45 years after Israeli acceptance of the Rogers Plan to end the War of Attrition with Egypt, the ISA reveals for the first time the government discussions leading to the decision.
On 8 August 1970, the ceasefire between Israel and Egypt came into effect, bringing to an end the war on the Suez Canal. This conflict, now largely forgotten, had continued intermittently since March 1969 and claimed the lives of hundreds of Israeli soldiers, while thousands were wounded. Egypt too paid a high price in human life and economic damage.
|The "War of Attrition" campaign ribbon|
45 years after the guns fell silent, the ISA has declassified and published a series of dramatic government meetings held in June-August 1970 on Israel's reply to the initiative of US Secretary of State William Rogers to end the fighting and start talks between the Arabs and Israel. At the time a National Unity government was in power, headed by Golda Meir and including the right wing Gahal party led by Menachem Begin. At first, the ministers rejected the plan, but under heavy pressure from US President Richard Nixon, they eventually agreed to accept a slightly different version. The Gahal ministers opposed this decision and resigned.
The publication includes nine stenographic records of government meetings, giving a first-hand view of the full and authentic record of events. These records are in Hebrew and are shown on our Hebrew blog, but they contain large sections in English, including exchanges with the US. They are supplemented by documents from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and other English documents from the ISA and by photographs and video clips on the War of Attrition from our holdings.
|Israeli troops returning from the Shadwan Island operation, 23 January 1970|
Photograph: Moshe Milner, Government Press Office
The publication is in two parts: the first on the discussions until 19 July and the second ending with the government meeting of 4 August and Golda’s parting words to the Gahal ministers: “I confess that when I took on this position I didn’t really believe in it, but I wanted us all to see the day when peace will come. And if not – then at least to succeed as [her predecessor] the late Eshkol did, to preserve this partnership. I am sorry that we have not reached peace. I am very sorry that it was my lot to head a government which lost a group of its members.”
Background: The War of Attrition and UN and US Peace Initiatives
As a result of the Six Day War Israel and Egypt faced each other across the Suez Canal. At first the situation was calm, and a film clip made in December 1967 shows unarmed Egyptian soldiers fishing in the canal opposite IDF soldiers on the other side. But at the beginning of March 1969 President Gamal Abd-el Nasser announced that Egypt was no longer bound by the ceasefire of June 1967. Soon afterwards a war of attrition began along the canal. There were repeated and lengthy shooting incidents, as well as border incidents with Jordan and Syria. In the clashes with Egypt, Israel lost over 300 soldiers and the Egyptians some 10,000.The cities near the canal, damaged after the sinking of the Israeli destroyer “Elath” in October 1967, were completely destroyed.
To restore the ceasefire two diplomatic initiatives were made: the first by UN mediator Gunnar Jarring and the second by US Secretary of State William Rogers. In December 1969 he proposed a plan based on UN Security Council Resolution 242and demanded that Israel return to the international boundary with Egypt. The government rejected the plan and stood by its decision of 31 October 1968, demanding a land corridor to Sharm el-Sheikh. The Egyptians also rejected the plan and the USSR said it was one-sided. In June 1970 Rogers proposed a second plan and this time he was successful.
The US Proposal and Israel’s Response
After Israel carried out deep penetration bombing raids into Egypt, in January 1970 Nasser went to Moscow to demand surface to air missiles, which needed Soviet crews to operate them. In March 1970 Soviet missiles were deployed near Cairo and Alexandria.
|A CIA report on missile sites in Egypt as of May 1970|
Realizing that the war involved a danger of confrontation with the USSR, on 19 June 1970 the Administration proposed a plan for negotiations between Israel and Egypt, with a ceasefire as the first step. It was presented to Golda Meir and Foreign Minister Abba Eban by US Ambassador Walworth Barbour, and by Rogers to Israeli Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin in Washington. On 20 June it was presented to Egypt and Jordan and also passed on to the USSR.
On 21 June Golda told the government of an" important development in relations with the US". Eban reported on the paper they had received from Barbour, which expressed US concern that the war of attrition would cause Egypt and Jordan to abandon Resolution 242, with dangerous implications for moderate Arab states such as Lebanon, Kuwait, Morocco, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. As Israel had asked, the US had protested to the Soviets about their actions which endangered Israel's security and survival. But it proposed a diplomatic initiative, as well as a military one, to counter the Soviet threat. The commitments of the parties should be tested: Egypt to the principle of peaceful coexistence with Israel and Israel to the principle of withdrawal as expressed in Resolution 242. In order to allow resumption of the Jarring mission, the US proposed a ceasefire from 1 July until 1 October. The agreement would include provisions on preservation of the status quo on the canal front and preventing shooting and incursions.
The Americans asked Israel not to reply publicly until Egypt's reply had been received. If the Arabs rejected it, the onus would be on them. But if Egypt responded positively, Israel would have to do the same and to accept a proposal for peace "substantially within its 1949–1967 borders."
The talk with Barbour was also a reply to Israel's request for more planes. The plan specified that US supply of arms to Israel would continue but the supply of planes would be limited while "efforts to get the parties to stop shooting and start talking" continued. The Americans agreed to give Israel three Phantoms in July and three in August. The planned order for six Phantoms in 1971 would not be affected. They also agreed to earmark 18 Phantoms and 16 Skyhawks in the future in order to make up for expected losses. They expected Israel to continue to refrain from deep-penetration bombing. (At the time the US needed war planes for its own forces in Vietnam.)
