International Effects of the Yom Kippur War The Arab-Israeli War of 1973 was an armed conflict between Israel and the Arab countries of Egypt and Syria, fought during the month of October 1973. Egypt and Syria initiated the conflict to regain territories that Israel had occupied since the Six-Day War of 1967. Although both sides suffered heavy losses during the 1973 war, Israel retained control of the territories.
Because the conflict began on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur and took place during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the war is also called the Yom Kippur War by Israelis and the Ramadan War or the October War by Arabs. Although it brought about no significant changes to territorial boundaries, the 1973 war and its aftermath had far-ranging effects on the participant nations and their relations with world superpowers. Egypt moved steadily away from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which had provided military and economic aid to Egypt since the 1950s, and into a closer relationship with the United States. Syria emerged from the war as the staunchest defender of Arab rights and the closest Middle Eastern ally of the USSR.
In Israel, the war increased criticism of the country’s leaders, who eventually resigned. Finally, the war signaled an increased commitment by the United States to negotiate and guarantee Arab-Israeli agreements. Such agreements would center on the return of Israeli-held lands to Arab control, in exchange for Arab recognition of Israel and security guarantees. The long-standing conflict between Jews and Arabs over control of historic Palestine had resulted in wars in 1948, 1956, and 1967.
The Arab opposition to the Jewish state of Israel included neighboring Arab states and, after 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), a political body working to create a state for Palestinian Arabs. In the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel gained control of the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip, previously controlled by Egypt; the Golan Heights, formerly belonging to Syria; and the West Bank and East Jerusalem, formerly administered by Jordan. Later that year, the United Nations (UN) adopted a resolution calling for Israeli withdrawal from these areas in exchange for Arab recognition of Israel’s independence and security. However, neither side met these conditions, and cross-border attacks and reprisals continued.
In 1969 Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser launched a campaign on the Suez Canal known as the War of Attrition. The conflict, which did not escalate into a full-scale war, ended with a U.S.-brokered cease-fire in 1970.
In the early 1970s Nasser’s successor, Anwar al-Sadat, pushed for Israeli withdrawal through diplomatic means, while simultaneously preparing Egypt’s military for war. Each year the UN passed resolutions calling for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. Israel refused to withdraw, and the United States suffered criticism from the international community for its support of Israel. Meanwhile, the stalemate continued.
Arab nations generally refused to negotiate until Israel withdrew. Israel, which refused to withdraw without guarantees of peace and security, fortified its positions in the occupied Arab territories. Neither the United States nor Israel believed that Arab forces could challenge Israel’s proven military power. The USSR, which had supported the Arab nations during previous wars with Israel and had resupplied Egypt militarily, knew that Egypt was preparing for war, but underestimated Sadat’s commitment to use a military option against Israel.
Furthermore, neither Washington nor Moscow was fully aware of the profound differences in policy between the Egyptian and Syrian leaders. Although the ultimate goal for both leaders was to regain their territories from Israel, Sadat was willing to combine military means with the initiation of a diplomatic process, whereas Syrian president Hafez al-Assad did not want to sign any agreement with Israel that might recognize Israel’s legitimacy. Sadat, unlike Assad, also was willing to orient Egypt’s foreign policy away from the USSR and toward the United States. With mounting economic pressures at home, Sadat believed that the United States, rather than the USSR, would help Egypt more in the long term.
Despite these differences, mutual frustration and impatience with the diplomatic status quo led Sadat and Assad to plan an attack in collusion. Because the two Arab leaders were focused more on their own particular national interests, rather than on other Arab-Israeli issues such as the future of the West Bank and Jerusalem and the issue of Palestinian statehood, they omitted Jordan and the PLO from the planning of the war. Egypt and Syria launched their attack against Israel on October 6, 1973. It was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.
With much of its citizen army in synagogues, its national radio off the air, and its people in a generally relaxed mood, Israel was caught off guard by the coordinated attacks. Israeli intelligence sources had discounted the probability of an Arab assault, and Israel’s military was not fully prepared for war. Sadat’s armies quickly crossed the Suez Canal. In doing so, Egypt overcame the Israeli string of fortifications along the canal’s east bank known as the Bar-Lev line, which Israel had believed to be impenetrable.
Egypt established strongholds to defend its position. Aware of his army’s limited firepower, Sadat did not order an advance across all of the Israeli-held Sinai. Instead, his armies took a small slice of land along the entire length of the canal’s east bank. Meanwhile, Syrian forces advanced into the Golan Heights.
