The difficult war that brought peace: The Yom Kippur War of October 1973

By Gideon

On October 6, 1973, hoping to win back territory lost to Israel during the third Arab-Israeli war, in 1967, Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a coordinated attack against Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Taking the Israeli Defense Forces by surprise, on the first days of the war, Egyptian troops overcame the thin Israeli defense line along the eastern bank of the Suez Canal and took control of both banks of the Suez Canal. Syrian troops captured significant portions of the Golan Heights and were on the verge of capturing the Israeli Galilee region. From the Israeli point of view the situation seemed beyond hope. Israel needed a miracle in order to survive:

The Israeli army (IDF) was on its heels, attempting to stop the overwhelming opposing forces. Early mistakes by the IDF’s High Command were offset by individual acts of bravery of  low ranking soldiers and junior officers, who knew that a defeat meant a total destruction of Israel. Eventually, while suffering heavy casualties, Israel gained control and counterattacked. It recaptured the Golan Heights and circled the Egyptian army; capturing Egyptian territories on the western bank of the Suez Canal. When the war ended, Israeli forces were 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Damascus, the Syrian capital , and  100 kilometers (62 miles) from Cairo, the Egyptian capital.

When the war began on October 6, 1973, many of Israel’s soldiers were away from their posts observing Yom Kippur (or Day of Atonement), and the Arab armies made impressive advances with their up-to-date Soviet weaponry. Iraqi forces soon joined the war, and Syria received support from Jordan. After several days, Israel was fully mobilized, and the Israeli Defense Forces began beating back the Arab gains at a heavy cost to soldiers and equipment. A U.S. airlift of arms aided Israel’s cause. An Egyptian-Israeli cease-fire was secured by the United Nations.

The adverse initial circumstances, the speed and the thoroughness with which the IDF had been able to reverse its fortunes was remarkable. Yet the Yom Kippur War went down in Israel’s history as a qualified failure. The cost was heavy: 2,688 soldiers fell. Intelligence was faulted for failing to sound the alarm in time – the Chief of Staff, David (Dado) Elazar and his Chief of Intelligence had to resign.  Israelis criticized the government’s lack of preparedness. In April 1974, the nation’s prime minister, Golda Meir, stepped down.

Key Israeli Decision Makers During the War

Golda Meir

Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir was blamed for the country’s near defeat in the Yom Kippur War, but was she the one responsible? Secret government files reveal that while the war hero Moshe Dayan considered surrender, it was Golda who pulled victory. (Sunday Times 06/22/08) President Anwar Sadat did not hide his intention to fight Israel. He warned his people that “a showdown with Israel was inevitable and that he was prepared to ‘sacrifice a million men’ in the forthcoming war.” (Sachar, 747) Sadat laid the groundwork for a confrontation with Israel. He contacted Assad in Syria and proposed a joint military action against Israel; with the support of the Soviets they planned on starting a war in two fronts. 

Although the Israeli military intelligence service collected ominous evidence that the Arabs are planning an attack “its chief Major General, Eli Zeira, had continued to insist there was ‘low probability’ of war breaking out almost to the moment shooting began.” (Sunday Times, 06/22/08) Faced with overwhelming evidence on the eve of Yom Kippur (October 5), the general staff agreed to declare a “C” alert. (Sachar, 754) On October 6 at 4:00 am, “Israeli and American monitors had intercepted the unmistakable radio signals of final Arab war preparations.” (Sachar, 754) David Elazar, the IDF chief of staff, urged Dayan the day before and now Golda, to authorize a repeat of the devastating preemptive air strikes that destroyed the Egyptian air force on the ground during the first hours of the Six Days War. Again, he was overruled. Golda reluctantly took Dayan’s side, saying: “There is always a possibility we will need someone’s help, and if we strike first, nobody is going to help. I wish I could say yes because I know the meaning of it but, with a heavy heart, I say no.” (Sunday Times, 06/22/08) Elazar pressed for a total call-up of the reserves (2/3 of the IDF). Dayan did not believe that Egypt and Syria were capable of launching an audacious joint offensive. He argued that even limited mobilization will prove unnecessarily costly. Golda sided with Elazar saying if it came to war, it was “better to be in proper shape to deal with it, even if the world gets angry with us.” (Sunday Times 06/22/08) Dayan accepted her ruling.

The Nixson’s administration informed Golda that the US opposed a preemptive attack, and Golda assured that it wouldn’t happen but left no doubt that Israel expected swift and substantial arms shipment from the US in the event that war should break out.

