The War of Attrition

Israel Table of Contents

The tarnished legitimacy of the Arab states following the June 1967 War was especially poignant in Egypt. Israeli troops were situated on the east bank of the Suez Canal, the canal was closed to shipping, and Israel was occupying a large piece of Egyptian territory. Nasser responded by maintaining a constant state of military activity along the canal--the so-called War of Attrition-- between February 1969 and August 1970. Given the wide disparity in the populations of Israel and Egypt, Israel could not long tolerate trading casualties with the Egyptians. The Israeli government, now led by Golda Meir, pursued a policy of "asymmetrical response"-- retaliation on a scale far exceeding any individual attack.

As the tension along the Egyptian border continued to heat, United States secretary of state William Rogers proposed a new peace plan. In effect, the Rogers Plan was an interpretation of UN Security Council Resolution 242; it called for the international frontier between Egypt and Israel to be the secure and recognized border between the two countries. There would be "a formal state of peace between the two, negotiations on Gaza and Sharm ash Shaykh, and demilitarized zones." In November Israel rejected the offer, and in January 1970 Israeli fighter planes made their first deep penetration into Egypt.

Following the Israeli attack, Nasser went to Moscow requesting advanced surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and other military equipment. After some wavering, the Kremlin committed itself to modernizing and retraining the Egyptian military. Egypt's new Soviet-made arsenal threatened to alter the regional military balance with Israel. The tension in Israeli-Soviet relations escalated in July 1970, when Israeli fighter planes shot down four Egyptian planes flown by Soviet pilots about thirty kilometers west of the canal. Fearing Soviet retaliation, and uncertain of American support, Israel in August accepted a cease-fire and the application of Resolution 242.

Following the June 1967 War, the PLO established in Jordan its major base of operations for the war against Israel. Throughout the late 1960s, a cycle of Palestinian guerrilla attacks followed by Israeli retaliatory raids against Jordan caused much damage to Jordan. In September 1970, after militant factions of the PLO (who previously had stated that "the road to Tel Aviv lies through Amman") hijacked four foreign planes and forced them to land in Jordan, King Hussein decided it was time to act. Throughout September the Jordanian military launched an attack to push the PLO out of Jordan. Jordan's attack on the PLO led to an escalation of Syrian-Israeli tensions. It was widely believed in Washington that deployment of Israeli troops along the Jordan River had deterred a large-scale Syrian invasion of Jordan. As a result, President Richard M. Nixon increasingly viewed Israel as an important strategic asset, and the Rogers Plan was allowed to die.

While negotiating a cease-fire to the conflict in Jordan, Nasser died of a heart attack. The new Egyptian president, Anwar as Sadat, quickly realized, just as Nasser had toward the end of his life, that Egypt's acute economic and social problems were more pressing than the conflict with Israel. Sadat believed that by making peace with Israel Egypt could reduce its huge defense burden and obtain desperately needed American financial assistance. He realized, however, that before some type of arrangement with Israel could be reached, Egypt would have to regain the territory lost to Israel in the June 1967 War. To achieve these ends, Sadat launched a diplomatic initiative as early as 1971, aimed at exchanging territory for peace. On February 4, 1971, he told the Egyptian parliament:

that if Israel withdrew her forces in Sinai to the passes I would be willing to reopen the Suez Canal; to have my forces cross to the East Bank . . . to make a solemn declaration of a cease-fire; to restore diplomatic relations with the United States and to sign a peace agreement with Israel through the efforts of Dr. Jarring, the representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations.

Sadat's peace initiative, similar to the Rogers Plan, was not warmly received in Israel. Prime Minister Golda Meir stated unequivocally that Israel would never return to the prewar borders. She also commissioned the establishment of a settlement on occupied Egyptian territory at Yamit, near the Gaza Strip. Her rejection of the Egyptian offer reflected the hawkish but also complacent politico-military strategy that had guided Israeli policy after the June 1967 War. Advised by Minister of Defense General Moshe Dayan and ambassador to Washington General Yitzhak Rabin, the Meir government held that the IDF's preponderance of power, the disarray of the Arab world, and the large buffer provided by Sinai, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights would deter the Arab states from launching an attack against Israel. Therefore, the Israeli government perceived no compelling reason to trade territory for peace. This view had wide Israeli public support as a result of a growing settler movement in the occupied territories, a spate of Arab terrorist attacks that hardened public opinion against compromise with the Arabs, and the widespread feeling that the Arab states were incapable of launching a successful attack on Israel. Israel's complacency concerning an Arab attack was bolstered in July 1972 by Sadat's surprise announcement that he was expelling most Soviet military advisers.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress