After the exhilaration of the victory in the Six Day War, Israelis became increasingly dispirited in the early '70s. The growing level of terrorism, combined with increasingly ominous threats from Egypt, made peace seem farther away than ever.
Israel's patron was having its own problems. Richard Nixon was consumed with Vietnam, concerns with China and the Soviet Union, and the beginning of the Watergate scandal.
Meanwhile, rather than reconciling themselves to Israel's existence, the Arab states looked for a way to avenge the humiliation of their defeat. The Soviet Union was doing its share to stoke the flames of war by pouring arms into the region. And the Arab states in the Persian Gulf were beginning to take greater control of their oil resources and use the revenues to flex their political muscle.
Sadat Cries Wolf
In 1971, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat raised the possibility of signing an agreement with Israel, provided that all the occupied territories captured by the Israelis were returned. No progress toward peace was made, however, so the following year, Sadat said war was inevitable, and he was prepared to sacrifice 1 million soldiers in a showdown with Israel. His threat did not materialize that year.
Throughout 1972 and for much of 1973, Sadat threatened war unless the United States forced Israel to accept his interpretation of Resolution 242 – total Israeli withdrawal from territories taken in 1967.
Simultaneously, Sadat carried on a diplomatic offensive among European and African states to win support for his cause. He appealed to the Soviets to bring pressure on the United States and to provide Egypt with more offensive weapons. The Soviet Union was more interested in maintaining the appearance of détente with the United States than in a confrontation in the Middle East; therefore, it rejected Sadat's demands. Sadat's response was to abruptly expel approximately 20,000 Soviet advisers from Egypt.
In an April 1973 interview, Sadat again warned that he would renew the war with Israel. But it was the same threat he had made in 1971 and 1972, and most observers remained skeptical. In fact, almost up to the start of the shooting, no one expected a war. Had U.S. intelligence realized at the beginning of October 1973 that the Arabs were about to attack, Nixon might have been able to prevent the war through diplomacy or threats.
Golda's Fateful Decision
Despite the conventional wisdom that Israel was surprised by the attack that did eventually come, the truth is that the Israelis began to prepare for battle on October 5. But like U.S. intelligence officials, Israeli analysts were skeptical about the threat of war.
At 5:00 a.m., General David Elazar, the chief of staff, first recommended a full, immediate mobilization of forces and a preemptive air strike. He was overruled. A few hours later, a partial call-up of reserves was approved, but Prime Minister Golda Meir still refused to authorize Elazar to take military action. She advised the U.S. ambassador of the situation and asked him to pass on the message that the Arabs should be restrained. U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger subsequently appealed to Sadat and Syrian President Hafez Assad not to do anything precipitously. He also cautioned Golda Meir not to shoot first.
Meir found herself in a nearly impossible position. The intelligence community had not given her sufficient warning of the impending attack to adequately prepare the nation for war. Still, Israel's chances for victory and minimizing casualties could be greatly enhanced by a preemptive strike and the rapid mobilization of the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces. She feared, however, that striking first, as Israel had done in 1967, might so anger the United States that Nixon would not support Israel's prosecution of the war or policies afterward and, unlike 1967, she did not feel Israel could afford to go it alone.
On October 6, 1973 – Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar (and during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan) – Egypt and Syria opened a coordinated surprise attack against Israel. The equivalent of the total forces of NATO in Europe was mobilized on Israel's borders. On the Golan Heights, approximately 180 Israeli tanks faced an onslaught of 1,400 Syrian tanks. Along the Suez Canal, fewer than 500 Israeli defenders with only three tanks were attacked by 600,000 Egyptian soldiers, backed by 2,000 tanks and 550 aircraft.
500 Israelis with three tanks were attacked by 600,000 Egyptian soldiers, 2,000 tanks and 550 aircraft.
At least nine Arab states, including four non-Middle Eastern nations (Libya, Sudan, Algeria, and Morocco), actively aided the Egyptian-Syrian war effort. A few months before the Yom Kippur War, Iraq transferred a squadron of Hunter jets to Egypt. During the war, an Iraqi division of some 18,000 men and several hundred tanks was deployed in the central Golan and participated in the October 16 attack against Israeli positions. Iraqi MiGs began operating over the Golan Heights as early as October 8, the third day of the war.
Besides serving as financial underwriters, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait committed men to battle. A Saudi brigade of approximately 3,000 troops was dispatched to Syria, where it participated in fighting along the approaches to Damascus. Also, violating Paris' ban on the transfer of French-made weapons, Libya sent Mirage fighters to Egypt. (From 1971 to 1973, Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi gave Cairo more than $1 billion in aid to re-arm Egypt and to pay the Soviets for weapons delivered.)
Other North African countries responded to Arab and Soviet calls to aid the front-line states. Algeria sent three aircraft squadrons of fighters and bombers, an armored brigade, and 150 tanks. Approximately 1,000-2,000 Tunisian soldiers were positioned in the Nile Delta. Sudan stationed 3,500 troops in southern Egypt, and Morocco sent three brigades to the front lines, including 2,500 men to Syria.
