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Myths & Facts
The War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War

By Mitchell Bard

After the 1967 War, Israel refused to negotiate a settlement with the Arabs.
The Palestinians were willing to negotiate a settlement after the Six-Day War.
Israel was responsible for the War of Attrition.
Israel rejected Sadat’s reasonable peace offer.
Israel was responsible for the 1973 War.
Egypt and Syria were the only Arab states involved in the 1973 war.

MYTH

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

FACT

By the end of the war, Israel had captured enough territory to more than triple the size of the area it controlled, from 8,000 to 26,000 square miles (20,000 to 67,000 square km.). The victory enabled Israel to unify Jerusalem as well as capture the Sinai, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank.

Israel hoped the Arab states would enter peace negotiations. On June 19, 1967, Israel signaled to the Arab states its willingness to relinquish most of the territory 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.[1] 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.”

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.”[2]

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 of waging a popular war of liberation had grown. Toward that end, Yasser Arafat instigated a campaign of terror from the West Bank. From September through December 1967, 61 attacks were launched, most against civilian targets such as factories, movie theaters, and private homes.[3]

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, Palestinian terrorists hijacked the first aircraft.

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 Eban[4]

MYTH

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 that Israeli morale would be undermined by the relentless casualties. 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.

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.

On August 7, however, the Soviets and Egyptians deployed sophisticated ground-to-air missiles in the restricted thirty-two-mile-deep zone along the west bank of the Suez Canal. This was a violation of the cease-fire agreement, which barred the introduction or construction of any military installations in this area. The “most massive anti-aircraft system ever created” provided air coverage for Egypt’s surprise attack against Israel in 1973.[5] Despite Egypt’s provocative action, the cease-fire held.

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. Egypt suffered approximately 5,000 dead.[6]

MYTH

Israel rejected Sadat’s reasonable peace offer.

FACT

Despite the Egyptian violations, UN-sponsored negotiations 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, Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s new president expressed his willingness “to enter into a peace agreement with Israel” in a February 20, 1971, letter to Jarring. But this seeming moderation masked 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 negotiations. Israel attempted to transform the struggling Jarring mission into bilateral discussions by addressing all letters not to Jarring, but to the Egyptian government. Egypt refused to accept them.

Contrary to revisionist histories suggesting that Israel missed a chance to make peace and avoid the 1973 war by failing to respond favorably to Sadat’s initiatives, Sadat did not sound like a leader interested in peace. He threatened to go to war if a political solution was not achieved and demanded Israel’s complete withdrawal from the Sinai and a resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem, while at the same time declaring he would never establish diplomatic relations with Israel. He also was unwilling to negotiate because of fears he would anger his financial patrons in Libya and Saudi Arabia and possibly lose power. Furthermore, Sadat could not have made peace in 1971 because it would have been from a point of weakness and dishonor.[7]

Five days after Sadat suggested he was ready to make peace with Israel, Mohammed Heikal, the editor of Al-Ahram and a Sadat confidant, 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.[8]

Sadat was only willing to sign a peace agreement if Israel capitulated to all his demands. This was unacceptable to Israel. Moreover, Israelis questioned Sadat’s sincerity after the Egyptian president promised the Palestine National Council meeting in Cairo in 1971 that he would support the PLO “until victory,” and declared that Egypt would not accept Resolution 242.[9]

MYTH

Israel was responsible for the 1973 War.

FACT

Throughout 1972, and for much of 1973, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat threatened war unless the United States forced Israel to accept his interpretation of Resolution 242—total Israeli withdrawal from territories taken in 1967. In an April 1973 interview, Sadat warned he would renew the war with Israel.[10] But it was the same threat he had made in 1971 and 1972, and most observers remained skeptical.

On October 6, 1973—Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar—Egypt and Syria opened a coordinated surprise attack against Israel. The equivalent of the total forces of NATO in Europe was mobilized on Israel’s borders.[11] On the Golan Heights, approximately 180 Israeli tanks faced an onslaught of 1,400 Syrian tanks. Along the Suez Canal, fewer than 500 Israeli defenders were attacked by 80,000 Egyptians.

Thrown onto the defensive during the first two days of fighting, Israel mobilized its reserves and eventually repulsed the invaders and carried the war deep into Syria and Egypt. The Arab states were swiftly resupplied by sea and air from the Soviet Union, which rejected US efforts to work toward an immediate cease-fire. As a result, the United States belatedly began its own airlift to Israel. Two weeks later, Egypt was saved from a disastrous defeat when the Soviets invited Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to Moscow and negotiated the terms for ending the war through a UN Security Council Resolution. The UN, which had failed to act while the tide was in the Arabs’ favor, now acted to save them at the behest of the superpowers.

