—   The sharp point of dissent   —

Section: Middle East
14 August 2005

Fuming for Israel: the Case of Alan Dershowitz

7. The Yom Kippur War

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On 6 October, 1973 a joint Syrian-Egyptian thrust into the Golan and the Sinai took Israel completely by surprise. Egyptian tanks broke through the Bar-Lev line on the Suez canal and shortly thereafter fought off an Israeli counteroffensive. At the same time, '[o]n the Golan Heights, Syrian forces, bolstered by fourteen hundred tanks, rolled through the Israeli defenses and moved to the edge of Galilee. Only a few Israeli tanks stood between the Syrians and the heavily populated Hulla valley.'[1]

'The unprovoked attack on Israel was unjustified and in violation of the U.N. charter.'[2] Into this short sentence Dershowitz manages to pack two errors and some chutzpah. Firstly, an 'attack on Israel' would require the enemy to at least reach Israel: this never happened. Arab forces merely engaged Israelis on Syrian/Egyptian territory occupied by their enemy, and at no point crossed the pre-1967 frontiers into Israel proper. On both fronts, the aim of the surprise attack was purely irridentist - the recovery of territories lost in the June 1967 war. (Egyptian President Anwar Sadat even sent a message to Henry Kissinger during the war making this limited aim clear - pace Dershowitz's claim that 'the Arab goal was to kill as many civilians as possible'.[3]) The second error concerns the 'unjustified' nature of the attack, which implies that there was a reasonable alternative to military action: as we shall see below, the documentary record shows unambiguously that joint US-Israeli obstructionism of all diplomatic means of resolving the deadlock left Sadat with no choice but force. Thirdly, plaintive invocation of UN principles seems a little rich in a context in which Israel's contemptuous refusal to abide by the post-1967 UN resolution 242 (which proscribes 'acquisition of territory by force') was the major contributing factor to the 1973 upheaval.

The dual task facing an Israel-apologist in discussing the Yom Kippur War is to completely efface (I) what led to the disastrous war and (II) what saved Israel from disaster. Dershowitz rises to both challenges admirably.


In the previous chapter Dershowitz quotes Morris to the effect that on 19 June, 1967 the Israeli cabinet's offer to return the Golan and the Sinai in exchange for peace were rebuffed by both Egypt and Syria. This is absolutely correct. The trouble is, there's more to it than that. Historian Avi Shlaim has analysed Abba Eban's discussion of the cabinet decision with the Americans and concluded:
The American record of the meeting confirms that Rusk considered the Israelis terms as not ungenerous, but it makes no mention of a request by Eban to transmit these terms to Egypt and Syria. Nor is there confirmation from Egyptian or Syrian sources that they received a conditional Israeli offer of withdrawal through the State Department in late June 1967. One is left with the impression that Eban was more interested in using the cabinet decision of 19 June to impress the Americans than to engage the governments of Egypt and Syria in direct negotiations.[4]
Kimmerling's analysis buttresses the non-delivery theory: 'according to new evidence provided by Israeli researcher Dan Babli, the US never delivered the message, presumably because they were not interested in reopening the Suez canal or in providing other benefits to Soviet client states.'[5]

Note that Dershowitz's chronicle of Israeli peace overtures begins and ends with the June 1967 cabinet decision. This too is significant, for this was the last time that Israel was realistically accommodating, and the last time that Egypt was strongly rejectionist. As we shall see presently, the roles reversed shortly after this and Israel, for the next six years, rejected or frustrated all reasonable peace proposals. The chronology is as follows:

UN 242

Drafted on 22 November 1967, UN resolution 242 was unusual in that the intrinsic verbal ambiguity which lubricated its path through a UNSC vote of approval was the very thing which thereafter frustrated the ability of the major parties to agree on what it meant. It featured two major flaws:

1. The clause requiring 'withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict' deliberately omitted reference to 'the' or 'all' territories, at the behest of the Americans. It appears that Lord Caradon (who drafted the English version) assented to this because he did not regard Israel's pre-June 1967 borders as stable or final. But on the matter of 'inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war' he was quite clear, stating: 'that meant that there could be no justification for annexation of territory on the Arab side of the 1967 line merely because it had been conquered in the 1967 war.'[6] But the Americans seemed to have inserted the murky phraseology with a view to giving Israel some bargaining room. Unfortunately, giving the Israelis this inch merely facilitated their plans to take a mile, which were already underway. The day before the cabinet's June 19 decision to exchange land for peace, Israel formally annexed East Jerusalem. Within ten days, the annexationist Allon Plan was submitted to the cabinet, which envisaged chopping large sections out of the West Bank and attaching them to Israel, leaving the remaining Arab population centres with some ill-defined form of 'autonomy'.[7] As early as July 1967, plans were approved to construct settlements on the Golan Heights. And by 1969, Moshe Dayan and Ariel Sharon had already begun expropriating vast tracts of northeastern Sinai to make way for the construction of settlements and the city of Yamit. (It should be noted that the June 19 proposal ominously mentioned not a word about withdrawal from Gaza or the West Bank.) Thus when the Israelis finally got around to accepting UN 242 in August 1970, they had already substantially violated one of its provisions.