Utterly unprepared, with too few soldiers guarding the borders (it took more than 24 hours for all the men to reach their units), Israel faced destruction as Arab tanks crushed its defenses and advanced toward civilian population centers. Dayan informed the northern front that Syrian advance could not be halted and he advocated abandoning the Golan and establishing a new defensive line beyond the Jordan River after blowing up the bridges across it. He confessed to Golda that he had been “wrong about everything” and warned her that Israel is facing a catastrophe. She rejected his offer to resign in order not to increase the public’s panic. Golda prepared for the worse – 13 nuclear bombs were strapped to phantom jets in case Israel faced defeat. (Sunday Times 06/22/08)

After she was briefed by Elazar and with the reserve units on their way to the front lines, things became more manageable. Dayan argued that Israel should pull back from the Suez to the more defensible Sinai desert, but the ministers reaffirmed Golda’s faith in Elazar. Dayan was to appear on TV and was planning to tell the public that Israel is being defeated, but Golda was informed and vetoed his appearance.

The tide of battle was slowly turning in Israel’ Favor; the Syrians were pushed back on the Golan Heights and Egypt’s swift advance from the Suez Canal was finally stalled. Golda contacted Nixon directly and reminded him that she had vetoed preemptive strike that would have saved many Israeli lives. Within days the supplies to guarantee Israel’s survival were arriving. A final push in the Sinai driven back the Egyptians and Golda gave the order to cross the canal. As 40,000 soldiers of Sadat’s Third Army were surrounded by Israeli forces, Golda was pressured by Washington to agree to an immediate ceasefire.

In February 1974 Motti Ashkenazi, an infantry captain who repeatedly warned superiors about enemy preparations for an attack across the Suez waterways and was ignored, stood outside Golda’s office with a placard saying “Grandma, your defense is a failure and 3,000 of you children are dead.” (Sunday Times, 06/22/08) Ashkenazi laid the blame on the nation’s political and military elite, arguing that only the courage and motivation of junior officers and the soldiers on the front lines had saved the day. Other reservists joined him. One held banner reading “My son didn’t die in battle. He was murdered – and the murderers sit in the defense ministry.” (Sunday Times, 06/22/08)

Under growing pressure from an angry public, Golda appointed an independent commission to investigate the conduct of the war. The Agranat Commission report cleared her and Moshe Dayan from any blame for the intelligence and operational failures, while recommending the dismissal of Lt. General David Elazar and head of the military intelligence, Eli Zeira. Elazar was shattered by the “betrayal” and resigned. Golda led the labor party to victory in December 1973, but just over 3 months later, she resigned feeling it was the “will of the people”, haunted by the thought that she should have authorized the preemptive strike before the war began.

David Elazar

“Chief of General Staff David Elazar was forced out of the army in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War because of failed decisions leading up to it, but his performance during the fighting was exemplary, and crucial to Israel’s ultimate success… In subsequent years, documents and the testimony of principal players would reveal Elazar as the anchor who held Israel together in its darkest hour. He would prove to have been Israel’s greatest wartime chief of staff, indeed someone who merits a prominent place in the pantheon of military commanders in modern world history. His merit lay not in brilliant maneuvers but in keeping his head in a time of extraordinary stress and in his ability to analyze with clarity a rapidly evolving military and political situation and shape appropriate responses…

Elazar was wakened at 4:30 Yom Kippur morning 1973, a Saturday, by a telephone call from an aide passing on a report from Mossad chief Zvi Zamir in London that Egypt and Syria would launch a surprise two-front attack this day. There was no one better positioned than Elazar to grasp the staggering significance of this report. Both Arab armies, he knew, were massed on Israel’s borders while Israel’s reserves, two-thirds of the IDF’s strength, were still unmobilized. It would be at least two days before reserve forces could begin to reach the Suez Canal, by which time the Egyptians would have brought an entire army across. The Golan front was closer but it was questionable whether reserves could arrive before five Syrians divisions broke through the two brigades holding the line.

Despite the alarming situation, Elazar functioned as if he had woken into a General Staff command exercise. His wife would describe his look as “almost ceremonial” as he donned his uniform. Before leaving home for the underground war room – the “pit” – in Tel Aviv, he telephoned Air Force commander Maj.-Gen. Benny Peled to ask him to prepare a pre-emptive strike against the Syrians.

Elazar’s first meeting in Tel Aviv was with Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, who shocked him by rejecting his proposals for immediate large-scale mobilization and a pre-emptive air strike. Despite the Mossad warning, Dayan was not convinced the Arabs would attack. There had been such warnings before which turned out to be false alarms. The world would not tolerate another pre-emptive strike by Israel, he maintained, after it had launched one in the Six Day War. Even a large mobilization, he argued, would be seen as a provocation. He was willing to accept mobilization of only two divisions, one for each front.

The issue was left to Prime Minister Golda Meir to decide. She backed Dayan in negating a pre-emptive air strike (cloud conditions over the Golan Heights, it later developed, would have prevented it anyway) but backed Elazar on mobilization, which got under way a critical four hours before the Arab attack that afternoon.

