David A. Korn, Stalemate: The War of Attrition and Great Power Diplomacy in the Middle East, 1967-1970 (Westview, 1992).
In a world conditioned to perceive the rhythm of the Arab-Israeli conflict from the vantage point of downtown Tel Aviv, the Egyptian-Israeli war of attrition of 1969-1970 along the Suez Canal has rarely merited serious attention. It was, after all, Egyptian society, politics and military organization that underwent important and costly changes during this period; in Israel the effects of the conflict were barely visible beyond the immediate vicinity of the front. Yet this war of attrition was the most intense and prolonged military encounter the Arab-Israeli conflict has yet produced.
David Korn was chief of the political section at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv from 1967 to 1971, and later served as the State Department’s director for Israel and Arab-Israeli Affairs. The central theme of his book is that this understudied conflict spawned a framework for peace negotiations which has endured to this day. It was during this critical period that the US successfully monopolized Arab-Israeli diplomacy and effectively removed the Soviet Union from the equation. Additionally, Korn argues, it was in the war of attrition’s long shadow that the US-Israeli strategic alliance acquired definite form, Egypt lost faith in the efficacy of a pan-Arab approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Israel brought upon itself the 1973 October war with Egypt.
Stalemate paints a detailed picture of the war and the political process surrounding it. Diplomatic efforts initiated in response to the 1967 June war but lacking the ingredients and mechanisms for a comprehensive settlement, and diverted by the resultant escalation in Egyptian-Israeli hostilities, gravitated toward forging a modus vivendi between Cairo and Tel Aviv. By late 1969 such efforts took on increasing urgency. The Egyptian military, massively resupplied by the Soviets and thoroughly overhauled by the Egyptian high command, was rebuilding Nasser’s credibility and the country’s morale with continuous shelling of the Bar Lev Line and commando operations in occupied Sinai. Israel, determined to avoid mobilization at home and convinced it could incite Nasser’s overthrow, periodically launched air raids into the heart of Egypt.
According to Korn, it was Washington’s failure to reach agreement with Moscow about the contours of a comprehensive settlement during negotiations held in March-October 1969 that initially led the US to resume contacts with Egypt in the hope of arranging a ceasefire along the Suez Canal. Once it was able to engage Cairo about more substantive issues as well, the US found it could circumvent Soviet mediation. It was also during this period, the author maintains, that the “land for peace” formula became integral to US Middle East diplomacy.
Korn provides a highly detailed and credible history of the relevant diplomacy. He neglects, however, the larger strategic agenda within which the process he describes unfolded; he pays scant attention to Washington’s determination to actively exclude Moscow from the Arab-Israeli arena, and makes no mention at all of the US objective of removing Egypt from the military equation. The tendency to equate policy with diplomacy results in other shortcomings as well. For example, the official US “land for peace” position was rendered fairly insignificant by Washington’s repeated failure to develop policies that advanced this principle.