Israel’s dashing victory in the Six-Day War of 1967 left it in control of the Sinai Peninsula and the Palestinian territories. It also lured the Jewish state into a dangerously self-satisfied complacency. On September 26, 1973, the Jerusalem Post proclaimed in an editorial, “There was never a period in which our security situation seemed as good as now.” Not even a large build-up of Egyptian and Syrian forces could shake Israel out of its torpor. On October 5, Israeli intelligence rated the possibility of war as “lowest of the low.”
The next day, on Yom Kippur, Egypt and Syria attacked from the west and northeast. Israel was taken totally by surprise. Now well trained and superbly well armed with the latest Soviet weapons, the Egyptian army executed a brilliant crossing of the Suez Canal and quickly threw Israel’s front-line units into disarray, while the Syrians were soon mauling Israeli forces with wave after wave of tanks.
When the Israeli counterattack in the Sinai finally materialized on the third day of the war, it promptly ran into a withering barrage of Soviet-supplied anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. Israel’s losses of tanks and planes were so severe that the counterattack had to be called off, and the government desperately appealed to the Nixon administration for help.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal recently, Yossi Klein Halevi argues that Prime Minister Golda Meir chose not to launch a preemptive strike against the Arab states, though she had several hours’ warning of the impending attack, because she was afraid of the U.S. reaction. But Israel almost certainly did not have that option. It had not yet mobilized, as before the 1967 war, and its front-line units proved too weak to defend themselves, much less conduct a preemptive strike that would only have run into the same barrage of antitank and antiaircraft missiles that blunted its counterattack of the third day.
In any case, it would have been eminently sensible to worry about the American reaction. Egypt had not been threatening to annihilate Israel as in 1967, or as Iran has been doing for years. A preemptive Israeli strike would have been portrayed as an act of unprovoked aggression. This would have pushed the chance for a durable peace between Israel and Egypt even further away than it was already.
The Yom Kippur War presented the United States with a major foreign-policy crisis, carrying with it the potential for armed conflict with the Soviet Union. The Soviets’ position in the Middle East had been growing steadily stronger for years while America was paralyzed by the war in Vietnam. Meanwhile, Americans had spent the summer of 1973 transfixed by the Watergate hearings. The Yom Kippur War broke just as the Nixon administration was starting to fall apart.
Onto this dramatic stage stepped Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, to deliver the masterpiece of his diplomatic career. Today, on the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, that performance stands in painful contrast with the appalling incompetence of President Obama’s Middle East policy, through which, one blunder after another, he is unraveling virtually all of what American diplomacy achieved then.
Egypt’s new leader, Anwar Sadat, was bent on recovering the Sinai Peninsula and eager for America to push Israel to the negotiating table even as he prepared for war. Sadat later told Kissinger, “You didn’t pay attention to me, and this was the result.” To gain maximum freedom of maneuver, Sadat had expelled Soviet advisers from Egypt, but he remained dependent on the Soviet Union for weapons and was still, to all appearances, a Soviet client.
And yet Sadat had already decided to throw his lot in with the Americans, who, he realized, alone could deliver peace between his country and Israel. His motives for attacking Israel were more complex than he let on. Sadat appears to have understood all along that he could not win back the Sinai through force of arms alone. His primary purpose was political, not military. By 1973, he had come to believe that the diplomatic impasse over the return of the Sinai could be broken only by war.
Sadat also knew that compromise with Israel would be almost impossible as long as Egypt’s humiliation of 1967 hung in the air. Kissinger understood that as well. He believed that America had to ensure an Israeli victory but that the victory should stop short of humiliating the Arabs to that degree again. Charting a middle course would require deft diplomacy.