By Hasan Afif El-Hasan
April 25th was the twenty-sixth anniversary of Sinai liberation from the Israeli occupation and it deserves celebration. Sinai is the only Arab land that has been liberated since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Although Sinai is not a Palestinian territory and President Anwar Sadat broke ranks with the Arab States and made major concessions, he stood firm in his negotiations with Israel to liberate it. He insisted that every inch of Sinai must be returned to Egypt’s sovereignty before he signed the peace treaty in 1979. Can the Palestinian and Arab leaders learn a lesson from Sadat?
Sadat succeeded President Jamal Abdel-Nasser in 1970 and promised his countrymen that he would recover Sinai, but he also knew that he would not keep his promise without help from the US. In the first two years of his rule, Sadat tried to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict peacefully, but he was rebuffed by Israel and the US. Israel was confident that Egypt and Syria could not recover their occupied land militarily and the Status quo was acceptable to the US since the death of Nasser and the defeat of the PLO by King Hussein of Jordan had diminished the Soviet Union influence in the region.
Sadat agreed without any reservation to the 1971 Yaring proposal to enter into peace negotiations with Israel, and he offered to open the Suez Canal for the international navigation, including Israel, in return for partial Israeli withdrawal from the northern edge of the Canal. He was not taken seriously by the Americans even when he dismissed the Soviet military advisors as demanded by the US. The Egyptian leadership discovered that their peaceful gestures were ignored by the American policy makers for some reasons, which Secretary of State Henry Kissinger described later on as “shortsighted”. After failing to resolve the conflict through diplomacy, Sadat decided to prepare for war without the usual announcements and media fanfare. He formed alliances with Syria Saudi Arabia and he provided his military with Soviet-made arms.
The Egyptian armed forces surprised the Israelis on October 6, 1973 by storming their Berleev line defenses across the Canal and establishing foothold in Sinai. Syria’s simultaneous military attack on Israel north border forced Israel to fight on two fronts. The Egyptian military won a battle against the Israelis for the first time. It destroyed the bulk of the Israeli war machine in the first two days, and forced the US to intervene by airlifting military equipment to the Israelis. When the Israeli military encountered difficulties and began running short of military supplies, President Nixon ordered a full scale airlift of military equipment paid for with a grant of supplemental military aid.
The 1973 war possibly marked the end of the inferiority complex and the myth of Israeli invincibility. However, it was focused on recovering Egyptian land, not on issues that concern the Arab Palestinians in the occupied land, and therefore it differed from the previous wars in objectives, preparation, execution, and outcome. It was the bloodiest of all the Arab-Israeli wars, and it was the only war that weakened the hegemony of the Israeli elite and might have ended with an even more devastating Israeli defeat had it not been for the involvement of the US on behalf of Israel. Israeli losses were so high that US Galaxie planes had to rush replacements of war equipment directly to the front lines. The number of casualties and the level of the defense expenditures prior to the war are the best indicators for the intensity of the war. According to the historian Yair Evron, “number of dead Israeli soldiers was 2,527 in the 1973 War, compared to 777 in the 1967 War, 190 in the 1956 War, and 222 in the War of Independence”. Number of Israelis wounded was 8,800, number of tanks lost was 840, and the cost of the war equaled approximately one year’s gross national product for each of the combatants. Israel, since the 1973 war, has become more dependent on the US military and economic aid. Egypt’s defense expenditure was “19.9 % in 1972 and 31.0% in 1973 as a percentage of its GNP as compared to only 11.7% in 1966 and 11.5% in 1967”.
Seven months before the 1973 war, Sadat appointed himself as a prime minister. This made him the president, the prime minister, president of the ASU ruling party central committee, and the military commander, with the undeclared purpose of preparing for the war. Sadat was committed to win because with such authority, it was his war and if he failed he would have no one to blame but himself. In short, unlike the previous wars, Sadat took the war to recover Sinai seriously. He secured the support of the Egyptian people and political parties, and coordinated with the Syrians and the Saudis.
