Edmund Burke, the British parliamentarian and political theorist, once claimed that “you can never plan the future by the past.” But the past does often foreshadow the future. And events that unfolded in the Middle East fifty years ago this summer, while overlooked today, provide a good example.
A little more than half a century ago, Israel became embroiled in a war that seemed to be without end. That low intensity conflict, known as the “War of Attrition,” marked a sharp departure from previous warfare. Instead of relatively short conventional engagements, the Jewish nation found itself in a slow, grinding war that not only presaged conflicts to come, but resulted in failed diplomatic attempts that were themselves harbingers of future peace plans.
The war, Francine Klagsbrun wrote in her 2018 biography of Israeli premier Golda Meir, “was not heralded by marching bands blaring martial music,” but it “was cruel and bloody and lasted longer than any of Israel’s previous wars.”
Combat began when Egyptian forces attacked Israeli counterparts near the Suez Canal a mere three weeks after Israel’s stunning victory in the June 1967 Six-Day War. It would drag on interminably as Egypt, encouraged by her Soviet patrons, sought to regain the ground and prestige that it had lost in the recent conflict.
As the late Israeli diplomat Chaim Herzog observed, the War of Attrition, although it lasted until an August 1970 ceasefire, “did not attract worldwide attention,” but nonetheless many of its events were “to be complete innovations in the history of warfare…with the battlefield around the Suez Canal” becoming a “major proving ground for the military equipment of the two superpowers,” with the Soviet Union backing Egypt and the U.S., having promised to give Israel military aid.
Egypt, ruled by Gamal Abdel Nasser, began ambushing Israeli patrols operating in the Suez Canal. On July 1, 1967 Israeli Defense Forces Major Uriel Menuhin was killed in action when his armored infantry company successfully drove off Egyptians plotting an ambush. It was Israel’s first combat death in what would develop into a long war, characterized by intermittent combat. Perhaps most infamously, Egypt would sink the Israeli naval flagship Eilat, and Israel would sink two Egyptian torpedo boats in July 1967.
Nasser’s objective, Klagsbrun noted, “was to wear down the Jewish state’s strength and morale until it withdrew from all the territories that it had captured in 1967.” By March 1969, Nasser made the war official by announcing that he would no longer recognize the cease-fire declared after the Arab-initiated Six Day War. Soon “shootings and harassment of Israeli soldiers along the canal became incessant, one operation following another, like water steadily dripping on a rock, eating away at its surface,” Klagsbrun wrote.
The deteriorating situation occurred amidst a diplomatic backdrop of the two superpowers continuing their proxy war in international forums and through various initiatives. Golda Meir, who became Israel’s prime minister following the February 1969 death of Levi Eshkol, was soon tasked with dealing with a Nixon administration that viewed the Middle East as not only an arena for great power competition, but also a distraction from arms control initiatives and Vietnam.
By December 1969, the U.S. Sec. of State William Rogers introduced a plan to break the deadlock between Israel and Egypt. Both sides rejected the proposal.
By January 1970, Meir ordered bombing raids deep inside Egypt. Nasser made a secret trip to Moscow, which furnished him with advanced fighter planes, SAM-3 surface-to-air missiles, and thousands of military advisers. By contrast, the Nixon administration refused to approve the sale of arms and planes to Israel, hoping Klagsbrun notes, “to improve America’s diplomatic relationship with Egypt and Syria and thus its influence in the region.”
In June 1970 Rogers introduced a new plan, which included a ninety-day ceasefire. Meir, worrying that Egypt would exploit the ceasefire for military benefit, was inclined to oppose it. But the U.S. made it clear that doing so would come at the cost of promised military aid. Eventually American reassurances, including that no Israeli soldier would be withdrawn from the present lines until a binding peace agreement was achieved, encouraged the Meir government to accept the plan. This vow, coupled with promises about forthcoming U.S. aid, as well as Israel’s downing of Soviet-piloted MiGs in July, led to Israel’s cabinet voting in favor of the new Rogers plan.
The ceasefire began on Aug. 8, 1970. Yet, in the hours before it took effect, Israeli aerial surveillance witnessed Egyptian soldiers moving Russian SAM-2 and SAM-3 missiles into place on their side—despite the fact that the agreements forbade moving military equipment into the area. As Klagbrun observed, “The ink had barely dried on the cease-fire agreement, and it was already being violated.” The U.S., however, initially denied that any violations had occurred. By September, the U.S. State Department grudgingly admitted that, in fact, they had. But no consequences followed.
The SAM missiles would exact a devastating toll on Israel three years later, when Egypt initiated what became known as the Yom Kippur War. While Israel would eventually rebound, the dramatic losses of that war’s early days were the result, in part, of what flowed from the Rogers plan. Just as Meir had feared, Israel’s enemies had exploited the U.S.-backed agreement, taking full advantage of American naiveté.
The Rogers Plan did not lead to bilateral negotiations between Israel and Egypt over borders. The arrival of a new Egyptian leader, Anwar Sadat, and the consequences of the Yom Kippur War did, however. Desiring to move from the Soviet camp to the West, Sadat would later forge peace with Israel at Camp David.
The slow, intermittent fighting during the War of Attrition was a precursor of many of Israel’s subsequent wars, from Lebanon to the Second Intifada. And it would not be the last time that international actors and allies would encourage Israel to accept agreements requiring it to cede land, but without receiving in return the commensurate peace.
“One cannot and must not try to erase the past,” Gold Meir once wrote, “simply because it does not fit the present.” Sometimes, however, events of the past mirror the present all too well.
(Note: The June 8, 2020 Jerusalem Post version of this article incorrectly stated that the Egyptians sunk two Israeli torpedo boats. In fact it was the Israelis who sunk two Egyptian torpedo boats)