The New Struggle for Palestine

Hafez Assad
Hafez Assad; drawing by David Levine


Your duty is to beat off attacks, but the smell of blood must not go to your heads. Remember that justice is in our name, defense [Haganah]; our aim is to provide security for creative work. Your organization is subordinate to this ideal—not its master.

Havlagah (“Self-restraint”) Haganah pamphlet circa 1937

January’s disengagement pact between Israel and Egypt understandably conjures up more than it immediately promises to deliver; how can one resist anticipating the taste of peace? The atmosphere of terror and suspicion on both sides became so dizzying that all other issues were virtually eclipsed. Now it appears that both sides are prepared to recoil from this dependable violence. No doubt, distrust and hatred still smolder, but at least cynicism about the prospects of peace has been rendered frivolous, and the cycle of sin and retribution has been significantly broken.1

Far more important than this new atmosphere, however, is a new political certainty. Whatever the concealed, perhaps sinister, designs of either side, were Cairo and Jerusalem to commit themselves to an over-all settlement sincerely and unambiguously, their first bilateral pact would not look different from the one they signed and executed with meticulous care.

The two main features of the agreement, i.e., the unilateral Israeli withdrawal to the Gidi and Mitla passes, and the Egyptian commitment to reopen the Canal (the east bank of the Canal being partially demilitarized) and to rehabilitate Canal cities, may superficially appear to favor the Egyptians. But this appearance was an important element of the agreement itself and no doubt helped President Sadat with his internal problems. His firing of his hawkish chief of staff, General Shazli, and, more recently, of Hussinein Heykal, the Nasserite editor of Al-Ahram, and their replacement by pro-Western moderates (respectively, Gamsi and Amin) reveal that Sadat’s internal challenges have not been puny. His mass victory celebration in February, to which even Qaddafi came, did not strengthen Sadat’s war potential, only his power to conclude a binding peace.

At any rate, the December agreement has clearly served the strategic interests of both parties. Israel’s lines at the close of the war would hardly have been desirable as a long-term defense perimeter. If the fluid situation in the field hardened into a political border, the Israelis would have faced a continuous war of attrition, or been subjected to wholesale attacks by the reinforced First Army to the west of the bulge and the Second Army to the north. Moreover, so long as the IDF continued to threaten Cairo directly or to maintain its siege on the Third Army, the Israeli government would have had to contend with both the possibility of direct Soviet intervention and growing American resentment as Kissinger was dragged into another diplomatic confrontation with his partner in détente.

Finally, and by no means the least of Israeli calculations, was the severe strain on Israel’s…

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