The Syrians had overrun much of the southern half of the Golan and there was nothing to stop them from descending into the Jordan Valley inside Israel. The Egyptians had overwhelmed the Bar-Lev Line and were putting their Second and Third armies into Sinai across pontoon bridges. Apart from the shock of the surprise attack and the gross imbalance of forces, a chilling realization was taking hold in the high command that the IDF’s two main fighting arms had been neutralized by advanced Soviet weapons in Arab hands. The air force was taking unsustainable losses from SAM anti-aircraft missiles on both fronts while on the Egyptian front infantrymen wielding Sagger anti-tank missiles and a profusion of RPGs had knocked out two-thirds of an Israeli armored division in 12 hours.

The Golan was the more serious problem because of its proximity to Israel. On Sunday morning, Elazar, in one of his first major decisions, dispatched a reserve armored division initially destined for Sinai to the Golan instead. He also sent his boyhood friend and predecessor as chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. (res.) Haim Bar-Lev, to Northern Command to steady its head, Maj.-Gen. Yitzhak Hofi, who was questioning whether the Golan could be held.

On Sunday night, the second of the war, Elazar flew to Southern Command to meet with its commander, Maj.-Gen. Shmuel Gonen, and the commanders of the two reserve divisions which had begun to arrive at the front – Ariel Sharon and Avraham (Bren) Adan. Elazar ordered a limited counterattack the next morning, Monday, aimed at breaking the Egyptian momentum. However, in view of the heavy losses suffered so far, he said, there would be no attempt to retake the canal bank or to cross the canal until adequate strength had been built up.

Elazar was devoting much of his time to briefing the cabinet because Dayan had been seized by despair and Meir preferred consulting with the chief of staff whom she would describe as “a rock.” Tied up in cabinet meetings Monday morning and distracted by the dire situation on the Golan, Elazar followed the counterattack in Sinai only intermittently. It was not until he flew down there again Monday night that he learned of its total failure. Gonen had ignored Elazar’s directives and instead of stopping the Egyptians his forces had been driven back with significant losses.

The mood in the Pit the following morning, Tuesday, was black. Dayan spoke of arming civilians in the heart of the country with anti-tank weapons in the event that the enemy broke through. There was a proposal at a conference in Elazar’s office that Israel resort to “special means,” believed to be a euphemism for unconventional weapons, but Elazar rejected it. Maintaining his equilibrium, he declined a suggestion by Dayan for a deep pullback in Sinai, which Elazar deemed premature, and he rejected a request by Ariel Sharon to try to rescue the beleaguered garrisons on the Bar-Lev Line which Elazar deemed too costly.

Dayan would acknowledge that Elazar was more optimistic than he was. “Maybe it’s the age difference,” said Dayan who, at 58, was 10 years older than the chief of staff. Aligning his priorities, Elazar replaced Gonen with Bar-Lev as commander of the southern front and froze military movements in Sinai in order to focus on the Golan. By Wednesday, reserve formations in the north had pushed the Syrians back in fierce battles to the pre-war Purple Line.

A decision now had to be made as to whether to dig in along that line again or to push towards Damascus. As he would do at critical points throughout the war, Elazar launched a discussion within the General Staff and in the cabinet in which he talked his way through the problem, absorbed feedback, and arrived at conclusions which were often the opposite of his starting point. At the beginning of nine hours of talks, he advocated halting the forces on the Purple Line – the best defense line between the Golan and Damascus – and sending a division south to participate in a renewed attack in Sinai. At the end of the discussion, he favored continuing the attack into Syria. The decisive consideration was the desire to hold a stretch of enemy territory when the war ended.

With talk of a cease-fire already being wafted in the UN, it did not seem likely that Israel would have the time to drive the Egyptians out of Sinai, let alone seize territory across the canal. More tellingly, it was not clear whether Israel had the strength to do it even if time allowed. But territorial gain was possible on the Syrian front. Bowing to reality, Elazar was prepared to accept a cease-fire which would leave the Egyptians still holding the Sinai bank of the canal, thereby conceding a clear victory for Cairo. “I’m only thinking out loud and it may well be that I exaggerate,” he said to Dayan. “Things won’t get any better than they are now. Therefore we need a cease-fire so that we can rebuild the army.” This army would be twice as big and it would have thought through the strategic and tactical implications of the current war.

The problem was that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was in no mood for a cease-fire. The war had been going better than he could have hoped for and it would require a dramatic move to make him change his mind. The only such move possible would be crossing the Suez Canal, a pre-war contingency plan which Sharon was pushing for but which Elazar had until now regarded as too risky. Even if Israel succeeded in piercing the eight-kilometer-deep Egyptian bridgehead in Sinai and getting forces across the canal, it would have dangerously thin, extended lines on both sides of the canal vulnerable to a war of attrition. “I would be happy, and you don’t know how happy, if you have any better ideas,” he told his officers. Sharon, delighted at the prospect, pushed for an immediate crossing but Elazar insisted on waiting to see if the Egyptian armored divisions on the west bank of the canal would cross into Sinai. Better to meet them in head-on battle on the Israeli side of the canal than to have them challenge the crossing itself when the Israelis would be at their most vulnerable.