The Israeli arrogance and its implied contempt for the Arabs gave Sadat of Egypt and Asad of Syria the motive to go to war in 1973 and refute the Israeli’s assumption that it had the capacity to perpetuate the status quo indefinitely. Unlike the previous wars with Israel, the 1973 war was limited in its scope, objectives and outcome. It was intended to recover the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula and the Syrian Golan Heights, not any of the Palestinian occupied land.
Without the US military support to Israel, the Egyptians could have recovered much of Sinai through military means. But the 1973 war revealed the strength of the US commitment to defend Israel against the Arabs even while it is occupying their land. Sadat put it this way “I found myself fighting the US!”. The significance of the 1973 war was the conclusion by Anwar Sadat that there was no hope of solving the conflict with Israel through military means because of US strong support for Israel. The Egyptian leader decided to launch a personal diplomatic mission by traveling to Israel and addressing the Knesset in November 1977. Finally, Israel returned all of Sinai in exchange for Egyptian recognition of its existence and demilitarizing Sinai. And few years later under Mubarak, Egypt recovered its leadership status in the region.
Even when Sadat had created an obvious split in the Arab ranks and his press was mocking and insulting his Arab and Palestinian critics, he claimed he was fighting for the Palestinian cause. In his March of 1975 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Sadat stated that “Jerusalem, Nablus, and Gaza [Palestinian cities] are no less dear to [him] than Egypt and Kantara”. Sadat’s go-it-alone diplomacy was successful in achieving the goals of recovering Sinai and securing generous US economic aid but he made it harder for the Palestinians and the Syrians to recover their territories. The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty freed the Israeli government to consolidate its hold on the remaining occupied land. Samuel Lewis, who is familiar with Israeli politics, wrote that the treaty even weakened the position of the Israeli peace advocates who had argued that significant territorial concessions to the Palestinians were necessary to obtain peace with the Arabs.
The Palestinian leadership could have emulated Sadat success and recovered the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza after the first Intifada when they had the sympathy of the whole world. The first Intifada of 1987 against the Israeli occupation was largely unarmed despite the harsh reaction by the Israelis. The Palestinians did not resort to acts of violence inside Israel proper or used firearms in the uprising, thus winning the sympathy of World public opinion. The Israelis, on the other hand, failed to justify killing and injuring unarmed civilians, mostly children throwing stones, protesting occupation. The first Intifada success in the World public opinion was a triumph by the Palestinians and a defeat of the Israelis. Sadat negotiated with the Israelis as a victor after the 1973 war. He insisted that every inch of Sinai must be returned to Egypt sovereignty, but the PLO leaders negotiated as a defeated party surrendering the land and the sovereignty when they signed the Oslo agreement on behalf of the Palestinians.
That is history. Today, the Palestinians are holding with Israel what are called “peace talks” that are going nowhere, and the US is the only country that can pressure Israel to start acting in the interest of peace. But the Bush administration has yet to demonstrate any real willingness to pressure Israel. The Palestinians and the Arabs today are still at disadvantage in their influence on the decision makers in the West especially in the US. They are using their charm to influence Israel and the US policies. Bush has no intention of putting pressure on Israel to do anything it does not want to do. Bush, instead, pledged in writing his support to Israel’s refusal to recognize the Palestinian refugees right of return, the refusal to withdraw to the pre-June 1967 borders and its insistence on annexing Jewish settlements to Israel.
The neoconservatives who formulate the National Security Council policies in the US are supporters of the Greater Israeli project. The Quartet of the so called Peace Process that includes the United Nations, the EU and Russia besides the US has failed to engage in any aspects of peace even on the Palestinian human rights because it will not act without or against Bush administration.
Saudi Arabia under the late King Faisal used the oil embargo as a weapon to support Egypt and Syria in the 1973 war and the West took notice. Middle East oil today is even more in demand than in 1973 and using it as a weapon will be more effective. The Arabs can threaten to cut down oil production and Egypt can threaten to reduce the gas supplies to Israel should Israel continues to expand settlements and impede progress toward peace. But before confronting the US and Israel the Palestinians should close ranks and reconcile their difference. The US and Israel will never take the Palestinian negotiators seriously if they are not supported by all the Palestinian people and all their political factions.
-Born in Nablus, Palestine, Hasan Afif El-Hasan, Ph.D, is a political analyst. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com