Posts Tagged ‘Egypt’

By Professor Jack L. Schwartzwald

Jack L. Schwartzwald, MD, is an Assistant Professor (Clinical) of Medicine at Brown University School of Medicine.


“…Sadat offered Golda Meir an interim deal for opening the Suez Canal in return for a partial Israeli pullback in the Sinai, which she rejected, making the 1973 War inevitable.” – Ehud Ya’ari, The Jerusalem Report (December 13, 2004), p. 28.

“Finding that Israel rejected American peace proposals (which involved the return to Arab sovereignty of virtually all the territories occupied in the 1967 War), and that the Israeli government headed by Mrs. Golda Meir dismissed contemptuously Sadat’s hints of readiness for an accommodation, Sadat decided to launch a fourth full-scale Arab-Israeli war.” – Larousse Encyclopedia of Modern History (revised edition, 1981), pp. 427-8


At 6 PM on June 10, 1967, a cease-fire took effect ending the Six Day War between Israel and her Arab neighbors—Egypt, Syria and Jordan. The war had changed the face of the region, and had left Israel in control of vast new territories: the Sinai Desert, the Golan Heights, the West Bank [1] and the Gaza strip. Israel, however, was not intent on keeping her new-won gains. Led by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Foreign Minister Abba Eban, she sought to barter the territories for a comprehensive peace. On June 19, 1967, Eban approached the American delegation at the UN with the following specific proposals: (i) Israel would return to her international boundary with Egypt in return for peace, demilitarization of the Sinai, and a guarantee of free passage in international waterways; (ii) Israel would return to her international boundary with Syria in return for peace, demilitarization of the Golan Heights, and a guarantee of Israel’s fresh water rights in regional rivers; and (iii) Israel would enter into direct negotiations with Jordan regarding boundaries and peace. Israel’s proposals were forwarded to Egypt and Syria by the American delegation. [2]

On September 1, 1967, Israel got her answer. Led by Egypt’s bombastic President, Gamal Abdel Nasser (whose decision to blockade the Straits of Tiran on May 23 had provoked the Six Day War), representatives of the Arab governments, meeting in Khartoum, promulgated the infamous “3 Nos”: “No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiation with Israel.” [3] It is probably safe to assume that the annals of diplomacy do not contain a more generous peace proposal by a nation that had prevailed in war, or a more thoughtless response by combatants who had been so soundly defeated. On hearing of the Khartoum declaration, Abba Eban remarked that the Six Day War was “the first war in history in which the victor sued for peace and the loser called for unconditional surrender.” [4]

In light of the impasse, the UN Security Council attempted to formulate its own peace resolution. Preliminary drafts were put forward by the United States and India, but the first was felt to be too “pro-Israel,” and the second too “pro-Arab” to obtain passage. The task of framing a more even-handed proposal thus devolved upon the British Minister of State, Hugh Foot, Lord Caradon. [5]

After an introductory statement against the acquisition of territory by force of arms, Lord Caradon’s resolution declared that a “just and lasting peace” required both “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” and “termination of all claims or states of belligerency.”

The specific wording was important: Multiple resolutions had already been put forward insisting on reversion to the pre-war armistice lines. They had all been defeated. The new resolution anticipated an Israeli “withdrawal from occupied territories,” but did not stipulate the extent of this withdrawal. Quite purposefully, the resolution did not call upon Israel to withdraw from all occupied territories or from the occupied territories. The British felt that the pre-war lines were untenable and thus constituted a recipe for renewed conflict. Moreover, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Foreign Secretary George Brown thought a return to these so-called “June 4th lines” was a bad idea on principle, because it would teach the Arab states that a war could be provoked and lost without penalty, thereby rewarding their extremism. [6]

Furthermore, as Abba Eban has noted, by tying any return of territories to an end of belligerency, the resolution appeared to legitimize Israel’s presence on the cease-fire lines until the parties had agreed to “durable” peace terms. [7] Eban let it be known that the proposal would be acceptable to Israel provided that it contained a clause to the effect that the UN would strive to “promote” a settlement between the parties (as opposed to “imposing” one on them). [8]

Caradon’s resolution was duly submitted as UN Resolution 242, which this journal has analyzed in the past (see New Society 1, Fall 2007). Predictably, there were immediate efforts to redefine its meaning: Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin—who was hostile to Israel—pressured United States President Lyndon B. Johnson to construe the resolution as calling for Israel’s withdrawal from “all occupied territories” irrespective of what the document actually said. President Johnson responded that the U.S. “would not agree to a single word beyond what was written in the British text.” Next, the Indian and Arab delegations called upon Lord Caradon to say, informally, that the withdrawal clause obligated Israel to withdraw from “all occupied territories.” Caradon answered that “nothing could be read into the resolution that was not specifically stated therein.” On November 15, U.S. Ambassador Arthur Goldberg spoke at the UN in support of the withdrawal clause as written, noting that the conflicting parties had never come to an agreement on borders—either before or after the war—and that they would thus need to determine these borders by negotiation. [9] One week later, the resolution passed the UN Security Council by a unanimous vote.


