Today marks the 53rd anniversary of Israel’s much-remembered victory in the Six-Day War. Only three weeks later, Egyptian forces violated the ceasefire by attacking Israeli troops near the Suez Canal—beginning the largely forgotten War of Attrition. With help from the USSR, the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser would attempt, through repeated, small-scale attacks, to force Jerusalem to withdraw from the territory it had recently acquired. Sean Durns considers this conflict, the failed attempts to end it, and its lessons for the present:
In June 1970, the U.S. secretary of state William Rogers introduced a [peace] plan, which included a 90-day ceasefire. [Israel’s then-Prime Minister Golda] Meir, worrying that Egypt would exploit the ceasefire for military benefit, was inclined to oppose it. But the U.S. made clear that doing so would come at the cost of promised military aid. Eventually American reassurances—including that no Israeli soldier would be withdrawn from the present lines until a binding peace agreement was achieved—[convinced] the Meir government to accept the plan.
The ceasefire began on August 8, 1970. Yet, in the hours before it took effect, Israeli aerial surveillance witnessed Egyptian soldiers moving Russian surface-to-air missiles into place on their side—despite the fact that the agreements forbade moving military equipment into the area. . . . Washington, however, initially denied that any violations had occurred. By September, the U.S. State Department grudgingly admitted that, in fact, they had been violated, but no consequences followed.
Those missiles would exact a devastating toll on Israel three years later, when Egypt initiated what became known as the Yom Kippur War. While Israel would eventually rebound, the dramatic losses of that war’s early days were the result, in part, of what flowed from the Rogers plan. Just as Meir had feared, Israel’s enemies had exploited the U.S.-backed agreement, taking full advantage of American naiveté.
The slow, intermittent fighting during the War of Attrition was a precursor of many of Israel’s subsequent wars, from Lebanon to the second intifada. And it would not be the last time that international actors and allies would encourage Israel to accept agreements requiring it to make concessions without receiving in return the commensurate peace.