Fifty years ago this week, Egypt attacked Israeli forces in the Israeli-occupied Sinai, with a simultaneous Syrian attack in the occupied Golan Heights, to begin what became known as the Yom Kippur War. The war and its diplomatic aftermath both exhibited and cemented some ways of viewing the U.S. role in the Middle East that are reflected in policy issues today.
President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger viewed the Arab-Israeli conflict, as they viewed most of their foreign policy, primarily through a Cold War lens. At the level of great power relations, such a view could yield successes such as the opening to China, which counted as a success partly as a way of outflanking the Soviet Union. But imposing the Cold War template on local conflicts could lead to unhelpful misinterpretations of what such a conflict was largely about.
An example had occurred two years earlier in 1971, when restiveness of Bengalis in what was then the eastern portion of Pakistan, followed by a Pakistani military crackdown and a flow of refugees into India, caused a South Asian crisis and a war between India and Pakistan. Most observers, including in the U.S. national security bureaucracy, viewed the crisis in terms of humanitarian needs and the satisfying of Bengali aspirations for self-determination through creation of what became the state of Bangladesh while keeping the Indo-Pakistani conflict from escalating further. Nixon and Kissinger instead saw the crisis as a Cold War proxy conflict, with the USSR supposedly instigating a move by the Indian government of Indira Gandhi to crush Pakistan.
That interpretation was almost certainly a misinterpretation of the nature of the conflict and of Indian objectives. But it was this interpretation that drove U.S. policy, which included a saber-rattling show of force by a nuclear-armed carrier task force in the Bay of Bengal. Among the ill consequences of the episode were a cementing of the USSR’s position as the dominant external power on the subcontinent through its support of India — with Moscow scoring additional points as a champion of Bangladeshi independence — and a tilt of opinion in New Delhi toward developing its own nuclear weapons.
By Cold War standards, the crisis surrounding the Yom Kippur War was much more of a U.S. success. An airlift of weapons from the United States helped Israel to ultimately prevail militarily over the Soviet-supplied Egyptians and Syrians. Kissinger was the impresario of subsequent disengagement agreements between Israel and Egypt, shutting out the Soviets. Not least, events related to the war and its aftermath led Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to abrogate Egypt’s friendship treaty with the Soviet Union in 1976 and to become more a partner of Washington than of Moscow.
The Cold War framework persists in some present-day American visions of the U.S. role in the Middle East — although with China sometimes now seen as the major great power adversary — in ways that exhibit shortcomings of that framework. Promoters of the Biden administration’s effort to broker full diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, in the absence of any other explanation of how this effort supposedly advances U.S. interests, contend that a normalization agreement would limit Chinese influence in the Persian Gulf region.
Such a contention continues a Cold War type of zero-sum thinking that mistakenly assumes there is a fixed amount of dealing that Middle Eastern states have with outside powers, and that doing more business with one power necessarily means doing less with another. In fact, there is no good reason to believe that even a Saudi Arabia that had exchanged embassies with Israel and been rewarded by the United States for doing so would lose the strong economic and other reasons it has to maintain extensive relations with China. Israel itself is an instructive example. The decades-long U.S. support to Israel, including $158 billion in military and economic assistance, has not kept Israel from building extensive ties with both China and Russia and trimming its policies to maintain good relations with those powers, such as on issues involving the war in Ukraine.
To the extent that sepia-tinged memories of the Yom Kippur War move away from Cold War mentalities and focus on what Arabs and Israelis were doing, those memories tend to cement the image of a beleaguered Israel valiantly defending itself against aggressive and hostile neighbors eager to push the Jewish state into the sea at the first opportunity. This image has underlain those many billions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Israel. And it is true that it was two of those Arab neighbors, Egypt and Syria, that launched the war of October 1973.
Less prominent in forming lasting and influential images is the fact that Egyptian and Syrian forces were attacking on land that Israel had forcibly seized in a war that Israel started by attacking Egypt on June 5, 1967. The immediate military objective of Egypt and Syria in 1973 was thus to regain land that had been part of those two countries until Israel captured it through force of arms six years earlier.
Israel also had fired the first shots in another earlier war against Egypt, in 1956. It later would initiate other hostilities in the region, including an invasion of Lebanon and other actions that collectively constitute more use of military force outside a country’s own territory than any other Middle Eastern state has exhibited. Today, ever since Saudi Arabia suspended its air war against Yemen, the most active campaign of cross-border military attacks in the region is the Israeli aerial assault on targets in Syria. Keeping that campaign of attacks unimpeded is one of Israel’s reasons for maintaining good relations with Russia.
Half a century after the Yom Kippur War, Israel is far from being a beleaguered nation and instead is the most militarily powerful state in the Middle East, with little hesitation to throw its military weight around. But the image of the plucky little state under threat from aggressive neighbors continues to have influence.
