Fifty years ago, at exactly 14.00 hours on October 6, 1973, Egyptian and Syrians forces advanced in a coordinated attack on the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), stationed on the east bank of the Suez Canal and on the Golan Heights. For the Jews, the 19-day conflict has passed into history as the Yom Kippur war. For the Arabs, it is known as the Ramadan war. For everyone else, it was simply the October war — another episode in the tortuous Middle East conflict.
In Syria, the war started on the birthday of its president Hafez al-Asad and ended with the bombing of Damascus, a huge loss of Syrian military personnel and a $US3.5 billion bill in damage. For Egypt, the war concluded with the Israeli encirclement of its Third Army and within striking distance of Cairo some 100 km away. Israel had occupied some 1600 km2 of Egyptian territory. It was a conclusion to the conflict that both superpowers, the USA and the USSR, had forged in freezing a situation in a war which was going in Israel’s favour — in the hope that negotiations would produce a peace agreement.
For Israelis, some 2,600 soldiers were killed and another 8,000 injured. The belief that the IDF was invincible and unchallengeable after the victory of the Six Day War in 1967 was shattered. For the Egyptians, despite the huge military losses and the near defeat of its armed forces, it restored a modicum of pride following the rout and humiliation of 1967. It allowed Anwar Sadat to visit Israel in 1977 and to initiate the Camp David Accord of 1979, which has maintained peaceful relations ever since.
The war was also a pan-Arab war. The Saudis supplied 3,000 personnel while radical states such as Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq joyously participated. Some 20 North Korean pilots and 500 Cubans assisted the Syrians. Fidel Castro’s previous refusal to align Cuba with the hostile attitude of the Soviet Union towards Israel underwent a U-turn.
In the USSR, the Soviet press mounted a barrage against “the Zionist aggressors”. The first mention that the Arabs had actually been trained and armed by the Kremlin was only revealed in the Soviet press during the second week of the war. Diaspora activists for Soviet Jewry saw it as their mission to keep open the lines of communication to the refuseniks and ensure that actions against Soviet Jews did not go unchallenged at a time when Jewish communities were focussed on the war.
Aftermath of the Six Day War in 1967
The word most commonly used in describing the Labor government’s attitude between 1967 and 1973 is “hubris”. Golda Meir was brought out of retirement in 1969, following Levi Eshkol’s sudden death. In part, Meir’s appointment was to prevent a disputatious younger guard, based on the factions of the Labor alignment of four parties, from gaining power.
Labor had originally agreed to return Sinai to Egypt just a few days after the end of the Six Day War but was greeted by a wall of Arab intransigence. The wartime coalition included the Right in government for the first time — and the Likud and the National Religious Party would never agree to the return of the West Bank, the biblical Judea and Samaria.
The Six Day War spawned the War of Attrition, conducted mainly between Israel, Egypt and Jordan from 1967-70, the settlement drive on the West Bank and the evolution of Palestinian nationalism and its representative bodies.
Following President Nasser’s death in 1970, his successor Anwar Sadat privately communicated that he was prepared to recognise Israel if there was a withdrawal from Sinai. Golda Meir overruled a committee of Labor colleagues who were prepared to explore Sadat’s proposals. By the end of 1972, Egypt was building up its forces, supplied by weapons from the Soviet Union — and on the eve of the war, many in Israel believed that movements on the west bank of the Suez Canal were simply Egyptian training exercises.
The onset of the Yom Kippur War
At the end of September 1973, King Hussein of Jordan paid a clandestine visit to Tel Aviv to warn the Israelis about an impending assault — in the hope that he could keep Jordan out of the war.
When the prospect of conflict became clearly imminent, US President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger pressured the Israelis not to carry out pre-emptive strikes against Egyptian and Syrian forces.
Kissinger believed he could convince the Soviets to prevent an Egyptian attack. The head of the IDF, Dado Elazar, demanded a pre-emptive strike while Moshe Dayan wanted a partial mobilisation. Instead, Golda Meir’s government waited.
The Egyptians massed 100,000 troops and 1,350 tanks on the west bank of the Suez Canal while the Israelis had 450 soldiers and one tank strung out across the east bank. In Operation Badr, all the Israeli positions, the Bar-Lev forts, bar one, were overrun by the Egyptians and bridgeheads quickly established on the opposite bank. The Egyptians advanced five kilometres into Sinai but would proceed no further since they would be out of range of the protective missile umbrella, stationed on the west bank of the Suez Canal.
On the second day of the war, a chastened Moshe Dayan considered the arming of Israel’s nuclear weapons but Golda Meir ruled this out. The following day, Dayan told her that this could be “the end of the Third Temple” (the state of Israel). All in all, Israel looked remarkably vulnerable.