Dayan, who opposed a canal crossing, absented himself from the discussions, leaving behind his aide. Angry at what he took to be the defense minister’s evasiveness, Elazar told the aide to inform Dayan that he was requesting a meeting of the inner cabinet. “I want clearance from the political echelon today.” The meeting was just getting under way in Golda Meir’s office a few hours later when Mossad chief Zamir entered with a report from an agent that the Egyptian armored divisions would cross within the next 48 hours. The battle that would open the way for a canal crossing would soon be joined.

It was not until Tuesday afternoon, 83 hours after being wakened by the telephone on Yom Kippur morning, that he lay down on an office cot. It was his first nap of the war except for occasionally nodding off on helicopter trips to the fronts. Two nights later, after another briefing to the cabinet and before another flight to the front, he was leafing through a pile of papers on his desk when he almost fainted. Aides rushed to him and brought him something to drink. No pills, he said. He could not afford to have his mind clouded, even temporarily.

After Dayan recovered from his depression he was a valuable sounding board for Elazar but the chief of staff had come to trust his own instincts. Dayan, who had ample opportunity to observe Elazar close up, generally deferred to him. So did Golda Meir. He himself had few people he could rely on besides Bar-Lev on the southern front. Elazar’s deputy, Yisrael Tal, would not figure large in his calculations. He had replaced Gonen as head of Southern Command in the midst of the war and found it necessary to shore up the head of Northern Command with , Hofi, with a deputy, Maj.-Gen. Yekutiel Adam, after Bar-Lev was transferred south.

Elazar’s one unalloyed comfort was his visits with the troops at the front. “Whoever feels depressed in these dark corridors,” he told the officers in the Pit upon returning from Sinai on the eve of the canal crossing, “should go into the field and see the boys. You’ll come back in a grand mood. We’re eight days into the war but when you meet the tankers they talk as if this were the third year of World War II. They’re on top of things. They know what the Egyptians are up to and they have an answer for everything. The best of our people are down there.”

Elazar’s last major decision in the war was to have far-reaching political ramifications. After the epic battle for the Chinese Farm by Sharon’s division that opened the way to the canal and the construction of a pontoon bridge, Bren led his division across the canal and with great panache began to encircle Egypt’s Third Army to the south. However, Elazar’s wish for a cease-fire was granted too readily by Egypt’s alarmed leader, Anwar Sadat.

A UN cease-fire resolution went into effect just after darkness on the 18th day of the war before Bren’s tank formations could complete the encirclement. In the morning, Bren pressed Elazar to let him continue, claiming that the Egyptians were violating the cease-fire – with not a little help, it must be said, from the Israeli forces in among them. Elazar did not need much pressing. He asked permission of Dayan and by the time fighting in Bren’s sector stopped two days later the Third Army was cut off.

It was this, plus the skillful diplomacy of US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, which persuaded Sadat to agree to the first ever direct Egyptian-Israeli talks. Six years later, the two nations, never having stopped talking, would sign a peace agreement. Towards the end of the war, Kissinger stopped over briefly in Tel Aviv on his way back from Moscow to the US and met with Israel’s leaders. He also asked for a meeting with the military chiefs. Elazar told him that the Egyptian and Syrian armies had fought well. When Kissinger asked to what he attributed the IDF’s success, Elazar said that a wide gap remained between Israel and the Arab armies in leadership and the quality of the fighting men.

Kissinger would write of Elazar in his memoirs: “(He) struck me as a man of rare quality, noble in bearing, fatalistic in conduct. He briefed us matter-of-factly but with the attitude of a man for whom the frenzies of the day were already part of history.”

History would need some years more before Elazar’s role would be properly appreciated. The ruling of the Agranat Commission had been harsh but just. Elazar had not mobilized the reserves in time. He had accepted, albeit with growing discomfort, the assessment of his intelligence chief, Maj.-Gen. Eli Zeira, that despite the Arab buildup along the borders, Egypt and Syria would not go to war. Elazar had also been responsible for a major strategic miscalculation upon assuming his position the year before when he insisted on maintaining the Bar-Lev Line on the canal despite warnings by Sharon and Tal that it was a death trap.

However, during the war itself he displayed a coolness and clarity of thought that are the marks of greatness in a military commander. He had first revealed such characteristics as a young Palmah officer during the battle for the San Simon Monastery in Jerusalem during the War of Independence. He and a small number of comrades, including other future generals, fought for 16 hours against hundreds of Arab militiamen. “He had a special tone of voice,” recalled one of the participants in the battle who had not known him before, “quiet-like, as if he were singing, as if he were having a friendly chat or explaining something. I remember saying to myself then: ‘What a character that one is.’”

