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A Tale of Two Sadats

What Israel and Saudi Arabia Can Learn from Egypt

Gabriel Scheinmann
SOURCEForeign Affairs

With varying degrees of vehemence, the United States’ Middle East allies all oppose the budding U.S.-Iranian détente. At the head of the pack, of course, is Israel, followed closely by Saudi Arabia. But when the calendar strikes June 30, the Pickett’s Charge will come to an end and they will have to reluctantly pivot from accord prevention to accord mitigation. As one senior Gulf official said, “We’re not going to do a Netanyahu. We are not wasting time confronting that agreement. . . . Instead we are bracing ourselves for the post-agreement world.” In such a world, Israel could decide to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, and Saudi Arabia could decide to acquire its own bomb, but both states, cognizant of how costly these actions might be, will likely consider other options first.

And there, they have a model to look to. Four decades ago, Egypt’s Anwar al-Sadat faced a similar state of affairs. Twice, he took bold action to blunt the fallout of U.S.-Soviet détente. In 1973, Sadat, feeling abandoned by Moscow, plunged the Middle East into regional war, leading to a permanent rise in global oil prices and putting the United States on nuclear alert. In 1977, Sadat, this time distressed by U.S. actions, sidestepped a U.S.-Soviet process to forge a peace agreement with Israel, ending regional Arab-Israeli wars. In both cases, it was not détente itself but Sadat’s reactions that shaped the region. The tale of the two Sadats crystallizes the options before the United States’ allies today.

The First Betrayal

By the time Sadat assumed power in late September 1970, Egypt had become a Soviet protectorate in all but name. In order to prevent a sequel of Egypt’s devastating defeat at Israel’s hands in 1967, the Soviet Union deployed tens of thousands of military advisers to Egypt. Soviet antiaircraft missile batteries and fighter jets defended Egyptian skies; a few times, they even got tangled in dangerous dogfights with Israeli planes. It wasn’t until May 1971, however, that Egypt and the Soviet Union signed their first official alliance treaty, more than 15 years after Cairo first tethered itself to the Kremlin.

The optics of the treaty were misleading, however, since Egyptian and Soviet interests were already slowly diverging. Moscow desperately needed to rebuild its prestige, which had been deeply damaged by its proxies’ losses, but it was wary of emboldening Egypt to seek a fight it could not win. It was willing to help Egypt forestall another Israeli assault, but it refused to supply it with the advanced weaponry it would need to have a second go at the Israelis. Egypt, not surprisingly, quietly chafed under these constraints.

U.S.-Soviet détente changed everything. At the May 1972 Nixon-Brezhnev summit in Moscow, the two superpowers issued a joint communiqué that not only committed the Soviets to supporting a “peaceful settlement” in the Middle East but also noted that the “achievement of such a settlement would open prospects for the normalization of the Middle East situation and would permit, in particular, consideration of further steps to bring about a military relaxation in that area.” Moscow would douse rather than enflame the Arab-Israeli conflict and, to that end, would provide no further game-changing arms.

For Cairo, détente was a betrayal. After years of goosing Egypt and the country’s policy of military confrontation with the Israelis, the Soviets now reversed course and committed themselves to restraint, freezing the status quo. A “no peace, no war” situation had become ideal for Moscow, but with Israeli forces parked on the Suez Canal, it was intolerable for Egypt. With few options at his disposal, though, Sadat continued to send supportive signals to his Soviet patron as he tried to figure out how to loosen the Kremlin’s vise.

That July, Sadat abruptly and unceremoniously expelled the 15,000 Soviet advisers in Egypt. Although Moscow was incensed by the move, it sought to contain the potential damage and continued to provide military support. Its navy was still using Egyptian bases, and it delivered more arms to Egypt in the first six months of 1973 than in the previous two years combined. The following October, Sadat launched the Yom Kippur War, a surprise assault on Israel. Once again, Moscow had no choice but to back its proxy lest it publicly signal its loss of control. Days into the war, the Soviets began a massive naval and aerial resupply operation. Soviet troops were even allowed to control weapons on Egyptian soil.

