Sunday, June 9, 2013

Willy Brandt and Israel's Secret Approach to Egypt, June-July 1973

Today the Archives published a collection of documents to mark the 40th anniversary of the visit of Wiily Brandt, chancellor of West Germany, to Israel in June 1973. Brandt was known as an anti-Nazi and was famous for his gesture in 1970, when he knelt in silent apology before the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Israel's Labour government saw him as a Socialist comrade, and as was the custom in those days, he was taken on the obligatory trip to Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon's kibbutz, Ginossar, and even went fishing on Lake Kinneret.

The visit was an important chapter in Israel's relations with Germany. Here we'll focus on another aspect, mentioned in our post on Thursday. Only three months before the Yom Kippur war, Israel's Prime Minister Golda Meir was eager to use Brandt's good offices to contact the Egyptians and to propose secret talks on a peace settlement and withdrawal from part of Sinai.
Willy Brandt and US President Richard Nixon (Wikipedia)
Even today, Golda has become a symbol of Israel's refusal to negotiate with the Arabs and of its inflexible demands for direct negotiations and a full peace treaty. This was the official policy, but documents in the ISA and in US archives show that from 1971 on, after Sadat's rise to power, there were repeated efforts at advancing an agreement with Egypt based on Israeli withdrawal from part of Sinai. You can see one of these documents, a letter Golda wrote to Brandt in November 1971, in the publication. In this letter, Golda regrets that Sadat has refused to discuss withdrawal from the Suez Canal unless Israel commits itself in advance to return to the 1967 borders. On the other hand, in March 1973 she asked the Americans to postpone their initiative for a settlement with Egypt until after the Knesset elections scheduled for the autumn.

Did she really want a partial settlement? Did Sadat? Could the war have been prevented? Among historians there is much controversy on these questions. The war was so traumatic for Israel that emotions still run high, even 40 years later. Some blame the US Administration for the failure to push an agreement, others still think that Golda's government was responsible. Next week, Dr. Hagai Tsoref of the ISA, editor of a forthcoming collection of documents to commemorate Golda Meir, will present his views at a one-day conference at Haifa University.

Cover of a book about the failure of the government in the Yom Kippur war (Wikipedia)

What became of Brandt's involvement? Apparently his agreement to help was half-hearted: he sent a middle ranking diplomat to talk to Hafiz Ismail, Sadat's adviser who had already held inconclusive talks with the Americans in February and May 1973. After these talks and the Brezhnev-Nixon summit in June, which made it clear that the Great Powers did not intend to act on a Mid East settlement, it seems that Sadat had decided that only war would break the stalemate. The German initiative was a case of "too little, too late."

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