principle of withdrawal from territories it had captured.

But on August 7, the Soviets and Egyptians deployed sophisticated ground-to-air SAM-2 and SAM-3 missiles in the restricted 32-mile-deep zone along the west bank of the Suez Canal. This was a clear violation of the cease-fire agreement, which barred the introduction or construction of any military installations in this area.

Time magazine observed that U.S. reconnaissance “showed that the 36 SAM-2 missiles sneaked into the cease-fire zone constitute only the first line of the most massive anti-aircraft system ever created.”12

Defense Department satellite photos demonstrated conclusively that 63 SAM-2 sites were installed in a 78-mile band between the cities of Ismailia and Suez. Three years later, these missiles provided air coverage for Egypt’s surprise attack against Israel.13

Despite the Egyptian violations, the UN-sponsored talks resumed — additional evidence that Israel was anxious to make progress toward peace. The talks were swiftly short-circuited, however, by UN Special Envoy Gunnar Jarring, when he accepted the Egyptian interpretation of Resolution 242 and called for Israel’s total withdrawal to the pre-June 5, 1967, demarcation lines.

On that basis, Egypt expressed its willingness “to enter into a peace agreement with Israel” in a February 20, 1971, letter to Jarring. But this seeming moderation masked an unchanging Egyptian irredentism and unwillingness to accept a real peace, as shown by the letter’s sweeping reservations and preconditions. The crucial sentences about a “peace agreement with Israel” were neither published nor broadcast in Egypt. Moreover, Egypt refused to enter direct talks. Israel attempted to at least transform the struggling Jarring mission into indirect talks by addressing all letters not to Jarring, but to the Egyptian government. Egypt refused to accept them.

Just after the letter to Jarring, Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s new president, addressed the Palestine National Council (PNC) meeting in Cairo. He promised support to the PLO “until victory” and declared that Egypt would not accept Resolution 242.14

Five days after Sadat suggested he was ready to make peace with Israel, Mohammed Heikal, a Sadat confidant and editor of the semi-official Al-Ahram, wrote:

Arab policy at this stage has but two objectives. The first, the elimination of the traces of the 1967 aggression through an Israeli withdrawal from all the territories it occupied that year. The second objective is the elimination of the traces of the 1948 aggression, by the means of the elimination of the State of Israel itself. This is, however, as yet an abstract, undefined objective, and some of us have erred in commencing the latter step before the former.15

MYTH

“Israel’s rejection of Egyptian peace initiatives led to the Yom Kippur War.”

FACT

With the collapse of the Jarring mission, the United States undertook a new initiative. It proposed an Israeli-Egyptian interim agreement, calling for Israel’s partial withdrawal from the Suez Canal and the opening of that waterway.

Israel was willing to enter negotiations without preconditions, but Sadat demanded that Israel agree, as part of an interim agreement, to withdraw ultimately to the old 1967 lines. In effect, Sadat was seeking an advance guarantee of the outcome of “negotiations.” This was unacceptable to Israel and suggested that Sadat was not genuinely interested in peace.

Notes

1Netanel Lorch, One Long War, (Jerusalem: Keter, 1976), pp. 139-146.
2Walter Lacquer, The Road to War, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968), p. 297.
3Yehuda Lukacs, Documents on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict 1967-1983, (NY: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 213.
4Chaim Herzog, The Arab-Israeli Wars, (NY: Random House, 1982), p. 195.
4aQuoted in Alfred Leroy Atherton, Jr., Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, (Summer 1990).
5Abba Eban, Abba Eban, (NY: Random House, 1977), p. 446.
6Jerusalem Post, (May 28, 1984).
7Prosper Weil, “Territorial Settlement in the Resolution of November 22, 1967,” in John Moore, ed., The Arab-Israeli Conflict, (NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974), p. 321.
8Eban, p. 452.
9Beirut Daily Star, (June 12, 1974).
10Speech to AIPAC Policy Conference, (May 8, 1973).
11Some historians consider the starting date of the War of Attrition in 1968 or 1969. We are using Chaim Herzog’s time frame. Chaim Herzog, The Arab-Israeli Wars, (NY: Random House, 1984), pp. 195-221; Nadav Safran, Israel The Embattled Ally, (MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), p. 266.
12Time, (September 14, 1970).
13 Pimlott, The Middle East Conflicts From 1945 to the Present, (NY: Crescent Books, 1983), p. 99.
14Radio Cairo, (February 27, 1971).
15Al-Ahram, (February 25, 1971).

Map courtesy of IRIS


See also: History of Israel
Peace Process
United Nations

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