The war, despite its limited nature, brought the region to the brink of chaos and the superpowers to the brink of nuclear war. In the face of heavy losses on both fronts, Israel’s cabinet debated using its nuclear option. In response to the U.S. military resupply of Israeli forces, OPEC instituted an oil embargo, resulting in a permanent rise in oil prices and throwing the U.S. economy into a 16-month recession. Things nearly got even worse: after the Israelis recovered from their initial shock and began reversing Egyptian gains, Moscow threatened unilateral military measures, prompting the United States to go to DEFCON 3 and put its nuclear forces on worldwide alert.
Despite both losing the war and nearly sparking a regional conflagration, Sadat had successfully mitigated the worst consequences (for him) of détente. He parlayed his limited victory into a budding strategic relationship with the United States. Soon after the war, Egypt and the United States reestablished diplomatic relations, which had been severed in 1967. Egyptian forces were granted a permanent presence on the east side of the canal owing to a partial Israeli withdrawal, and the United States started sending the country significant economic aid. Moscow’s détente gamble had backfired. Not only was the Soviet Union backed into its most acute superpower confrontation in the Middle East but, in the process, it had lost Egypt. Its position in the Middle East never recovered.

The Second Betrayal

When the Jimmy Carter administration came to office in January 1977, Egypt was firmly within the U.S. orbit. In 1976, Sadat formally terminated his alliance with the Soviet Union and Egypt was on pace to receive double the amount of U.S. aid it had received the year before. The Gerald Ford administration had even sold Egypt six C-130 transport planes, ending its arms embargo. Even though Carter pledged a seamless continuation of the détente policies that had so frustrated Sadat, the Egyptian president praised him as a “farsighted and perceptive” leader in an April visit to Washington. Six months later, Sadat would bemoan how “perceptive” Carter truly was.

U.S. President Jimmy Carter welcomes Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to the White House. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Jettisoning his predecessor’s shuttle diplomacy, Carter immediately embarked on a comprehensive approach, one that would seek to resolve all outstanding issues between Egypt and Israel and would involve all the relevant parties. He revived the jointly convened Geneva process, a post-1973 U.S.-Soviet framework that had been discarded in all but name. In a joint communiqué emerging from the October 1, 1977, conference, the two superpowers insisted that “the only right and effective way for achieving a fundamental solution to all aspects of the Middle East problem in its entirety” would be under their auspices. Moreover, it even suggested the possibility that Soviet or U.S. troops would act as peacekeepers in the region by securing the countries’ borders.

Sadat was apoplectic. He had successfully ejected Moscow—at great cost—from Egypt’s dealings, and now the “perceptive” U.S. president had not only midwifed the Kremlin’s diplomatic reentry but also opened the door to the potential redeployment of Soviet forces to Egyptian soil. The Geneva process, he believed, would ensure that the more radical Arab states such as Syria—egged on by Moscow—would hijack Egypt’s national interests. Maximalist Arab positions and popular support for Palestinian terrorism would block his ability to negotiate any further partial Israeli concessions for fear of becoming diplomatically isolated. In short, Sadat was back in the vise he had risked so much to escape.

Carter’s moves also rattled Israel. For some months, a secret Israeli-Egyptian team had been meeting to gauge the possibility of a further improvement in relations outside of the superpower framework. The Geneva conference spurred Sadat to take the talks public and upgrade them. In a November 9 speech to the Egyptian parliament, Sadat shockingly declared his willingness to go to the Israeli Knesset—described by him as “the end of the world”—and make peace with the Israelis directly. Two weeks later, he became the first Arab leader to ever visit Israel, and after 18 months of laborious negotiations, an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was forged.

