The SAMs of Suez

When Menachem Begin predicted the Yom Kippur War.

menachem begin 88 (photo credit: )
menachem begin 88
(photo credit: )
The overture to the 1973 Yom Kippur War came in the form of a now all but forgotten conflagration called the War of Attrition. It was orchestrated by the thousands of Soviet instructors in Egypt who were rapidly retraining and re-equipping that country's battered army after the Arab debacle of the 1967 Six Day War. In March 1968 the Egyptians launched a massive bombardment of Israel's fortifications along the Suez Canal, from which time on the greasy black puffs of bursting shells rained ever more relentlessly and lethally upon the IDF's forward positions - the Bar-Lev line. Casualties mounted and Israel hit back with escalating and deep-penetrating ferocity. Yet the Egyptians pounded on, intent on compelling the IDF to abandon the canal line while pushing forward their umbrella of sophisticated Soviet surface-to-air missiles - SAMs - to neutralize Israel's overwhelming air superiority. The one hope the Egyptians ever had of regaining the Sinai by force was by first knocking IAF aircraft from the skies so as to enable their amphibious forces to cross the canal. The Soviet-manned SAMs were designed to do just that. The War of Attrition went on for more than two years until, in August 1970, the Americans, under president Richard Nixon, and through his secretary of state William Rogers, brokered a cease-fire. The Rogers initiative was a political-military package in which both sides agreed to stop shooting and start talking under a UN umbrella. The envisaged talks were to be essentially based on the famous Security Council Resolution 242, which called for "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent [1967] conflict." This, to Menachem Begin, was anathema. After much wrangling, prime minister Golda Meir finally accepted the US initiative, whereupon Begin and his party quit her government. As they saw it, Israel was being asked to commit itself to a withdrawal even before a concrete peace proposal was in sight. Worse was to follow when, hours after the cease-fire came into effect, Egypt brazenly violated it by rushing its SAM umbrella into the designated standstill zone adjacent to the canal, achieving by stealth what it had failed to accomplish by attrition. Cairo now had the means to clear the skies of Israeli aircraft whenever it resolved to strike across the canal. Golda fumed. She demanded the missiles be removed forthwith, but Nixon, embroiled in his losing war in Vietnam and fearful of a direct confrontation with the Soviets, procrastinated. He showered the prime minister with hopeful reassurances until she succumbed, igniting Begin's outrage. When Washington refused to even officially acknowledge that a violation had taken place, indignation launched him into a barrage of dire prophecy, predicting with uncanny prescience the inevitability of the Yom Kippur War. He told the Knesset: "The Egyptians, with the aid of their Russian advisers, have violated the cease-fire in a manner so gross it threatens our security, indeed our very future. They have deployed batteries of enhanced SAM missiles capable of penetrating to a depth of 10 to 15 kilometers over our side of the canal. Hence, whenever Egypt decides to reopen fire - and knowing the realities we have to assume that such a day shall surely come - it will have a decisive advantage over us. Given its expanded missile umbrella, it will be very difficult for our air force to hit back without sustaining substantial losses. This is the reality, and our people must know it." WITH THIS crescendo of indignation, Begin wound up his speech and stepped down from the podium into a crowd of admirers who showered him with their fervent praise, to which he responded with thanks full of grace. He made his way to the Knesset dining room where Golda was conversing with Yitzhak Rabin, then ambassador to Washington. "That was some fire and brimstone," hissed Golda derisively as the opposition leader walked by. "And I hope you took note of my every word, Madame Prime Minister," commented Begin with an air of impudence and gravity in delicate balance. "What you don't seem to understand," she scolded, "is that we have a new situation on our hands. There would be no cease-fire unless we accepted all the conditions of the Rogers initiative. We couldn't choose half the package without the other." "But they hardly consulted us," countered Begin. "Rogers gave us a letter to sign. You initially rejected it. You had reservations, and you rightly sought to insert changes. But in the end, it was all but dictated to us." "Nonsense!" "Is it? In my view there is a smell of an imposed US-Soviet solution brewing. Nixon is going to sell us out!" This irked Golda so much she raised her voice: "You know very well I've totally rejected any whiff of an attempt to impose a solution on us. I will not go back to the 1967 lines, and I've made this plain both to Rogers and to the president. I told them both that Israel will neither be a victim to American appeasement of the Arabs nor to their big power politics with Russia." "True, but you should never have given in to their appeasement over the cease-fire violations, which they themselves brokered. We shall pay a heavy price for that one day. Moreover, I genuinely believe your acceptance of the 242 language of 'withdrawal' is the beginning of a major unconditional retreat from all of the cease-fire lines." "Goodness gracious, Begin" - Golda's eyebrows were arched provocatively - "how you get carried away by your own rhetoric! If only you stammered or hesitated occasionally." Unperturbed, Begin bayoneted, "No, Madame, this is an instance when you have gotten carried away by your own wishful thinking. Nixon is playing chess with the fate of Israel. This could be a Middle East Munich. America seems to be more interested in Arab oil than in Israel's secure future." "With all due respect, Mr. Begin," interrupted