On Oct. 8, 1973, two days after the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban delivered the following address to the UN General Assembly. Of particular interest are the references to Anwar Sadat, whose image had not as yet been transformed into that of a peace-seeking visionary, and to the foresight of Israeli leaders in refusing to relinquish any territory in the absence of a workable and sustainable peace treaty.
There is not a single man or woman in this hall or outside it who does not know, in the depths of his heart, that Egypt and Syria have dealt a heavy and sudden blow to the most cherished of human causes – the cause of international peace.
The premeditated and unprovoked assault which they launched across the cease-fire lines on the Day of Atonement, 6 October 1973, will surely rank in future history as one of the basest and most odious acts for which governments have ever been responsible. It is Israel’s unshakable resolve that this assault shall be frustrated and repelled. If it were to have any success, the hope of peace would die.
Let there be no doubt that this attempt to smash the cease-fire structure is a massive violation of international law. The cease-fire is an international agreement. It was accepted by Egypt, Syria and Israel, in response to a decision of the Security Council, in which all three governments concurred.
The Resolution of the Security Council, S/RES/233 of 6 June 1967, reads: “The Security Council calls upon the governments concerned as a first step to take forthwith all measures for an immediate cease-fire and for a cessation of all military activities in the area.”
Israeli and Egyptian consent was soon expressed, and within thirty hours the cease-fire was formalized on the ground. A few days later, the Security Council decided (S/RES/235) that “the governments of Israel and the Syrian Arab Republic have announced their mutual acceptance of the Council’s demand for a cease-fire” and demanded “that hostilities should cease forthwith.”
This mutual commitment by Syria and Israel has never been repudiated by either government. Indeed, both have invoked it in complaints and demands to the Security Council.
The Egyptian-Israeli cease-fire was in force by mutual agreement until 1968. On that date, the Egyptian government announced that it was repudiating the cease-fire. It was later explained that it proposed to wage what it called a “war of attrition.” The “war of attrition” achieved no result except the death of many hundreds; the devastation of large areas near the Suez Canal; and growing involvements of the Middle East in the policies and rivalries of Great Powers.
In the summer of 1970, Egypt and Israel, through the good offices of the United States, renewed the cease-fire, which came into effect on 7 August 1970. It was a moment of high relief for the Middle East and the world. It seemed to illuminate a new vision and a new hope. For, together with the cease-fire, the two governments agreed to solve their remaining disputes by negotiation. On the basis of Security Council Resolution 242, Israel undertook that, on the establishment of peace, it would withdraw its armed forces to the boundaries which would be determined in the peace agreement.
Thus a clear international consensus emerged concerning the method of attaining peace in the Middle East. The stages were clear. First: cease-fire; second: negotiation; third: agreement on the conditions of co-existence, including the territorial settlement; fourth: withdrawal to the agreed boundaries on the establishment of permanent peace.
To this policy of maintaining the cease-fire and offering negotiations on the final settlement I pledged Israel anew in my address to the General Assembly on 3 October. The Syrian representative in the debate pledged his government to a policy of eternal war. The Egyptian foreign minister, probably knowing what lay ahead, merely postponed his address from last week to the next. He knew what he was doing. The treacherous assault was at a high stage of preparation.
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Let us recall the situation on the eve of the Egyptian and Syrian aggression. The cease-fire was in general stability. There were occasional encounters between air patrols and other unplanned collisions – but they left the cease-fire and the cease-fire lines intact.
The hope of negotiation was in the air. It drew strength from the success of negotiation in other regions. There were proposals for us to be here again next month to explore the prospect of dialogue. There was a general sentiment about the futility of public polemics, which have never advanced any dispute toward a solution.
Israel, of course, was resolved not to abandon the agreed cease-fire lines before there was a viable peace. This week’s events have shown how right we were. But we were prepared for the dialogue which would bring peace and the negotiation of agreed boundaries together.
Across the horizon, bleak, gray, but not entirely bereft of hope, came the answer from Egypt and Syria. Their answer to the vision of a peaceful, developing Middle East was to fill the region with blood and tears and rancorous passion. Anything except dialogue. Anything rather than negotiation. Anything except the respect of existing engagements and the quest for new agreements. Anything but that.
The deathly drama evolved quickly – but it had its prelude. Six hours before the outbreak [of war], a telegram reached me from Jerusalem telling me that authentic information, as well as the evidence on the ground, indicated that there was going to be a joint Egyptian and Syrian attack later in the day, with the aim of crossing the cease-fire line at the Suez Canal and the cease-fire line at Golan.
Two hours later, diplomatic representatives in Israel, beginning with the envoy of the United States, which had sponsored the cease-fire, were informed of this expectation. The United States Ambassador was informed, several hours before the assault, that Israel would not take any preemptive action, would bear the sacrifice which that renunciation implied, but would, of course, repel any Egyptian or Syrian movement. His government and, later, other governments were invited to inform Cairo and Damascus and others accordingly. Similar exchanges were held here in New York at foreign minister level.
We know the answer. Egypt first invented an imaginary sea battle with imaginary Israeli ships, at an imaginary place, at an imaginary time: the most dramatic nonexistent battle in the history of war. This was alleged to have taken place hours after Egypt’s plan of attack was revealed and communicated by us to other governments. Egypt and Syria have no evidence whatever to show for this falsehood – for the simple reason that it is a falsehood – by which millions of people in this country and others have been insulted.
After the mendacity came the aggression, an attack from north and south, with the cease-fire lines crossed in heavy force.
