- American Jewish Leaders and President Gerald R. Ford: Disagreements Over The Middle East Reassessment Plan1
The years after the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel and Egypt were a critical time, in which U. S. involvement with the Arab-Israeli conflict expanded. As President Gerald R. Ford grappled with the break-down of postwar negotiations in 1974, the organized Jewish community played a key role in attempting to shape his strategy and alter his plans. A question frequently posed about American strategy in the Arab-Israeli conflict involves the role Jewish interest groups have played in decision-making in Middle-East policies. However, Jewish leaders were generally more effective in securing congressional support for increased arms for Israel than they were in competing with Ford’s notion of a balanced American relationship with both Israel and Egypt.
Aftermath of the 1973 War
In 1973, Israel retained control of the land it had seized from neighboring Arab nations in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. In October 1973, to retaliate for the 1967 offensive as well as to recoup territorial losses, Egypt and Syria launched an attack on Israel—the Yom Kippur War—catching Israel off guard and unprepared. Ending Israel’s occupation of the Sinai Peninsula was one of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s primary goals. However, among Egyptians the drive to initiate war was grander. Many wanted to remove the stigma of the humiliating defeat in 1967.2 War was not Sadat’s original intent. In 1971, working with the United States, Sadat proposed a partial settlement. The proposal divided Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s government over whether or not the military measures already in place were sufficient. Ultimately the government determined that Egypt’s proposal did not satisfy the country’s security needs. Israel preferred to maintain the status quo indefinitely, confident that it had the military power to deter an Arab attack. Israel [End Page 175] did not anticipate that Sadat would elect to break the political deadlock by using the military option, one that proved effective.3 Egypt’s deteriorating economy could not sustain the expenditures essential to building a military operation capable of recapturing all of the territory lost in the 1967 War. However, war, even with limited aims, could be an avenue to reopening territorial negotiations with the Israelis. For Sadat, the limited nature of the Yom Kippur War–also known as the October War– represented a way of mollifying military calls for action even as it allowed him to turn his attention to internal economic development.4
Only after intense and costly battles, along with massive caches of armaments which the Nixon administration airlifted to Israel, was Israel able to push back the assault and advance into Egyptian territory.5 The 1967 War had filled American Jews with pride and increased support for Israel. But the events of 1973 traumatized the majority of American Jews, who now came to recognize Israel’s need for American political and military support. Building a viable strategic relationship between the United States and Israel became the community’s foremost coordinated public affairs project.6
A military disengagement agreement signed in 1974, known as Sinai I, left unsettled the matter of continued Israeli control of part of the Sinai Peninsula. The specific crisis was provoked by Israel’s refusal to withdraw troops and listening posts from the strategic Mitla and Gidi mountain passes in the Egyptian Sinai Desert and from the valuable Abu Rudeis oil fields near the Gulf of Suez, which supplied about half of Israel’s oil requirements. In response, Israel demanded Egyptian guarantees of non-belligerency or similar concessions. In his memoirs, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin recalled his belief that if Israel gave up a “piece of land” without getting a “piece of paper” (guarantee) in exchange, Israel would have relinquished the land it held without achieving its goal. [End Page 176] Thus Israel sought a political guarantee. Israel also wished to separate Egypt from its Arab ally Syria, thereby lessening the likelihood that the two nations would again join forces against Israel. Aware that the Arab world would not sanction such a concession, Sadat wanted to regain full control...