The political and diplomatic aftermath of the 1973 war is another part of the war’s legacy. Although at the time of the cease-fire, Israeli forces were winning and Egyptian forces were losing, the Egyptian military did well enough in the early days of the war to regain some of the honor it had lost in 1967 with its swift defeat by Israel. That gave Sadat the political room to take his peace-making trip to Jerusalem in 1977. That in turn led to the U.S.-brokered Camp David Accords in 1978, one of the signal events in what is still euphemistically called the Arab-Israeli “peace process.”
It is fitting that the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War almost coincides with the 30th anniversary of the Oslo Accords, another landmark in the same “peace process,” because the political aftermath of the former set a pattern that the latter would also exhibit. That pattern is one of Israel pocketing whatever peace agreements it can gain with Arab neighbors while making indeterminate noises about Palestinian self-determination, which is continually kicked down the road and never realized.
The first part of the Camp David Accords included specific commitments about an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. The second part consisted of vaguer language about eventual resolution of the “Palestinian problem.” There was to be a five-year transitional mechanism in which Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza would be given some autonomy, with negotiations on the final status of those territories to begin no later than the third year of the transitional period. A shortcoming of the Accords was that implementation of the first part (Egypt and Israel did sign a peace treaty the following year) was not made conditional on implementation of the second part.
Fifteen years after Camp David, the provisions regarding the Palestinians finally seemed to be getting implemented, with the creation in the Oslo Accords of the Palestinian Authority. But the five-year transitional period came and went long ago, and the Palestinians are as far as ever from self-determination. The “transitional” Palestinian Authority is still around, functioning mainly as a security auxiliary to the Israeli occupation and widely discredited among the Palestinian people. “What we have today,” observes Daniel Levy, president of the U.S./Middle East Project “is the language of peace in the service of illegal actions, disenfranchisement, and apartheid.”
There are too many variables to spin out a convincing alternative history regarding what would have happened had Nixon and Kissinger not stepped into the 1973 war with a surge of military assistance to Israel. But Sadat’s words and actions both before and after the war made clear that his objective was not to push Israel into the sea but rather to make peace with it, provided that Egyptian territory was restored.
Maybe if Israelis had become less conditioned to count on the United States to provide unqualified protection from any difficult situations — even ones of their own making, such as their previous conquests of other states’ territory — the subsequent history regarding the “Palestinian problem” would have been different. The U.S. handling of the Yom Kippur War, however much it might be chalked up as a U.S. win on the Cold War scorecard, was a major episode in that conditioning.
The actual history has been one of an ever-stronger Israel becoming increasingly self-assured about kicking the Palestinian can ever farther down an endless road. Policies of later U.S. administrations have furthered that process. The Trump administration’s policies of showering Israel with gifts and brokering supposed “peace” agreements with Arab countries that were not even at war with Israel convinced Israelis more than ever that they could enjoy such fruits while continuing to push farther out of reach anything that looked like Palestinian self-determination.
The Trump policies were an extreme case of tendencies that had roots in U.S. policies in the 1970s, starting with that victory-ensuring infusion of U.S. munitions during the Yom Kippur War. The Israeli response is embodied in the current extreme right-wing Israeli government, which hardly even bothers to make indeterminate noises on the subject anymore and makes obvious that its policy — if not a new Nakba and expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland — is indefinite apartheid.
This Israeli policy means indefinitely living by the sword, which is a tragedy mostly for the Palestinians but also for Israel itself, for its patron the United States, and for the cause of true peace in the Middle East.
Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He is also an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy.
Photo credit: Library of Congress.Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir standing with president Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, outside the White House. Nov. 1, 1973
Senator Lindsey Graham had two options walking into the Doha Forum in Qatar this weekend: find a way to triangulate his full-throated support for Netanyahu policies in Israel for the largely Palestinian-supportive Muslim audience Sunday, or wave his own flag without reservation. He went with the latter.
The South Carolina Republican made it clear he was no stranger to the region — he touted a long friendship with his host the Emir of Qatar and lauded the kingdom's role as international mediator and host to America's Fifth Fleet. But he didn't bat an eye to tell this audience — thousands of Muslims assembled from across the Gulf and the broader Middle East, plus attendees from Global South nations and Europe — that the U.S. veto of the ceasefire was one of the few things he thought the Biden Administration got right.
"President Biden ...You have risen to the occasion after October the seventh," he said, addressing the audience Sunday. "I have a world of difference with President Biden on many things. But when he vetoed the ceasefire resolution, he did the right thing and let me tell you why. Every ceasefire Hamas has ever entered has been broken and we're not going to do a ceasefire until hostages begin to be released like promised and would give the Israeli military the time and space they need to make sure that Hamas ceases to be a threat to Israel and the Palestinian people."
"So as a Republican, I am standing behind President Biden's decision, that resolution and the one that comes next."
He also said the only way there will be peace in the Middle East and to get the real culprit — Iran — and to start building a state for Palestine, was for the normalization process between Arab States and Israel to continue, with the Israel-Saudi deal the icing on the cake.