According to Eban, Golda had said that she was deeply disturbed by the linkage between arms supply and political demands. She would have to inform the government of this capitulation to Nasser. She rejected both a temporary ceasefire and the prospect of opening negotiations before the firing had ended, while Soviet arms continued to flow to Egypt but arms to Israel were held up. She warned that she would recommend the government to reject the proposal. After a long discussion the ministers decided unanimously to adopt Golda’s negative reply to Barbour, but not to publish this reply until after a statement by the Administration.
In the next government meeting on 25 June Golda said: “I know what I have to hold onto with regard to public opinion: this is [stoppage] of arms supply, this is a ceasefire which is a death trap.” However she postponed her reply to a message from Nixon and proposed to call Rabin home for consultations. On 29 June she would make a political statement in the Knesset. On the same day Rogers told a press conference about the initiative for a ceasefire and for talks under Jarring's auspices. However he refused to give details or to discuss military assistance for Israel publicly.
|Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin, 2 October 1969|
Photograph: Moshe Milner, Government Press Office
On 28 June the government renewed its discussion, together with Rabin. He warned against a negative answer to the president and a possible crisis in relations with the US. Nixon already knew from Barbour and Rogers's reports that Israel’s stand was negative. Begin fiercely opposed the American initiative and claimed that it would return Israel to the borders of 4 June 1967, quoting Eban’s well- known saying that "this map represented Auschwitz". Minister Yisrael Galili proposed conveying Israel’s reply to Nixon secretly. Moshe Dayan’s main concern was the fear that the plan would lead to the return of the refugees. Golda repeated her opposition to any plan based on complete withdrawal to the 1967 borders. Although the Americans kept begging Israel not to publish its stand and to let Egypt take responsibility for the plan's failure, the head of military intelligence Aharon Yariv warned that this time Egypt and the Soviets would not reject the initiative as they had the first Rogers plan.
On 29 June Golda told the Knesset that Israel was in continuous dialogue with the US Administration, but she would not give details until the US had published its plan. She argued that Nasser had no intention of reaching a true ceasefire or peace negotiations, citing his speech in Benghazi on 25 June "fanning the flames of hostility and giving the conflict a pan-Arab character". He demanded full Israeli withdrawal and rights for the Palestinians.
On July 1 Golda wrote to Nixon repeating her negative stand. She added that over the last two days the Soviets had started to deploy SA2 and 3 missile batteries to cover the area up to the Canal Zone. These batteries could be used to protect a Canal crossing, and Israel had no choice but to destroy them. In these circumstances it needed increased supplies of planes. The letter was given to Joseph Sisco, the assistant secretary for Middle East affairs, by Rabin and reported to National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. This report noted that the US was deeply concerned over the new developments and that it was clear that the Israeli government was strongly opposed to the US proposals.
Golda also called Barbour to her office in Tel Aviv on half an hour's notice. Accompanied by the Chief of the General Staff, Haim Bar-Lev, she briefed him about the deployment of the SAMs near the Canal. Each battery was manned by a few Soviet troops. The air force had lost two Phantoms within an hour from attacks on the batteries, and a Soviet major had been severely wounded. Barbour reported to Rogers that Israel was urgently requesting planes and new electronic equipment. Nixon decided to give the electronic equipment at once and to speed up the supply of planes.
One of the greatest fears in the Prime Minister's Bureau was of a confrontation with the USSR, which would use its full force against Israel. The Israeli decision makers knew that the IDF was designed to fight Arab armies, but it could not take on the Soviets. They wanted to know how the US would react in such a case. The head of the bureau, Simcha Dinitz, sent a message to Rabin asking Kissinger to arrange a personal meeting between Golda and Nixon. She wanted his help in deterring the Soviets before they had strengthened their hold in Egypt. Dinitz added that "the prime minister is not afraid personally to start a campaign which she has no reasonable hope of winning. Our view of the situation is so serious….that considerations of prestige or effort are not a factor." Rabin met Kissinger but his impression was that there was little enthusiasm. A visit in September would be approved, on condition it was not to be devoted only to arms requests.
On 12 July in another government meeting, Yosef Sapir of the Liberal party said that as Nasser had gone to Moscow for help, Golda should go to Washington to see Nixon. Golda warned that she could not propose a visit unless she was sure the US would agree. Eban described the increased arms supply from the US and added that there was only one explanation: the Americans wanted Israel to succeed in the current battle. "In order to sit on the eastern bank of the Canal and do nothing, there is no need for all the equipment they are rushing to us."
On 15 July Nixon sent Golda a reassuring message through Arthur Burns, head of the Federal Reserve Bank who was visiting Israel. In her reply she thanked him for his concern but warned that Israel was facing increasing Soviet involvement. "It is natural that this should deepen our anxiety and strengthen our resolve. Both your words and deeds are crucial for us." In the government meeting Eban reported no new developments. It was unlikely that the Soviets would reject the American initiative outright. There were signs that Egypt would accept a limited ceasefire, and Israel would be in a delicate position. World opinion did not care about the semantics of a ceasefire resolution, but it was worried about an international clash. He concluded: "We have differences with the United States. But if there is one point of agreement, it is that we must stay on the Canal line until [there is[ peace….in order to preserve what they call superiority."
|Abba Eban receives Rogers at Lod airport, May 1971|
Photograph: Fritz Cohen, Government Press Office