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The lessons of the 1973 October war Open in fullscreen

Daoud Kuttab

The lessons of the 1973 October war

The October war demonstrated that force must be considered in the pursuit of diplomacy [Getty]

Date of publication: 6 October, 2016

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Comment: The lessons learned from the 1973 October war on the use of force and the role of arbitration, are particularly relevant to Syria and Palestine today, writes Daoud Kuttab
During a private meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry and members of the Syrian opposition in New York, Kerry made a telling statement. He explained to those opposed to President Assad that he has tried his best to get President Obama to use military might, but to no avail.

Kerry was trying to explain that his inability to make diplomatic breakthroughs depended on a large part to the fact that he is unable to draw on military might to support his negotiating powers. One recalls the days when Henry Kissinger was negotiating with the Viet Cong in Paris while American B52 bombers were pounding Hanoi.

The relationship between military might and negotiations was similarly made clear in the 1973 October war. The surprise attack by Egyptian and Syrian forces against Israel during ramadan of 1973, shook the complacent Israelis into agreeing within a few years to vacate every last corner of the Sinai.

Israeli evacuation was the goal of Anwar Sadat's negotiations and he succeeded by and large in getting all of the Sinai back. Egyptian sovereignty over the last tiny part of Sinai was eventually returned after extensive deliberations by the international arbitrators.

The Taba area which was basically a very small strip of land where a Hilton hotel was built and which was (and continues to be) a favorite touristic destination of Israelis, was returned to Egypt on March 15th 1989 more than 12 years after the famous Camp David agreement that brought about peace between Israel and Egypt.

While military might is certainly a powerful and successful supporter for a negotiated settlement, Taba has shown that diplomacy and persistence can bring about similar results albeit over a much longer period.
Watch: The 1973 October War


The lessons of the 1973 war and the Taba negotiations can't be underestimated when we look at the regional conflicts, and especially the Palestinian one. Negotiators, whether it is Mahmoud Abbas or John Kerry have a hard time extracting concessions from their adversaries without having some kind of power to back them up.

Palestinians are certainly not a military power, nor does Palestine under Mahmoud Abbas have any interest in using military power to bring about and end to the Israeli occupation.

This brings us to the Taba methodology. Under both Sadat and Mubarak, Egypt insisted on its position of having all Sinai (including Taba) returned to their country's sovereignty and therefore forced an arbitration clause into the Camp David Agreement. Both sides went for international arbitration and presented all their documents to a neutral body. When it ruled in favor of Egypt, Israel had no choice but to return it.

For Palestinians the lesson is clear: While force is not part of the equation, there must be other instruments found that can help in strengthening the hands of the negotiators. If the issues that are still on the table cannot be not solved directly, as twenty some years have shown, then another methodology is needed.
The relationship between military might and negotiations was similarly made clear in the 1973 October war
Arbitration or the use of the International Criminal Court to outlaw say the settlement enterprise, is an option that Palestinians have espoused recently. The problem however is that unlike Egypt, which was able to insert its agenda into the Camp David agreement, Palestinians are unable to find a way to force Israel to accept any mechanism that can bring about a change of the status quo.

Some Palestinians feel that Mahmoud Abbas must end his current efforts at finding a diplomatic solution without any effort to back up the negotiators. Without force or a mechanism to resolve the conflict, talks can become a way of life and the Israelis would be happy to continue having talks for the sake of talk, ad nauseam.

Instead of military force which has proved rather counterproductive to Palestinian aspirations, Palestinian academics and civil society organisations have been calling on the world community for years, for a campaign to support Palestinian rights. The Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has made a clear request to everyone that supports Palestinians.

Unless Israel accepts international law, which calls for an end to the occupation and for the Palestinian refugee problem to be addressed, it should indeed be boycotted. 

America was recently able to extract far reaching concessions from Iran through a boycott and sanctions campaign. The same can happen in Palestine, if there is international will to solve the conflict.

The lessons of 1973 are clear: Force or a binding mechanism is needed in order to solve problems through negotiations.


Daoud Kuttab is an award winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Follow him on @daoudkuttab

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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