Sunday, June 9, 2013

Summer 1973: Who, if Anyone, Screwed Up?

Depending upon when you think it began, the Jewish-Arab conflict has been going on for about a century. Some might put its beginning earlier than that, but it's hard to see how its starting point can be later than 1920, or 93 years ago. Depending upon how you read history, this longevity can be the result of numerous fumbles and mistakes, or of hard-hearted obstinacy, or of implacable enmity. These readings, then, may inform your expectations for the future: a resolute determination not to miss any more opportunities, a campaign against narrow-mindedness, or the resolve to be patient until the other side tires, no matter how long that takes.

Our publication today won't resolve any of this, as it can be understood through any of these prisms. Still, since much of it is based on previously unseen documents, at least it has new facts to offer, even if the various interpretations may well be impervious to novelty.

The publication is about a secret attempt by Golda Meir to start negotiations with Egypt's Anwar Sadat in the summer of 1973, a few months before the beginning of the Yom Kippur War. In addition to our publication of mostly ISA documents, Dr. Haggai Tsoref of the ISA and Prof. Michael Wolfsohn of the Military Academy in Munich have published a joint article on the German side of the story. In brief, Golda, who was skeptical about the ability or likelihood of internationally sponsored peace programs, gambled that Germany's Willy Brandt would be a better bet to create a secret channel for talks with the Egyptians. She seems to have felt that Brandt, as a fellow social-democrat, a world-class diplomat and peacemaker, and Nobel laureate for his Ostpolitik policy of mending fences with the soviet block, would be well positioned and willing to take on the task. If we're reading the documents from her office correctly, she was so intent upon enlisting Brandt that she did as much as she could to defend him from public ire in Israel after the terrorist attack at the Munich Olympics, and even after Germany freed the three surviving terrorists in October 1972.

Brandt visited Israel between June 7-11, 1973, 40 years ago this week. The single most important document of the visit is the summary of the second, secret meeting between Meir and Brandt on June 9, at which Golda requested that Brandt talk to Sadat and tell him that Israel sincerely wishes for peace, will not insist on retaining control of Sinai or half of Sinai, and that if it's easier for him (Sadat), they can begin their negotiations in secret.

At the end of the visit and for a few weeks thereafter, it seemed that a top-secret channel of communication had been set up between Meir and Brandt. Then a mid-level German diplomat went to Egypt and talked to Hafez Ismail, Sadat's top aide. Ismail rejected the offer, and a few months later Egypt and Syria attacked Israel.

So far the story of the documents. The German-language article accompanying our publication looks mostly at the German sources, and claims that the failure was Brandt's. He hadn't believed in the Israelis' sincerity to begin with, but even once he was convinced, during his visit, he didn't use his full moral and diplomatic weight to try and bring the two sides together. Since the classified German documents of the time are not open, we don't know if there's anything in them that would refute this. The Egyptian documents are of course not open, so we can't say why Ismail was so adamant that the Israeli offer was irrelevant. And of course, there's the niggling question about Israel's position; if it was so determined to reach negotiations with Egypt, why put too many eggs in one covert basket? Yes, publicly calling for negotiations with Egypt might - or might not - have frightened them away because of adverse public opinion in the Arab world, but what about other secret channels?

The documents leave us with these and other unresolved historical questions. At the same time, they cast some doubt on the generally accepted narrative of Israeli intransigence, Egyptian eagerness to negotiate, and European eagerness to mediate.

1 comment:

  1. We'll never know, of course, but I wouldn't be surprised if the person later known as "חתרן בלתי נלאה" had something to do with it.

    Actually, there is an Israeli bias to this headline. I'd bet that the Egyptians don't think anyone screwed up. Sadat almost certainly thought that he could get a better deal after an attack, so that's the path he chose.