Lebanese radar units were used by Syrian air defense forces. Lebanon also allowed Palestinian terrorists to shell Israeli civilian settlements from its territory. Palestinians fought on the Southern Front with the Egyptians and Kuwaitis.
The least enthusiastic Arab participant in the October fighting was Jordan's King Hussein, who apparently hadn't been informed of Egyptian and Syrian war plans. He chose not to fight this round, correctly calculating that his forces were vastly inferior to the Israelis'. Hussein's decision was crucial to Israel's defense because it freed up forces that would otherwise have had to fight on a third front.
Still, Arab brotherhood required that Hussein contribute to the cause, so he sent two of his best units – the 40th and 60th Armored Brigades – to Syria. This force took positions in the southern sector, defending the main Amman-Damascus route and attacking Israeli positions along the Kuneitra-Sassa road on October 16. Three Jordanian artillery batteries also participated in the assault, carried out by nearly 100 tanks.
The Oil Weapon
During the October war, the Arab oil-producing states imposed an embargo on oil exports to the United States, Portugal, and Holland because of their support for Israel. The impact was to cause a shortage of petroleum in the United States and a quadrupling of gas prices. Americans soon became used to long lines at gas stations.
Several U.S. oil companies that got most of their petroleum supplies from the Middle East and depended on the goodwill of the Arab states to maintain their business relations in the region, collaborated in the embargo against their own nation. Oil company executives lobbied the Nixon Administration to offer more support to the Arabs and less to Israel. They, along with State Department Arabists, hoped to convince the public that Israel was to blame for the U.S.'s economic hardships and that it was far more important for the United States to ally itself with the Arab states than with Israel.
Though Nixon consistently denied it, U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict before, during, and after the war was clearly related to the oil question. The United States unquestionably had more leverage over Israel than it did over the Arab states. Consequently, officials believed that forcing the Israelis to make concessions would ease the pressure applied by the Arab oil producers.
After the war, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates pledged billions of dollars in economic and military aid to the frontline parties in the conflict with Israel – Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and the PLO. The oil producers, particularly Saudi Arabia, went on their own arms-buying binge; the Saudis purchased some of America's most sophisticated weapons, over the objections of the Israeli lobby.
The oil embargo was lifted in March 1974, but the United States and other western nations continued to feel its effects for years to come. OPEC dictated oil prices by turning the petroleum spigot on and off. Divisions within the organization over price and production quotas, conservation measures, and the discovery of new oil supplies (particularly outside the Middle East), however, contributed to the weakening of OPEC. By the early 1980s, its economic and political influence had been blunted.
The IDF Comeback
Thrown onto the defensive during the first two days of fighting, Israel mobilized its reserves and began to counterattack. In the south, Israeli forces were having little success in stopping the Egyptian onslaught. Still, the Sinai Desert offered a large buffer zone between the fighting and the heart of Israel.
The situation was different in the north, where the Syrians had swept across the Golan and could, in short order, threaten Israel's population centers. Consequently, most reserves meant for the Egyptian front were shifted to the Golan. The replenished Israeli forces stopped the Syrian advance, forced a retreat, and began their own march forward toward Damascus.
The Soviets gave their wholehearted political support to the Arab invasion. Starting as early as October 9, they also began a massive airlift of weapons, which ultimately totaled 8,000 tons of materiel. The United States had given Israel some ammunition and spare parts, but it resisted Israeli requests for greater assistance.
As the Soviets continued to pour weapons into the region, Kissinger decided that the United States could not afford to allow the Soviet Union's allies to win the war.
The Secretary of State wanted to show the Arabs they could never defeat Israel with the backing of the Soviets. He also couldn't afford to let the U.S.'s adversaries win a victory over a U.S. ally. By sending arms to Israel, the United States could insure an Israeli victory, hand the Soviets a defeat, and provide Washington with the leverage to influence a postwar settlement.
On October 12, Nixon ordered an emergency airlift to Israel. Cargo planes carrying spare parts, tanks, bombs, and helicopters flew round-the-clock to Israel via bases in the Azores. Between October 14 and November 14, 22,000 tons of equipment were transported to Israel by air and sea. The airlift alone involved 566 flights. To pay for this infusion of weapons, Nixon asked Congress for and received $2.2 billion in emergency aid for Israel.
View From Egypt
In the greatest tank battle since the Germans and Russians fought at Kursk in World War Two, roughly 1,000 Israeli and Egyptian tanks massed in the western Sinai, October 12-14. On the 14th, Israeli forces destroyed 250 Egyptian tanks in the first two hours of fighting. By the late afternoon, the Israeli forces had routed the enemy, accomplishing a feat equal to Montgomery's victory over Rommel in World War Two.
Meanwhile, Israeli general Ariel Sharon had been chomping at the bit to cross the Suez Canal but had been ordered not to do so until after the main Egyptian force had been defeated in the Sinai. Once that was done, Israeli paratroopers snuck across the Canal and established a bridgehead. By October 18, Israeli forces were marching with little opposition toward Cairo. For the Israelis, the crossing was a great psychological boost, but it was a humiliation for the Egyptians.