The superpowers began to see the conflict as “a hot war”’ in which they could test their rivalries. The Americans implemented Operation Nickel Grass to replace the loss of Israeli military hardware. A week into fighting, there was a concerted Soviet arms airlift to both Egypt and Syria.
The Israeli counter-offensive
Sadat, however, wanted to seize the Mitla and Gidi passes in Sinai and the military command centre at Refidim — and Egyptians forces marched out from the protection of the missile umbrella. They were quickly repulsed by Israeli forces — and this marked a turning point in the war.
In mid-October 1973, the Israelis crossed the Suez Canal, north of the Great Bitter Lake, into Egypt, widened the gap and poured in forces to establish a bridgehead. Both Ismailiya and Suez City were attacked — without great success.
Israeli paratroopers straddled the Canal in rubber dinghies and attacked missile sites. Israeli bombers destroyed the Egyptian underground communication cables which meant that IDF commanders could now listen in to Egyptian conversations on open radio.
Israel’s position on the Golan Heights was better than the situation in Egypt. Israel’s 3,000 troops and 180 tanks were able to courageously hold off some 28,000 Syrians and 800 tanks.
They were able to halt the Syrian advance until reinforcements had arrived and thereby prevented a breakthrough into the Israeli heartland. Within a few days, the Syrians had been pushed back to the pre-war ceasefire lines, and the headquarters of its General Staff bombed in Damascus.
Both Egypt and Syria did not treat Israeli prisoners of war kindly. The Syrians were particularly brutal, executing POWs and employing torture. Avraham Lanir, an Israeli pilot, died during torture. In 2013, a declassified report recorded 86 POW deaths.
Political dividends of the war
The war also helped the fledgling Likud party and advanced the career of Ariel Sharon. Menahem Begin had forced his party to leave the Six Day War coalition in 1970 — and therefore, luckily, was not in government during the debacle of the Yom Kippur war.
A few months before the war in 1973, opinion polls had suggested that the newly established Likud would do no better than its constituent parts. Due to the war, the general election of 1973 was postponed until the end of the year — and angry Israeli voters punished Labor for its conduct by voting for the Likud, which gained a remarkable 39 seats. For the first time, the Right could envisage itself in government.
Before the outbreak of hostilities, Sharon had been recalled and participated innovatively in the war. He projected himself to the Israeli public as the archetypal Israeli hero, sporting an iconic head-bandage — the man who alone had led the troops back across the Canal. Little mention was made of the commanders who had actually led the way — Danny Matt, Amnon Reshef, Haim Erez and Avraham Adan.
Sharon’s judgment on the prospect of war beforehand was little different from his Labor opponents. He had said that the security situation was “wonderful” during an interview in July 1973 and that since 1967 Israel had become a military power with “enormous strength”. Such an anomaly was glossed over In Sharon’s thrust for power.
After the War
The Palestinian cause was sidelined during the Yom Kippur War. Yet while the PLO opposed the ceasefire resolution at the UN, the perception of Arab weakness on the battlefield strengthened Arafat’s hand in accepting a Palestinian state in any part of Palestine vacated by Israel. This led to a formal resolution by the Palestinian National Council in Cairo in July 1974 which laid the basis for movement towards a two-state solution.
By the second week of the war, seven Arab countries, members of the Organisation of Oil Producing Countries (OPEC), agreed to implement a cut in oil production until Israel withdrew from Arab territory.
OPEC introduced three categories. The first listed friendly countries such as the UK, France and Spain and there would be no boycott. The second category involved a 5% cut per month. The final category was a full-blown boycott of Israel-friendly countries such as Holland and Portugal. A cut in oil supplies for them would be total and immediate.
As history records, the Agranat Commission in 1974 found both the Israeli political and military echelons wanting. It called for the resignation of Dado Elazar, the IDF Chief of Staff. This was coloured by the protests of Motti Ashkenazi, the commander of Fort Budapest, the one Israeli fort on the east bank of the Suez Canal in October 1973 which did not fall. The resignations of Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan soon followed.
For the Israelis, the Yom Kippur War was more of a draw than a victory. A new generation of native-born Israelis viewed the governing Labor Party as jaded and arrogant. By the election of 1977, Menahem Begin and the Right had broken through Labor’s decades-long dominance to establish the Likud as Israel’s natural party of government. Today the Labor party would be hard pushed to even pass the 3.25% electoral benchmark to gain representation in the Knesset.
A lot of political water has flowed under too many bridges since 1973. While the state of the Jews continues its remarkable journey into uncharted regions, the Yom Kippur War today is remembered for its lack of preparedness and its tremendous loss of life.
Above all, it was a watershed in the drawn-out decline of the Israeli Left. In retrospect, it can be seen as one of those historical signifiers which marks the transition from the old Israel of its founders to the new Israel of Netanyahu, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich.
Plus 61j 22 September 2023