Ted Thornton
History of the Middle East Database
Fourth Arab-Israeli War
1973
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The Arab-Israeli Wars

Roots

1948
1956
1967
1973

Palestinian Intifadas:  1987, 2000

War: Summer, 2006

BBC Maps on the Arab-Israeli Conflic

In June of 1973, United States President Nixon and Soviet Chairman Brezhnev held talks and issued a communiqué which made no mention at all of the Middle East.  Arabs were outraged. They concluded that there was no way to get the Middle East back on the front burner of superpower attentions except through war.

So, Egypt and Syria started what was planned to be a limited war against Israel. Egypt and Syria wanted a short war with a quick ceasefire, the aim being to break the political stalemate.

Henry Kissinger, U.S. Secretary of State, had secretly urged Israel not to launch a preemptive attack because it would have been too embarrassing for the U.S. Besides, Sadat had moved his troops around before and no attack had come. On two of these occasions, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir had mobilized Israel's armed forces at great expense. She did not want to do it again unnecessarily. Besides, both Israel and the U.S. doubted Egypt could launch a successful attack anyhow. So, this time around the Israelis did nothing.  Thus, it can be said that when Egypt finally did attack, they achieved at least an element of the "total surprise" that Sadat later boasted about in his memoirs. 

At 2:00 p.m., October 6, 1973, Egypt attacked Israel moving 10,000 troops across the Suez Canal digging in on the east bank along the "Bar Lev" line. Meanwhile, Syria attacked Israel from the Golan heights. The Arab armies were better trained and more aggressive than had been the case in the previous wars: Israel suffered heavy casualties in the early days of the fighting. Along the canal, the Israelis responded with a tank attack in which practically every tank was lost. Egyptian soldiers, demonstrating tremendous courage while standing fully exposed, fired wire-guided missiles at each tank as it approached. Initial attacks by the Israeli air force failed miserably as well.

Within twenty four hours, three Egyptian armies had established themselves on the east bank of the canal inside Israeli territory. Nevertheless, Israel, bolstered by a fresh supply of arms from the U.S., pushed into Syrian territory, and encircled the Egyptians by crossing the canal and taking its west bank.

Back in Egypt, what happened next was something military historians continued to wrangle over for some time afterward. After digging in, the three Egyptian armies just sat there and did nothing for the entire week that followed. They could have advanced, and they could have taken much Israeli territory in the Sinai. But, they did not make a move. This was fatal, because it gave the Israelis time to dig in and plan their own attack.

Egypt's allies, the Syrians, were thoroughly bewildered. President Asad sat in a bunker in Damascus waiting hour after hour for the Egyptians to move unaware that Sadat had been in constant secret contact with Henry Kissinger and had promised Kissinger that Egypt intended to advance no further (Seale, 208). By the time Asad angrily realized he had been set up by Sadat it was too late. The Israelis had themselves figured out what was happening and knew they were free to redeploy forces to the north to deal with the Syrians.  Therefore, Israel temporarily abandoned efforts on the western front and concentrated on containing and repelling the Syrian attack from the northeast. The Syrian threat was perceived as the greater of the two anyway, with the Golan Heights and the Galilee at stake. The Syrians were soon driven back behind the 1967 armistice line. At the end of hostilities, the Syrians had lost 6,000 men and 800 tanks.

The problem with the Egyptians was that they were as surprised as anyone at their success up to that point and had not drawn up a battle plan beyond taking the Bar Lev line. After the war, Army Chief of Staff General Shazli and Sadat traded accusations over this. The important point is that it was not at all certain that Sadat himself ever expected to get across the canal, and after he did, it may well have been a "total surprise" for him.  It was also a stunning political victory for him and indeed for all Egypt. Subsequently, the event was remembered with great pride by Egyptians and October 6 became one of the biggest national holidays. 

Other reasons have been advanced for the curious failure of the Egyptian armies to push further. One is that the Egyptians were afraid that advancing beyond the range of their Soviet-equipped protective missile system would render them vulnerable to Israeli air attack. Another is that the commander of the second army had a heart attack as his troops were digging in, apparently throwing the field command structure into disarray. A related and more general point had to do with the overall character of Egypt's military. Egyptian officers and troops had been trained by the Soviets. The Soviet command structure did not highly regard independent decision making among junior officers. The preferred modus operandi was to establish a centralized command network that issued orders for limited tactical missions. After carrying out their orders, field commanders typically sat and waited for further instructions. Under this scenario, the Egyptian troops crossed the canal, dug in, then simply waited for their next set of orders which never came.

One week after the Egyptians crossed the canal, when they finally did decide to push their attack further, 600 of their tanks were wiped out almost immediately as the Israelis had by then dug in and were waiting for them. At the same time, an Israeli tank division, commanded by General Ariel Sharon, who had a bad reputation among Israeli military figures as a political opportunist and a poor tactical commander, nevertheless successfully drove through the ten kilometer gap separating the second and third Egyptian armies and crossed over to the western side of the canal initially escaping the attention of the Egyptians, who, as indicated above, were just sitting there in their trenches. Sharon ordered his tanks to fan out from north to south to create the illusion of a vast Israeli presence inside Egyptian territory with a knife at the backs of Egypt's army. It worked. The Egyptians thought there were far more Israelis surrounding them than in fact was the case. Sharon concentrated on cutting off the Egyptian third army. This was all that was needed for Sadat to capitulate and accept the ceasefire.

On October 22, 1973,  the UN Security Council issued Resolution 338 (Text at Yale's Avalon Project) calling for a ceasefire and the start of negotiations aimed at implementation of Resolution 242.  Fighting had ended on all fronts by October 26. 

Followingr the ceasefire in November and the peace agreement on January 18th, US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger began what was quickly dubbed his "shuttle diplomacy" to try to find a settlement favorable to US interests.

Israel, for its part, had in one sense indeed been taken by surprise since the attack came on Yom Kippur, "the Day of Atonement," a high and solemn religious holiday in Israel. However, it was also the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Israel was not expecting an Arab attack during a time when Muslims traditionally were fasting. To that extent, the attack was a surprise. However, the U.S. had been feeding Israel satellite reconnaissance pictures of Egyptian troop movements for some time prior to the attack. So, the Israelis knew something was up. 

One of the many interesting things about the '73 war is that Egypt considered it a victory. The nation continued to celebrate the occasion annually on October 6; this in spite of the fact that once the Israelis had neutralized the Syrian threat on the northeastern front, they were able to turn their full attention toward taking care of the Egyptian penetration from the West.

In spite of the Israeli military victory, the war was very bad for Israeli morale. The 1973 war was the first Arab-Israeli war in which Israel suffered a high number of casualties (3,000 dead).  The myth of the invincibility of Israel was shattered. The war spawned reactions from both the Left (the Israeli peace movement) and the Right, especially the "religious Right." With respect to the Right, such groups as Gush Emunim, "army of the faithful," whose aim was to consolidate Jewish sovereignty over all the ancient lands of Judea and Samaria, gained ground -- more on religious Zionism (see also).  Israeli settlement activity increased markedly after this point, and a new rightist political party - Likud - quickly rose up to support it.   (see Kirsten Schulze, The Arab-Israeli Conflict (Essex, U.K.:  Addison-Wesley-Longman, Ltd., 1999), 50).  The war served to strengthen even further American support for Israel, which had taken a big leap forward in the aftermath of "Black September" (1970). In the wake of the '73 war, U.S. aid quadrupled from $500 million annually to $2.1 billion in loans and grants.

 

 

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Last Revised: May 28, 2006