"I pledge in front of the world to help President Biden secure the votes in the United States Senate to make it possible for Saudi Arabia to have a defense agreement with us, which would then make it possible for Saudi Arabia, to recognize Israel," he declared. "Before the world I pledge my support, to help reconstruct a new Palestine but none of this is possible until you have a less corrupt younger Palestinian Authority, replacing the one we have. And a Hamas can no longer wreak havoc on Israel, on their own people.”
That potential U.S.-brokered Israel-Saudi deal have been deemed all but dead after the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel. Graham contended that aside from hating Jews, Hamas launched the attacks to kill any hope for that deal to go forward. Observers have come to similar conclusions — that the so-called Abraham Accords had left the Palestinians on the cutting room floor, inciting anger among the militant elements in Gaza. But unlike Graham, these critics' hold that the agreements are the problem — that regional leaders' shouldn't have allowed Israel to shunt the peace process to the side in the first place.
Not only did Graham ignore this fatal flaw of the agreements, he reveled in his own blind spots, choosing to ignore any culpability of the Netanyahu government over the decades leading to the violence and what appears today, an endless bombardment and on-the-ground military operation in Gaza with chances for further talks between the two sides dwindling by the hour. Instead, he appeared to blame Iran for everything.
"The biggest fear of the Ayatollah is that the Arab world, in conjunction with Israel, marches toward the light away from the darkness. (Iran hates) the idea that everybody in this room can find a way to work with Israel and live with Israel where everybody makes money and can live in peace. Because let me tell you, their agenda is different than yours. So I believe we cannot let Iran win."
He said he was committed to a two-state solution, and if there was any moment in his talk where he put any responsibility on Israel it was this: "I'm going to Israel soon and here's what I'm telling Israeli friends — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, none of these Arab countries can help you. Unless you make a commitment for a two state solution. ...To my friends in Israel the best thing you can do to beat Iran is to give the Palestinians a life where they're not dependent upon terrorist organizations that they can live and work and be prosperous."
How Israelis could get there, from here, was not explained by Lindsey Graham, or whether he honestly thought that was possible given the "hell on earth" Gaza is becoming today. But we know he doesn't believe that the civilian crisis on the ground now will reduce the chances for peace tomorrow, because of the way he reacted to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's remarks earlier this month.
Austin said “the lesson is that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians. In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”
“Strategic defeat would be inflaming the Palestinians? They’re already inflamed,” Graham continued. “They’re taught from the time they’re born to hate the Jews and to kill them. They’re taught math: If you have 10 Jews and kill six, how many would you have left?”
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Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov speaks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Dec. 10. (Vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks in opening session of the Doha Forum in Qatar, December 10. (vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — The U.S. veto of the UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is being met with widespread anger and frustration by the international community and especially in the Arab world, as reflected in opening remarks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Sunday.
Addressing the forum, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the vote was “regrettable…that does not make it less necessary. I can promise that I will not give up.” He said since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza, “the Council’s authority and credibility were seriously undermined” by a succession of failed votes to respond to ongoing civilian carnage on the Strip.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, said the current crisis and the U.S. reaction to it, including its thwarting of the ceasefire call (it was the only vote of disapproval; the UK abstained) was exposing the “great gap between East and West ... and double standards in the international community.” He pointed to those drawing attention to war crimes in “other contexts” (no doubt referring to Russia in Ukraine ) “hesitating to call for the end of these crimes in the Gaza strip.”
He repeatedly called for the creation of new multipolar world order that "respects justice and equality between the people where no people are more powerful than the other."
The U.S. said it did not approve the ceasefire resolution Friday because of the lack of condemnation of Hamas in the language, and that it not include a declaration of Israel’s right to defend itself. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said halting Israel’s military action would “only plant the seeds for the next war.”
The result is that people here at the forum say they are more convinced than ever that U.S. policy is reflexively and intimately intertwined with Israel's activities in Gaza. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestine, charged, Washington has given the “greenest of green lights” to what Israel is doing on the ground. This was exacerbated this weekend with news that the Biden Administration is bypassing Congressional review to send 13,000 tank rounds to Israel. This, despite efforts by Democrats in his own party to condition the transfer of offensive weapons to prevent their use against civilians.
Meanwhile, humanitarian advocates repeatedly called the situation on the ground “unprecedented.” In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker on the dais, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said his own organization is “on the brink of collapse.” They have lost 134 relief workers in Gaza since Israeli operations began. He described staff in silent stupefaction over the loss of homes, families. “There is no doubt a ceasefire is needed; we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza.”
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the National Interest Foundation in Washington, told RS he was struck by the backlash against American brands in his own travels in Kuwait and Qatar over the last week, citing customer and restaurant boycotts of Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, and Starbucks. “It’s horrible,” he said of the lopsided UN vote. “America is losing a lot in the Muslim world.”
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