By this time, some Israelis had begun to have second thoughts. A vocal minority adhered to the tenets of religious Zionism as espoused by the so-called “Land of Israel Movement,” which maintained that the territories occupied in the war had reconstituted Eretz Israel—the land of Israel promised to the Jews by God—and that the government did not have the authority to partition it again. Many more were moved by pragmatic concerns: Given the Arab position as elucidated in the Khartoum declaration, they felt that peace with the Arab states was an unlikely prospect and that Israel would do better to keep what had been won as a strategic buffer against renewed attack. Although the latter argument resonated with a healthy percentage of the population, the Eshkol government continued to pursue its original policy. Abba Eban has eloquently described the cabinet’s line of thinking: Israel had come into existence in 1948 largely because she had agreed to the notion of partitioning Palestine, and she would be without international support if she now pursued a policy of unilateral annexation. The Arab states would certainly not acquiesce. Thus, the expanded boundaries would not be “a guarantee of the security of the state and of peace,” but “a guarantee of future wars.” [10]

In February 1969, Prime Minister Eshkol died in office, and was replaced by Golda Meir whose attitude was more skeptical. Eban, who continued as Foreign Minister, has described her thus: “She was not a romantic territorialist. . . .Under her leadership Israel enunciated in clear terms a willingness to accept the principle of withdrawal to secure, recognized and agreed boundaries. But she was more inclined to articulate this principle than to ‘risk’ putting it into practice. And she was resolved not to be sold short on Israeli security.” [11]

On her first day in office, Meir declared that her government was “prepared to discuss peace with our neighbors, any day and on all matters.” [12] Nasser replied with his trademark bellicosity, saying: “That which was lost by war must be restored by war.” By month’s end, his shelling of Israeli positions in the Suez Canal Zone had made a mockery of the 1967 cease-fire and had initiated the so-called “War of Attrition” (March 1969 to August 1970). Israel responded by bombarding Ismailia (one of the Egyptian Canal cities).

Three months into the fighting, Meir offered to fly to Egypt to negotiate a settlement. In reply, the Arab press ridiculed her as “behaving like a grandmother telling bedtime stories to her grandchildren.” [13] Ignoring her offer, Nasser stepped up his attacks. Israel retaliated with bombing raids so deep into Egypt that the explosions were audible in Cairo. As Golda Meir has testified, she wanted to make it clear to the Egyptian people “that they couldn’t have it both ways: war for us, and peace for themselves.” [14] Whether or not her approach was the right one, it would be fair to say that the international community was less than delighted with it. And what was worse, Israel didn’t necessarily get the better of the fighting. Egypt obtained anti-aircraft technology from Russia, and the toll on the Israeli Air Force was such that Israel had to obtain new planes from the U.S.

Russian pilots, meanwhile, had begun guarding Egyptian airspace to the rear of the Canal Zone. Hoping to steer clear of them, Israel ceased her deep bombing raids, but in July 1970, there were two altercations involving Israeli and Russian pilots. In the first, there were no casualties, but in the second, Israeli fighters shot down four MiGs, and got away unscathed. [15]


Anxious to avoid any escalation in the conflict that might directly involve the USSR and the U.S., the Nixon Administration proposed a cease-fire agreement in August 1970 that included a joint commitment by Egypt, Jordan, and Israel to press forward with UN Resolution 242. Golda Meir objected to the proposal—not so much to its terms, as to its being thrust upon her without prior consultation. (She had been given assurances by the U.S. that she would be consulted.) Nor did she take solace from Egypt’s subsequent acceptance of the plan, since she was certain that Nasser was only playing for time while he regrouped his forces. [16] The U.S., however, offered Israel some excellent incentives to follow the Egyptian lead: (i) the U.S. would continue to supply weapons to Israel even if there was a cease-fire; (ii) Israel would not have to remove any troops from occupied territories unless or until a durable peace had been negotiated; (iii) Israel would not be expected to solve the refugee problem in a way that would jeopardize her sovereignty; and (iv) the U.S. would exercise its veto power in the UN Security Council to protect Israel from being bullied into concessions. [17] Israel embraced these terms, and in August 1970 the War of Attrition came to an end. Characteristically, as soon as the shooting stopped, Egypt violated the terms of the agreement by bringing new Russian missiles into the cease-fire area. [18]

One month later, Gamal Abdel Nasser died and was succeeded by his Vice President, Anwar Sadat. It was widely presumed inside and outside Egypt that Sadat would be a mere figurehead. Against all expectations, however, he began removing Nasser’s cronies from positions of power, and was soon in a position to pursue his own policies.

At the same time, Moshe Dayan, the Israeli Defense Minister, was propounding the idea of an interim settlement with Egypt that would call upon both parties to withdraw a specified distance on either side on the Suez Canal. The plan—which had been conceived as a means of averting a repetition of the attritional war without addressing the potentially difficult choices required for a comprehensive peace—would have removed the combatants from artillery range, and would have allowed a resumption of shipping through the Suez Canal (which had been closed since the beginning of the Six Day War).

Sadat was anxious to have the Canal open again. Deprived of Suez revenues, Egypt’s treasury had been severely drained. Thus, as Sadat relates in his autobiography, he spoke to the Egyptian Parliament on February 4, 1971, essentially saying:

“if Israel withdrew her forces in Sinai to the Passes, I would be willing to reopen the Suez Canal; to have my forces cross to the East Bank; to extend the Rogers Plan cease-fire by six, rather than three, months…and to sign a peace agreement with Israel….” [19]

This was not exactly what Dayan and Israel had envisioned. (For one thing, they could do without the Egyptian troops on the East Bank of the Canal.) Yet it might have been the basis for talks if the plan had not been derailed by a new United Nations initiative put forth by Gunnar Jarring, the UN’s special representative to the Middle East. Jarring’s proposal called upon Israel to withdraw to the June 4th armistice line on the Egyptian front in return for an Egyptian assurance of peace. [20]

Jarring’s opinion was that the proposal should be accepted without amendment. But it had long been a clearly and publicly stated tenet of Israeli policy that border issues would have to be negotiated between the parties, and that territorial exchange would require a formal peace treaty. Jarring’s initiative smacked of an imposed settlement—not the effort “to promote agreement” promised by UN Resolution 242—and it required Israel to make extreme concessions before any discussions had been held. After considering the matter, the Israeli cabinet answered with relative unanimity that the position of final borders would have to be negotiated. A debate ensued, however, over a phrase favored by Meir spelling out that Israel would not withdraw to the June 4th line. In June 1967, the Eshkol government had been willing to do so, but in the interim, Israel had sustained 3000 casualties in the 18-month attritional war waged by Egypt, and Meir presumably felt that it would send the wrong message to suffer such losses without taking a harder line on security.

