Among the voluminous commentaries on the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War are claims that Israel missed a historic opportunity to have prevented the conflict by accepting Anwar Sadat’s 1971 peace offer. In truth, Sadat did not offer peace; he demanded capitulation, despite losing to the Israelis in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Within weeks of the end of that conflict, Egypt began the War of Attrition by shelling Israeli positions near the Suez Canal. On Oct. 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 ceasefire. This ceasefire was designed to lead to negotiations under U.N. auspices.
On Aug. 7, however, the Soviets and Egyptians deployed sophisticated ground-to-air missiles in the restricted 32-mile-deep zone along the west bank of the Suez Canal. This violated the ceasefire agreement, which barred the introduction or construction of any military installations in this area. The “most massive anti-aircraft system ever created” would later provide air coverage for Egypt’s surprise attack on Yom Kippur.
Despite the Egyptian violations, U.N.-sponsored negotiations resumed—evidence that Israel was anxious to make progress towards peace. The talks were swiftly short-circuited by U.N. Special Envoy Gunnar Jarring when he accepted the Egyptian misinterpretation of Resolution 242 and called for Israel’s total withdrawal from the pre-June 5, 1967 demarcation lines.
On that basis, Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s new president (Gamal Abdel Nasser died on Sept. 28, 1970), expressed his willingness “to enter into a peace agreement with Israel” in a Feb. 20, 1971 letter to Jarring. But this seeming moderation masked unchanging Egyptian irredentism as shown by the letter’s sweeping reservations and preconditions. Sadat gave Israel a “take it or leave it” ultimatum: withdrawal from all the captured territories and recognition of the rights of the Palestinians. The crucial sentences about a “peace agreement with Israel” were neither published nor broadcast in Egypt.
Sadat’s demands were 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.”
Egypt also 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.
Five days after Sadat suggested that 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.
Contrary to revisionist histories suggesting that Israel missed a chance to make peace and avoid the 1973 War because Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir failed to respond favorably to Sadat’s initiatives, Sadat did not sound like a leader interested in coexisting with the Jewish state. He threatened to go to war if a political solution was not achieved and demanded Israel’s complete withdrawal from the Sinai, as well as a resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem, while simultaneously declaring he would never establish diplomatic relations with Israel.
Sadat feared pursuing real peace would anger his financial patrons in Libya and Saudi Arabia (as his decision in 1977 to make peace did), and possibly cause him to lose power. The more significant reason for his unbending position, however, was that he could not compromise from a place of weakness and dishonor.
Shame is a powerful emotion in Arab society, and Egypt had been humiliated in 1967. Sadat could not afford to look like he was begging for peace from the victors. He had to negotiate from a position of strength and to do that, he had to overcome the disgrace.
Sadat’s wife, Jihan, explained in a June 11, 1987, interview with Yediot Achronot:
I do not agree with those among us and among you who assert today that Sadat tried to achieve a real peace before 1973. I believe that he wanted to obtain a ceasefire, nothing more. So that needed one more war in order to win and enter into negotiations from a position of equality. My husband was a man of peace, but as an Arab leader he was not ready to meet Israel feeling inferior.
Hence, it was unsurprising that after Israel rejected his offer in 1972, Sadat said that war was inevitable and that he was prepared to sacrifice 1 million soldiers in the showdown with Israel. “First to go would be the humiliation we had endured since the 1967 defeat,” he said, “to cross into Sinai and hold on to any territory recaptured would restore our self-confidence.”
He carried out his threat a year later.
Israel won the 1973 war by repelling the invaders and ended the fighting with its troops prepared to march on Cairo and destroy the surrounded Egyptian Third Army. Still, Sadat could claim victory because he had surprised the Israelis and caused them horrific losses. He could also argue that the U.S. airlift had saved Israel.
It was only after regaining face that Sadat could pursue an “honorable peace.” Shattering Israel’s sense of invincibility also played a role. Ultimately, Israel made all the tangible sacrifices—withdrawing from Sinai (91% of the territory won by Israel during the Six-Day War), giving up its oil fields, evacuating settlers from Yamit—for Sadat’s promise of peace. There was ample reason to doubt his commitment and worry that his successors would feel no obligation to honor it.
Still, most Israelis supported the peace treaty, which removed the largest and most powerful Arab country from the conflict; dramatically changed the regional balance of power; and all but ended the Arab-Israeli conflict. It would never have happened before the Yom Kippur War.