About the same time, Israeli troops were on the outskirts of Damascus, easily within artillery range of the Syrian capital. Prime Minister Golda Meir did not want to attack Damascus, so the IDF stopped its advance and focused its activities on recapturing Mount Hermon, the highest peak in the region and a key Israeli radar and observation post that had fallen to the Syrians early in the fighting. On October 22, Israel once again controlled the Golan Heights.
Brink of Nuclear War
As Israeli troops began to advance on Damascus, the Soviets started to panic. On October 12, the Soviet ambassador informed Kissinger that his government was placing troops on alert to defend Damascus. The situation grew even more tense over the next two weeks, as Israeli forces reversed the initial Egyptian gains in the Sinai and began to threaten Cairo. The Egyptian Third Army was surrounded, and Israel would not allow the Red Cross to bring in supplies. At this point, Sadat began to seek Soviet help in pressing Israel to accept a cease-fire.
On October 24, the Soviets threatened to intervene in the fighting. The American CIA, reported that the Soviet airlift to Egypt had stopped and that it was possible the planes were being prepared to change the cargo from weapons to troops.
The United States was in the midst of the political upheaval of the Watergate scandal, and now this domestic crisis was compounded by an international one. Responding to the Soviet threat, Nixon put the U.S. military on alert, increasing its readiness for deployment of conventional and nuclear forces.
Some people believed Nixon was trying to divert attention from his political problems at home, but the danger of a U.S.-Soviet conflict was real. In fact, this was probably the closest the superpowers ever came to a nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Fortunately for everyone, the Soviets backed down and never sent troops to fight. The United States also pressured Israel to allow the Red Cross to bring supplies to Egypt's Third Army.
Saving The Losers
The Soviet Union showed no interest in initiating peacemaking efforts, so long as it looked like the Arabs might win. The same was true for UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim. Once the situation on the battlefield changed in Israel's favor, however, desperate calls were made for the fighting to end.
On October 22, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 338 calling for "all parties to the present fighting to cease all firing and terminate all military activity immediately." The resolution also called for the implementation of Resolution 242. The vote came on the day that Israeli forces cut off and isolated the Egyptian Third Army and were in a position to destroy it.
Israel reluctantly complied with the cease-fire, largely because of U.S. pressure, but also because the next military moves would have been to attack the two Arab capitals, something few believed would be politically wise. Despite the Israel Defense Force's ultimate success on the battlefield, the war was considered a diplomatic and intelligence failure.
By the end of the fighting, 2,688 Israeli soldiers had been killed. Combat deaths for Egypt and Syria totaled 7,700 and 3,500, respectively.
Disengagement Has a Ring to It
Ironically, the United States had helped save Israel by its resupply effort – and then rescued Egypt by forcing Israel to accept the cease-fire. Henry Kissinger had used U.S. power and diplomacy to try to bring about a war result that would allow Egyptians to erase the stain of 1967 without allowing them to win or Israel to humiliate them again.
In January 1974, Israel and Egypt negotiated a disengagement agreement thanks to Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy. The Sinai-1 accord allowed the Egyptians to retain control of the Suez Canal, freed the Third Army, and drew a cease-fire line on the east side of the canal, with a buffer zone between the two forces.
A second disengagement agreement (Sinai-2) was signed in September 1975, which called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from two strategic passes in the Sinai and some surrounding territory. The Egyptians were not allowed back into this neutral zone; instead, U.S. peacekeepers were deployed to monitor the area.
Syria Fronts the Rejectionists
The negotiations with the Syrians were more tortuous. It was not until May 1974 that a separation of forces agreement was signed that created a UN-policed buffer zone, a reduction in troop deployment, and the return of the town of Kuneitra to Syria. And that came only after a renewal of fighting in March. Syria fired artillery at Israeli positions between March and May, during which 37 more Israeli soldiers were killed.
When the Syrians returned to Kuneitra, they found it was in ruins and accused Israel of destroying the town. In fact, Kuneitra was severely damaged in both the 1967 and 1973 conflicts. Its strategic position near the Israeli border proved suitable for the location of Syrian army facilities. Military installations, barracks, support centers, fuel, and ammunition dumps were constructed.
In 1973, the town was shelled and captured by Syrian troops, retaken by the Israelis, and then defended against intense Syrian counterattacks. Tanks roamed through the town, between and through buildings. Kuneitra also suffered damage from 81 days of artillery duels that preceded the disengagement.
The United States rewarded Syria for the agreement with a modest grant of financial assistance – the first in 30 years – in hopes of building a new relationship with the regime of Hafez Assad and encouraging him to negotiate a peace agreement. As Nixon's successors would also discover, Assad was happy to take whatever the United States was willing to offer, but he gave nothing in return. Rather than join the peace process, Assad became one of the leaders of the rejectionist front.
Assad was also determined to impede Israel-Egyptian negotiations. He feared that an agreement between them would reduce Egypt's willingness to fight for the Arab cause, and that Sadat would accept a separate deal with Israel that would not address Syrian grievances.
To this day, Syria has shown inconsequential movement toward conciliation with Israel, or the West.
Excerpted with permission from: "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Middle East Conflict," by Mitchell Bard, Ph.D. (Alpha Books – Macmillan USA)