Arab-Israeli War (1973)

Egyptian army crossing suez canal
Egyptian army crossing suez canal

The 1973 Arab-Israeli War (October 6–26), known as the Yom Kippur War in Israel and the Ramadan War among Arabs, was the fourth major military conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors. During the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Israel occupied Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian-Palestinian territories; despite international efforts by United States secretary of state William Rogers and UN special envoy Gunnar Jarring, no peace agreement was reached, and Israel continued to occupy the territories taken in 1967. Although in March 1972 Syrian president Hafez al-Assad publicly expressed his readiness to accept UN Resolution 242 recognizing Israel with the return of all of the Syrian Golan Heights, Israeli policy remained unchanged.

Syria and Egypt, with the support of Saudi Arabia, therefore decided to initiate a limited war in order to break the political stalemate. The Egyptian president, Anwar el-Sadat, was also anxious to relieve domestic discontent and to force the Soviet Union to supply Egypt with more advanced weaponry.

It appears that Sadat and al-Assad began the secret planning of a joint strategy in 1971 and by the end of the year had reached an agreement on a broad strategy of action. In August 1973 the Egyptian chief of staff, Lieutenant General Saad el-Shazly, and his Syrian counterpart, Yusuf Shakkur, formally agreed on two possible dates for the war: September 7–11 or October 5–10. Less than a week later Egypt and Syria agreed on October 6.

At the time, in spite of Arab military preparations, Israeli military intelligence did not believe that war was imminent. The possibility of Israel’s being taken by surprise was not seriously considered, nor was the thought accepted as valid that Arabs might launch a limited war to force serious political negotiations.

The Egyptian and Syrian attack on October 6 was therefore an unpleasant and shocking surprise for Israel. Hostilities began when the Syrians attacked the Golan Heights and the Egyptian army surprised Israel by crossing the Suez Canal on a pontoon bridge and by breaching the supposedly impregnable Israeli Bar Lev Defense Line in Sinai. Syrian armored and infantry divisions stormed the Golan plateau but were stopped several miles from the eastern shore of Lake Tiberias and the River Jordan.

On October 8 the Israeli defense minister, Moshe Dayan, ordered the deployment of Israeli nuclear weapons, fearing that the “third temple” (the state of Israel) might be in danger. His fears proved premature; the Israeli army regained the initiative, and General Ariel Sharon launched a counteroffensive and established a bridgehead on the east bank of the Suez Canal, only 60 miles from Cairo. A cease-fire was agreed upon on October 24. The situation was similar in the north, where Syrian advances on the Golan were reversed, and the outskirts of Damascus came into range of Israeli artillery.

Three major factors enabled the Israeli forces to reverse their initial losses. First, once the superior Israeli military forces had been fully mobilized they retook initiatives on both fronts. Second, a crucial role was played by an enormous airlift of U.S. military supplies. The airlift, larger than the Berlin airlift, provided Israel with some 24,000 tons of arms, ammunition, tanks, missiles, and howitzers.

Destroyed israeli tank
Destroyed israeli tank

A third and crucial factor was the differing political and strategic goals of Sadat and al-Assad. Sadat had started a limited war to shatter the status quo and pressure the United States to mediate the dispute in order to regain the Sinai Peninsula. Assad wanted to retake the entire Golan and put pressure on Israel to give up the occupied Palestinian territories.

After two days of successful advances, the Egyptian forces were ordered to adopt a defensive stance by Sadat, but, in reaction to Syrian setbacks in the north and the U.S. airlift, Egyptian forces reinitiated the attack against Israel on October 14. However, they failed to regain the initiative.

The Soviet Union was reluctant to become further involved, and U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger’s skillful diplomacy resulted in a political gain for the United States and the drawing closer together of the United States and Sadat.

On October 22 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 338 calling on “all parties to the present fighting to cease all firing and terminate all military activity ... to start immediately after the cease-fire the implementation of the Security Council Resolution 242 in all of its parts aimed at establishing just and durable peace in the Middle East.” Sadat accepted the cease-fire, and Syria officially recognized it on October 23.

Israel continued its military action against Egypt, however, and on the evening of October 23 Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev sent a letter to U.S. president Richard Nixon proposing joint U.S.-Soviet intervention to ensure the cease-fire. He also threatened that if the United States did not take action, the Soviet Union would be faced with the urgent necessity to “consider taking appropriate steps unilaterally.” In response Kissinger put U.S. forces on full nuclear alert on October 24.

The Soviets did not intervene and over the next few days the cease-fire was implemented. Although Israel proved victorious in the end, the war had been a great shock to the state. For the Arabs, the war was a limited success and seemed to rehabilitate the Egyptian army after its disastrous defeat in the 1967 war.

In May 1974 Syria and Israel reached a disengagement agreement, and Israel agreed to withdraw from parts of the Golan and the town of Quneitra but continued to occupy the rest of the Golan. Assad’s achievements improved his image in Syria. The war also increased U.S. power and weakened Soviet influence in the region. The United States subsequently mediated negotiations between Egypt and Israel, leading toward the Camp David accords and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979.