On October 22, 1973, the Security Council adopted Resolution 338 calling for “all parties to the present fighting to cease all firing and terminate all military activity immediately.” The vote came on the day that Israeli forces cut off and isolated the Egyptian Third Army and were positioned to destroy it.[12]

Despite the Israel Defense Forces’ ultimate success on the battlefield, the war was considered a diplomatic and military failure. A total of 2,688 Israeli soldiers and approximately 19,000 Arabs were killed.

All countries should wage war against the Zionists, who are there to destroy all human organizations and to destroy civilization and the work which good people are trying to do.

—King Faisal of Saudi Arabia[13]

 

MYTH

Egypt and Syria were the only Arab states involved in the 1973 war.

FACT

At least nine Arab states, including four non-Middle Eastern nations, actively aided the Egyptian-Syrian war effort.

A few months before the Yom Kippur War (the Ramadan War to the Arabs), Iraq transferred a squadron of Hunter jets to Egypt. During the war, an Iraqi division of some 18,000 men and several hundred tanks was deployed in the central Golan and participated in the October 16 attack against Israeli positions.[14] Iraqi MiGs began operating over the Golan Heights as early as October 8, the third day of the war.

Besides serving as financial underwriters, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait committed men to battle. A Saudi brigade of approximately 3,000 troops was dispatched to Syria, where it participated in fighting along the approaches to Damascus. Additionally, violating Paris’s ban on the transfer of French-made weapons, Libya sent Mirage fighters to Egypt.[15]

Other North African countries responded to Arab and Soviet calls to aid the frontline states. Algeria sent three aircraft squadrons of fighters and bombers, an armored brigade, and 150 tanks. Approximately 1,000 to 2,000 Tunisian soldiers were positioned in the Nile Delta. Sudan stationed thirty-five hundred troops in southern Egypt, and Morocco sent three brigades to the front lines, including twenty-five hundred men to Syria.

Lebanese radar units were used by Syrian air defense forces. Lebanon also allowed Palestinian terrorists to shell Israeli civilian settlements from its territory. Palestinians fought on the southern front with the Egyptians and Kuwaitis.[16]

The least enthusiastic participant in the October fighting was probably Jordan’s King Hussein. He had actually warned Golda Meir that a war was coming, but couldn’t tell her when because he had been kept uninformed of Egyptian and Syrian war plans.[17] After the war began, Hussein did send two of his best units—the 40th and 60th armored brigades—to Syria. This force took positions in the southern sector, defending the main Amman-Damascus route and attacking Israeli positions along the Kuneitra-Sassa road on October 16. Three Jordanian artillery batteries also participated in the assault, conducted by nearly 100 tanks.[18]


[1] Walter Lacquer, The Road to War, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968), p. 297.

[2] Chaim Herzog, The Arab-Israeli Wars, (NY: Random House, 1984), p. 195.

[3] Netanel Lorch, One Long War, (NY: Herzl Press, 1976), pp. 139–46.

[4] Quoted in Alfred Leroy Atherton, Jr., Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, (Summer 1990).

[5] “World: Buildup on the Suez,” Time, (September 14, 1970); John Pimlott, The Middle East Conflicts from 1945 to the Present, (NY: Crescent Books, 1983), p. 99.

[6] Some 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.

[7] Shlomo Aronson, “On Sadat’s Peace Initiatives in the Wake of the Yom Kippur War”; Mitchell Bard, Will Israel Survive? (NY: Palgrave, 2007), pp. 8–9.

[8] Cited in Anwar Sadat, The Public Diary of President Sadat, Vol 2, (BRILL: 1978), pp. 33–34.

[9] Al-Ahram, (February 25, 1971).

[10] Newsweek, (April 9, 1973).

[11] Herzog, p. 230.

[12] Herzog, p. 280.

[13] Beirut Daily Star, (November 17, 1972).

[14] Trevor Dupuy, Elusive Victory: The Arab-Israeli Wars, 1947–1974, (NY: Harper & Row, 1978), p. 462.

[15] Dupuy, p. 376; Herzog, p. 278; Safran, p. 499.

[16] Herzog, pp. 278, 285, 293; p. Dupuy, 534.

[17] Bernard Avishai, “An Unlikely King: Hussein in War and Peace,” The Nation, (September 3, 2008).

[18] Herzog, p. 300.