Rava is an online news portal providing recent news, editorials, opinions and advice on day to day happenings in Pakistan.
At 2 p.m. Middle Eastern time, on October 6, 1973, Arab military forces stormed over the 1967 ceasefire lines with Israel. Masses of Egyptian soldiers crossed the Suez Canal into the Sinai Peninsula, attacking Israel’s Bar-Lev line. Simultaneously, hundreds of Syrian tanks pushed through the Golan Heights into northern Israel. The 1973 war — also known as “The Fourth Round” and the Yom Kippur War by Israelis and many Western scholars, as well as the Ramadan War by Arabs — was launched.
In the years following President Anwar el-Sadat’s rise to power, Egypt had suffered two major defeats at Jerusalem’s hands. After losing the entire Sinai Peninsula in the military catastrophe of the June 1967 Six-Day War, Cairo suffered an additional 10,000 casualties in the Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition of 1969-70.
Sadat’s several pre-1973 peace initiatives did not persuade the stubborn Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir, to accept a partial territorial agreement with Egypt. In July 1973, only three months before the outbreak of the war, Meir announced that it was her intention to “hold on to every inch of occupied territory until the Arabs [are] ready to negotiate — on Israel’s terms.” At the same time, Sadat was unsuccessful in convincing the U.S. administration of President Richard Nixon to intervene in order to initiate a peace process between Jerusalem and Cairo. As Sadat had accurately predicted several years earlier, however, only the arrival of Egyptian troops on the east bank of the Suez Canal could ultimately achieve Egypt’s strategic goal: reclaiming the Sinai Peninsula by triggering a complete Israeli withdrawal.
The Arab defeat of June 1967 came at the hands of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), in particular its strategic division, the Israeli Air Force (IAF). The 1973 war, however, was fundamentally and qualitatively different. The Arabs dealt Jerusalem a major blow; it was the first time in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict that Arabs were not totally defeated on the battlefield. On the contrary, the first phase of the war saw impressive Arab advances. The Syrians as well as the Egyptians attained numerous achievements, including the penetration of the Bar-Lev Line.
As compared to previous Arab-Israeli wars, the relative success of the Arabs, the Egyptians in particular, during the early stages of the 1973 war, improved the possibility of a settlement. Therefore, although the war constituted one of the most traumatic events in Israel’s history, it also led to the peace treaty between Israel and its strongest rival, Egypt, the largest and most important Arab country.
Based on the findings of this study, the 1973 war led directly to the 1978 Camp David accords. It ultimately brought peace between the two countries, following Cairo’s decision to sign a bilateral agreement with Jerusalem — at the expense of its relations with the Arab and part of the Muslim world. Nearly two-and-a-half decades after the Camp David accords were signed on September 17, 1978, it is appropriate to take a fresh look at what happened and how.
ISRAELI INTELLIGENCE FAILURE
Although there is no question that the IDF emerged from the 1973 war victorious, according to many Israelis the war was a failure. It is often described as a catastrophe, for the following reasons: (1) the surprise of the synchronized Egyptian-Syrian attacks, (2) the great number of casualties, (3) the inability of the IDF to achieve a crushing military victory over the Arabs (due to superpower intervention), and (4) the loss of territory that followed the conclusion of the war. Beyond these factors, early in the war, in a panicked response to the Egyptian and Syrian coordinated surprise attacks, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan believed that the destruction of the Jewish state of Israel was a real possibility. He told Prime Minister Golda Meir: “This is the end of the Third Temple.”
To fully understand how Israelis remember the 1973 war, one should start with the Israeli intelligence’s mehdal, Hebrew for shortcoming, omission or oversight. Mehdal is strongly connected to the 1973 war, describing an event that went terribly wrong and could have been prevented or mitigated.
After Sadat seized power, AMAN, the Israeli Military Intelligence Unit, prepared an unfavorable personal profile portraying Egypt’s new ruler “as intellectually low-level, narrow-minded and lacking independent political thinking; a mediocre statesman.” Sadat had already decided in the fall of 1972 to resort to war against Israel and instructed his generals to prepare to attack on October 24. Based on AMAN’s analysis, known in Israel by the Hebrew term for conception, top Israeli political and military leaders did not believe Egypt would consider going to war until it could strike Israel’s interior, and they believed that Syria would not go to war without Egypt. Ultimately, Egypt’s strategic surprise in October 1973 was ideal;21 it found the IDF entirely unprepared.
The Egyptian and Syrian surprise attack on Israel on October 6, 1973, triggered the emergence of a new situation that had been precisely predicted by President Sadat. According to his forecast, both superpowers — and the United States especially, which Sadat had tried to engage on his side in the confrontation with Israel — would increase their involvement in the region. With the active participation of Moscow and Washington, the 1973 war was the most dangerous event of the Cold War era since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, bringing the two superpowers to the brink of direct confrontation.
