How Middle East Peace Began

It was a terrible war, yet, what the IDF’s victories in 1949, 1956 and again in 1967 had not been able to accomplish was achieved in the Yom Kippur War.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on October 11, 2011.)

The Middle East peace process began on October 24, 1973, eighteen days after Israel was caught by surprise by Egyptian and Syrian attacks from the south and the north – attacks that scored substantial advances during the first 48 hours of fighting. But by October 24, when the fighting ceased, the Israel Defense Forces stood 101 kilometers from Cairo and 40 kilometers from Damascus, and the Egyptian Third Army was completely encircled east of the Suez Canal.

It was a terrible war for Israel – and yet, a great victory. What the IDF’s victories in 1949, 1956 and again in 1967 had not been able to accomplish was achieved in the Yom Kippur War. Now, Egypt was eager to negotiate a peace treaty with Israel. The Egyptian leadership concluded that Arab armies stood no chance of beating Israel on the battlefield, and the time had come for peace. It took another four years for negotiations to begin, and a further two years for the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty to be signed. The Middle East peace process moves at a glacial pace.

And it was not a warm peace. The Egyptian people were not ready for that, and are still not ready for it. But they were prepared to reconcile themselves to the existence of the Jewish state in the Middle East.

Even now that the Israeli Embassy in Cairo has been attacked by wild mobs, and the Israeli ambassador has had to leave Egypt, the memories of the Israeli victory in 1973 are still fresh in the Egyptian collective memory, and the treaty signed by Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat in 1979 remains in effect.

Some 50 years before the Yom Kippur War, and more than 20 years before the establishment of the State of Israel, Ze’ev Jabotinsky published the now famous article, “The Iron Wall.” In it, he explained that there was no reason to expect that the Arabs would greet the Zionist enterprise with open arms, or that there was any chance of changing their opposition to the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine by convincing them of the economic benefits this would bring to them. Their opposition, he explained, was the most natural thing, and, on the contrary, their peaceful acceptance of the Zionist settlers would run counter to all historic precedent.

The fundamental condition for the establishment and security of the Jewish state, he concluded, was the building of an unbreachable “iron wall” that would protect the Zionist enterprise and, in time, would convince the Arabs that they did not have the power to breach the barrier and rid themselves of the Jews.

And in what many years later seemed like prophetic words, Jabotinsky concluded: “As long as the Arabs feel that there is the slightest hope of getting rid of us, they will refuse to give up this hope in return for either kind words or for bread and butter, because they are not a rabble, but a living people.

“And a living people yields in matters of such a vital nature only when there is no longer any hope of getting rid of us, because they can make no breach in the iron wall. Not till then will they drop their extremist leaders, whose watchword is ‘Never!’ And the leadership will pass to the moderate groups, who will approach us with a proposal that we should both agree to mutual concessions.”

Much has changed since these words were written. An “iron wall” has been built and reinforced over the years. Peace treaties have been signed with Egypt and Jordan. Rockets, terror and the Iranian nuclear threat have appeared on the scene, and in the hearts of many Arabs the hope still lingers that the Jews can be driven into the sea. Those who today are calling for cuts in the defense budget might do well to reread Jabotinsky’s article. It is the “iron wall” that paves the road to peace in the Middle East.

Translate »