Abba Eban disagreed. With many years of distinguished service as a diplomat, he felt that the June 4th stipulation was superfluous. Israel was already saying that the border would have to be negotiated. By ruling out a full withdrawal before negotiations even began, Meir might provoke charges of Israeli intransigence when the cabinet was merely adhering to its longstanding position that decisions on borders had to be reached by negotiation, not by imposition. Despite these arguments, the phrase was retained.

Jarring received Israel’s answer as though it had been the Khartoum declaration in reverse. He ceased his initiative forthwith—an unwarranted response given that Israel had clearly expressed her willingness to negotiate. (Indeed, if anyone was refusing to budge from his position, it was Jarring himself.) [21] Moreover, it is enlightening to note that Jarring seemed untroubled by the amendments Egypt wanted to append to his proposal. Indeed, he seems to have agreed with them, [22] even though they were far more demanding. To be sure, Sadat had agreed to talk peace, but he had a number of preconditions: Israel must agree in advance (i) to withdraw her forces from all occupied territories on all fronts, (ii) to settle the refugee issue “in accordance with United Nations resolutions” (undoubtedly as interpreted by Egypt), and (iii) to accept demilitarized zones of equal size on both sides of the June 4th Egyptian-Israeli border. [23] Such maximalist demands were not worthy of serious consideration—never mind acceptance. Nevertheless, just as Abba Eban had foreseen, many of Golda Meir’s detractors, at home and abroad, sought to saddle her with responsibility for the failure of Jarring’s mission. [24] Recalling these negotiations several years later, Meir said: “‘intransigent’ was to become my middle name.” [25]


Israel now reconsidered Dayan’s idea for an interim Israeli-Egyptian agreement consisting of a bilateral withdrawal from the Canal Zone and the reopening of the Canal to international shipping. Dayan’s plan called for a 30-kilometer withdrawal by each party, but Meir and the majority of the cabinet insisted upon a lesser distance—10 kilometers—so that Israel could push back to the Canal in an emergency.

A disengagement of 10 kilometers, however, did not suit the purpose of Dayan’s proposal: At 30 kilometers, the combatants would have been beyond each other’s artillery range and the Canal could be traversed with a sense of security. At 10 kilometers, passage through the Canal would, in effect, be taking place under Israel’s guns. Egypt was unlikely to accept under such circumstances. Eban, therefore, offered his support to Dayan if the latter would press for the greater withdrawal. Sadly, there was a history of antagonism between the two men, and rather than side with Eban against Meir, Dayan preferred not to pursue the matter (May 1971).

Eban thought this decision regrettable. In later years, he argued that if Dayan’s plan had succeeded, the surprise attack on Yom Kippur 1973 could not have taken place. [26] But Dayan’s lack of resolve was not the sole issue. The final nail in the coffin was Sadat’s response: He would approve a bilateral withdrawal from the Canal in order to restore his Suez revenues, but only if Israel agreed in advance that it was a preliminary step in the fulfillment of all clauses of UN Resolution 242 (again as interpreted by Egypt—meaning withdrawal from “all occupied territories,” etc.). Once again, Sadat was seeking maximalist commitments in the absence of face-to-face negotiations—something that Meir’s Cabinet would not abide. [27]

Although the chances for a speedy settlement seemed remote, they received a last boost in the fall of 1971 when four African presidents attempted to jumpstart the Jarring mission. After discussions with Israeli leaders, the four men—representing Senegal, Zaire, Cameroon and Nigeria respectively—reported to the UN that Israel was committed to negotiation and to “withdrawal from territories,” and that in negotiating boundaries she would not pursue an annexationist course, but would focus solely upon her security and her rights of passage in international waterways. [28]

Here was concrete evidence that “intransigence” on Israel’s part was not solely responsible for the failure of Jarring’s mission—indeed, that there was no Israeli intransigence. Unfortunately, the Arab states and their supporters had gained significant currency from the “intransigence” myth and used their votes to prevent the UN from accepting the report of the African leaders. [29]

Thus, by the latter half of 1971, matters had reached an impasse. Golda Meir was unwilling to cede territory in the absence of negotiations. Sadat was not willing to negotiate unless Israel accepted his far-flung preconditions. In this setting, Israel felt confident that the existing cease-fire lines guaranteed her security, and that the Arab states had no choice but to accept the present situation or come to the negotiating table. Nor did events in Egypt do anything to alter this estimate—for an unexpected twist in Egyptian foreign policy was now to make the chance of war seem exceedingly unlikely.


