The Limits of Détente: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1969-1973

The Limits of Détente: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1969-1973

by Craig Daigle


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In the first book-length analysis of the origins of the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Craig Daigle draws on documents only recently made available to show how the war resulted not only from tension and competing interest between Arabs and Israelis, but also from policies adopted in both Washington and Moscow.

Between 1969 and 1973, the Middle East in general and the Arab-Israeli conflict in particular emerged as a crucial Cold War battleground where the limits of détente appeared in sharp relief. By prioritizing Cold War détente rather than genuine stability in the Middle East, Daigle shows, the United States and the Soviet Union fueled regional instability that ultimately undermined the prospects of a lasting peace agreement. Daigle further argues that as détente increased tensions between Arabs and Israelis, these tensions in turn negatively affected U.S.–Soviet relations.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300167139
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/30/2012
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 9.30(w) x 6.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Craig Daigle is assistant professor of history at the City College of New York.

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The Limits of Détente

The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1969–1973


Copyright © 2012 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-16713-9

Chapter One

From Confrontation to Negotiation, January–September 1969

As the dusk settled over the Sinai Peninsula on Saturday, June 10, 1967, signs of the colossal destruction of Egypt's army were everywhere. Hundreds of smashed trucks and tanks stretched bumper to bumper for miles. The shattered frames of dozens of Russian-built MiG-21s were tossed across the expansive desert. Forward air bases were littered with blackened craters along their runways. Guns, armor, and ammunition lay strewn across the sizzling sand. Piles of bedding, tents, mess equipment, and shoes covered the narrow roads, a sign of the army's hurried retreat. Bloody remains of the some of the fifteen thousand Egyptian soldiers killed in action were left rotting under the hot sun. "Nobody had been prepared for defeat on such a shattering scale," wrote Mohamed Heikal, the influential editor of the Cairo daily Al-Ahram. "Everybody was shocked ... [and] in a state of total confusion."

Along the Golan Heights overlooking the Upper Galilee on the Syrian-Israeli border, the scene was equally devastating. A UPI correspondent trailing Israeli soldiers up the snow-capped Mount Hermon range observed charred remains of Syrian troops killed on their way to battle. Smoke billowed from bomb-blasted concrete bunkers that once protected artillery used to shell Israeli settlements on the other side of the border. Long lines of prisoners, some blindfolded with their own keffiyeh headdresses, were whisked away in Israeli military vehicles. Wheat fields still afire up the Golan foothills and near the Israeli settlement of Ein Gev cast a "ruddy glow" over the Sea of Galilee that could be seen from the town of Tiberias on the western shore.

On the West Bank of the Kingdom of Jordan, the ruin from the war was perhaps most pronounced. Burned-out Jordanian tanks and jeeps littered the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, along with taxis, trucks, and other vehicles mired in the crossfire. Down the highway to the Dead Sea valley, several bodies of unburied Jordanian fighters were still visible, a slimmer of the seven hundred soldiers who died in battle and the nearly six thousand wounded or missing. Most notably, tens of thousands of Arab civilians caught up in the tides of war crowded the streets and poured over the Jordan River into what remained of the kingdom's East Bank, containing the seeds of a new refugee problem. "Our losses were tremendous, but we are proud of the fact that we fought honorably," said a despondent King Hussein, whose Hashemite dynasty once again teetered on the brink of collapse. "If our men had known from the beginning that they could not expect support from either Egypt, Syria, or Iraq our strategy would have been different."

The third Arab-Israeli war lasted only six days—132 hours—but in that brief period, the landscape of the Middle East changed forever. With its stunning victory over the Arabs, Israel now occupied territory three times its size. It conquered the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt. It seized the strategic Golan Heights from Syria. And it secured the West Bank from Jordan, leaving the Old City of Jerusalem and its holy sites entirely under Israeli control, an event of "unimaginable significance" to the Israelis. For the first time since the establishment of the state, Jews could pray at the Western Wall, the last remnant of their holy Temple and their historic past. "We have returned to the holiest of our holy places, never to depart from it again," said the charismatic, one-eyed major general Moshe Dayan, who served as Israel's defense minister during the war.