Elazar’s biographer, Hanoch Bartov, describes him shortly after the cease-fire entering his secretaries’ office to look for a document. A transistor was playing a new song sweeping the country, “Would that it were,” a poignant work about the war. Elazar stood transfixed, then hurried back to his office without taking the document. His chief secretary hurried after him. When she opened the door to his office, she saw the man who had not permitted himself to waver for a moment during the war sitting at his desk, holding his head and sobbing.

Moshe Dayan

“…The Yom Kippur War, the breaking point for Israeli society, caught even Dayan off guard. It is difficult to isolate his part in the failures of the war, but it is clear that he was one of those chiefly responsible for the disaster. His greatest tragedy is most likely the fact that the Agranat commission absolved him of any responsibility, and allowed him to continue in a position others were made to resign from in similar circumstances.

On the night between the 5th and 6th of October 1973, the phone rang at the house of Transportation Minister Shimon Peres. Dayan was on the other line asking to meet with Peres urgently. Dayan told Peres that both Golda Meir and Chief of Staff David Eliezer (“Dado”) believe that a general draft should be announced, though Dayan himself had reservations. He claimed that the draft would take 48 hours, during which time Egypt and Syria might consider the announcement as Israeli aggression and start the war claiming Israel had in fact started it. Dayan’s solution was a discreet reserve draft for the first day. Meanwhile in the field, soldiers were called back from leave. Both agreed it was the right thing to do.

This story is a lesson in the refutability of the facts from that day in October, and that war in general. The widespread claim is that Dayan was against a general draft and remained complacent to the last minute – it also says something about Dayan’s loneliness. Peres was very faithful to Dayan, and their relationship had always been strong, though it is hard to understand why Dayan needed Peres’s support in particular at that critical time.

General (res.) Avraham “Bren” Adan, Commander of the 162nd Division which crossed the Suez Canal in the Yom Kippur War, knew Dayan from the 1948 War of Independence and served as his operations officer in the early 1950s when Dayan was Southern Command chief. “I got the impression he was a brave man. That he saw with one eye further ahead than most people could. That he was smart and did whatever he wanted to,” he says. Nevertheless, Bren admits there was “a huge gap between Dayan’s image as ‘Mr. security’ and his functioning in the Yom Kippur War.” He further adds, “He gave many ‘ministerial advises’ during the war, i.e. non-binding suggestions, and to many it seemed he was shirking responsibility. For instance, when he listened to Arik (Ariel Sharon) who had many claims, he came to the command and said: ‘Arik said so and so, I want you to discuss this.’ He was very passive.”

“The refocus on Dayan is wrong,” says Colonel (res.) Yaakov Hesdai, who served as battalion commander in the Sinai during the war and who was later appointed as a military investigator on behalf of the Agranat Commission. “Dayan lost the trust of a large part of the public immediately after the war and therefore the protocols being published now offer no news. All facts about him were already known. The big question was what happened during the war. “I was of the opinion that the war reflected several fundamental problems, both on the senior command level and on the national leadership level. Dayan did not represent the problems I pointed to. He was no more responsible for the army’s preparation than Dado was. Dado himself admitted he erred and did not foresee reality. Everyone was caught off guard, not just Dayan. The military thinking failure was a collective one, not to mention the Military Intelligence Directorate that had erred. “The security establishment fell dormant, pure and simple. When the committee investigated it turned out there were no complete war plans. Many of the commanders were not yet ready for their roles. These things did not happen suddenly on October 7, 1973, but formed years earlier.

The arrogance and complacence were not characteristic of Dayan. It characterized the senior IDF leadership as a whole on the eve of the previous war. “Moshe Dayan’s moods and status evaluations had no effect on the course of the war,” says Brigadier General (res.) Avner Shalev chairman of Yad Vashem, who served as Dado’s right hand man during the war and who attended the meetings documented in the newly released protocols. “Lucky for the State of Israel that it had a very strong prime minister who ran the war together with the chief of staff. True, Moshe Dayan came to the meeting feeling very down and had his own status evaluation but he experienced mood swings throughout the war. “What is important to understand is that at that stage Dayan’s influence was very small and it diminished as the war progressed.

On that night, Golda did not accept Dayan’s assessment but the IDF chief of staff’s and adhered to it all the way in a very firm manner. It is important for me that the public know that at that point in the war, as in most others, Moshe’s status evaluations had no effect on the way the war was conducted or of the chief of staff’s evaluations.” “The problem with Dayan is that he became a symbol,” Hesdai says. “A symbol of the Tzabar, a symbol of ‘Mr. security’, a symbol of Israeli success. You ask me on a personal level whether he deserved that trust? I would want to see people with other qualities leading the country. But the trust given to him by the public, that is what was special. It is hardly surprising that a man climbs up a ladder placed before him. But those who placed the ladder, those who trusted him as he climbed it, they are the ones who should provoke interest.