The crisis escalated to global proportions by October 24, 1973, after Egypt’s Third Army was completely cut off by the IDF. Consequently, Moscow was faced with a perceived intolerable level of defeat for its Arab client. As a result, Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev made clear to President Nixon that, if Washington would not agree to cooperate to stop the Israeli violation of the ceasefire, “We should be faced with the necessity urgently to consider the question of taking appropriate steps unilaterally.” Israel, Brezhnev added, “cannot be permitted to get away with the violation.”
Soon afterward, seven Soviet airborne divisions were placed on a heightened state of alert, and the Soviet naval presence in the Mediterranean increased. As a response, on the night of October 24, the Nixon administration decided to raise the U.S. nuclear alert to Defense Condition 3 (DEFCON3) on the worldwide stage, the first such alert since the Cuban Missile Crisis 11 years earlier, in order to deter Soviet intervention to protect Egypt and Syria. Consequently, the IDF supplied Egypt’s Third Army with food and water. A day later, on October 26, Washington lifted its alert; the most explosive stage of the crisis was over.
After the war, Washington was subjected to damaging economic warfare, particularly from the consequences of the oil embargo imposed by the Arab producers against the West on October 17, 1973. The White House accurately concluded that the status quo would be dangerous. Simultaneously, the new situation that emerged provided an opportunity to increase American influence at Soviet expense. Washington’s interests now appeared to be best served by an active effort to promote some progress in negotiations toward a peace deal between Israel and the Arabs, even at the risk of conflict with its closest ally in the region.
Third-party involvement could be a double-edged sword. Outside intervention might help to limit military escalation and end conflicts. At the same time, it could also help reignite it. During the war, Israel, the stronger side, was deterred from using military force to crush Egypt — in this case the weaker side. At the same time, however, the U.S. presence also encouraged Cairo to launch the war against Israel in the first place, to obtain superpower support for its strategic goals. In fact, Egypt started the 1973 war against Israel without expecting to prevail militarily. Sadat, however, anticipated achieving a political victory.
Without Sadat’s precise assumption that Moscow, and the equally committed Washington, would protect Egypt and prevent a colossal defeat in the war, Cairo would never have launched it, considering the shameful 1967 debacle. Following that, Washington did not condemn Egyptian-Syrian aggression against Israel. U.S. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, however, feared that Jerusalem would succeed in conquering territory beyond the 1967 ceasefire lines. On October 8, he told the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Simcha Dinitz, that the United States opposed any further territorial acquisitions on the part of Israel.
At the end of the 1973 war, Israel was militarily victorious and maintained its control over most of the pre-war territory. As opposed to the results of the 1967 war, however, Jerusalem’s victory came at a high cost: $7 billion was expended, the equivalent of one year’s GNP; 804 tanks and 114 jetfighters and planes were destroyed; more than 2,500 Israelis died and almost 3,000 were wounded.
One major conclusion was clear: American financial assistance and weapons, and Washington’s deterrence of Soviet interference, were now essential to Israel’s security. In order to convince Jerusalem to make progress, Washington offered generous support. Aside from the promise of $2-3 billion annually for the next five years and continuous arms benefits, especially the state-of-the-art F-15 jetfighter, Washington also promised Israel access to oil in the event of another war. President Gerald R. Ford also guaranteed Israel U.S. protection in any incident involving Soviet intervention.
Egypt and the Arabs
Following the limited Egyptian military achievements in the first stages of the war, especially at the Suez Canal crossing, Arab pride was at least partially restored. “The war has retrieved Arab honor,” exclaimed Egypt’s chief of staff. “Even if we are defeated now, no one can say that the Egyptian soldier is not a superior fighter.” At the same time, the favorable results of the war for Israel led the Arabs to the conclusion that, even in the best circumstances, the military balance still stood in favor of Israel. Given the support it received from Washington, Jerusalem could not be dislodged by military force alone from the territories it liberated in the 1967 war.
THE ISRAEL-EGYPT TREATY
The roots of peace often stretch far back into the past. The origins of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1979 can be traced back to the June 1967 Six-Day War. Resolution 242, passed by the UN Security Council in November 1967, was only a recommendation. Yet Israel, Egypt and Jordan accepted it as the basis for a settlement. Syria accepted it later, in 1974. More than all other factors, however, it was the 1973 war that served as a watershed event in making it possible for Jerusalem and Cairo to achieve peace.
During the pre-1973-war period, Washington, and especially Kissinger, failed to bring about an Israeli-Egyptian settlement. Actually, the White House not only failed to prevent the war; it also, in one way or another, catalyzed its outbreak. After Sadat realized Washington had no real interest in pressuring Jerusalem to withdraw from Sinai, Cairo abandoned diplomacy and initiated the war. Sadat assumed that such a move would trigger direct U.S. involvement and would help him successfully reclaim the Sinai Peninsula.
Sadat raised the question of the war’s termination and its possible outcomes during its early planning stages. His objectives, as he explained to the Soviet ambassador, were to break the deadlock in negotiations, to “shatter Israel’s theory of security’ (in which military deterrence and the territorial buffer of the Sinai Peninsula would prevent war and ensure Israel’s security), and to restore our self-confidence.” Describing his own decision-making approach, Sadat wrote in his memoirs: “I always know what I am doing and calculate all the possible consequences of every step I take.” Long before the war, Sadat had notified his predecessor, Nasser: “If we could recapture even four inches of Sinai territory… and establish ourselves there so firmly that no power on earth could dislodge us, then the whole situation would change — east, west, all over.”55 History has fully vindicated Sadat’s analysis.
