Gershom Gorenberg | Is Bibi the New Golda?
Israel may be making the same mistakes it did the summer before the Yom Kippur War.
See if you can put a date on this mood in Israel: Peace would be wonderful, but there’s no one on the Arab side to talk to—at least no one rational enough to understand that for security, Israel must keep part of the land it took in 1967. The conflict is under control. Sticking to the status quo makes much more sense than making large concessions to people who have never accepted our existence here.
You’re right if you date that mood to the summer of 2013. You’re also right if your answer was the summer of 1973. Forty years ago, Egypt was at the top of the diplomatic agenda, and the territory in question was the Sinai. Today, the issue is the Palestinians and the West Bank. History doesn’t provide exact parallels; its lessons are Delphic. Even so, we can learn from the summer of ’73 about the risks of putting too much trust in land, our own strength and the quiet of the moment, and too little trust in negotiated peace.
By 1973, Israel had held the Sinai for six years. The Sinai, everyone in Israel knew, was the great defensive wall against an Egyptian attack. On the Red Sea coast south of Eilat and on the Mediterranean coast west of the Gaza Strip, Israel was building farming communities. A town called Ofira was going up at Sharm el-Sheikh, the strategic point that controlled the shipping lane to Eilat. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan had plans for a city called Yamit on the Sinai’s Mediterranean coast.
The settlement map was the policy of Golda Meir’s government written in concrete: There were pieces of the Sinai that Israel would be insane to give up. The war of attrition along the Suez Canal had ended with a ceasefire, under U.S. pressure, in 1970. At a 1971 Labor Party congress, Meir had said, “We have a ceasefire. Let’s hope it continues. But if not—have no fear.” She warned Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat that attacking would not be “really worth it for you.” Sadat had declared that his goal was to regain Egyptian soil—meaning the Sinai up to the pre-1967 border—and that he’d do so by peace or war. Nearly no one in Israel took the pale successor of Gamal Abdel Nasser seriously. Public and secret peace initiatives all crashed against Meir’s iron wall: She would not enter a process that could end with relinquishing all of the Sinai, even for full peace.
In June 1973, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt came to Israel, a tense and historic event. This June, marking the visit’s 40th anniversary, the Israel State Archives released declassified documents showing a previously unknown side of Brandt’s trip: In a one-on-one meeting, Meir told Brandt that he could pass a message to Sadat that Israel was willing to begin peace talks in secret. Was this a new Israeli peace effort? Not exactly. The notes, apparently by Meir, don’t show whether she or Brandt suggested that he act as intermediary. But Meir did stress that “a return to the borders of June 4  is out of the question.” Her well-known precondition hadn’t changed. At the end of June, German diplomat Lothar Lahn met in Cairo with Sadat’s national security adviser, Hafiz Ismail. Israel’s ambassador in Bonn sent a top-secret cable on what Lahn reported: Given Israel’s position, Ismail said, any negotiations would be worthless “talks about talks” that “would only entrench the status quo.” Henceforth, said Ismail, “the fate of the Arabs is in their own hands.”
The next chapter is well known: On October 6, Egypt and Syria launched their surprise attack against Israel—a surprise only because Israeli leaders were so confident it couldn’t happen. More than 2,600 Israeli soldiers died in the Yom Kippur War. The diplomatic process that followed it concluded with the Egyptian-Israeli treaty of 1979, which was built on two principles: full peace and a full Israeli withdrawal from Sinai.
Back to 2013. As summer approached, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated that he was ready to start peace talks “without preconditions” with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In fact, both sides had preconditions, and the most glaring gap was on territory. Netanyahu rejected basing a two-state solution on the pre-1967 borders. Abbas (like the U.S. administration) insisted that unless those borders were the basis of negotiations, he’d only be conducting talks about talks. Israeli politicians and much of the public believed that the status quo could continue: not peace, but not war either. And they didn’t take Yasser Arafat’s pale successor very seriously.
Unlike Egypt in 1973, the Palestinian Authority isn’t a military power. In the absence of negotiations, Abbas threatened not violence but diplomatic action in world bodies. Then again, the PA security cooperation with Israel has had an essential role in ending terror attacks, and the PA could collapse without progress toward independence. No one can predict what will happen without peace. But there is a familiar, frightening overconfidence in assuming that Israel can keep ruling nearly 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank quietly and indefinitely.
About 1973: Israeli elections were originally planned for that October. On September 20, Meir’s political bloc, the Alignment, ran a newspaper ad saying, “On the banks of the Suez all is quiet… The lines are secure… Jerusalem is united, and our diplomatic position is secure.” The hubris of the status quo lasted a bit more than another two weeks.
Gershom Gorenberg’s latest book is The Unmaking of Israel.