It’s the story of an entire country, not of him.” “We are in the midst of a post-mythical age,” says Professor Almog. “A large percentage of the Jewish population doesn’t know who Dayan was or that specific period in time. He belongs to a past that only the older generation knows. My aunt has a saying: ‘Now, one cannot know what will happen in the past.’ There’s no one to kill anymore, it’s just abusing the corpse.”

The superpowers actions during the 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 U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (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. Responding to the Soviet threat, Nixon put the U.S. military on alert, increasing its readiness for the deployment of conventional and nuclear forces.

The United States was in the midst of the political upheaval of the Watergate scandal, and 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 other than the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Fortunately, the Soviets backed down and never sent troops to fight.

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. The resupply efforts were hampered by America’s NATO allies who, capitulating to Arab threats, refused to allow American planes to use their air space. The one exception was Portugal, which as a consequence became the base for the operation.

Between October 14 and November 14, 1973, 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.”

Egyptian Historical View of the war

(Excerpt from an Egyptian newspaper (in English)  about the war -on the 38th  anniversary of the war)

“On Sunday, Israeli officials failed to show up at several memorial services across Israel to honor its soldiers who fell during the 1973 October War. The reason: a protracted cabinet meeting concerning a controversial vote on social justice reforms that have been demanded by Israeli protesters for months. Popular backlash against Israel’s government was severe. ‘The parliamentarians don’t remember the fallen soldiers,’ read a headline from Israel Channel 2 news website. The right-wing daily Israel Hayom wrote that in Tel Aviv, ‘bereaved family members became outraged and threatened to call off the ceremony.’ Government officials later issued an apology. Thirty-eight years after the 1973 October War, memory of the event remains a powerful force, not only in Egypt, but also in Israel.

As Egypt began celebrating the 38th anniversary of the 1973 October War, which began with the crossing of the Suez Canal on 6 October, Israel began mourning for the surprise assault that ultimately resulted in ‘the mother of all traumas,’ in the words of Gideon Levy, a commentator for Haaretz, Israel’s left-wing daily. By the war’s end on 25 October, there were about 2500 Israelis dead and 9000 wounded, more than three times as many as its previous three wars combined (the War of Attrition, the June 1967 War, and the 1956 Suez War). Although Egyptian and Syrian casualties during the October War vastly outnumbered those of Israeli, the comparatively tiny population of Israel meant that its casualties represented a greater proportion of the population than was the case for its Arab counterparts.

On 6 October, 1973, Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a coordinated, surprise attack against Israel in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. Warnings of the attack were issued late by Israel’s high command, giving its troops little time to get to the front in an orderly way. Although Israel eventually succeeded in repelling the advancing Arab armies, popular anger in Israel at the leadership’s failure to anticipate the attack led to the resignation of Golda Meir, Israel’s then-prime minister, in 1974.

According to Israeli academic Udi Lival, ‘If the ultimate Jewish trauma was the holocaust, the ultimate Israeli trauma was the Yom Kippur War,’ the name Israelis give to the 1973 October War because the fighting began on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Lival’s words are quoted in Maariv, a Hebrew language daily, in an article entitled ‘A Cry from the Grave: More and More Books Deal with the Yom Kippur War’ by journalist Shiri Lev-Ari. She notes a rising interest among the Israeli public in learning details of what happend in the conflict. ‘Israelis are drawn to this sad chapter of history as if the wound is still open and bleeding,’ she writes.

Writing for the Jerusalem Post, Hirsch Goodman, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, suggests the reason. ‘War had broken out simultaneously on two fronts,’ he writes, ‘Israel had lost intelligence assets and territory on the Golan in a flash and Egyptian forces were streaming over the canal, easily tramping over the skeleton Israeli crews, almost all reservists, who had been sent to the front lines for the holidays so the youngsters could be with their families.’ Moshe Dayan, Israel’s defense minister at the time, said he feared ‘for the destruction of the Third Temple,’ meaning the newborn Jewish state.

In Maariv, Dan Halutz, who served as Israel’s air force commander and chief of staff during the Second Lebanon War, writes an op-ed entitled ‘War, Memory, and Lessons’ about the air squadron in which he served. ‘We began with 55 fighter pilots,’ he says, ‘but at the end, we sat in the debriefing room with only 34, many of us physically healthy but mentally harmed.’ Perhaps Israel’s greatest trauma, then, was psychological.

