Egyptian President Sadat colluded with Syrian President Assad to attack Israel on Yom Kippur, October 6, 1973. Unlike Syria, whose primary goal was to inflict harm on Israel and take territory from Israel, Sadat’s immediate purpose was to gain a limited territorial success; his focus was to retrieve a small portion of Sinai lost to Israel in the June 1967 War. He wanted to restore Egyptian national honor by succeeding in war against Israel. On the second day of the war, Sadat contacted the White House to obtain America’s attention. His overarching objective was to move Egypt away from the Soviet orbit to enhance Egypt’s economy. He correctly sensed that the White House would pursue American led diplomacy to end the war, help him secure more of Sinai’s return, and, with Egypt as a ‘prize’ for Washington, improve America’s status in the broader Middle East. According to Peter Rodman who worked on Secretary of State Kissinger’s staff, “Sadat’s political objective was to deliberately start an international crisis in the hope of lighting a fire under the United States.” Sadat took a large gamble by attacking Israel. For the next six years, the US drove negotiations while Sadat cleverly kept his foot on the negotiating accelerator. In 1979 he signed a treaty with Israel that saw all Sinai returned to Egyptian sovereignty. Rodman also noted, “Egypt’s turn to the United States may have been America’s greatest success in the Cold War.”
Ken Stein, September 22, 1973
When Egyptian President Nasser died in September 1970, he left Egypt’s economy in shambles. In as much as Nasser had embraced Moscow, President Anwar Sadat, his successor, sought to disengage slowly from the Soviet Union and build instead an alliance with Washington. Sadat was politically shrewd; he knew that the U.S. wanted to move Egypt away from Moscow and into the American orbit. So, he slowly cultivated Henry Kissinger, then Nixon’s national security adviser, and from 1977 forward he let President Jimmy Carter guide the negotiations on behalf of Egypt.
Before the 1973 war, independently of each other, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Sadat proposed negotiations with each other through a variety of private mediators. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, using the German government as an intermediary, sought an agreement with Sadat, but his insistence on withdrawal not only from Sinai, but also from all the territories was not acceptable to her. In February 1973, Sadat initiated detailed secret talks through his National Security Adviser with Kissinger, but no diplomatic initiative emerged from Washington. Neither the U.S., nor the U.S.S.R. wanted to make Arab-Israeli negotiations a priority in furthering their bilateral relationship. In May 1973, Sadat started planning an attack on Israel to recapture a portion of Sinai. On October 6, 1973 — Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar — Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated attack against Israel. While Israel had received scattered but reliable information indicating an impending attack, it failed to process the intelligence in time to mobilize its citizen army and repel the attacking forces. In addition, Golda Meir’s government, through threatened again by Syria and Egypt, as they had threatened Israel in May-June 1967, chose not to strike either country pre-emptively this time. Meir’s primary concern was that if Israel started a war, the United States her most strategic ally might not provide Israel with needed resupply of armaments once a war began.
The October 1973 War and Its Aftermath
As hard as it may be to believe even today, Sadat wanted to use the October war to create an opening for a diplomatic process, given the reluctance of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. to bring the parties to the negotiating table during peacetime. It was a high-stakes gamble: a military defeat would have resulted in his forced resignation. With a limited military success against Israel, Sadat induced the Nixon administration and Kissinger, now also secretary of state, to take on the diplomatic task of mediating between Cairo and Jerusalem. Sadat succeeded in restoring Egyptian honor by taking back a portion of Sinai. The rest he hoped to have returned through American-led diplomacy. He initially planned the war with Syria, but after the war began, he intentionally left his Syrian ally and warmed to the U.S. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad was furious when he discovered that Sadat had been engaged in secret talks with the Americans since the early days of the war. During the war, Arab states imposed an oil embargo on states that supported Israel. They increased the price of oil fourfold, causing hardship to oil-importing countries.
The euphoria garnered from their quick victory in 1967 had generated a sense of complacency and self-assuredness in Israelis and among segments of the military command. Since Meir chose not to fully mobilize Israel’s citizen army reserves when she had an inkling that Egypt and Syria might attack. Israel suffered dramatic battlefield defeats at the onset of the war; she then took the offensive, gradually beating back Syrian forces that had advanced on the Golan Heights and halting Egyptian troops along the Suez Canal and even crossing to the west bank of the canal.
