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Israel Seen Giving Serious Consideration to Sadat Proposal to Reopen Suez Canal

February 8, 1971
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The Israel government is believed to be giving serious consideration to a proposal by President Anwar Sadat of Egypt to reopen the Suez Canal on the basis of a partial withdrawal of Israeli forces from its east bank. Israel’s position is expected to be stated by Premier Golda Meir on Tuesday in the course of a political report to the Knesset. Her Knesset speech was announced following today’s Cabinet meeting at which Foreign Minister Abba Eban reportedly presented a detailed analysis of the statement Sadat made to the Egyptian National Assembly last Thursday. Sadat said he would extend the expiring cease-fire agreement another 30 days– to Mar. 7–and that any further extension would depend on an Israeli timetable for withdrawal from the occupied Arab territories, He also proposed reopening the Suez Canal if Israel withdrew from its east bank. Israel’s reply to Sadat is expected to consist of a series of questions to clarify the Egyptian leader’s intent, Several Cabinet ministers intimated today that it would be worth while at least to explore the Egyptian proposal and some of the major questions arising from it. They said, for example, Israel wants to know what Sadat means by partial withdrawal–whether 100 miles or 100 yards; whether Egypt would agree to the de- militarization of any area evacuated by Israel; and whether the waterway could be used by Israeli shipping once it is reopened. informed sources said that an evacuation of Israeli forces 100 yards from the Canal’s banks might be acceptable. It should enable Sadat to reopen the Canal without losing face while Israel would still retain effective military control over it. They made it clear that Israel would not tolerate an Egyptian entry into the evacuated zone.

Although warning voices were raised in the press and elsewhere against the Sadat offer, there were several indications today that the government has not dismissed it out of hand. One was the scheduling of a formal political statement by Mrs. Meir for Tuesday and postponement of a scheduled Eban press conference until after Mrs. Meir has spoken. Another indication was cancellation of the usual press briefing by the government secretary after today’s Cabinet meeting. In addition, the chairman of the Knesset’s powerful Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, Chaim Tzadok, declared today that President Sadat’s proposal “should not be rejected out of hand.” Diplomatic circles mean while stressed that there was no substance to a report broadcast yesterday by the government -owned but independent Kol Israel radio that Israel had totally rejected Sadat’s proposal. Diplomatic circles told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the erroneous report stemmed from a misinterpretation of certain remarks by government leaders by the Kol Israel news editor. They said no official denial was made because that would only have added to the confusion. Observers here noted that Sadat’s proposal to reopen the Canal was in many ways similar to a suggestion made in Israeli circles several months ago and attributed to Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. The proposal was “leaked” at a time when Premier Meir was visiting the United States and created a furor in the Cabinet. Dayan later dissociated himself from it. The plan would have had both Israel and Egypt pull back from the Canal with a demilitarized zone between them, permitting the waterway to be reopened for commercial shipping.


As matters stand now, neither Israel nor Egypt can move to reopen the Canal without the other’s agreement. Israel has made offers several times in the past to permit Egypt to clear the waterway on condition that its shipping would enjoy the same navigation rights as the shipping of all other nations. The Egyptian position up to now has been that the Canal can be reopened only on condition that Israel withdraws completely from the Sinai peninsula. Sadat’s proposal for a partial Israeli withdrawal has introduced a new element, circles here said. The Labor newspaper Davar said today that it was important for Israel to counteract the impression of apparent moderation on Sadat’s part. Nevertheless, the paper said, “because of its intrinsic desire for peace, the Israeli government will obviously have to examine the latest Egyptian proposal very carefully to discover whether it does possibly contain any prospect for a settlement. Haaretz doubted the wisdom of accepting Sadat’s proposal. “There would be no reason for the Egyptians to agree to an Israeli idea that the border can be drawn by dividing the Sinai from north to south, once Israel abandons its position along the Canal,” Haaretz said. Two influential Cabinet ministers appeared to be less than enthusiastic over the Sadat proposal. Minister-Without-Portfolio Israel Galili provided the initiative for a resolution adopted unanimously at the convention of Hakibbutz Hameuchad, the kibbutz movement of the Achdut Avodah Labor faction, which warned that Sadat’s speech contained the seeds of a new war.

Transport Minister Shimon Peres told the Civilian Emergency Transportation Committee last night that Israel must beware of attempts to force it into anything less than a contractual peace agreement with Egypt. Peres said such a development would mean another war. He said he preferred the current situation to any unsigned, informal agreement because “now at least we know where we stand.” Menachem Beigin, leader of the opposition Gahal faction, said in a radio interview today that Sadat’s plan was “an attempt to cross the Canal without really trying.” Beigin warned that Israel “must make sure he will not succeed.” Histadrut’s secretary general Itzhak Ben Aharon took a softer view. He felt that Sadat’s agreement to another cease-fire extension offered a chance to begin a dialogue with Egypt. Maj. Gen. Yehsyahu Gavish, former commander of Israel’s southern front, said in an interview published in the newspaper Maariv that a renewal of fighting by Egypt in the Canal zone would be over very quickly and would end in disaster for Egypt. Gen. Gavish doubted that the Russians would intervene actively on Egypt’s side. He said any Egyptian units that succeeded in crossing the Canal would never get back. He thought, however, that a new war with Egypt would be followed by “a very long armistice.”

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