Israel’s Channel 2 news runs an interview with Gabi Ashkenazi, Israel’s former chief of staff who stepped down earlier this year. Ashkenazi was drafted into Israel’s armed forces in 1972, and saw action for the first time during the October War while serving in Sinai. Israel had become accustomed to crushing its enemies. ‘We grew up with an Egyptian army that ran away,’ Ashkenazi recalls, ‘with their sandals and shoes thrown on the side of the road – because it was easier to escape barefooted – with wrecked vehicles and burnt out tanks along the whole way to the canal. And Israeli tanks racing in the dunes, soldiers standing up erect behind their gun turrets, with their mythological leadership… that was the image we grew up with.’ In obliterating that image, the war therefore created a sort of cognitive dissonance.

‘We were really our own prisoners,’ writes Halutz, ‘in believing that we were so strong and that our rivals wouldn’t doubt (our strength). The word ‘surprise’ was not in our vocabulary, as far as it related to the military initiative of Arab countries.’

In an op-ed, Dan Margalit, a journalist with Israel Hayom, recalls the general mood at the end of the war. Despite his insistence that ‘the IDF ultimately prevailed in what was an unparalleled victory,’ he concedes, ‘the feeling was that we had been dealt a crushing defeat, and our hearts were wrenched. His article is titled ‘The Lesson from the Yom Kippur War: No to Defense Cuts.’

In Israel’s best-selling daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s current Chief of Staff Benny Gantz is reported as talking about the lessons of the war. The main one, he says, ‘is that we must always be war-ready.’ Channel 10 news and Channel 2 news, the country’s primary television news networks, show Gantz putting his words into action. He is shown lecturing troops last Thursday, one day before Yom Kippur, on the importance of training and preparation. In what Yedioth Ahronoth calls ‘a rare and unusual step,’ he had called up two divisions the day before as part of an emergency drill. The exercise, in which reservists had 24 hours to report to their bases, was to “test the soldiers’ level of response and readiness for war,” according to paper. The drill’s timing – against the back-drop of the Arab Spring and recent tensions with Egypt – does not go without notice. ‘The timing is more than a coincidence and is part of the army’s preparation for the upcoming days in light of changes in the region,’

Yedioth Ahronoth quotes the head of the Operations Division’s Inspection Department, Colonel Shlomi Fayer, as saying. In early September, the same newspaper had also reported Major General Eyal Eisenberg, IDF Home Front Command Chief, warning that the ‘Arab Spring’ could turn into a ‘radical Islamic winter.’ He had said that recent revolutions in the Arab world – combined with deteriorating ties with Turkey – increases the likelihood of regional war. Egypt was listed as only one of a litany of threats, that also included Turkey, Iran, and Hamas: ‘In Egypt, the army is collapsing under the burden of regular security operations, and this is reflected in the loss of control in the Sinai and the turning of the border with Israel into a terror border, with the possibility that Sinai will fall under the control of an Islamic entity.’’’

Post War negotiations and  ceasefire agreements

The Israelis prided themselves on a robust policy of pre-emptive warfare, and were deeply shaken by the effectiveness of the Syrian and Egyptian surprise attack. Sadat had lost vital territory, and needed to grapple with issues that facing the long-term stability of a nation already beset upon by significant economic difficulties. Humbled by the inconclusive outcome, both sides faced long term unrest within and across their borders, unless they could arrive at a diplomatic easing of relations.

Following the ceasefire, multi-party talks convened in Geneva to hammer out a long-term solution to the Mideast conflict. Egyptian and Israeli negotiators were joined by their Cold War patrons, the Soviet Union and the United States, but Syrian leaders refused to participate and the talks collapsed in early January 1974. Kissinger had correctly anticipated that multi-party talks would fail. Since early November, he had believed that an agreement for long-term stability in the region was possible only if the United States single-handedly brokered small, meaningful, incremental agreements between the Israelis and Egyptians.Prepared to take the precarious role of sole mediator, Kissinger planned to use the process not only to reach agreements among the combatants, but to achieve a major geopolitical objective: to displace the Soviet Union from its Middle Eastern sphere of influence. Until the outbreak of war, the Soviets had used the years-long stalemate between the Arabs and Israelis to cultivate alliances with Arab nations, encouraging a status quo that effectively blocked the United States from gaining influence in the region. The war had suddenly dislodged the Arabs and Israelis from their positions. In its wake, Kissinger sensed an emerging opportunity if he could successfully pursue an agreement that largely met both sides’ interests. 

Kissinger initiated his strategy of ‘shuttle diplomacy’ by meeting directly with Middle Eastern and Israeli leaders, and acting as an intermediary and peace broker between the two sides. His plan was to divorce Egyptian policy from that of Syria (which maintained an aggressively hostile stance with respect to Israel), obtain Egyptian recognition for Israel’s June 1967 borders, and in the process isolate Syria from Egypt and the rest of the international community. 

