Today in Middle Eastern history: the Yom Kippur War begins (1973)
A successful Egyptian surprise attack sparks a war that was won by Israel but paved the way toward Egyptian-Israeli diplomacy.
If you’re interested in history and foreign affairs, Foreign Exchanges is the newsletter for you! Sign up for free today for regular updates on international news and US foreign policy, delivered straight to your email inbox, or subscribe and unlock the full FX experience:
On October 6, 1973, Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal in a surprise attack against Israeli positions in the Sinai Peninsula (which was then under Israeli occupation), while Syrian forces attacked Israeli positions in the Golan Heights (which is still under Israeli occupation). Thus began the Yom Kippur War, or the 1973 War if you prefer, which would last through October 25. The day is commemorated as “Military Day” in Egypt because of the success of that opening attack and the eventual success (sort of, if you look at it just right) of the war effort.
The Yom Kippur War differs from Israel’s two previous wars with the Arab world (the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the 1967 Six Day War) in that this time the two Arab states fighting Israel (Egypt and Syria) were seeking only limited territorial gains rather than Israel’s total annihilation. Egypt wanted Israel out of Sinai, which it had occupied since 1967, and while it didn’t succeed immediately the war kicked off a process that saw the region eventually returned to Cairo’s control. Syria wanted the Golan, also occupied by Israel in 1967, and…well, I suppose you can’t always get what you want.
Domestically the stories in Egypt and Syria were a bit different. While Syrian President Hafez al-Assad—whose position was relatively secure after seizing power in his 1970 coup (er, I mean his “Glorious Corrective Movement,” sorry)—pretty much justed want the Golan back, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had political reasons for picking this fight. Sadat was still trying to get out of the hefty shadow cast by his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, even though it had been a full three years since Nasser’s death. He believed that a military victory over Israel—even a limited one—would shake Egyptians out of the funk they’d been in since their overwhelming defeat in 1967, and that they’d love him so much for it that he could finally rule the country for real and not just as “Nasser’s successor.” Also, from a more practical perspective, Sadat desperately wanted to get Israel off of the eastern bank of the Suez Canal. Egypt had kept the canal closed since the 1967 war, and the country’s precarious economic situation dictated that Sadat open it up again. Getting Israel out of the canal zone was a critical precondition for taking that step.
Israel had offered to give Sinai back to Egypt (and the Golan back to Syria, as it so happens) in 1967, in exchange for a peace treaty, but Nasser rejected the offer. Probably in order to make his cause seem more noble, Sadat now proposed a peace agreement with Israel—featuring demands that included not only a return of the Sinai, but for Israel to give up all the land it seized during the Six Day War (including Gaza and the West Bank) and to commit to settling the Palestinian refugee situation. Sadat must have known Israel wouldn’t settle on those terms, but he also knew that once he’d started the war he would be able to say “don’t blame me—I tried diplomacy and they rejected it.”
The Yom Kippur War is an odd conflict in that its tactical victor suffered a strategic defeat while its tactical loser nevertheless won a strategic victory. The war on the battlefield unquestionably ended as an Israeli victory. After the Syrians had some brief initial success in the Golan, Israeli forces pushed them back toward Damascus, and got close enough that their artillery could shell the Syrian capital. Their success on the Syrian front was so decisive that Iraq and Jordan, neither one of which wanted anything to do with the war when it started, both wound up sending relief armies into Syria to try to halt the Israeli advance.
On the Sinai front, after a very successful Egyptian surprise attack, known as Operation Badr, opened the war, the Israelis were able to stabilize the front and halt the Egyptian advance. Then, on October 14, they counterattacked across the Suez Canal and encircled Egypt’s Third Army. The Israelis may have been in a position to completely destroy an entire Egyptian army (historians disagree on this point), but it never came to that thanks to some intense mediation from newly appointed US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Kissinger believed that if US diplomacy saved the Third Army, it might pry Sadat out from his alliance with the Soviet Union. In this case, at least, it turns out that Kissinger was correct. At sea, the Israeli navy was totally dominant, winning both of the war’s major sea battles and controlling the eastern Mediterranean coast.
After the war, however, both Egyptian and Israeli officials focused mostly on Operation Badr. Sadat and the Egyptians, desperate for some kind of victory over Israel, celebrated Badr’s success and kind of ignored the rest of the war. Sadat did fire the Egyptian army’s chief of staff, Saad el-Shazly, but that was more over his post-war criticism of Sadat’s decision-making than about the conduct of the war itself. And to be fair, Badr did catch the Israelis totally by surprise, driving their forces off of the east side of the Suez Canal and holding off any Israeli counterattack for over a week. That may not seem like much, but apparently it was enough. The Israelis, meanwhile, bemoaned Badr, and specifically how badly they’d been caught with their proverbial pants down. In response, several high-ranking Israeli military officers lost their jobs and, in April 1974, Prime Minister Golda Meir was forced to resign.
As it happens, Egypt did see a material gain from the war, thanks in part to Kissinger. The ceasefire agreement Kissinger brokered fulfilled one of Egypt’s main aims, giving it control over both sides of the Suez Canal for the first time since 1967. And over the next few years the war helped bring Egypt and Israel much closer together. Relieved from Egypt’s 1967 humiliation, it was now possible for Sadat to approach the Israelis diplomatically without looking like he was begging for mercy. On the other side, the Israelis now had to reckon with the idea that their Arab neighbors were not, in fact, complete military pushovers, and the shock of that revelation helped reinvigorate diplomacy. As did the US government, which saw an opening to begin peeling Arab states away from Moscow and didn’t want the Israelis screwing that up. Sadat, at his new US ally’s urging, used the prestige that the war gave him to begin talks with Israel on what eventually became the Camp David Accords, the first comprehensive treaty between Israel and an Arab nation. Those talks allowed Egypt to get back, finally, the rest of the Sinai.
Unfortunately for Sadat, though, talking to Israel also sealed his fate at home. Underground extremist groups like Egyptian Islamic Jihad (co-led by future al-Qaeda boss Ayman al-Zawahiri) used the Camp David Accords to built support for their own movements, which in EIJ’s case included a plot to assassinate Sadat. EIJ obtained a fatwa permitting the assassination from Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, another al-Qaeda founding father who would later be convicted of involvement in several terrorist plots in the early 1990s and who died in a US prison in 2017. The Egyptian government got wind of the assassination scheme in February 1981 and began rounding up EIJ members, including Zawahiri, but missed the cell that wound up carrying out the attack. They struck, in fact, at the “Military Day” parade in 1981, marking this date as the anniversary not only of the start of the Yom Kippur War but of the death of the man who started it.
Thanks for reading! Foreign Exchanges is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.