WASHINGTON — As U.S.-Iranian diplomacy heats up, and the Israeli prime minister expresses worry about the risks of negotiations, it’s fascinating to look back 40 years ago to the prelude to the 1973 Arab-Israeli war — when a hauntingly similar set of circumstances prevailed.
For nearly a year before the war began on Oct. 6, 1973, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had been engaged in secret negotiations with the United States on a deal that might have made peace between Egypt and Israel. A new Israeli study argues that the 1973 conflict might have been preventable if this diplomacy had been given a greater chance.
“Israeli elected leaders of the period, although well meaning, failed to understand realities and acted with arrogance, with overconfidence and political blindness,” writes Yigal Kipnis in his new book, “1973: The Road to War.” The book, based on recently revealed Israeli records, was published in Hebrew last year; an English translation is being released this month.
Israel has long been anxious about the U.S. negotiating deals with its adversaries. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made this worry clear in his address to the United Nations Tuesday, calling Iranian President Hassan Rouhani “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” and saying he doesn’t believe the Iranian leader’s offer to President Obama last week to negotiate a deal on the nuclear issue.
A similar wariness toward negotiations dominated Israeli thinking in 1973. America’s secret diplomacy was led by Henry Kissinger, who was national security adviser to President Richard Nixon and then became his secretary of state.
Kissinger had begun a secret correspondence with Egypt in April 1972, and in March 1973 he took the next step by holding a secret meeting in Armonk, N.Y., with Sadat’s national security adviser, Hafez Ismail.
The Egyptians were then threatening publicly to attack Israel to regain territory lost in the 1967 war. But Ismail told Kissinger that Sadat preferred a peace initiative that would allow Egypt to regain most of the Sinai and decouple it from the larger Arab-Israeli dispute. That’s what actually was negotiated in the Camp David Accords — five years later, after thousands of lives had been lost.
According to Kipnis, Sadat was ready to begin formal negotiations in September 1973. “We think before the first of September we should have the preliminary phase agreed,” Ismail told Kissinger.
Kissinger successively briefed Yitzhak Rabin and Simcha Dinitz, the Israeli ambassadors to Washington in 1973, on the details on his secret conversations. These exchanges were so sensitive that the Israelis referred to Kissinger by the codename “Shaul,” and to Nixon as “Robert.” Rabin informed his boss, Prime Minister Golda Meir, about a March 1973 telephone conversation in which Kissinger laid out the elements of the Egyptian peace offer: “Shaul views … a significantly important change” in Egyptian policy, including provisions that would protect Israeli security.
But Meir and other Israeli leaders were wary. “With regard to politics, Meir was determined to prevent any negotiations. … For her, Sadat was the enemy and not to be believed,” writes Kipnis.
By Oct. 6, Kissinger was frustrated. Kipnis explains: “More than eight months had passed since he had found out about Sadat’s aspiration to motivate a political process; he was aware of Sadat’s demand to reach an agreement by September. More than a few times during the last few months, Kissinger had urged Israel to let him launch his initiative — and he had been refused.”
Meir’s disdainful assessment of Egypt was shaped partly by a Mossad agent named Ashraf Marwan inside Sadat’s inner circle. Marwan warned incorrectly six times that Egypt was about to go to war. When he gave a final warning a day before hostilities began, it wasn’t taken seriously. Israelis now wonder if he was a double agent.
The 1973 story is painful because we know how it turned out. Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on Yom Kippur. Israeli political leaders may have mistrusted Sadat’s peace overtures, but Israeli military intelligence had also doubted his readiness for war. Israel, surprised and vulnerable, suffered more than 2,500 dead; Arab losses were far higher.
“I do not want to blame anyone, but over the course of 1973, the war could have been prevented,” Kissinger told Meir after it was over, according to Kipnis.
As Netanyahu thinks now about Iran, he faces a dilemma similar to what confronted Meir: Are peace offers from Israel’s adversaries serious, or simply a cover for belligerent actions? One lesson of 1973 is that it’s worth testing through negotiations if the proposals are real.
David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is email@example.com.