During the first week of the war, both Syria and Egypt could have done more damage to Israel’s army, taken more territory, and inflicted severe damage on Israeli civilian centers. However, both armies failed to take advantage of their early gains, Israel’s lack of preparedness, and initial Israeli losses. Irregular and inaccurate communications between Cairo, Egypt, and Damascus, Syria, and between Moscow and these Arab capitals, inhibited additional Arab military successes. By mid-October, Israel had mobilized its troops and launched a series of counterattacks on both fronts.
Despite severe initial casualties, Israeli forces retook the land that Syria had captured and pushed past the Syrian border, soon making their way within artillery range of Damascus. Meanwhile, Israel launched a counteroffensive against Egypt, crossing the Suez Canal, advancing into Egypt, and surrounding Egypt’s Third Army. By the end of the war, Israeli forces had advanced to within 60 miles of Cairo and 25 miles of Damascus. However, Israel saw no political reason to occupy the two Arab capitals.
The precarious state in which the Arab armies found themselves hastened the war’s conclusion. It also prompted immediate intervention by the United States, which had supplied weapons to Israel during the fighting, and by the Soviet Union, which had supplied the Arab forces. Israel’s threat to eradicate the Egyptian Third Army prompted U.S.
secretary of state Henry Kissinger to visit Moscow to negotiate a cease-fire resolution with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. On October 22 the UN passed the resolution, which also called for direct negotiations between the Israelis and Arabs. Israel and Egypt both broke the terms of the cease-fire, and Israel continued its encirclement of the Egyptian Third Army. Brezhnev, viewing an Egyptian defeat as potentially destabilizing to Sadat’s government, implied in communications with U.
S. president Richard Nixon that Israel’s failure to halt military actions would prompt a Soviet response, including intervention to preserve the Third Army. In response, Kissinger asked for and received Nixon’s permission to put American troops on a nuclear alert. Both the Soviets and the Americans almost immediately stepped back from a confrontation.
A final cease-fire took effect on October 25. Israel’s desire to have its prisoners of war returned, combined with the precarious existence of the Egyptian Third Army, hastened military talks between Israel and Egypt. These talks took place at Kilometer 101 of the Cairo-Suez Road from October 28 until late November. Kissinger, desiring greater American participation, arranged a Middle East peace conference with the United States and the Soviet Union as cochairs, to continue the negotiations.
The conference convened in Geneva, Switzerland, on December 21. Although Jordan participated, Syria declined to attend, and the PLO was not invited. After two days of public posturing, the conference was suspended and failed to reconvene. During the next two years, Kissinger used a negotiating technique called “shuttle diplomacy,” flying back and forth between the Arab capitals and Israel and acting as a mediator.
This technique yielded the first Egyptian-Israeli military disengagement agreement, calling for Israel’s withdrawal back across the Suez Canal and the restoration in January 1974 of a UN peacekeeping force in the canal zone. (The UN force had been instituted after the 1956 war and was in place until 1967.) In May 1974 Syria and Israel, with Kissinger’s help, concluded a disengagement agreement by which Israel returned Syrian territory captured in the 1973 war, along with the town of Al Qunaytirah in the Golan region. It also established a UN buffer zone between Israeli and Syrian forces in the Golan.
A second Egyptian-Israeli agreement was concluded in September 1975. Although the war yielded no immediate territorial concessions, it had many far-reaching effects on the wider Arab-Israeli conflict. While Arab casualties were far greater than Israeli casualties, both sides claimed victory. The Arab forces had proven that they could launch a successful coordinated attack.
With their initial gains, they shattered the myth of Israel’s invincibility that had persisted since the 1967 war. Meanwhile, despite significant early losses, Israel had successfully regrouped in a matter of days, pushing the Arab forces back beyond the 1967 borders. While the war did not affect Syria’s close alignment with the Soviet Union and strong opposition to the United States and Israel, it initiated drastic changes in Egypt’s foreign relations. Kissinger’s newly developing relationship with Sadat reduced Soviet influence over Egypt and brought the country closer to the United States.
Each successful agreement also generated trust between Israel and Egypt. Both of these developments established the foundation for the U.S.-brokered Camp David Accords in 1978, which led to a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1979.
However, Egypt’s improved relations with the United States and Israel also led to its separation and isolation from inter-Arab affairs in the 1980s. Meanwhile, the diplomatic successes of the United States in the aftermath of the war made it the preferred mediator, confidant, and diplomatic guarantor of Arabs and Israelis alike in future negotiations. The 1973 war also marked the first successful use of oil as a political weapon in the Arab-Israeli conflict. From October 1973 to November 1974, the oil-producing Arab countries maintained an embargo on oil exports to Western nations friendly to Israel, causing gasoline shortages and inflated oil prices.
The embargo had a particularly negative effect on the U.S. economy. Finally, the war caused internal problems in Israel.
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