The Soviet Union had been Egypt’s chief arms supplier since the 1950s. In 1967, Soviet arms (and meddling) had helped push Egypt and Syria into war. During the War of Attrition, Soviet weaponry had again played a crucial part. After the collapse of the Jarring mission, Sadat signed a new Soviet arms accord (May 1971) and began speaking of 1971 as “a year of decision” in which the humiliating verdict of 1967 would be overturned. But then matters suddenly deteriorated: The Soviets failed to deliver much of the promised weaponry, and when Sadat questioned them on the matter, they would not be pinned down. Moreover, the thousands of Soviet “advisors” who were stationed in Egypt had begun to act as though Egypt was nothing more than a Soviet bailiwick. So, in July 1972, Sadat kicked the advisors out.

This was the cue that Henry Kissinger (U.S. President Richard M. Nixon’s National Security Advisor) had been waiting for. Kissinger had long kept a cautious eye on the Middle East. In his view, Israel’s insistence on direct negotiation was “as seemingly reasonable as it was unfulfillable,” since in essence Israel was asking “for recognition as a precondition of negotiation.” [30] On the other hand, there was no point in pressuring Israel to moderate her approach while the Arab states clung to their pro-Soviet policy and maximalist demands. The best course was to allow the impasse to continue until one or more Arab states broke with the USSR and assumed a more reasonable demeanor. “Then,” believed Kissinger, “would come the moment for a major American initiative, if necessary urging new approaches on our Israeli friends.” [31]

It certainly appeared as if Kissinger’s moment had arrived. By evicting the Soviets, Sadat had dismissed his chief arms supplier. An Egyptian offensive no longer seemed feasible.

But the truth was rather more complicated: the USSR had consistently failed to supply Egypt with the very weapons—particularly missile-firing jets—that were required for an offensive war. In effect, the Soviets had been controlling Egyptian policy by depriving her of the means to act. By dismissing them, Sadat had freed his hands to make his own decisions. While it might not have been clear to Kissinger—or to the Israelis—war was actually more likely with the Soviets gone.

Convinced that diplomacy was Sadat’s only option, Kissinger arranged a secret meeting with Hafez Ismail, Sadat’s national security advisor. Owing to America’s preoccupation with the Vietnam War, the talks were delayed until February 1973, by which time Russia had agreed to a massive new arms deal with Egypt in an effort to salvage Soviet influence in the region. As soon as the talks opened, Ismail made it clear that Israel must accept a return to the 1967 borders “with some margin, perhaps, for adjustment on the West Bank,” before any negotiations could take place. Moreover, Israel would have to agree to bilateral demilitarized zones on either side of the Israeli-Egyptian border. In return, Egypt would end her belligerency with Israel and guarantee Israel’s right of passage in international waterways. But there would be no formal peace treaty until Israel had negotiated a settlement with Syria and the Palestinians. Thus, says Kissinger, “the price paid for the return to the prewar borders was not peace, but the end of belligerency, not easy to distinguish from the existing cease-fire.” [32] Further talks were held in May, but there was no movement in the Egyptian position. In October, Kissinger met with Abba Eban and laid plans to open three-way talks in November. But by then it was too late.

In a Newsweek interview in April 1973, Sadat declared that, “For the first time, we see total and complete agreement between the U.S. and Israel on Middle Eastern Policy…. I want a final peace agreement with Israel. But there was no response from the U.S. or Israel—except to supply Israel with more Phantoms [i.e., fighter jets]… Everything in this country [Egypt] is now being mobilized in earnest for the resumption of the battle—which is now inevitable.” [33]

In May, the Egyptian army carried out a full mobilization. At great expense, Israel did the same. Nothing came of it. Thus, in early October, when the Egyptian and Syrian armies began massing troops on their respective borders with Israel, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan thought it was another bluff and did not follow suit. On October 6, 1973—Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar—Egypt and Syria launched a combined surprise attack. The devastating setbacks sustained by Israel during the first week of the conflict, the dramatic airlift of new supplies from the U.S. (a remarkable feat in itself), and Israel’s victorious counterthrusts on both battlefronts must be left to others to recount—for we still have some detective work to do.


So what then is the verdict? Did Golda Meir make the 1973 War inevitable by rejecting Sadat’s offer of an interim deal as Ehud Ya’ari and several other writers aver? Did she provoke Sadat to war by “contemptuously” dismissing his “hints of readiness for an accommodation?” The evidence bears out neither charge. When Sadat’s preconditions are thrown into the mix, the interim pullback from the Suez Canal was hardly an attractive proposition for Israel. But the evidence exonerating Meir is stronger than this. The fact is that the same interim bargain came up several more times before the outbreak of war—in September 1972, January 1973 and February 1973. Each time, it was proposed to Egypt by the U.S. State Department, and each time Egypt turned it down. In contrast, on March 1, 1973, Golda Meir told Nixon and Kissinger that she was prepared to accept such a plan as the opening move toward a comprehensive settlement. [34]

Meir never contemptuously dismissed the notion of an accommodation. What she dismissed—contemptuously or otherwise—was the idea of having final borders imposed on her before anyone had even deigned to talk to her. If one seeks an example of a peace proposal being dismissed with contempt, a far better example can be found in Nasser’s response to Meir’s peace overtures: “There is no voice transcending the sounds of war…and no call holier than the call to war.” [35]

Offered the return of the entire Sinai by the Eshkol Government, Nasser traveled to Khartoum and issued the “3 Nos.” Given a second chance by Meir, he launched the War of Attrition. One may argue that the Egyptian President was not in a position to negotiate, for as Henry Kissinger has noted, “in the mood of Arab humiliation following the defeat in the Six Day War, concessions would in all likelihood be ascribed to military weakness rather than to statesmanship.” [36]