The Israelis had encircled the Egyptian Third Army on the eastern bank when the fighting stopped. Israeli battlefield losses devastated national morale for years. The casualty count was staggering for the small nation. More than 2,200 Israelis died, a population percentage equal to approximately 200,000 Americans, nearly four times the number of U.S. troops killed in the Vietnam War. Four times as many Israelis were killed in October 1973 than in June 1967, though the total was only a third of the number of Israelis lost in the 1948 Independence War. An additional 7,250 were maimed or wounded in the 1973 war. By comparison, 21,500 Arabs were killed in the 1967 war and 20,000 in the 1973 war.
No treaty emerged from the 1973 war. Jordan sent a token number of troops to fight in Syria and the Palestinians did not participate in it. During the fighting, the Soviet Union reinforced Egypt and Syria with abundant military supplies, and the United States did the same for Israel. Nixon asked for and received from Congress $2.2 billion in military assistance for Israel, a level of annual funding that remained relatively constant for years and now has nearly doubled. As the war drew to a close, Kissinger, with the concurrence of the U.S.S.R., pushed through U.N. Security Council Resolution 338, which reaffirmed UN Resolution 242 and 338 called for “negotiations between the parties under appropriate auspices.” The Israeli government investigated the Meir government’s pre-war decision-making, issuing the Agranat Report in April 1974. Domestically in Israel, Defense Minister Dayan and Prime Minister Meir resigned in 1974 as a price for the war’s devastation caused to the Israeli population and pride.
Those “appropriate auspices” instigated the December 1973 Middle East Peace Conference in Geneva. In late October, after the fighting ended, direct Israeli-Egyptian military talks took place 101 Kilometers from Cairo, and the progress they achieved in outlining a separation of forces agreement flowed into the Geneva conference and became the January 1974 signing of the Israel-Egypt Separation of Forces Agreement. Diplomacy between the October war and January 1974 was ingeniously choreographed by Kissinger, with Sadat and Meir playing critical roles in shaping the agreement between them before the conference. During those Kilometer 101 talks, Israeli General Yariv was told by his counterpart, General Al-Gamasy, “halasna Filastin,” we are finished with Palestine. Sadat wanted to keep the unfolding choreography in Kissinger’s hands. Promoting the national goals of other Arabs was not always among Sadat’s priorities as he would often display in future negotiations with Israel through Washington. Sadat was not saddened in the least when Syria’s Assad, his partner in the attack on Israel in October, told Kissinger that he would not participate in a conference where the outcome was scripted already by Sadat and Kissinger. To emphasize Sadat’s commitment to engage with Washington, at one point in the January negotiations he turned to his chief of staff and said, “We are making peace with the United States, not the Israelis.” The strength of the decades-old U.S.-Israeli relationship forced Sadat to appreciate that only through American mediation could Israel be persuaded to take risks in negotiating with Egypt, namely the slow return of Sinai in exchange for enhanced American security commitments to Israel and peace with Egypt. Sadat pragmatically understood that the U.S. would not allow Israel to be defeated in war.
From the October 1973 war until his assassination in 1981, Sadat served as the essential actor and critical catalyst in having all of Sinai returned to Egyptian sovereignty. By the war’s end, the U.S. had reopened official diplomatic relations with Cairo, terminated since June 1967. After the January 1974 Egyptian Israeli military disengagement agreement, Kissinger spent that spring shuttling between Damascus and Jerusalem, hammering out a Syrian Israeli military disengagement agreement that was signed in May 1974. As with Egypt, no peace treaty was signed, but the 1974 agreement kept Israel’s border with Syria quiet for four decades and helped end the Arab oil embargo imposed on the West.
The October War had an impact on longer term Israeli politics. It contributed to the public’s lack of faith in the Labor Party and saw the election of Menachem Begin in the May 1977 parliamentary elections. This was the first time the Labor Party was not leading Israel since the country’s establishment. Sadat had used the October War as an opening to American diplomacy and economic assistance, and through Washington entered complex and difficult negotiations with Israeli Prime Ministers. In March 1979, the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty was signed. Eventually all of Sinai was restored to Egyptian sovereignty with Israel having removed Egypt’s military from future conflicts with it. With his October War gamble, Sadat had promoted Egypt’s national interests. It created a major opening to Israel’s long term treaty relationship with Egypt.
Ken Stein, September 22, 2023