Soon after taking office as the president of Egypt, Sadat came to the conclusion that Cairo should rely on Washington rather than Moscow to achieve its strategic goal of regaining the Sinai Peninsula. In his efforts to increase U.S. support, Sadat was ready to cut the Soviet military presence in Egypt. During a visit to Egypt in order to effect an advanced interim agreement on the Suez Canal, U.S. Secretary of State William P. Rogers was told by Sadat,
If we can work out an interim settlement, I promise you, I give you my personal assurance, that all the Russian ground troops will be out of my country at the end of six months. I will keep Russian pilots to train my pilots because that’s the only way my pilots can learn how to fly. But in so far as the bulk of the Russians — the ten or twelve thousand — they will all be out of Egypt within six months if we can make a deal.
Leaders who launch major diplomatic initiatives tend also to rely on major military programs.President Sadat’s approach, relying on both diplomacy and military coercion, was reflected in his strategy for Egypt and his efforts to reclaim Sinai.
Three months after the expulsion of Soviet forces from Egypt, Sadat ordered his generals to plan a limited military operation to cross the Suez Canal and enter the Sinai Peninsula in order to force Jerusalem to engage in peace talks. On October 6, the Egyptians launched a massive attack against the Bar-Lev Line, overwhelming the IDF and establishing a foothold on the eastern bank of the canal.
Although Israel was caught by surprise, and the Egyptian and Syrian armies made significant advances into the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights, Jerusalem ultimately succeeded after several days in involving its reserves and launching successful counter-attacks at both the northern and southern borders. Following intense fighting on both fronts, the IDF recovered lost land and advanced even further into Arab territory, launching raids deep into the African subcontinent and also near the Syrian capital of Damascus. However, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union supported an Israeli victory. Washington and Moscow wanted the surrounded Egyptian Third Army to be saved, and they both put significant efforts into ending the war.
Paradoxically, the 1973 war, instead of reducing the influence of Resolution 242, actually increased it. In October 1973, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 338, calling for a ceasefire and for “the parties concerned to start immediately after the ceasefire the implementation of Security Council Resolution 242 in all of its parts.” Resolution 338 also stated that, “immediately and concurrently with the ceasefire, negotiations [should] start between the parties concerned under appropriate auspices aimed at establishing a just and durable peace in the Middle East.”
After the 1973 war, Kissinger engaged in “shuttle diplomacy” in the Middle East, seeking to promote peace talks between Israel and the Arabs, as well as to weaken Soviet influence in the region. On November 7, he went to Cairo to discuss with Sadat how to get Israel to withdraw from the positions it had newly occupied in violation of Resolution 338, which ordered a ceasefire on the lines of October 22. In December, a peace conference assembled by Washington and Moscow was held in Geneva, attended by representatives of Egypt, Israel and Jordan (Syria was invited but did not attend). In January and May 1974, Kissinger brokered the Israeli-Egyptian and Israeli-Syrian disengagement agreements. As a result, the Arabs lifted the oil embargo in March 1974, and Egypt reopened the Suez Canal to international shipping.
Both Cairo and Amman preferred not to enter into direct negotiations with Jerusalem, addressing their remarks to the U.S. and Soviet co-chairmen of the conference, rather than to the Israeli delegate. However, the 1973 war also marked a shift in the Arab position on the issue of direct negotiations with Israel. In September 1975, Jerusalem and Cairo concluded a further interim agreement on disengagement, known as the Sinai II Agreement. On November 9, 1977, Sadat delivered a major speech to the People’s Assembly and emotionally declared that “he was ready to go anywhere in the world, even to Jerusalem, to deliver a speech and address the Knesset [the Israeli Parliament] if this would help save the blood of his sons.”
Although Sadat had little to offer but the removal of his country from the conflict, it actually would have been impractical for him to accept anything but full Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula. Ultimately, as history has shown, Sadat succeeded in achieving the return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egyptian hands. One of Sadat’s tactics for achieving his strategic goal was to agree to terminate the state of war between Cairo and Jerusalem and establish peace while Israeli forces remained in Sinai. Sadat also agreed to start the process of normalization before Israeli forces left the peninsula.
After decades of hostility and wars and at the end of 13 days of intensive negotiations, Israel and Egypt, the two most powerful states in the Middle East, agreed to make peace. President Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed the Camp David agreement on September 1978, the final product of the long Israeli-Egyptian conflict. Following the peace agreement, Jerusalem returned not only the entire Sinai Peninsula but also the Alma oilfields to Cairo, despite the enormous burden of $1 billion per year that this imposed on the Israeli economy. Egypt, for its part, normalized relations with Israel in the face of severe Arab and Muslim opposition. Cairo, like Israel, received American economic support. In the fiscal year of 1976, for instance, U.S. economic assistance to Egypt jumped from $371.9 million to $986.6 million.