This is undoubtedly true, but one should not lose sight of the fact that Nasser provoked the Six Day War, and if the Arabs were humiliated over having lost it, that was a problem of their own making. Why should it have been incumbent upon Meir to solve it? As she herself was to say: “It was a great pity that the Arab states felt so humiliated by losing the war which they had started that they just couldn’t bring themselves to talk to us, but on the other hand, we couldn’t be expected to reward them for having tried to throw us into the sea. We were bitterly disappointed, but there was only one possible reply: Israel would not withdraw from any of the territories until the Arab states once and for all put an end to the conflict. . . .We waited for the Arabs to accept the fact that the only alternative to war was peace and that the only road to peace was negotiation.” [37]

Nasser’s culpability in the Six Day War and the War of Attrition is beyond doubt. In addition, he can be called to account for stonewalling all progress toward an accord. But Nasser had been dead for three years when the Yom Kippur War erupted. He may have done his part to lay the groundwork, he may have said, “that which was lost by war must be restored by war,” but he certainly didn’t carry the project through.

At whom, then, should we point the finger? As it turns out, one of the key participants has yet to testify. There is an interesting passage in Abba Eban’s Personal Witness, describing a verbal duel between U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. Rogers sought to assure Meir that the new Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, was ready to make peace (May 1971). Meir replied that Rogers was naïve to place his trust in such protestations. Eban concludes that Meir “was affronted by the idea that an American secretary of state could discern virtue in an Arab leader.” [38] This was certainly one possibility. Another possibility is that Meir was right to distrust Sadat.

Is it possible that the far-sighted Egyptian statesman who would ultimately forge a peace deal and pay for it with his life was simply being duplicitous? The evidence suggests that he was—and the most damning of that evidence is to be found in his own utterances. In his autobiography, Sadat declares that on his accession to the presidency in late 1970,

“the key to everything…was to wipe out the disgrace and humiliation that followed from the 1967 defeat. I reckoned it would be 1,000 times more honorable for us—40,000 of my sons in the armed forces and myself—to be buried crossing the Canal than to accept such disgrace and humiliation. Posterity would say we had died honorably on the battlefield…and posterity would carry on the struggle.” [39]

It is no easy task to square these sentiments with an earnest desire for peace. Still, in his speech to the Egyptian Parliament in February 1971, Sadat did say that in return for an interim Israeli withdrawal from the Suez Canal he would, among other things, “sign a peace agreement with Israel….” Some might argue that this absolves him. But does it? Sadat goes on to say:

“My Peace Initiative of February 4, 1971, launched an Egyptian diplomatic offensive—the only alternative to a military one which I was, at the time, unable to undertake.” [40] [emphasis added]

This is a puzzling way for a man of peace to express himself. Was Sadat truly seeking peace, or was he dissimulating until the times were more conducive toward making war? The answer lies in a startling revelation made by Henry Kissinger:

“If I had been able in mid-1973 to guarantee [Sadat] the 1967 borders without his having to make peace, he would have accepted it—though with reluctance, as he later told me, since it would have done little for Egyptian pride.” [41] [emphasis added]

Each of Sadat’s so-called “hints at an accommodation” during the period under question contained maximalist territorial demands as the price of initiating face-to-face negotiations. Refusing to negotiate until all of one’s demands are met does not constitute “accommodation.” To say that war is “inevitable” unless one’s enemy accedes to maximalist demands is not to propose peace–it is to deliver an ultimatum. And to accept “with reluctance” everything that one has asked for, means that what was asked for was not what was wanted. Anwar Sadat did not want peace with Israel in the period between 1970 and 1973, because peace would not “wipe out the disgrace and humiliation that followed from the 1967 defeat.” War alone could do that. Consequently, war is what Sadat desired.

This, of course, does not mean that Israel achieved perfection in her pursuit of peace during this period. Most Israelis felt secure on the existing cease-fire lines and did not believe that another Arab attack was likely. As a result, they perceived little danger in a continuing stalemate: Either the Arabs would have to accept the status quo or they would have to negotiate – and whichever course they chose, Israel would be holding the stronger cards.

If anyone personified this confident mindset, it was Golda Meir’s Defense Minister, Moshe Dayan—the state’s most popular political figure. In addition to his duties as Minister of Defense, Dayan was responsible for the administration of the occupied territories. In the immediate aftermath of the Six Day War, his policy had been to make the occupation as inconspicuous as possible. As he told a subordinate: “I want a policy whereby an Arab can be born, live and die in the West Bank without ever seeing an Israeli official.” [42] At that time, the occupation had been viewed as temporary, but as the years passed with no progress towards a negotiated settlement, Dayan came to believe that the Arabs had no intention of making peace with Israel in exchange for territory. [43] In his view, it was not Israel’s task to remain in suspended animation if the Arabs refused to negotiate. Rather, she should “create facts”—especially by building settlements in crucial areas—so that if the Arab states did eventually agree to negotiate, Israel would already be ensconced in those sites that were critical to her security.

Within certain parameters, this concept was widely accepted in Israel. But there were two common objections to the way Dayan pursued it. First of all, he favored a more aggressive settlement policy than did most members of the cabinet. [44] Indeed, in Abba Eban’s view, his vision, particularly with regard to the West Bank, was “dark with false images.” [45] But the real objection to Dayan’s approach was that his preoccupation with administering the territories took his mind off his primary role as defense minister. His failure to fulfill this responsibility—which included determining, with some degree of accuracy, the likelihood of a major enemy offensive—was to produce consequences of the unhappiest sort once war broke out. Dayan completely missed the boat on Egypt’s and Syria’s war preparations, and he was slow to react even when the ugly truth could no longer be denied.