Rabin, his voice deferential but terse, "only recently president Nixon told me the very opposite. I believe we have a good friend in Richard Nixon." "A good friend? People tell me the man's an anti-Semite." Rabin smiled, but the smile didn't reach his eyes: "Confidentially, I'd say yes, he is an anti-Semite," he said in his characteristic baritone. "He doesn't like the way Jews overwhelmingly vote Democrat, and he certainly doesn't like the way liberal Jews are at the forefront of the anti-Vietnam War campaign. Moreover, he probably believes Jews control the press, and he suspects many are more loyal to Israel than to America. However, this hasn't stopped him from appointing individual Jews to high places, like Henry Kissinger, based on their exceptional competence. I think he has the highest regard for our leaders" - this with a nod toward Golda - "and admires our guts in defense of our national interests. Certainly he recognizes Israel as an American asset in the Cold War." Begin sat down uninvited. "So how does that square with Rogers cease-fire initiative, which is tantamount to appeasing the Russians and the Arabs?" he asked. "It squares," said Rabin, sinking his teeth into the argument, "because all along Nixon and Kissinger have known that in the War of Attrition the Soviets and the Egyptians were putting us both - America and Israel - to a test. They know the Soviets are feeding and manipulating the entire Egyptian war effort. That's why I was the one to advocate deep penetration raids into the heart of Egyptian territory, to prove to the Americans that we have what it takes to stand up to the Soviets. Those raids not only changed the balance of power along the fighting front, they tipped the scales of the superpower confrontation in America's favor. And thanks to that it ensures our American arms supplies. But Nixon, nevertheless, has to strike a balance." TO MAKE his point he extracted from his pocket a sheet of paper, and said, "Let me quote Nixon's own words to me." He read: " 'If it were just a question of Israel against the Egyptians and the Syrians, I'd say, "Let 'em have it! Hit 'em as hard as you can." Every time I hear you penetrating deep into their territory and hitting them hard on the nose, it gives me great satisfaction. But it's not just a problem of Egypt and Syria alone. The other Arab states are watching, too, so we have to play it in a manner that we won't lose everything in the Middle East. We want to help you without harming ourselves by losing the Arabs.'" Here, Rabin paused, and when he read on there was a touch of triumph in his voice: "'Damn the oil! America can get it from other sources. We have to stand by decent nations in the Middle East. We will back you militarily, but the military escalation can't go on endlessly. We must do something politically.' And that," concluded Rabin, "is the meaning of the Rogers initiative." To which Golda, brimming with gratification at her ambassador's first-hand analysis, said, "I, personally, don't think any American president has ever uttered such a pro-Israel statement before. Add to that, in return for our accepting the Rogers cease-fire package Nixon has promised me we will not be expected to withdraw a single soldier from the cease-fire lines except in the context of a contractual peace agreement which we would regard satisfactory to our security needs. Moreover, had we not accepted the Rogers initiative we would not be getting any more American arms. Surely you understand that!" Begin dismissed this clincher with a perfunctory wave of the hand. "What do you mean we wouldn't be getting American arms? We would demand them." "You know, Begin," said Golda sarcastically, "you sometimes make me think you're a mystic. You've convinced yourself that all we have to do is to go on telling the United States that we won't give in to pressure and that if we do this long and loud enough, then one day that pressure will vanish." "My good lady," responded Begin in a similar patronizing vein, "you trivialize Israel's importance to the United States of America." "Do I? I think that though the American commitment to Israel's survival is certainly great, I'm afraid we need Mr. Nixon and Mr. Rogers much more than they need us." "I disagree!" said Begin with a vigorous shake of the head. "The Americans don't give us arms out of the kindness of their hearts. Israel is doing more for America in keeping the Soviet Union at bay in the Middle East than what America is doing for Israel to defend itself, and I dare say Mr. Nixon is well aware of that. Besides, you must not underestimate the voice of American Jewry." "Oh, I don't. But I'm afraid our policies can't be based entirely on the assumption that American Jewry either would or could compel Mr. Nixon to adopt a position against his will and better judgment, especially when he doesn't like liberal-minded Jews." "We shall see," said Begin rising, and turning to Rabin said with a becoming smile. "I beg of you not to misconstrue my argument with the prime minister as something personal. Mrs. Meir and I differ on many issues, but I assure you that I regard her as a proud and courageous Jewess." "Stop being a schmoozer," snapped Golda with a grin that greatly softened her craggy and aging features. "No, no, madame, I say this not in flattery. I shall always oppose you whenever I believe you are in error, as I do now. But on the personal level my respect for you shall never waver. I simply pray that my reservations with regard to your present policy will prove unfounded, but I fear they won't." Whereupon, he semi-bowed and moved off to join a table of fellow oppositionists for a glass of lemon tea. Three years later, in October 1973, under the umbrella of the SAM missiles, Egyptian armies massively crossed the Suez Canal and so ended the cease-fire and so began the Yom Kippur War. The writer served on the personal staff of five prime ministers, including Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin.