Sunday, August 9, 2015

Military Escalation, a Presidential Message and a Political Decision: Israel Accepts the Rogers Plan, Part 2

For Hebrew documents, see the ISA's Hebrew blog.

For Part 1, see here

The fighting with the Egyptians continued alongside the diplomatic activity, and on 22 July the Soviets moved a squadron of MIG 21 pilots to al-Mansurah airfield, 70 kilometres from the Suez Canal. They began to patrol together with the Egyptian pilots at a distance of 40 kilometres from the canal.

On 23 July it became clear that this time the Arabs would not oppose the initiative to start negotiations.In his speech on the anniversary of the Free Officers’ revolution, Nasser said that Egypt would accept Rogers' proposal of 19 June. However he ignored the sentence requiring the parties to appoint representatives for negotiations, and claimed that the plan required Israeli withdrawal from “all the territories” occupied in 1967, and not “from territories” according to the Israeli interpretation of Resolution 242. Three days later Jordan too accepted the ceasefire.

Now that Egypt had taken a position, on 24 July Nixon sent Golda a message asking Israel to reconsider the Rogers Plan and to give a positive answer. He added that Egypt would probably demand Israeli withdrawal from all the occupied territories and a solution to the refugee problem based on Resolution 194, allowing the refugees to return to their homes or to receive compensation. Nixon assured Golda that the US would not press Israel to accept these demands, that it believed that the borders should be fixed in negotiations between the parties and that “no Israeli soldier should be withdrawn from the occupied territories until a binding contractual peace agreement satisfactory to you” had been achieved. He reaffirmed the US commitment to Israel’s existence and security.

Sisco told Rabin that the US would veto any resolution in the Security Council demanding complete withdrawal or the return of the refugees. They were willing to declare in advance that if there was a change in the Egyptian deployment after the ceasefire, Israel would be free to use force, with the blessing and support of the US. In view of Nixon’s message, the government held a series of meetings on 26, 29, 30 and 31 July and on 4 August to decide on its reply.

At the same time the clash with the Soviets escalated. On 25 July the pilot of a MIG 21 fired a rocket at an Israeli Skyhawk returning from a mission west of the Suez Canal. The plane was hit but the pilot managed to land. The Soviet pilots continued to fly close to the canal .

In the government meeting on 29 July Eban presented the ceasefire on the Jordanian front and the question of possible terrorist attacks across the border afterwards. He explained that the Americans would allow Israeli to react, as long as the position of King Hussein was taken into account. Attacks on the Jordanian army would not be tolerated.

The government also decided to take action agaist the Soviet pilots, and on 30 July this decision was carried out in Operation Rimon (Pomegranate) 20. The Israel Air Force sent four Mirages on a photographic reconnaissance mission over the Gulf of Suez, accompanied by two Phantoms, and two more staged an attack south of Suez City. On Dayan’s instructions, they were not to penetrate deep into Egypt. Nevertheless, the Soviets sent more than 20 MIGs to intercept them. Then eight Israeli Mirages came out of hiding and joined the battle. An IDF electronic warfare unit managed to jam the communications systems of the Soviet pilots and even to confuse them with false orders. It was estimated that between four and five MIGs were shot down and three Soviet pilots were killed.
Soviet MIG21 with Egyptian Air Force markings
Photograph: Wikimedia

An hour later the Soviets transferred their squadron from Al-Mansurah to an airfield inside Egypt. But they also prepared nightly ambushes of SA2 batteries dug in close to the canal. These batteries were used against Israeli planes attacking visible missile batteries, some of them decoys. In this way they succeeded in shooting down a Phantom on 3 August. Another was hit, but the pilot managed to land. In total, the IAF had lost five Phantoms since the Soviets had joined the air war. This development threatened Israel’s air superiority. Attacking the batteries was likely to bring heavy losses and to endanger its ability to act if the Egyptians tried to cross the canal.  Without US backing and replacement of damaged planes and spare parts, Israel would find it difficult to continue the fight.