The conquest brought Israel obvious advantages. With expanded borders, Israel secured a much-needed buffer against its Arab neighbors, whose artillery was always in range of its most populous cities. Unobstructed passage through the Strait of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba, and possession of Sharm el-Sheikh, near the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, also ensured that Israeli ships could safely reach the port of Eilat. And control of the Golan Heights meant that Israel could neutralize its most troublesome border and remove the threat to the Jordan River water supply, on which future development depended. At the same time, however, the victory also brought with it numerous challenges. In addition to having to secure more than twenty-six thousand square miles of territory previously in Arab hands, a major strain on Israel's largely reserve army, the Israelis assumed responsibility for nearly 1.3 million Arabs, most of whom remained hostile to the Jews. "The Palestinian population was a demographic time bomb for Israel," the historian David W. Lesch has written, "as their higher birth rates would make them the majority within forty to fifty years in Israel if it held onto the occupation."

What to do with the occupied Arab territories quickly emerged as the central question facing Israeli leaders immediately after the war. Should the land be settled by Jews, expanding well beyond the borders that the United Nations had allocated to the Jewish state in its resolution of November 1947, or should some or all of the land be returned to the Arabs in exchange for meaningful peace agreements? Would the Israelis annex the West Bank of the Jordan, taking in great numbers of Arabs whose loyalties would be unpredictable? Or would they make the West Bank a "protected state"—neither Jordanian nor Israeli—managed by international authorities? Should the Golan Heights be returned to Syria with the hope that its leaders would quell the violence along the border and recognize Israel's sovereignty, or would Israel hold on to the land indefinitely to protect its citizens and natural resources in the north? Some Israelis, chiefly in the military, wanted to retain most of the territory they took for security purposes, while many of Israel's top political leaders were prepared to leverage the land for a peace treaty that recognized the state of Israel.

One thing was certain, however: Israel would never agree to a complete return to the June 4, 1967, borders. Soon after the fighting ended, Israeli leaders made constant references and comparisons to the aftermath of the 1956 Suez-Sinai war, when their forces withdrew within their boundaries with only paper guarantees that the Arabs would make peace. The Israelis did not intend to repeat the scenario. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol declared before the Knesset (parliament) on June 12 that his government no longer recognized the 1949 armistice agreements, which had been used as "time-gaining expedients" to prepare for renewed aggression, and he denounced Egyptian and Jordanian claims to Arab Palestine, since both areas had been taken by the Arabs in 1948 "as the result of military aggression and occupation." It was equally unlikely that his government would return Sharm el-Sheikh to Arab hands, lest there be another blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba, nor would Israel ever agree to a divided Jerusalem, a fact that was dramatically asserted by the cabinet's vote on June 18 to annex East Jerusalem and its surrounding area.

"Be under no illusion that the state of Israel is prepared to return to the situation that reigned up to a year ago," declared Eshkol. "Alone we fought for our existence and our security. We are entitled to determine what are the true and vital interests of our country and how they should be secured. The position that existed until now shall never again return. The land of Israel shall no longer be a no man's land, wide open to acts of sabotage and murder."

As determined as Eshkol was to use the newly acquired occupied territories to Israel's advantage, the Arab states were equally determined to get their land back—by force if necessary. Meeting in Khartoum in August 1967, Arab leaders supported a resolution to continue the state of belligerency against Israel. "This will be done within the framework of the main principles by which the Arab states abide, namely, no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it, and the insistence on the rights of the Palestinian people within their own country." The resolution, often referred to as the "three noes of Khartoum," confirmed to many Israelis that the Arabs had learned nothing from the recent conflict and that there was little point to give back the land if they were unwilling to live in peace with Israel.

In November 1967, hoping to reconcile the differences between the two sides, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 242, which established a "land for peace" formula. But even this resolution, though accepted by both Arabs and Israelis, was left intentionally vague and further added to the difficulty in bridging their long-standing disagreements. On one hand, the resolution clearly established the principle of the "inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war"; by this definition Israel could not retain any of the occupied territories. On the other hand, it deliberately omitted a requirement for Israeli forces to return to the lines of June 4, 1967. Instead the text called for Israel to withdraw only "from territories occupied in the recent conflict"—not all territories or the territories, just "territories." By intentionally leaving out the definitive article before the word "territories," the United Nations allowed each side to interpret the resolution to its liking. The Arabs and their supporters repeatedly asserted that the resolution meant "all" territories, and this is reflected in Arabic translation of the resolution. But the British (English) version—the one voted on in the Security Council and therefore the only text that holds international standing—omitted these words and thus left little doubt that part of these territories could remain in Israeli hands.