But even if Dayan didn’t see the war coming, he correctly discerned why it came. As he succinctly summarized it:

“The Yom Kippur War grew out of Egypt’s and Syria’s refusal to reach a peace arrangement with Israel or to leave Sinai and the Golan Heights in Israel’s hands. The Arabs wanted to retrieve the territories they had lost in the Six Day War without reconciling themselves to the fact of Israel’s existence. This goal could only be achieved through war.” [46]

War did not come because Golda Meir scoffed at peace proposals (she didn’t), or because Dayan was pushing too aggressively for settlements (there were only 7000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza in October 1973), [47] or even because Israelis were overconfident in the ultimate issue of the continuing diplomatic impasse. The ultimate cause of the war was Arab rejection of Israel’s legitimacy, compounded by an inimical and overweening Arab sense of pride—pride that could not have been assuaged even if Israel had handed back every inch of occupied territory and demanded nothing in return.


1. I.e., territories on the western side of the Jordan River that had been occupied the Jordanian Kingdom since the 1949 armistice.
2. Abba Eban, Personal Witness: Israel Through My Eyes. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1992, p. 437 & 446; Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Siege. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986; pp. 489-90.
3. Eban, p. 446.
4. Eban, p. 450.
5. Eban, pp. 455-6.
6. Eban, p. 456.
7. Eban, p. 457.
8. Eban, pp. 456-7.
9. Comments of LBJ, Lord Caradon and Goldberg: Eban, pp. 458-9.
10. Eban, p. 461.
11. Eban, p. 478.
12. Meir, Golda. My Life. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1975, p. 383; see also Gilbert, Martin. Israel, A History. London: Black Swan Books, 1998, p. 410.
13. Meir, p. 384; Gilbert, p. 410.
14. Meir, p. 382.
15. Sachar, pp. 694-5.
16. Reich, Bernard. A Brief History of Israel. New York: Checkmark Books, 2003, p. 98.
17. Eban, pp. 488-9.
18. Sachar, p. 695.
19. Sadat, Anwar. In Search of an Identity, an Autobiography. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1977, 1978, p. 219. Mitchell Bard, however, notes that Sadat’s offer of a peace agreement with Israel was not made public (Bard, Mitchell G. Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Chevy Chase, American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, 2002, p. 72).
20. Eban, p. 500.
21. Eban, pp. 501-3.
22. Bard, p. 72.
23. Sachar, p. 696.
24. Eban, p. 501.
25. Meir, p. 373.
26. Eban, pp. 503-5.
27. Sacher, p. 696.
28. Eban, p. 507.
29. Eban, pp. 506-7.
30. Kissinger, Henry. Years of Upheaval. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1982, pp. 197-8.
31. Kissinger, pp. 201-2.
32. Kissinger, pp. 215-16.
33. From Anwar Sadat’s interview with Arnaud de Borchgrave, entitled “The Battle is Now Inevitable.” Newsweek, April 9, 1973, pp. 44-5; see also, Kissinger, p. 225. (parenthetical text added by the author for clarity.)
34. Kissinger, pp. 207, 211-15 & 221.
35. Meir, p. 383.
36. Kissinger, p. 226.
37. Meir, p. 370.
38. Eban, p. 504.
39. Sadat, p. 215.
40. Sadat, pp. 221-2.
41. Kissinger, p. 226. (italics added.)
42. Gilbert, p. 396.
43. Perlmutter, Amos. Israel: The Partitioned State. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985, p. 217.
44. The cabinet had more or less officially adopted the “Allon Plan” for the West Bank, which called for a security belt along the Jordan River and the annexation of Jerusalem. Dayan favored more extensive settlement there, but the settlement movement was still in its nascent phase (see Eban, p. 470).
45. Eban, p. 466.
46. Dayan, Moshe. Story of My Life. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976, p. 504.
47. Eban, p. 470.

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By Julie R. S. Fogarty

Julie R. S. Fogarty ’08, a Government concentrator from Dunster House, graduates from Harvard College this year.

The Greater Middle East has one of the highest population growth rates in the world, lower only than that in sub-Saharan Africa. [1] The regional rate has continued to accelerate over the past 60 years, from 2.64 percent per year in the 1950s to 3.1 percent per year between 1980 and 1992, the highest in the world at the time. Although the rate had dropped slightly to 2.79% by 2007, many people remain concerned. [2] Population growth has had enormous economic consequences, including extreme pressure on educational and health services and unattainably high demand for new jobs. In an attempt to alleviate these social pressures, which could in turn prompt political upheaval, Egypt and Iran have sought to curb population growth directly through family planning programs. Although both countries have committed vast resources through sustained programs, Egypt and Iran have exhibited “stop and go” family planning policies. [3] Although Egyptian programs have been supported by international aid organizations, Iran has seen a more dramatic decrease in fertility rates (and a corresponding rise in birth control usage) due primarily to its own, government-sanctioned family planning initiatives of the past 15 years.

Iranian Family Planning

Iranian family planning has gone through two dramatic transformations. First, in 1965, the government of Mohammed Reza Shah instituted a family planning program that stressed the “supply side” of fertility rates: the availability of contraception. [4] For the first time, the government created educational and promotional campaigns endorsing contraception as a means to stem population overgrowth and improve the standard of living of Iranian families. Likewise, the Shah’s government encouraged women’s participation outside the home, granted women the right to vote, and reformed the Family Protection Law. The results were dramatic and immediate. In the ten years following the new policies, the Iranian average growth rate fell from 3.1 percent to 2.7 percent and hundreds of thousands more women began to use contraception.

