Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
8 - 14 October 1998
Issue No.398
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

The spirit of October

By Osama El-Baz *

Osama El-Baz
Osama El-Baz
The October War is one of the most important events in the modern history of Egypt. Its impact on every aspect of life in this country is as strong as ever today and the lessons it holds are just as valid, and will be so for the foreseeable future. Speaking for myself, as a politician, I can say that the consequences of the war continue to affect every decision that I take.

The most important of these consequences was that the war entirely destroyed the prevailing theory of Israel's natural superiority in the eyes of both the Arabs and the Israelis. Before the war, this theory was deployed to make us feel technologically inferior to Israel, poorly equipped and basically just too inept ever to confront it again in battle. Our victory in the war shattered forever the illusion of our neighbours' invincible military prowess. We had proven ourselves their equals, both intellectually and practically. No longer could the rights and duties of the Arabs, and of the individual Arab, be mocked and derided. The October War spelled the end of the racist theory of the inherent superiority of the Israeli people.

The October War also finished with the oft-repeated cry of the Israeli propaganda machine: "We are a small nation surrounded by enemies. We would be unable to sustain a single defeat, while the Arabs, numbering over 180 million spread over a vast territory, can easily survive such reversals." It was a gambit that had previously worked to win international sympathy for Israel and had rendered the notion of Israeli security virtually sacrosanct.

To the Israelis, their security and their superiority were intrinsically linked. It was their right to be able to strike deep into the Arab heartlands. Indeed, they felt it was their right to have their security demands met without regard to the requirements of Arab security. As a result, not only did successive Israeli governments feel that they had to expand territorially in order to safeguard Israel's security, they also felt it was their right to do so.

Israel was and remains the only country in the world not to have committed itself to defined borders, even after having appropriated 33 per cent more land than had been agreed under the resolution partitioning Palestine. Some Israelis, moreover, continue to entertain the idea of a nation extending from the Nile to the Euphrates. Israel, according to its historical leaders, has no determinate borders. Rather, the size of the state is simply a function of the size of the army and its capacity to defend those territories it has laid hold of by force of arms.

Since the fifties, the Middle East has been highly vulnerable to polarisation. The Arabs looked east to gain the support of the Soviets while Israel looked west to secure the support of the US. The region, as a result, became a theatre for conflicting interests and policies. This is one of the major reasons why the Egyptian leadership chose to break off our association with the Soviets before 1973 and to expel the Russian experts. They realised that if they persevered with this alliance, Israel and US interests would continue to prevail because Egypt and the Arabs would be portrayed as working against these interests. We can also say, therefore, that one of the by-products of the October War was to dissolve the climate of polarisation and alter the role of the US in the region from partisan backer to mediator.

The war also inaugurated a stable political climate after a period which had been characterised by intermittent warfare and constant military readiness. The October War so altered the balance of power in the region as to ensure all parties were interested to find a mechanism that would prevent the outbreak of another war. It was this war, therefore, that marked the true beginning of the peace process and radically altered attitudes on both sides. The Arabs committed themselves practically to peace while the Israelis began to realise the need for peaceful coexistence with their neighbours.

It is true that at the beginning of the peace process there was some degree of confusion in the Arab ranks. At first there was a tendency to view peace merely as an end to the state of war. With time, however, the Arabs became aware that peace entailed developing a network of relations and interests that would truly work to reduce the possibility of a renewal of hostilities.

Israel, however, continued to seek to impose its own formula for peace on the Arabs in order to guarantee their notion of security. Today it is Binyamin Netanyahu who epitomises this attitude in which security always ranks higher than peace. I was once told by an Israeli leader that a modern fighter plane could not complete a full circle over Israeli air space without crossing the borders of a neighboring Arab country. While he said this to drive home the point of Israeli vulnerability, in the light of the October War we might just as easily interpret this story as supporting the notion that security can only be guaranteed through a peace process which will ultimately lead to the establishment of relations with the Arabs, relations which the Arabs would be willing to accept with conviction.

A successful conclusion to the October War demanded the closest coordination and cooperation among the various government sectors. As it turned out, we did manage to overcome all the bureaucratic obstacles, a fact which was clear from the very beginning of the negotiating process, from the negotiations at kilometer 101 and the disengagement negotiations on the Syrian and Egyptian fronts. All this phase required intimate collaboration between the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Defence and the Office of the Presidency. Our success in achieving this greatly lifted our self-confidence, which in turn made the later negotiations much easier to carry off.