With both sides holding firm to their interpretation of Resolution 242, and the United Nations seemingly unable to resolve the deadlock, the Arab-Israeli dispute quickly became a focus of the politics and diplomacy of the Cold War. For the Soviet Union in particular, Israel's victory in 1967 and its occupation of Arab territory was a significant setback to its strategic position in the Middle East and an even larger blow to its prestige. In just six days of war, the Israeli Defense Forces had effectively erased a decade of Soviet military aid to the Arab states, demonstrating to Soviet allies around the world that their weapons were no match for what the United States provided Israel. Although Premier Alexei Kosygin had threatened military intervention to defend the Arabs and severed diplomatic relations with Israel on the last day of the conflict, the Soviets largely stood helplessly by, "watching through field glasses," as the vastly superior Israeli forces destroyed its heavy Middle Eastern investment. The question for Moscow, according to Israel's foreign minister Abba Eban, was whether any of its allies would take the Soviet Union seriously in the future.

Hoping to demonstrate Moscow's loyalty to its Arab friends, Kosygin requested an emergency session of the UN General Assembly to consider the "grave and dangerous" situation caused by Israel's continued "aggression" and "crimes" against the Arab states. Speaking before the assembly on June 19, he condemned Israel as an "unbridled aggressor" and demanded Israel's immediate and unconditional withdrawal from Arab territory. "The Arab states are entitled to expect that their sovereignty, territorial integrity, legitimate rights and interests ... will be reconstituted in full and without delay," said the sixty-three-year-old premier. This was a bold claim coming from the leader of a nation that had built its empire after World War II by ignoring the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its "allies" in Eastern Europe. But Kosygin apparently did not see the contradictions. "As long as the Israeli troops continue to occupy the seized territories, and urgent measures are not taken to eliminate the consequences of the aggression," he cautioned, "a military conflict can flare up any minute."

In addition to lending its political support, the Soviet Union became the primary source of financial and military aid for rebuilding the shattered Arab armies. In the first six months following the war, almost 80 percent of the aircraft, tanks, and artillery Egypt had lost in the June war had been replaced by the Soviet Union, and more than five thousand Soviet "advisers" were sent to Cairo in all phases of training, planning, and air defense. These weapons allowed Egypt to rebuild its military quickly and helped lessen the humiliation left over from the war. According to political scientist Alvin Rubinstein, "The magnitude of the Soviet commitment [to Egypt] was unprecedented, surpassing in both quantity and quality the aid given to North Vietnam and exceeding the rate at which aid had hitherto been given to allied or friendly countries."

Despite its heavy military investment in the Middle East, however, Moscow remained interested primarily in a political settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Soviet leaders feared that if another Middle East war erupted because the differences from the 1967 conflict were left unresolved, their forces would be unable to stand on the sidelines again. This would certainly lead to a superpower confrontation in the region and had the potential to unleash a nuclear war. Desperate to avoid this nightmare scenario, the Soviets, in September 1968, presented the United States with a detailed plan for an Arab-Israeli peace settlement that called for a staged Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories in exchange for Arab declarations to end the state of war; recognition of Israel's right to live in peace, within "safe and recognized" boundaries; and respect for and recognition of the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence of each "state" in the region. Dean Rusk, President Lyndon B. Johnson's secretary of state, described the proposal as a "constructive" move in Soviet policy toward the Middle East, but with only two months before the next presidential election, the Johnson administration could do little to help deliver the agreement. The Soviet proposal, therefore, was left to Johnson's successor.

With Richard Nixon's election to the presidency in November 1968, the Soviets were, surprisingly, presented with an opportunity to move this proposal forward. Nixon had long believed that Washington had tilted its policy too heavily in Israel's favor at the expense of US security interests in the Middle East. This resulted, in part, from the "enormous influence" of the American Jewish lobby, he argued, but many Americans supported Zionist aspirations in Palestine after the United States failed to respond more aggressively to the Holocaust. A mutual desire to curb Gamal Abdel Nasser's popularity in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis, and contain the spread of Arab nationalism in the late 1950s, drove the United States and Israel closer together. Before leaving office early in 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower agreed to sell Israel ten million dollars' worth of sophisticated military equipment, a policy that accelerated during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. "The United States," President John F. Kennedy told Golda Meir in 1962, "has a special relationship with Israel in the Middle East really comparable only to that which it has with Britain over a wide range of world affairs."