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There are two circumstances here which are deeply impressed on our minds and which will be engraved in our memories whenever we come to consider what our security demands, what kind of adversaries we face. First, there is the choice of the day. There is only one day in the year on which there is a virtual paralysis of internal and external communications, on which [Israel] turns aside from all material concern, unique in the spiritual calendar of mankind, an intense celebration of reflection and of humility.
The logistic effects of the Day of Atonement are that there is no communication between Israel and the outside world on any normal level and not even within the country itself.
This gross mendacity about an Israeli initiative is refuted by the United Nations Observers’ Report (S/7930), which reports to you specifically about Egyptian encroachments across the cease-fire line, about Syrian encroachments across the cease-fire line. Where in that, or in any other document, is there the slightest reference to any Israeli encroachment across the cease-fire line? What is the independent evidence that the foreign ministers of Egypt and Syria are able to bring in support of their invented myth about the non-existent ship passing silently in the non-existent night?
There is also the evidence of normal common sense. Across the world, people must be asking themselves this question: How idiotic would a man have to be to believe that on a day when there were no communications, no activity, no radio, no ability to summon reserves, when the vast majority of our soldiers were in their homes or synagogues, when even forward posts were manned at minimal level – that precisely on that day Israel would launch a war, on the day holiest to all those who cherish Jewish solidarities, in order to invite thousands of Egyptian and Syrian tanks to attack across a relatively undefended and totally quiescent line?
No, there is no doubt: Egypt and Syria exploited the physical vulnerability arising from a spiritual vocation which the Jewish people can never renounce.
Egypt concentrated for this assault more than 3,000 tanks, 2,000 guns, nearly 1,000 aircraft and, according to Egyptian spokesmen, 600,000 men, all armed with weapons of Soviet manufacture of the most modern type, including bombers, ground missiles, missile boats. Against them, on the first day, were regular Israeli garrisons in the most defensive posture that a nation can ever dream of allowing itself in a situation of regional tension.
And on the Syrian side, 1,000 tanks and corresponding numbers of weapons in the air.
Now all that brutal force crashed unprovoked across the cease-fire line.
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We have suffered tragic losses of life and blood. Egypt and Syria have suffered much more, as the result of their leaders’ cynical aggression. But President Sadat once told us that he would not care if a million people were killed, provided that he secured his objective.
I admit that the sacrilegious exploitation of the Day of Atonement and Israel’s renunciation, during those critical hours, of preventive action, have cost us dear, but the Egyptian and Syrian advantage has been and will be brief. Israeli forces are now successfully repelling the enemy on both fronts.
It is vital that Egyptian and Syrian forces shall not be allowed to remain anywhere beyond the cease-fire lines. The replacement of cease-fire lines by mutually accepted permanent boundaries must be done by negotiation and peace, not by treacherous, unprovoked, “Pearl Harbor” attacks.
Finally, pending the further elaboration of our position at a meeting, which I understand has been requested, of the Security Council, I want to say something about the lessons of this experience.
First, about the nature of the hostility that we face: The nature of that hostility is such that no security concern can be exaggerated. When President Sadat said in an Egyptian newspaper that he admired Hitler, all the world smiled indulgently. The Soviet Union, which had resisted Hitler heroically but belatedly, went on supplying arms. Other nations shrugged their shoulders. When the Egyptian prime minister praised the murder of pilgrims and tourists at Lod, we were told “it is only propaganda.” Anti-Semitic literature abounds in Cairo, a spiritual heroin, fraught with death and decay.
There is too much international indulgence for that hostility . We really must take Egyptian and Syrian statements of hostility at their face value.
Second, there is one nightmare that will always be in Israeli minds, no matter what the future may bring: Imagine that in a mood of suicidal stupidity we had gone back to the previous armistice lines instead of negotiating boundaries in the framework of peace. If we had performed that folly, then the attacks of 6 October, springing from close at hand at our very throats and hearts, would have done such destruction to our vital security that perhaps Israel and all its people, and all the memories, hopes and visions which have moved our history, might now all be lost – lost, swept away in a fearful massacre.
How right we were to insist on negotiating with the utmost precision the boundaries of a peace settlement! How wrong were those who counseled us otherwise! For there are three things that are vital, not only to Israel’s existence and security, but to the peace of the Middle East: first, peace itself; second, negotiation as the pathway to peace; and third, within the framework of a negotiated peace, the stability of secure boundaries which will give some assurance against the prospect of fatal injury to our nation arising from the kind of sudden assault that took place a few days ago.
There are, of course, other horizons beyond this, but the immediate task, to which we are giving all our mind and heart and sacrifice, is to restore the entire structure of the cease-fire.
The cease-fire consists of two elements: abstention from fighting, and the lines and positions agreed by the parties as the lines and positions of the cease-fire.
At this very solemn and tragic hour, we cannot help but think back upon the waste and the anguish and the avoidable suffering of the past two decades. All our Arab neighbors together, which are developing countries, have spent in this period something like 20,000 million [20 billion] dollars on war. The result: nothing. The achievement: nothing.
If it is said that this war is on behalf and for the sake of [Arab] refugees, the tiniest fraction of that expenditure would have been sufficient to solve all the refugee problems in the Middle East fifty times over. This, then, is the lesson of the uselessness and the waste of hostility.
But at this moment we have a more urgent concern. It is to bring the bloodshed to a halt and the cease-fire back to its integrity by ensuring that no Egyptian or Syrian forces shall remain beyond the legitimate and agreed cease-fire lines.
It is from that point, and only from that point, that we should take our further journey toward the horizons of peace.
Abba Eban was a career Israeli diplomat and politician, serving in a variety of positions including ambassador to the U.S. and the UN, member of Knesset, foreign minister and deputy prime minister. He passed away at age 87 on November 17, 2002.