By Abe Silberstein
Last month’s news of an agreement toward normalization between Israel and Sudan, long expected since the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed the Abraham Accords in September, has brought out innumerable references to the infamous “Three Noes” in the resolution following the Arab League’s meeting in Khartoum after the disastrous 1967 war with Israel: no recognition, no negotiation, and no peace with Israel.
The temptation to cite them in showing how far the region has come in accepting Israel is great, especially for those seeking to enhance the reputations of President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, both of whom are arguably at the nadir of their political lives.
In truth, the Khartoum resolution was the beginning of the end of the eliminationist dimension of the Arab-Israeli conflict, not the peak. Israel’s decisive victory shattered Arab confidence that it could militarily displace Israel, a reality key leaders at Khartoum were well aware of. Though the political legacy of the conference is clouded by the residual rejectionism of the Three Noes, Arab leaders at Khartoum were focused on regaining territory they had lost in the war.
Indeed, misreading the intentions of Arab states at the time, in a similarly blithe manner as some are today, is what arguably led to Israel’s single biggest strategic failure in 1973. It is disconcerting to see this reemerge, and it’s far from harmless fluffery.
Before contemplating what transpired at Khartoum, the magnitude of the humiliation experienced by the Arab states – especially Egypt and Jordan – must be appreciated. Egypt’s revolutionary president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, far from uniting the Arab world in “liberating” Palestine, had lost the Sinai peninsula and nearly his entire air force. Jordan, whose monarch had already established a rapport with Israeli officials and harbored no illusions about destroying the Jewish state, had lost the West Bank, which then triggered a wave of Palestinian refugees entering the now diminished kingdom.
In the aftermath of the war, Nasser carried a great deal of blame on his shoulders. It had not been Jordan’s preference to embark on the war; it did so in support of Egypt and, in part, on false intelligence from Cairo suggesting that the Arab forces were winning the war. Following the catastrophic defeat at the hands of Israel, Nasser’s relationship with Jordan’s Hussein, who had been denounced on Radio Cairo for years as a lackey of the Americans if not the Israelis, changed dramatically. Nasser did not give up on the possibility of reclaiming Sinai by force, as demonstrated in the War of Attrition between 1967 and 1970, but the focus was now on recovering lost Egyptian and Jordanian land and not removing Israel from the map. Israel’s war victory and its strengthened alliance with Washington effectively put an end to those ambitions.
Not all the participants at the September 1, 1967, meeting in Khartoum went along with Nasser and Hussein’s relatively moderate position. Algeria, still in the grips of its successful anticolonial struggle against France, backed the maximalist Palestinian position. As did Syria. The resulting resolution was a product of these divisions.
Hints toward eventual Arab acceptance of Israel can be found in the Khartoum resolution itself – in fact, in the very clause that contains the Three Noes. It is here where the political and territorial intentions are stated:
“The Arab Heads of State have agreed to unite their political efforts at the international and diplomatic level to eliminate the effects of the aggression and to ensure the withdrawal of the aggressive Israeli forces from the Arab lands which have been occupied since the aggression of June 5.”
The resolution speaks of political and diplomatic efforts toward the June 5 occupation of Arab lands. Omitted entirely from the resolution is any mention of the Palestinian claim to Israel. This was no accident and reflected the Jordanian and Egyptian priorities. The newly independent PLO, sensing abandonment by Arab states more focused on making up their losses, refused to sign the resolution.
Certainly, a desire to reclaim lost land should not be confused for a willingness to normalize relations with Israel. No Arab state at the time was seriously contemplating this. But it was not long before the first would, and the Khartoum resolution was part of the step down from the old eliminationist fantasies. Shlomo Ben-Ami, the historian and former Israeli foreign minister, has written that this “most surprising and encouraging legacy of Khartoum…could therefore be implicitly interpreted as an oblique recognition of the borders of 1948.”
What, if any, political significance does the tale of Khartoum have for today in the era of normalization?
If Israel’s mistake in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was to overestimate or even purposely exaggerate the extent of Arab rejectionism, leading to the misreading of Egyptian intentions prior to the Yom Kippur War, today it is a Panglossian naivete that these agreements mark a permanent end to Arab backing for the Palestinian cause. They are valuable and worthy agreements between governments, but normalization with Israel remains enormously unpopular with Arab publics. This need not spell doom for the agreements – the Camp David Accords survived a year of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt – but Israel should not assume that it can ignore the political aspirations of Palestinians forever without reaction from its new Arab allies.
Abe Silberstein is a second-year MPA candidate at NYU Wagner specializing in international development policy and management. He is a freelance writer on Israeli politics and U.S.-Israel relations. His work has previously appeared in the New York Times, Ha’aretz, The Tel Aviv Review of Books, and The Forward.