David Ignatius: Mideast Lessons From 1973

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Groping for a way to understand the ruinous mess in the Middle East, I find myself looking backward to an earlier ruinous mess, the Yom Kippur War of October 1973.

That long-ago war, like the current one in Lebanon, began with an Arab sneak attack -- a potentially devastating Egyptian thrust across the Suez Canal, cruelly launched on Israel's holiest day. The Israelis initially fumbled against a surprisingly ferocious Arab assault, and then recovered thanks to aggressive military operations.

Then as now there was a diplomatic uproar over a U.N. cease-fire. The Israelis wanted more time to transform their initial reversals into military gains. At the height of the crisis, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger secretly cabled the Israeli ambassador to Washington, saying, "We would understand if Israelis felt they required some additional time for military dispositions," according to documents released in 2003 by the National Security Archive.

The 1973 war seemed like the ultimate disaster: Israel's very survival was at stake in the early hours of the battle. As the war dragged on, there was a risk of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear confrontation, and the conflict triggered an Arab oil embargo that devastated the global economy. Because of its close alliance with Israel, the United States was isolated from many of its European and Arab allies.

Yet in the long lens of history, the importance of the 1973 war is that it opened the door to peace. The Arabs, humiliated by earlier wars with Israel, could now claim a measure of dignity because of Anwar Sadat's bold attack across the canal. The Israelis learned that their Arab adversaries wouldn't run from battle as they had in the 1967 war. That gave them a stake in making peace, too.

After the war ended, Egypt and Syria joined in active diplomacy, masterfully orchestrated by Kissinger, who managed to create enough distance between the United States and Israel to allow some negotiating room. Sadat felt confident enough as the "hero of the crossing" to make his famous trip to Jerusalem. Even the terrorist group of the day, the Palestine Liberation Organization, was drawn into a web of secret liaison with the CIA.

The 1973 war marked a historic turning point, in ways that no one could initially have predicted. And it is just possible that the current conflict offers a similar opportunity. The key missing element, so far at least, is a Kissinger-level diplomatic commitment by the United States. Condoleezza Rice came close to a Lebanon peace deal last weekend, but to pull it off, she will need to move more toward Kissinger's stance of honest broker.

To turn the Lebanon disaster of 2006 into an opportunity, each side will have to alter its view of the other....
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