Although President Johnson tried to prevent the Israelis from launching a preemptive strike against the Arabs before the 1967 war, repeatedly telling Foreign Minister Abba Eban on May 26 that "Israel will not be alone unless it decides to do it alone," and refused to replenish Israeli arsenals during the crisis, the perception by the Arabs was that the United States had "colluded" with Israel to destroy the "revolutionary Arab regimes which had refused to be part of the Western sphere of influence." Nixon, too, believed that the Arab's humiliating defeat in the Six-Day War would have significant consequences for both Israel and the United States. After visiting the region immediately after the war, Nixon concluded that Israel's victory "left a residue of hatred among their neighbors that I felt could only result in another war, particularly if the Russians were to set up military aid to their defeated Arab clients."

For Nixon, however, US support of Israel was only half the problem. The United States, in his view, had made too many mistakes regarding its policies in the Arab world. As vice president, he objected to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles's decision in 1956 to withdraw American funding to Egypt for the building of the Aswan Dam, and he believed that the United States had "totally closed our eyes to the terrible condition of Arab refugees." All this needed to change in his administration. Although he would not abandon Israel as an ally, he felt that it was clearly in America's interest to "halt" the Soviet domination of the Arab Middle East; to do so would require broadening US relations with the Arab countries. "Where on the analysis the question becomes primarily one of the interests of Israel and the interests of Israel's neighbors, Egypt, Jordan, et al, then we should have a totally even-handed policy," Nixon told Secretary of State William Rogers. "I believe that an even-handed policy is, on balance, the best one for us to pursue as far as our own interests are concerned."

In line with this "even-handed" policy, Nixon was receptive to the Soviets' idea of holding discussions on an Arab-Israeli peace settlement. The president understood that in the wake of the Arab defeat, Moscow needed a "face-saving formula" to help its allies get their land back while reducing the risk of confrontation with the United States. But joining the Kremlin in these negotiations, he reasoned, could also help him achieve his larger foreign policy objectives. First, Nixon expected that in return for Washington's efforts to get the Israelis to withdraw from the occupied territories, Moscow would reduce its military aid to North Vietnam. This would weaken Hanoi's ability to prolong the Vietnam War and give the president increased leverage to deliver on his promise of an "honorable" end to the war. Second, persuading Israel to moderate its position and return the Arab territories would also improve US standing in the Arab world and potentially reduce Soviet influence in the Middle East.


Excerpted from The Limits of Détente by CRAIG DAIGLE Copyright © 2012 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

List of Abbreviations xv

Introduction 1

1 From Confrontation to Negotiation, January-September 1969 10

2 The Rogers Plan, October-December 1969 48

3 The First Soviet Threat, January-May 1970 83

4 Crisis on the Suez, June-September 1970 113

5 Fighting for Sadat, October 1970-August 1971 155

6 The Race to the Summit, September 1971-May 1972 192

7 Bombshells and Back Channels, June 1972-February 1973 228

8 The Contradictions of Leonid Brezhnev, March-October 1973 261

9 The Crisis of Détente, October 1973 294

Conclusion 332

Notes 347

Index 403

What People are Saying About This

Rashid Khalidi

This is the first work to explore fully the impact of the super-power rivalry on the 1973 Middle East war. It provides a meticulous reading of newly declassified documents and a judicious analysis of international relations at the height of détente.—Rashid Khalidi, Columbia University

William B. Quandt

No one has done a better job than Craig Daigle to explain the origins of the October 1973 war. He skillfully draws on recently declassified documents to make a convincing case that U.S.-Soviet détente had the paradoxical consequence of raising the odds of war in the Middle East.—William B. Quandt, University of Virginia

Wm. Roger Louis

 "A perceptive and detailed account of the origins of the 1973 war, especially useful for the Soviet dimension.—Wm. Roger Louis, University of Texas at Austin

Douglas Little

A must-read book for everyone interested in Soviet-American relations in the Middle East.—Douglas Little, Clark University  

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