Air battle during the War of Attrition - video clip

There was satisfaction in the government at the results of the battle. In the meeting on the same day, Bar-Lev said that the Russians were in battle for the first time “and their lack of experience was certainly felt. We concentrated our top pilots here."  Eban mentioned the decision not to publish the fact that the pilots were Russian. Begin was sceptical, and Golda said that the Army censor would try to prevent publication but news might leak out to the press: “There are masses of journalists here, and near this building stands an army of all the TV journalists in the world….I assume they will find a way of passing on the news. It cannot remain secret.” And indeed, although Israel did not publish the results of the battle, a report appeared in the British “Daily Express” newspaper.
COGS Bar-Lev and Secretary Rogers on a flight over Sharm el-Sheikh, 7 May 1971
Photograph: Moshe Milner, Governemt Press Office

Nevertheless, the government was moving towards a decision to accept the ceasefire. Golda shared her misgivings with her colleagues: “My question is: my God, with whom are we waging battles here? I must admit that I am taking this step with an aching heart, and not with joy of any kind, certainly not….With whom have they not allied and with what devil are they not willing to join? All this against the small group of the Jewish people in the state of Israel. It is not a great joy to me to accept it but God did not promise me that I would have only joys in this country.” She added that when she first heard about the air battle she was happy, but afterwards she began to ask questions: “Will this be the end of it? Will this be the last battle?” Shlomo Hillel answered her: "At the moment the situation is that the Russians have agreed to this proposal, the Egyptians have agreed, the Jordanians have agreed and we cannot change it now. We are in an uncomfortable strategic position.”

Israel accepts the ceasefire and Gahal leaves the government

When the debate resumed the next day, 31 July, the leader of the National Religious party, Josef Burg, read out the NRP's decision to accept the American proposal and called on Gahal not to leave the government. Yisrael Galili presented a draft for a decision to accept Nixon’s proposal of 24 July (and not that of Rogers) while continuing to maintain the government’s existing policy guidelines. A representative would be sent to the Jarring talks on the basis of Resolution 242. He proposed to agree to a temporary ceasefire and to set up a committee to draft the reply. His proposal was accepted by a majority of 17. A clause was added (but not published) specifically rejecting the previous Rogers plans and his proposals of 17 June. Begin’s alternative proposal to reject the plan received six votes. As a result, he initiated a decision by the governing body of Gahal to resign from the government.

On 4 August, while the battles in the south continued, the decisive meeting was held. The six Gahal ministers announced their resignation. Begin explained their decision and praised Golda’s leadership and the friendly atmosphere in their meetings. He said: “We have gone through a considerable period together in mutual trust…We know that no-one around this [table] is happy about our leaving.  I know that all the members of the government, even those who while they were sitting here thought it might be better for Israel if Gahal left, are sorry about it today. We certainly did not wish  it. But the matter was inevitable in my opinion…. I at all events will always view these three years as one of the best chapters of my life. We will go into opposition. It is not a new task for us.” Yosef Sapir noted that Gahal had joined the National Unity government in June 1967 unconditionally to save the state from danger. In 1970 the situation was different, although he saw new dangers and no prospect of peace. Ezer Weizman, the ex-commander of the air force, emphasized that only an air attack could destroy the missile batteries. The advance of the missiles towards the canal had created a new situation.
Golda Meir and the National Unity goverment with President Zalman Shazar, December 1969
Photograph: Moshe Milner, Government Press Office

Golda did not argue with Begin and the Gahal ministers. She too said that they had worked well together in mutual confidence despite their differences of opinion and regretted their premature departure. At this point the ministers left the meeting. Golda said that “the Americans must know that we are going to this [ceasefire] with difficulty, with doubts and debates.” They had rejected the previous Rogers plans, but who knows what plan Rogers might yet come up with, worse than the previous ones, when he started to talk. They could rely to some extent on its relations with the president, “but much as I like him, I do not want to make him responsible for Israel’s fate.” The government adopted the decision proposed by the committee unanimously. They emphasized that Israel’s withdrawal from the territories must be to secure, recognized and agreed borders.When Rabin presented the decision to Kissinger, he emphasized the decisive role played by the president’s letter. Israel was taking on itself major political and military risks. The government  was sceptical about the success of the initiative and would not accept Soviet missiles along the length of the canal. If they were deployed there, Israel would break the ceasefire.

On August 4 Golda presented the government’s stand to the Knesset. Gahal Knesset member Esther Raziel-Naor tried to embarrass the government with a proposal to continue to seek a negotiated peace according to its own guidelines. Her proposal was rejected by 63 votes to 30, and the government’s policy was approved by a majority of 66, with 28 against and 9 abstentions.

On 8 August the ceasefire came into effect and the guns fell silent. But under its cover the Egyptians brought more missiles up to the canal, a move which had serious implications for the future. Meanwhile the Israeli soldiers were able to come out of their bunkers and look around, as we see in this videoclip.

The War of Attrition was accompanied by political protest and criticism of the government in Israel. Two posts on aspects of this protest, the letter by a group of twelfth graders to Golda and the antiwar satire by Hanoch Levin, “Queen of the Bathtub’ can be seen on our Hebrew blog.

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