Behind the Headlines: Israelis Assess Meaning of Disengagement Agreement

The pros and cons of Israel’s disengagement agreement with Egypt–as viewed by the general public and Israeli political figures–emerged today. It could be summed up in the by now classic question. “Ma Iyeh” (What Now?) which has been asked by Israelis after every major development in their nation’s 25-year struggle with its Arab neighbors. The question reflected uncertainty, and a certain amount of suspicion inbred by the experiences of the past. But there was also considerable relief that after a week of mounting suspense the indefatigable diplomacy of Henry A. Kissinger yielded stabilization of the cease-fire that had been deteriorating dangerously, almost to the point of renewed large-scale hostilities.

The man in the street was suspicious because of the sorry history of past agreements with Egypt. The most bitter recollection was of the Aug. 1970 cease-fire that ended the war of attrition and was violated within hours by Egypt which began immediately to concentrate new SAM missile batteries in the Suez Canal zone. Political analysts maintained, however, that the present agreement was the best Israel could have hoped for and, moreover, it did not have much of a choice. The only alternatives they pointed out were a new war that would cost precious lives or a continued high state of mobilization seriously damaging the Israeli economy.

The major political factions in Jerusalem–with the notable exception of the Likud opposition–regard the disengagement agreement as overall favorable to Israel. Premier Golda Meir’s Labor Alignment has launched a broad campaign aimed at convincing the public of this and isolating Likud. The drive began with Deputy Premier Yigal Allon’s television interview Thursday night in which he stressed that, at the very least, war has been averted for a long period and a considerable number of reserve soldiers will be able to go home. The second stage of the Labor drive will be Mrs. Meir’s political statement when the new Knesset convenes this week.

Allon observed that the chances of new hostilities with Egypt have been reduced to a minimum. If the Egyptians had wanted to attack Israel one more time they would have done so before signing an agreement in which the United States played a decisive role, he said. The very existence of a large United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) between the two sides, while militarily of no consequence, has considerable political significance, according to Allon. The Egyptians will not be able to launch a new attack on Israel without first removing UNEF, he pointed out. Of important political significance at home is the fact that Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, the Labor Alignment’s most prominent “hawk” sees eye-to-eye with Foreign Minister Abba Eban on the advantages of the agreement. Interviewed on television Friday night, Dayan defended the agreement on grounds that it would bring about normalization of the region including dredging the Suez Canal immediately following the separation of forces.

While he conceded that Israel’s new defense line–some 20 kilometers east of the canal–is not as good as the line held prior to the Yom Kippur War, Dayan said that as long as Egypt really wants peace, which he believes to be the case, the pullback is not really disadvantageous. He attributed Egypt’s change of attitude to its initial achievement in the Yom Kippur War of crossing the canal and to its subsequent failure to prevent Israeli forces from breaking through to the west bank of the waterway. He justified the presence of Egyptian forces on the east bank of the canal on grounds that the rehabilitated waterway and repopulated canal side towns needed some sort of military force for protection. The force to remain on the east side of the canal under the agreement is not a large one, Dayan noted.

Khan, who made the official announcement of the agreement on behalf of the Israeli government Thursday said the accord marked a turning point away from the cycle of wars in the Middle East and could be regarded as a first step toward a permanent peace. The separation of forces will strengthen the cease-fire without which it would be impossible to continue the Geneva peace conference, Eban said. Accompanying Kissinger to Ben Gurion Airport when he left Israel Friday, Eban told reporters he believed the agreement would prevent a surprise attack on Israel. “After all, this is its aim,” he said. He stressed his hope that the agreement would have far-reaching importance internationally. U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Keating, who was also at the airport, expressed satisfaction with the agreement. “I am happy the effort has culminated in reaching the agreement and I hope this is the first stage of a process that will end in a peace agreement,” he said.

Of the two political parties with which Premier Meir hopes to form a new Labor-led coalition government, the Independent Liberals, through their leader, Moshe Kol, fully endorsed the agreement. But the National Religious Party leadership remained split. The NRP’s veteran ministers were inclined to accept the agreement as the best way out of a difficult situation. But the party’s “young guard,” headed by Knesset members Zevulun Hammer and Yehuda Ben Meir, rejected it. The pro-Moscow Rakah Communist faction welcomed the agreement as a first step toward implementing Resolution 242. But Likud remained adamantly opposed and is clearly seeking to rally public opinion against the government.

Menachem Beigin, head of Likud’s dominant Herut faction, accused the government of having agreed to a unilateral withdrawal. He accused the ministers of having been taken in by Kissinger’s “whirlwind nocturnal negotiations” because their senses were blurred by lack of sleep. He likened Kissinger’s formula to that of another U.S. Secretary of State–the late John Foster Dulles–who forced Israel to pull out of the Sinai in 1956 without peace. Shmuel Tamir, head of Likud’s Free Center faction, said his party was not opposed to disengagement but to the conditions that went with it. He said that by pulling back to the Mitla and Gidi passes, Israel gave up the most important internationally strategic areas it ever occupied. “We gave up all this territory without coming nearer to peace even an inch.” Tamir said. “We are now witnessing the Mideast Munich of 1974.” The Israeli press for the most part supported the agreement. Maariv, however, adopted a wait-and-see line, while Yediot Achronot attacked the agreement Thursday but has since withheld comment.

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