However, the 1979 Islamic Revolution, led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, fundamentally changed the nature of Iranian society. Khomeini established an Islamic state, reversing many of the gains made in the area of women’s rights under the Shah and dismantling the family planning program. [5] In stark contrast to the previous policies, Khomeini nurtured a pro-natalist policy as a result of his religious outlook and his desire to usehigh birth rates as a strategic threat in the Iran-Iraq War (which began in 1980) and other conflicts. Islamic leaders publicly proclaimed that a woman’s first priority should be marriage and children. Subsequently, the government reduced the availability of contraceptives, lowered the legal age of marriage, dissolved the Family Planning Council, and provided subsidies for larger families. [6] These changes raised the growth rate to 3.4% and created a growing demand for food, health care, education, and employment. [7]

Changes within the Islamic Republic of Iran during the late 1980s altered the previously stringent pro-natalist policy. The 1986 national census served as a “wake up call” to family policy planners, underscoring the growing economic and social crisis. The end of the war with Iraq in 1988 and Khomeini’s death in 1989 provided the impetus for further change. [8] In 1989, the Ministry of Health announced plans for a new family planning program with three major goals: encouraging women to space their pregnancies, discouraging pregnancy for women not between the ages of 18 and 35, and limiting family size to three children. [9] Furthermore, sterilization for both sexes was legalized in 1990. [10] The program was endorsed by the country’s High Judicial Council, which declared that “Islam does not pose any barrier to family planning.” [11] In 1993, the government went a step further by restricting maternity leave and compelling the Ministries of Education, Health and Medical Education, and Culture and Education to incorporate information on family planning. [12]

The Iranian government has promoted these family planning initiatives through the state-run television and media, emphasizing the link between overpopulation and poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment. [13] The media encouraged the use of contraceptives, which were provided free of charge on demand, and legal reforms were made in favor of women. [14] Interestingly, religious leaders endorsed the program, directing all religious authorities to support family planning because it was initiated by the Islamic government. [15] Religious leaders now describe smaller families as a social responsibility. [16] In addition, the majlis, the Iranian parliament, voted to support the program. As a result, the number of women using contraceptives has nearly doubled from 37 percent in the 1970s to 65 percent now, although urban women are more likely to use them than rural women are. [17]

Moreover, the population growth rate sharply declined to 2.5 percent between 1986 and 1991 then to only 1.2 percent in 2001, one of the fastest declines on record. [18] In only 15 years (from 1985 to 2001), Iran’s total fertility rate dropped from more than births per woman to fewer than 3. [19] From 2000 to 2005, Iran’s average fertility rate was 2.53 births per woman, [20] and the United Nations predicts that it will drop to 2 births per woman (replacement level) by 2010.

Egyptian Family Planning

Egypt’s family planning programs have followed a similarly unsteady course. Debated by Egyptian social scientists since the 1930s, Egypt’s high population growth became widely viewed as an acute problem in the 1960s, when the government acknowledged the serious economic and social problems associated with it. The government soon established the National Family Planning Program as one response to the economic problems. [21] Yet, the program languished in the 1970s as President Anwar Sadat adopted the slogan “Development is the best contraceptive,” and focused on economic development. He also yielded to Islamists’ pro-natalist views in an attempt to gain their political support against the pro-Soviet left. [22]

Following Sadat’s assassination, new Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak rejuvenated the family planning program and established the “National Strategy Framework of Population, Human Resource Development, and the Family Planning Program,” which promoted contraceptive use by married women. [23] From 1980 to 1992, the government, pressured by donor agencies like USAID, began to focus on expanding and strengthening family planning service delivery in both public and private sectors. These efforts doubled contraceptive use from 24 percent in 1980 to 50 percent in 2000, and reduced the total fertility rate from 5.3 births per woman to 3.5 births per woman in the same time period. [24]

Yet, the total fertility rate has remained at around 3.5 since 1995, a curious fact that one researcher attributes to upper and middle class Egyptian women. Although these groups drove the decline at the beginning, their fertility rates have since leveled off because of an increase in the level of fertility within marriage (which is offset by a higher age of first marriage). [25] Interestingly, while total fertility has remained stagnant at 3.5 among upper classes in the last decade, it has continued to decline among poorer women, moving from 5.02 children in 1988 to 4.03 children in 1995, and further to 3.62 children in 2000. Thus, while wealthier women still have lower total fertility rates than poorer women, the gap is steadily narrowing.

Unlikely Results

Although they took different paths, by the end of the 1980s both countries had made strong commitments to curb rapid population growth with family planning programs. The dire economic crises experienced by both Egypt and Iran in the late 1980s made both countries increasingly willing to support the distribution of contraceptives and economic conditions played a crucial role in the reintroduction of family planning programs later on. [26] Despite these similarities, the programs also exhibit several important differences.

First, the Egyptian program received significant aid from international donor organizations such as USAID. USAID pressured the Egyptian government to introduce family planning programs throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, and providing millions of dollars ($87 million from 1977 to 1983) in funding to Egyptian organizations that supported USAID’s emphasis on training personnel and promoting the use of intrauterine devices (IUDs). [27] IUDs and permanent devices such as Norplant (a birth control device implanted in the upper arm that lasts for five years) rank as the most popular methods of birth control in Egypt. These contraceptives are distributed in Ministry of Health facilities by trained professionals and were widely encouraged by USAID members who were concerned that women would not use birth control pills correctly. [28]

In contrast, Iran developed its family planning program independently. As one of the world’s largest oil exporters, it had the financial security to avoid dependence on international aid organizations. [29] Thus, the Iranian government has funded the creation of a comprehensive health network throughout the country, in which “health houses” include family planning as an aspect of primary care (thus removing the stigma). [30] Furthermore, the government covers 80 percent of family planning costs and provides various contraceptives (including condoms, pills, and sterilization) free. The country is the only one in the region with a government-sanctioned condom factory. Consequently, Iranians tend to use oral contraceptives like “the Pill” and condoms rather than IUDs. Additionally, men have an increasingly active role in family planning. Iran is the only country in the Greater Middle East that requires a couple to complete a class on contraception before receiving a marriage license, and vasectomies are becoming more common.

