Background and Context
Egypt participated in four wars against Israel — in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (1918-1981) launched the last, known as the Yom Kippur war in Israel and the Ramadan war in the Arab world, with Syria, on Oct. 6, 1973. His aim was two-fold: To reclaim as much as possible of the Sinai Peninsula that Israel had invaded and occupied since 1967; and to put Egypt in a stronger negotiating position in eventual talks with Israel, which had been unheard of between Arab regimes and Israel since 1967.
Sadat attained both goals, even though, in military terms, Egypt gained little. In the initial assault, which took Israel by surprise, the Egyptian army marched through the Sinai and looked to the rest of the Arab world like the strongest, most determined army that had ever battled Israel. That was enough to right the humiliation Arabs suffered in the Six Day War in 1967, when Israel pre-emptively obliterated the air forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan.
After suffering initial set-backs, and benefiting from an enormous airlift of American weaponry ordered by President Richard Nixon at Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s urging, Israel turned the momentum in its favor and had the Egyptian Third Army encircled by the third week of the war. The Third Army could have been annihilated. But Kissinger persuaded Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir to refrain from that last step. Kissinger, too, had an objective: to give Sadat a face-saving way out of the war and to the negotiating table — and to end the Arab oil embargo the war triggered.
It worked. With the United Nations’ intervention through Security Council Resolution 338, hostilities stopped on Oct. 26. Egypt and Syria suffered some 15,000 combat deaths during the three-week conflict. Israel suffered 2,688 combat deaths, the largest toll of any of Israel’s conflicts with Arab nations or Palestinians. The 1973 war was the single bloodiest Arab-Israeli conflict. Paradoxically, it was also the conflict that set the stage for the first steps toward peace between Israel and an Arab neighbor. And the oil embargo ended, never again to be used as a weapon by Arab states.
U.S.-Arab Relations and the Cold War
The Nixon administration was relatively friendly toward Israel. But it not want to alienate the Arab world more than its explicit support for Israel already did — not because Nixon and Kissinger had particular affinities for the Arab world; they didn’t. But because to the Nixon-Kissinger duo, the Middle East was a primary staging ground of the Cold War. Their aim was to limit Soviet influence in the region.
Fifteen months before the 1973 war, Sadat had expelled 15,000 Soviet military advisers from Egypt, ending an alliance started by Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sadat’s predecessor, in 1955. Sadat’s move was an attempt to break the Egyptian-Israeli deadlock along the Sinai by coaxing the United States to his side, away from Israel. That didn’t work. But after the 1973, Kissinger didn’t want Egypt to fold back into the Soviet sphere of influence. So Kissinger launched what came to be known, famously, as his “shuttle diplomacy.”
Between November 1973 and September 1975, Kissinger made 11 trips to the Middle East, signaling to Egyptians and Israelis that the United States was making it a priority to achieve a negotiated settlement in one form or another between them. Kissinger's larger aim was to stamp American influence unquestioningly on the region.
On Oct. 28, 1973, Egyptian and Israeli military officials talked directly to each other for the first time — a symbolically momentous achievement that opened the way to further negotiations. In December that year, the foreign ministers of Egypt, Israel and Jordan sat at the same negotiating table in Geneva for the beginning of a long and mostly fruitless process that would come to be known as the Geneva Conference. The conference was sponsored jointly by the United States and the Soviet Union.
The Disengagement Treaties
On January 18, 1974, Egypt and Israel signed their first “disengagement” agreement separating their military forces along a 20-mile north-south line on the east side of the Suez Canal. Israeli forces withdrew a few miles to the east. Egyptian forces thinned out to the west. A United Nations peacekeeping force filled in the vacated land. It was, in effect, the first land-for-peace agreement between Israel and an Arab neighbor. But Egypt did not regain land itself so much as win an Israeli withdrawal from a very small portion of its land.
A separate agreement defined where missiles, tanks, artillery and other military hardware could be deployed. Egypt also agreed to re-open the Suez Canal, blocked by ships and heavy silting since the 1967 war.
“This agreement,” the conclusion of the document read, “is not regarded by Egypt and Israel as a final peace agreement. It constitutes a first step toward a final, just and durable peace according to the provisions of Security Council Resolution 338 and within the framework of the Geneva Conference.”
In June 1974, Israel and Syria agreed to a similar, though less consequential agreement in the Golan Heights, which Israel invaded in 1967 and has and occupied since. United Nations peacekeepers separated the two sides there, as well. In September 1975, Israel and Egypt signed another disengagement treaty, or "Interim Agreement," that obligated Israel to pull back further east, giving up the strategically key Gidi and Mitla passes in the Sinai as well as an important Egyptian oil field at Abu Rudeis on the Gulf of Suez. In exchange, Egypt agreed to renounce the use of force against Israel for the duration of the pact and to give Israel merchant-shipping rights through the Suez Canal. The United Nations buffer zone was enlarged and the United States military took control of an early-warning system in the two passes.
Next Page: Rewards and Conclusions