Fearful of any disruption, Kissinger sometimes even kept the White House at bay. When President Nixon, embattled by the Watergate scandal, got word that an agreement might be close, he requested that Kissinger return to the United States in order to publicly announce the potential impending agreement. Kissinger refused, telling the President that he would not leave until an agreement was signed. 

Kissinger used the shuttle and the weakened ties between the Soviets and Egyptians to dislodge the U.S.S.R. completely from that part of the region. He avoided arousing undue suspicion by sending non-descript updates to the Soviets by way of a senior national security aide, Brent Scowcroft.

His efforts over eight days in January 1974 led to an initial Egyptian-Israeli disengagement accord, followed by a Syrian-Israeli disengagement in May of that year, and a second Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreement in September 1975.

Kissinger’s achievements included:

  • Troop disengagements between Israel and Egypt, January 1974.
  • Troop disengagements between Israel and Syria, May 1974.
  • Israeli withdrawal from areas won from Syria in 1973.
  • Israeli withdrawal from areas of the Sinai Peninsula.
  • Prisoners of war exchanges.
  • An end to the Arab oil embargo.

Though Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy did not immediately result in a peace agreement between the Egyptians and the Israelis, his incremental approach to diplomacy did lay much of the groundwork for the settlement between Egypt and Israel embodied in the 1978 Camp David Accords. 

Egyptian – Israeli Peace Agreement

Although Egypt had suffered military defeat, the initial Egyptian successes greatly enhanced Sadat’s prestige in the Middle East and gave him an opportunity to seek peace. In an interview with American journalist Walter Cronkite on November 14, 1977, Sadat made clearer than ever his willingness to visit Israel’s capital. “I’m just waiting for the proper invitation,” he told the world in the satellite interview. In a follow up interview with prime minister Menachem Begin later the same day. Walter Cronkite asked for his reaction to Sadat’s statements, Begin responded: “I can assure you, Mr. Cronkite, as we really want the visit of President Sadat, we really want to negotiate the peace, to establish permanent peace in the Middle East.” Six days later, Sadat arrived at Lod Airport, was received by Begin, and the two drove together to the Knesset. 

Saadat visit to Jerusalem and his speech to the Knesset served as the start of a process that lasted 16 months, brokered by US president Jimmy Carter. The negotiations concluded when a peace treaty was signed by Begin and Sadat on the White House lawn on March 16, 1979. The main features of the treaty were mutual recognition, cessation of the state of war that had existed since the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, normalization of relations and the complete withdrawal by Israel of its armed forces and civilians from the Sinai Peninsula which Israel had captured during the Six-Day War in 1967. Egypt agreed to leave the area demilitarized. The agreement also provided for the free passage of Israeli ships through the Suez Canal, and recognition of the Strait of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba as international waterways. Egypt the first Arab state to officially recognize Israel.

 

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Ariel Sharon and Moshe Dayan in Egypt

 

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David Elazar, Itzhak Hofi, and Yekutiel Adam in the IDF’s Northern Command

 

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The Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and the Syrian president Hafez al-Assad in a meeting before the war

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Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan visiting the battlefield during the war

 

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Egyptian forces crossing the Suez Canal

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Disabled Syrian tank in  an anti-tank barrier, on the Golan Heights

 

 

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The Syrian president Hafez al-Assad with his troops

 

 

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Golani’s brigade commander Amir Drori in a briefing during the war

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David Elazar, Moti Hod,and Itzhak Hofi at a meeting in the Northern Command

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Golani soldiers on their way to the Hermon

 

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Israeli and Syrian tanks, in the place where the Syrian tank was stopped, at the Israeli tank battalion 77 (OZ) memorial

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Chief of Staff General David Elazar      Prime Minister Golda Meir

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  David Elazar and Itzhak Hofi in a meeting during the war

 

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Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on the Time magazine front page

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Golani soldier with the Israel flag on the Hermon after it was recaptured by Israel on the last day of the war

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Post War meeting at Camp David: President Anwar Sadat, President Jimmy Carter, and Prime Minister Menachem Begin negotiate a peace treaty

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President Sadat, President Carter, and Prime Minister Begin at the signing of the peace treaty on the White House lawn

 

Related Articles:

The Six Day War

The Battle on Mount Hermon in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 – The courage of the Golani soldiers under fire

The Story of the Israeli Pilots in the Yom Kippur War – מלחמת יום כיפור: סיפורם של טייסי הקרב

Henry Kissinger’s Shuttle Diplomacy after the Yom Kippur War

The great tank battles of the Yom Kippur War of 1973

42 Years to the Yom Kippur War – כאילו לא היתה מלחמה

Frozen in time: The Golan Heights – What in its future?

Remembering Menachem Begin

Itzhak Hofi – An IDF General and Head of the Mossad

Moshe Dayan

David “Dado” Elazar

Golda Meir

Ariel “Arik” Sharon

 

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