THE OCTOBER WAR, 1973

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The October War of 1973 ended in a virtual ‘draw’, yet saw Israel’s perceived invincibility shattered. As
such, the war brought political and social turmoil to Israel and restored much of the strategic
maneuverability the Arab states had lost in 1967. Since President Nasser’s death in September 1970, his
successor Anwar Sadat, had responded to domestic and regional doubts about his credibility and the role of
post-1967 Egypt by seeking a way out of the prevailing stalemate with Israel. Sadat came to power after a
17-month war of attrition (1969-70) waged along the closed Suez Canal had already pitched US-client Israel
against Soviet-aligned Egypt in a struggle, which ended inconclusively and increased Arab malcontent with
the status quo.
Hafez Al-Assad’s 1970 rise to power in Syria, like Sadat’s in Egypt, prompted awkward questions about the
aims and worth of Arab solidarity in the face of Israel’s intransigent occupation. Both leaders sought a way
to extract themselves with honor from the humiliating legacy of 1967. Meanwhile, in Israel, Prime Minister
Golda Meir and Defense Minister Dayan led a distinctly ‘hawkish’ Labor government, wherein even Foreign
Minister Eban complained of his colleagues’ “...exaggerated vision of the role of war in international
politics.”
With the Vietnam War raging, the US, guided by the so-called Nixon Doctrine, was set on limited
containment of the Arab-Israeli Cold War theater, opting to keep the sides engaged in “protracted and
inconclusive negotiations,” through low-level channels. By late 1971, Nixon’s National Security Council head
Henry Kissinger was pleased to see, “the stalemate for which I had striven by design.” Sadat repeatedly
sought a diplomatic breakthrough, presenting UN Secretary-General Jarring and US Secretary of State
Rogers with a number of unprecedented concessions and formulations. Breaking with all prior stipulations,
in 1971 he declared his willingness to accept a token Israeli withdrawal from the Suez zone as part of an
interim deal, in a significant move the US later regretted having missed. In any event, Israel, operating
under an inflated belief in its own might and Arab impotence, either rejected or ignored Sadat’s initiatives,
and came under no US pressure to acknowledge them. Turning instead to the OPT, in 1973 Israel prepared
a new hard-line plan for expanded colonization in the Palestinian territories (the Galili Document). Defense
Minister Dayan proclaimed, “[a] new State of Israel, with broad frontiers, strong and solid, with the authority
of the Israel Government extended from the Jordan to the Suez Canal.”
Sadat’s dramatic 1972 expulsion of some 15,000 Soviet personnel had loosened the Cold War restraints on
military action and placed the strategist in unfettered command of Egypt’s Soviet weaponry. On 6 October
1973, he acted; Syria and Egypt launched a coordinated offensive against the Israeli forces occupying the
Golan and Sinai on Yom Kippur - the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. The surprise was total, and initial
Arab gains impressive, but after nearly three weeks and two separate cease-fires (Syria-Israel on 22
October, Egypt-Israel on 26 October), neither Israeli nor Arab armies had achieved a territorial victory.
Some 2,838 Israelis and 8,528 Arabs had paid with their lives, but the deadlock was broken. UNSC
Resolution 338, ordering the cease-fire of 22 October, invoked UNSC Resolution 242 of 1967, with its
demand for an Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories and a just solution to the Palestinian refugee
problem in accordance with International Law. UN troops were deployed to enforce the cease-fires; Israel
was forced back from the Suez, which reopened under Egyptian control; and the US was finally forced into
active, high-level shuttle diplomacy between Cairo, Damascus and Israel.
The October War brought down the Israeli government amid national crisis and laid the foundations for the
first substantive Arab-Israeli peace talks. It also placed the US in the fateful position of Middle East mediator
and reinvigorated the struggle to resist Israel’s expansionism - a goal which suddenly appeared eminently
more possible.