The effects of the war also extended to the diplomatic domain. Already in December 1973, the Geneva conference was cause for celebration in that it provided a forum in which all sides could air their views, even if the talks did not go very far. From the end of 1973 to March 1977 we did all we could to revive the Geneva conference. We failed, however, in part because of Israeli obstruction, but also because of inter-Arab divisions, centered primarily on Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad's insistence on forming a united Arab negotiating front.

President Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem in March 1977 was a radical extension of the realities created by the October 1973 victory. His initiative was a bold development of the political ramifications of the war, the most important of which was the Arab oil boycott imposed against the countries who had supported Israel. The oil boycott demonstrated how a military victory can be used for political ends, a factor that Sadat capitalised on when he proclaimed in the sternest tones that Egypt would not relinquish its claims to one inch of the occupied territories and that all its rights must be restored if there was to be a just peace.

Indeed, it often seems as if the spirit of October permeated all subsequent events in the life of the nation. It could be felt in the meetings between Sadat and Menachem Begin in Ismailiya and then at the Mena House. It was there in the meetings which the Americans arranged at Leeds Castle, where we advanced sure of ourselves and that our negotiating stance was just, while that of the Israelis, based on their customary notion of security, had seen its authority eroded. So successful was the meeting that the head of the Israeli negotiating team later told his American counterpart, "The Egyptians' arguments are much stronger than ours. We have to revise our position."

We enjoyed a similar advantage when ex-President Jimmy Carter hosted the 13 day-long Camp David talks. In the course of this negotiating marathon we clung tenaciously to the spirit of October and refused to concede a single right, contrary to what others have claimed. What we had wanted was to sign a collective Arab treaty, not a separate treaty with Israel and, on 14 December 1977 at the Mena House, we had left an empty chair at the negotiating table for the Palestinian delegate, but no one came. The Arabs boycotted the conference.

The Egyptian team at Camp David felt a special kind of comradeship. We were from a generation of negotiators and diplomats who were inured to the other side's claims of cultural and technological superiority and our recent victory had finally exorcised the spectre of their military invincibility. This feeling helped us considerably in the negotiations at Blair House which extended over a period of five months and in which, from time to time, Jimmy Carter would participate.

The Egyptian team was made up of diplomats, lawyers, and military officials from all branches of the armed forces. Our collective feeling of self-confidence enabled us to counter one argument after another. For example, the Israelis had always justified their position to the world by citing the Nazi persecution of the Jews in Europe. At Blair House we told them, "What happened to the Jews in Europe should not be taken into consideration in your negotiations with the Arabs. The Arabs had nothing to do with those events in Europe and we have an equal right to security."

The spirit of the October victory was present in every phase of the negotiations over the borders with Israel. In Ismailiya, Menachem Begin tried to propose a border extending from El-Arish in the north to Ras Mohamed in the south. When we rejected this proposal out of hand, Israel accused us of clinging to the borders as if they were sacrosanct and cited examples of several nations whose borders had shifted following the two World Wars.

We held our ground, of course. Sadat and later Mubarak told them that Egypt would not relinquish one grain of sand that belonged to us. The Egyptian delegation must have been motivated by the blood of the Pharaohs that coursed through their veins. It was from the Pharaohs that we had inherited our nation's historical borders. To us, the Sinai was indeed sacred land.

But not only did the October victory help us to shed the last particles of our sense of inferiority, the experience of the October War negotiating team helped us develop a sense of superiority in the arts of diplomacy. We came to the realisation that we were tactically more adept than our Israeli counterparts, clearer in presenting our arguments, more cogent in our logic and more precise in our choice of words. An example of this skill was during negotiations over the removal of Israeli settlements in the Sinai.

There were 2,400 Israeli settlers in the Sinai and the Israelis wanted them to stay there. They told us that we should treat them like the ancient Hebrews who had sojourned in Egypt before returning to Israel. Unabashed, we replied that the only condition under which we would permit them to remain was if they were Egyptian Jews. But we would never accept a group of foreigners who had been imposed on us by a treaty and who would not be subject to our national sovereignty.

Right up to the moment when the treaty was signed, the Israelis wanted us to give Camp David priority over our Arab commitments, notably the joint Arab defense treaty. They would ask, for example, whether if a war broke out between Israel and Syria Egypt would enter the war on the Syrian side. Again we rejected their logic. We ourselves, not Israel or any other power, would determine our national priorities. As a sovereign nation, we had a right to define our own commitments and to abide by them.

Not only did those negotiations give us much valuable experience of how to deal with the Israelis. They also taught us how to deal with the Americans. We came to understand how they think, how they present their problems, how they argue for their ideas and the kinds of pressure they try to bring to bear. It is this experience gleaned in the aftermath of the October War that has enabled us to become the best counsel to our Arab brothers in their negotiations today.

* Osama El-Baz is presidential advisor for political affairs.