2. The resolution makes no reference to Palestinian rights to national self-determination or even what body may represent the Palestinians: instead it refers to them solely in terms of seeking 'a just settlement of the refugee problem'. Not surprisingly, the galling injustice of this was too much for the PLO, who rejected the resolution. As Chomsky has noted:
This refusal may be a tactical error, but it is easy to understand its motivation. One would hardly have expected the World Zionist Organization, in 1947, to have accepted a UN resolution concerning Palestine that referred to Jewish interests only in terms of a refugee problem, denying any claim to national rights and any status to the Zionist movement or its organizations.[8]

Rogers Plan A

In December 1969 US Secretary of State William Rogers came up with a peace plan based on UN 242. After its 'unqualified rejection'[9] by Israel, it was followed by the proposal of US ambassador to the UN Charles Yost, who took on the Jordanian track by proposing Jordanian administration of East Jerusalem and Israeli withdrawal from much of the West Bank, along with an effort to settle the refugee problem. Although this essentially represented a return merely to the status quo ante, Golda Meir dubbed the idea 'a disaster for Israel'[10] and refused to consider it. The cabinet statement formalizing the rejection noted that 'Israel's security and peace would be in grave danger'[11] if this peace proposal were to be implemented.

Dr. Jarring's Initiative

The peace initiative of UN mediator Gunnar Jarring came under the rubric of the June 1970 Rogers Plan B. It proposed an acceptance by Israel, Jordan and Egypt of UN 242; a three-month armistice in the War of Attrition currently being waged over the Suez; and Israel's assent to enter into a Jarring-helmed negotiating process with Egypt and Jordan. Egypt and Jordan promptly agreed to the initiative. But Golda Meir could only be talked into the process by way of a July letter from Richard Nixon which hopelessly undermined it. The President assured Meir that Israel would be under no pressure to agree to any settlement of the refugee problem which might vitiate the Jewish composition of the state, and he essentially gave Israel a veto power over any withdrawal proposal that was not to its liking.[12]

Next February, by which time there was a new regime in Egypt under Anwar Sadat, Jarring submitted a questionnaire to all three parties in order to ascertain their starting positions for a settlement. Egypt promptly replied with the groundbreaking announcement that it was ready to sign a peace treaty with Israel: it wanted withdrawal from Sinai and Gaza and a settlement of the Palestinian refugee problem. On February 26 the Israeli cabinet submitted its response to Jarring. The most salient statement therein was: 'Israel will not withdraw to the pre-June 1967 lines', a refusal from which the Jarring initiative never recovered. With the momentum of the Egyptian proposal stalled, the peace process quickly became moribund, and died shortly thereafter. Jarring's final word on the matter was instructive: 'until there has been a change in Israel's position on the question of withdrawal, it would serve little purpose to reactivate the talks.'[13]

Sadat's interim proposal

Having been frustrated in his attempts to make a comprehensive settlement (even independently of the other Arab states) under Jarring's auspices, Sadat thereafter tried a gradualist approach independent of the UN: in February 1971 he proposed a withdrawal of Israeli troops on the east bank of the Suez in exchange for the opening of the canal to shipping. This time, the proposal was communicated by Joseph Sisco, US assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs. In response, Golda Meir was no less intransigent than on other occasions: it appears that she was chary of even a partial move toward the implementation of 242 and rejected any notion of withdrawal without a formal peace treaty. Sicso himself recalls: 'After two days of in-depth discussions, it was clear we weren't making much progress. I said, "But, Prime Minister, Sadat only wants a symbolic 500 riflemen across the canal." But Golda Meir wouldn't budge.'[14]

A spiral of truculence followed. Early in October Secretary Rogers, addressing the UN General Assembly, welcomed the notion of partial withdrawal from the Suez canal zone and hinted that the Jarring mission might be reactivated. But Meir categorically rejected even his suggestion of having 'proximity talks' on the matter in New York, and calcified her position with a declaration that she would consider no further proposals until the US resumed delivery of Phantom fighter jets.[15] As we have already seen, Henry Kissinger indulged this stonewalling against the advice of his own State Department, with predictable results that he was explicitly warned about by Egypt, and which violently manifested themselves in October of 1973. In a pusillanimous collapse, the Nixon administration thus restarted in December 1971 the arms supply they had earlier stopped, with no intervening effect on Israeli intractability.

During this period, the Israelis also found time to reject a November 1971 phased settlement proposal from the Soviets, and a March 1972 'federal' plan for administration of the West Bank and Gaza put forth by King Hussein of Jordan (also condemned by the PLO and a by now impatient Egypt). Any possibilities for peace leading up to the fateful month of October 1973 were impaled on the twin prongs of Kissinger's insistence on continuing stalemate and Israel's hubristic belief in its own invincibility. When Egypt and Syria struck, this hubris was the first casualty.


Note that with this history in plain view, Dershowitz, referring to the post-1973 negotiations, is able to say with no trace of irony that '[a]s soon as Sadat courageously indicated a willingness to make peace with Israel in exchange for the Sinai, the Israeli government ... returned it, oil fields and all, to Egypt.'[16] In this counterfactual, Sadat's 1970 offer of a peace treaty for withdrawal from the Sinai is simply washed down the memory hole, along with all other Egyptian/UN/US peace feelers which Israel rebuffed. Dershowitz also adds that '[s]ince Jordan had renounced all claims to the West Bank in favor of the Palestinian Authority [sic], there was no land that Israel could exchange for peace.'[17] Of course, Jordan did not renounce such claims until July 1988.


So on to the remaining question. How did Israel manage to slide out from under near-certain defeat at the hands of Egypt and Syria? The answer: by resuming its blackmail of the Nixon administration, this time on a much larger scale and with the stakes far higher.

In Dershowitz's anti-reading, we are told that '[t]o this day, the Arab victory is celebrated in Egypt and Syria, despite the reality that their armies were saved by a cease-fire imposed on Israel by the United States and the Soviet Union'[18] In fact, the reality is that Israel was saved from an Arab defeat by a massive $2.2bn American airflift of arms[19] beginning on October 10 which turned the tide decisively in Israel's favour. During this time the US 'delivered by means of some 500 flights, 22,000 tons of tanks, guns, missiles and aircraft.'[20] It appears that this blatant American partisanship so enraged King Faisal of Saudi Arabia that he moved quickly to unsheath the oil weapon: OAPEC cut off all oil supplies to the US and the Netherlands and threatened to exponentially reduce world exports each month until Israel withdrew. Up to this point, Israel had been reeling from the Egyptian/Syrian attack. According to Seymour Hersh, '[t]he extent of [Moshe] Dayan's panic on Monday, 8 October, has never been fully reported, but it is widely known among Israelis. ... There was talk in a later meeting of appeals to world Jewry, distribution of antitank weapons to every citizen, and last-ditch resistance in the civilian population centers.'[21] Later he adds:
Over the next hours, the Israeli leadership - faced with its greatest crisis - resolved to implement three critical decisions: it would rally its collapsing forces for a major counterattack; it would arm and target its nuclear arsenal in the event of total collapse and subsequent need for the Sampson Option; and, finally, it would inform Washington of its unprecedented nuclear action - and unprecedented peril - and demand that the United States begin an emergency airlift of arms and ammunition needed to sustain an extended all-out war effort.[22]
And that's how Israel 'won'. In an extraordinary twist, Nixon's own 'madman theory' had been used against him by an ally.[23] Hersh further elucidates that among the targets on Israel's initial nuclear hit-list were military HQ near Cairo and Damascus, that is, near major population centres. In short, the Israelis' post-1967 truculence at the bargaining table and general territorial greed led them into a situation which they could only get out of by resorting to the threat of catastrophic force. The record plainly shows that Israeli inflexibility bears overwhelming responsibility for leaving its opponents no other option but war.

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1 Seymour Hersh, The Sampson Option: Israel, America and the Bomb, Faber and Faber, London, 1991, p. 222.
2 Dershowitz, p. 100
3 Dershowitz, p. 101
4 Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, Penguin, London, 2000, p. 254
5 Baruch Kimmerling, Politicide: Ariel Sharon's War against the Palestinians, Verso, London & New York, 2003, p. 62
6 Quoted in Norman Finkelstein, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, Verso, London, 1995, p. 147
7 Note that in Dershowitz's view, 'Israel should have, and could have, implemented the Alon plan', apparently for no other reason than that 'unlike resolution 242, [it] drew an important distinction between occupying territory and occupying populations' (p. 98). That the population themselves were not consulted on a matter which would have reduced what remained of their already-shrunken Palestine to three noncontiguous bantustans does seem to trouble Dershowitz.
8 Chomsky, p. 41
9 Quoted in Finkelstein, p. 154
10 Quoted in Shlaim, p. 291
11 Ibid.
12 See Shlaim, p. 296.
13 Quoted in Finkelstein, p. 158
14 Quoted in Kirsten E. Schulze, The Arab-Israeli Conflict, Longman: London & New York, 1999, p. 45
15 See Shlaim, p. 306
16 Dershowitz, p. 103
17 Ibid.
18 Dershowitz, p. 102
19 See Schulze, p. 47 et seq.
20 Henry Cattan, The Palestine Question; Croom Helm, Kent, 1988, p. 137
21 Hersh, p. 223
22 Ibid, p. 225. See also Chomsky, p. 466
23 Perhaps this policy was what Moshe Dayan had in mind when he was quoted as saying: 'Israel must be like a mad dog, too dangerous to bother.' (See David Hirst, The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East, (Third Edition), Nation Books, New York, 2003, p. 119)