Moreover, Egypt’s diplomatic gambit once again led to increased support from its jilted patron. Since it had bypassed his Geneva process, Carter initially opposed Sadat’s Jerusalem initiative. But he embraced it once he realized he could not stop it. By January 1978, the United States had already helped Egypt refurbish its Soviet MiGs, provided 14 additional C-130s, and begun an officer training program in the United States. When Sadat asked for 40 F-5E fighters, Carter bundled the Egyptian request into a $2.5 billion package that provided 75 F-16s and 15 F-15s to Israel, 60 F-15s to Saudi Arabia, and 50 F-5Es to Egypt.

Getting Detente Right

Twice in his administration, Sadat felt betrayed by a major ally who was rushing to reach an accommodation with its adversary. Twice, he acted boldly to mitigate its most deleterious effects. In 1973, his actions plunged the region into war, brought the superpowers close to the nuclear brink, and caused an oil crisis. In 1977, his moves brought the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty, the end to Arab-Israeli wars, and the end to the Soviet position in the region. Both times, Sadat’s moves forced his protector into increased arms sales and support.

His choices broadly frame the two options available to U.S. regional allies unnerved by the impending U.S.-Iranian concordance. A “Sadat 1973” détente mitigation strategy, in which Saudi Arabia and Israel up their involvement in proxy wars and threaten to get or use their nuclear deterrents, might dull the worst effects of the Iranian nuclear deal, but it would also further unravel the region. Desperate to regain control, a disgruntled United States would have little choice but to support its allies in their endeavors, likely through additional aid and arms packages.

Saudi Arabia’s recent moves to proactively degrade Iranian proxies fit this path to a tee. It has gone to war in Yemen against the Iranian-backed Houthis and has shepherded a better-managed initiative to rebel groups fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. With al Qaeda exploiting both wars, Yemen and Syria are now both three-way conflicts ensnaring nearly all regional actors, with no end in sight. The recent U.S.-Iranian naval and Saudi-Iranian aerial staring contests could easily become showdowns.

With a new government in place, Israel too may react to the nuclear deal by seeking to cripple Hezbollah and the Assad regime along its northern border. For six years, it has let sleeping dogs lie, cognizant that a flare-up would complicate efforts to prompt a U.S.-led international coalition to stop the Iranian nuclear program. However, with a U.S.-Iranian deal fast approaching, it may prefer to stifle Iran’s proxies sooner rather than later. Just like the Saudi-led war in Yemen, the consequences of an Israeli-Hezbollah war could be wide-ranging and still would not halt Iran’s march to the bomb. It might alleviate but would not abrogate U.S.-Iranian détente.

Even if it privately opposes actions such as these, the Barack Obama administration will still begrudgingly support them. It continues to provide military support to the Saudi-led coalition, despite urging the Saudis to “pause” their intervention. It is reportedly prepared to sell Gulf Arab states additional missile defense capabilities, advanced fighter jets, and bunker-busting bombs in exchange for their acquiescence. In due time, it will likely offer Israel a similar package, whatever its misgivings.

In contrast, a “Sadat 1977” approach would be far more fruitful. Just as Sadat’s Jerusalem journey shocked the Carter administration out of its misguided approach, a public rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia may be the only move that could both mitigate and possibly even vitiate U.S.-Iranian negotiations. Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin each crossed a redline: Sadat legitimized Israel’s presence in the region, Begin accepted in principle full Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza. An echo of this first and often forgotten of the Camp David Accords—”The Framework for Peace in the Middle East”—might be just what Riyadh and Jerusalem need to liberate vast areas of strategic cooperation. As one colorful Saudi prince once satirically said, “With our brain power, and Jewish wealth, we can do wonders.”

It is not the U.S.-Iranian détente itself that will dictate the future of the Middle East, but how the United States’ allies act to mitigate its effects. Will they pull a Sadat of 1973, destabilizing the region even further? Or will they opt for a Sadat of 1977, when a confluence of interests fastened a lasting peace? Either way, the ball, set in motion by the United States’ talks with Iran, is already rolling out of the United States’ control.