Maale Gamla, Israel — Was the Yom Kippur War, which began 40 years ago this month, inevitable? Documents newly released from the Israeli state archives and their integration with American archival material suggest that it wasn’t. The records show that in the months leading up to the conflict, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, who presented herself as a tireless seeker of peace, was resolute in rebuffing the many peace overtures sent her way by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
Meir’s rejection of the Egyptian approaches carried a heavy price. On Oct. 6, 1973, a deeply frustrated Sadat launched a war intended to motivate a diplomatic process that would return to Egypt the land Israel had seized from it during the Six-Day War in 1967.
The 1973 war inflicted heavy casualties on both sides, with thousands killed and many more wounded. Though the Israeli military regrouped and launched a strong counterattack, Sadat achieved his goal of bringing Israel to the negotiating table. In 1979, after the Camp David accords, the two states signed a peace treaty in which Israel agreed to withdraw from all the Egyptian land it seized in 1967 — something Meir had considered unacceptable.
Israeli documentation of the period leading up to the war reveals that there was a secret channel between Henry Kissinger, then national security advisor to President Richard Nixon, and Meir, which usually involved Israeli ambassadors Yitzhak Rabin and Simcha Dinitz acting as intermediaries. Recently declassified telegrams report on secret discussions between the ambassadors and Kissinger during the prewar period, and they give lie to Meir’s public insistence that her chief goal was to bring peace and security to the Middle East. In her back-channel communications with Kissinger, Meir spoke decisively and aggressively to foil any secret initiative for peace that would require she recognize Egyptian sovereignty over Sinai.
In the lead-up to the 1973 war, the documents show, Kissinger met secretly with a high-level Egyptian emissary who conveyed Sadat’s strong interest in a three-stage peace agreement with Israel.
Sadat had been very clear in his message to Kissinger that the alternative to negotiations before Israeli elections would be a military move: “They can put to the people the questions of peace and war, and we will see what the people have got to say about that.” Kissinger judged that it was in both America’s and Israel’s interest to advance Sadat’s peace initiative, which would require Israel to withdraw from Sinai and retreat to its pre-1967 borders, maintaining key points for security.
Two days later, Kissinger informed Meir of Sadat’s offer: “It is possible to get changes in the Egyptian position, but … I would try only if you and I agree.” Meir replied: “We will just not go along with this.” Later, she repeated that Israel would not be able to return to the 1967 borders in Sinai, which she deemed indefensible. She was facing an election at the end of October 1973, and she preferred the possibility of war to peace negotiations.
Kissinger’s discussion with Meir of the Egyptian overture was mainly recorded in the Israeli (not the American) archives. One week later, Kissinger had not given up. Through Rabin, he presented his outline for an agreement and his timetable to achieve it. Rabin reported: “Kissinger summarized all of his expectations for concessions from the prime minister in the question: Would we [Israel] be willing to deviate from our position of demanding significant border changes in comparison to the international border?” Rabin’s report of his telephone conversation with Kissinger also includes the prime minister’s reply to this question: “After another conversation with the prime minister, I called Shaul [Kissinger’s code name] and let him know that there was no change in Israel’s position.”
In his secret channel communications with Meir, Kissinger periodically protested against her intransigence. But still, he didn’t exert strong pressure on her to accept Sadat’s overtures. The recently released correspondence indicates that several times before the war broke out, Kissinger tried to initiate negotiations. His final attempt came at the end of September 1973, just after he became secretary of State. By then, Egyptian and Syrian forces were already being deployed in attack position against Israel.
But the reply he received from the prime minister, as noted in a message passed on to Kissinger by Dinitz only six days before the war broke out, was clear: “A period of elections is not a convenient time for serious discussion.”
Kissinger did nothing to force Meir’s hand, and a week later, sirens wailed throughout Israel as the war commenced.
There are lessons in this history for today’s leaders, both in Israel and the United States. It is important for them to understand that if they fail to act for the good of the state, their failures will be revealed to future generations. Today, we can see that 40 years ago, many paid a heavy price for the excessive consideration Kissinger showed for the political fortunes of Israel’s prime minister. Let’s hope the actions of current leaders in Israel and the United States will stand up to scrutiny by the next generation.
Yigal Kipnis is an Israeli historian who teaches at the University of Haifa. He is the author of the forthcoming book 1973: The Road to War.