Despite the aid and influence of international organizations like USAID and the International Monetary Fund, the use of contraceptives in Egypt is less widespread than in Iran. In 1995, only 48 percent of married Egyptian women were using contraceptives, compared to 70 percent of Iranian women. [31] In both countries, urban women use contraceptives at a far higher rate than rural women (most likely because of higher education levels and employment rates). [32] In Egypt, the divide between the rural fertility rate of 4.2 children per woman and the urban fertility rate of 3 children per women can be largely attributed to the fact that rural women must travel to receive IUDs from trained professionals or pay for expensive private services. [33] Although Iran also exhibits a divide between rural and urban contraceptive use, the gap is narrowing because of the country’s extensive network of health clinics in rural areas, and presumably, the easy and free access to contraceptives. [34]

Finally, the religious views of the predominantly Muslim population of both these countries influence women’s decisions about contraception. Contrary to popular belief, Islam does not forbid contraception. [35] Yet, because Islam teaches that a woman’s sphere is the home, and that children are the major source of her value, Islamic women are often pressured to forgo contraception. [36] Because of these potentially restrictive social norms, the Iranian religious leadership’s support of contraception was an important element to that country’s campaign. On the other hand, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, a banned Islamist organization, condemned family planning initiatives as “a Western conspiracy to limit the number of Muslims,” and Islamic media sources have also criticized the program. [37]

In addition to encouraging the use of contraceptives, both Iran and Egypt have supplemented their family planning programs with female education initiatives and improvements in health care, which are also likely causes of a decrease in fertility. As Iran and Egypt demonstrate, a comprehensive family planning program backed by the government, media, and religious leaders can lead to dramatic decreases in population growth and fertility rates, which are widely understood to relieve pressure on the economy. Although Egypt and Iran have made large gains since the 1980s, many issues, such as the discrepancy between urban and rural contraceptive use, remain. Furthermore, the growing influence of Islamic fundamentalist groups in Egypt and the resurgence of religious fundamentalists in Iran may the trend of the past two decades.


1. John Waterbury and Alan Richards, A Political Economy of the Middle East, (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2007), 77.
2. Josh Martin, “The Population Time Bomb.” Middle East, 03050734, Nov 2003, Issue 339
3. Martin, 86.
4. Martin, 87.
5. Richards and Waterbury, citing Bulatao and Richardson, 1994
6. S. Edwards, “Iran’s Population Growth Rate Increases by About 40% After Abandonment of Fertility Control Policy in 1979.” International Family Planning Perspectives, Vol. 18, No. 3. (Sep., 1992), 117. The legal marriage age for females was reduced to an unbelievably low nine years.
7. Akbar Aghajanian and Amir H. Merhyar. “Fertility, Contraceptive Use, and Family Planning Program Activity in the Islamic Republic of Iran. International Family Planning Perspectives, Vol. 25, No. 2. (June 1999), 98.
8. Maryann Poya, Women, Work, and Islamism: Ideology and Resistance in Iran. (London: Zed Books, 2000), 98.
9. Aghajanian and Merhyar, 98.
10. Richards and Waterbury, 87.
11. Aghajanian and Merhyar, p. 98.
12. Janet Larsen, “Iran’s Birth Rate Plummeting at Record Pace: Success Provides a Model for Other Developing Countries.” Earth Policy Institute, 12/28/2001. 1.
13. Poya, 99.
14. Poya, 100.
15. Aghajanian and Merhyar, 99.
16. Larsen, 1.
17. Aghajanian and Merhyar, 100.
18. Richards and Waterbury, 87.
19. Larsen, 1.
20. http://globalis.gvu.unu.edu/indicator.cfm?Country=EG&IndicatorID=138
21. Richards and Waterbury, 86.
22. Richards and Waterbury, 87.
23. Kamran Asadar Ali, Planning the Family in Egypt: New Bodies, New Selves (Texas: University of Texas Press, 2002), 32.
24. USAID website. March 31, 2006. Viewed May 4, 2008. http://www.usaid.gov/stories/egypt/ss_egypt_family.html
25. E. Eltigani, “Stalled Fertility Decline in Egypt: Why?” Population and Environment. Sep 2003. Vol. 25, Issue 1, 41.
26. Ali (2002), 2.
27. Ali (2002), 38.
28. Poya, 38.
29. Poya, 44.
30. Larson, 1.
31. Rosalin P. Petchesky and Karen Judd, eds. Negotiating Women’s Reproductive Rights: Women’s Perspectives Across Cultures (London: Zed Books, 1998)
32. Kamran Asdar Ali, “Modernization and Family Planning Programs in Egypt.” Middle East Studies Network: the Politics of a Field. (Oct- Dec. 1997), 41.
33. Petchesky and Judd, 78.
34. Aghajanian and Merhyar, 100.
35. B.F. Musallam, Sex and Society in Islam: Birth Control before the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 16.
36. Petchesky and Judd, 96.
37. Ali 2002, 155.

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