GWYNNE DYER: A short war 50 years ago in Israel
Gwynne Dyer — October 5, 2023
In 1973, 50 years ago today, Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, coincided with Ramadan, the Islamic lunar month of fasting. But nobody raised an alarm in Israel when it was reported, two days before the Arab attack, that the Egyptian army had ordered its soldiers to stop fasting.
After their overwhelming victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israel smashed three Arab armies in a “pre-emptive” attack and expanded its territory fourfold, the Israelis were almost unanimous in their contempt for Arab military capabilities – indeed, for Arabs in general.
Some were aware that the Arabs might be plotting a re-match, but nobody was worried about it. As Major General Shlomo Gazit told the enquiry after the Yom Kippur War, the top ranks of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) were united in the belief that if the Arabs were foolish enough to attack, “we will break their bones”.
And the Arabs, of course, were united in their determination to reverse their humiliating defeat in 1967. As Israeli poet Haim Gouri said, “If Israeli intelligence had read the Egyptian poetry that was written after 1967, they would have known that October 1973 was inevitable. An intelligence officer needs to read poetry.”
They didn’t then and they still don’t now, but that’s another story. The point is that Israel was taken totally by surprise by the Arab counter-offensive of 1973 and went overnight from overweening confidence to incipient despair. Both were overreactions.
Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was a strategic thinker with a military background, and he knew perfectly well that the Egyptian and Syrian armies could not hope to conquer Israel.
Its mobilisation system was so good that within days it would outnumber the Arab troops on the battlefield, it had nuclear weapons, and behind it stood the United States.
Sadat’s aim was to shake the Israelis out of their overconfidence and get them to negotiate. After their astonishing 1967 victories they had been sort of paralysed by their own success.
The Israelis hadn’t started moving Jewish “settlers” into the occupied Palestinian territories yet, but they were keeping their options open and refusing to negotiate.
Sadat was new in power, and he just wanted the occupied Egyptian territory back (the Sinai peninsula). But the Israelis were convinced that he was aiming to “drive the Jews into the sea.”
(As a very new journalist I pointed all this out on the BBC World Service, and the Israelis got the BBC to drop me as an “Arab apologist”. Then a few days later I turned out to have been right, and the BBC started using me again. But there were never any apologies.
By one week into the war the Israelis had recovered their nerve, and by the ceasefire on Day 19 they had regained all the lost ground.
But Sadat’s plan actually succeeded: four years later, in 1979, Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt and gave back the whole Sinai peninsula. And that was the end of the “Arab-Israeli wars”.
Jordan (which sat out the 1973 war) also signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1990, leaving the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank on their own.
Syria would have signed a peace treaty too if the Israelis had been willing to return the occupied Golan Heights, but they overlook a lot of northern Israel and Jerusalem was unwilling to give them up.
Egypt was the only Arab country strong enough to pose a serious threat to Israel, but now tens of thousands of Israelis visit Egypt as tourists.
There are still a lot of Palestinians and Israelis getting killed over who has a right to the land, but it’s all within Israeli-controlled territory so you can’t really call it a war.
And opinions have evolved on both sides in ways that were unthinkable in 1973. The Arab world has basically abandoned the Palestinians to their fate, whatever it may be. Six Arab countries have established diplomatic ties with Israel and several more, including Saudi Arabia, are on the brink of doing so.
In the years after 1973 Israel split domestically between those who believed that the country could keep the occupied West Bank permanently (with or without its Palestinian population), and those who believed Israel had to trade some or all of that occupied land for a permanent peace.
After the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish ultra-nationalist in 1995 it became clear that the “settlers” had won and that the Palestinians would lose, at least in the short and medium terms. Whether they can stay on some of their lands or are ultimately expelled remains to be seen.
As for the long term, nobody knows. Nobody ever knows.
Al-Jazeera: The October 1973 War: How it led to the first Arab recognition of Israel
Fifty years after the Arab-Israeli war, Israel continues to occupy the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.
The October 1973 Arab-Israeli War lasted for barely three weeks but it shook the world economy and culminated in the Camp David Accords that saw Egypt become the first Arab country to establish diplomatic ties with Israel.
The war, known to Israelis as Yom Kippur and to Arabs as the October War, started when Egypt and Syria launched a two-front attack on Israel to regain their territories lost in the 1967 Six Day War when Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt and Syria’s Golan Heights.
The Ramadan War: A surprise assault that transformed the Middle East
Israel also seized large parts of historic Palestine, including the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in 1967. The defeat of Arabs and Palestinians is known as the “Naksa”, meaning setback or defeat.
Egypt regained control of Sinai but Syria’s Golan Heights remains occupied by Israel.
The aftermath of the war contributed to the shifting political dynamics between Arab nations and the United States.
Here are some of the key events that took place in the wake of the war:
The 1973 oil crisis
The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) led by Arab countries imposed an oil embargo on the US after accusing Washington of supplying weapons to Israel in the war that ended in a stalemate.
The aim was to use the oil embargo to pressure the US to resolve the Palestinian issue.
They pledged to maintain this until all the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 were relinquished and the rights of Palestinians were restored.
Oil prices shot up around the world, causing the US to reassess its support for the war.
Even though Israel did not pull out from the occupied Palestinian territories, the embargo on the US was lifted in 1974 following peace talks.
The oil crisis was a shock to economies worldwide, causing the oil price to quadruple from around $2.90 a barrel before the embargo to about $11.65 a barrel in January 1974.
To avoid a future shock, the International Energy Agency (IEA) was created as a response. The Paris-based intergovernmental organization works to ensure the security of oil supplies.
Camp David Accords
Former US President Jimmy Carter brokered a series of peace talks between Egypt’s then-President Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, the former Israeli Prime Minister.
These secret discussions that took place in Camp David, a country retreat for the US President near Washington, DC, spanned over 13 days.
The accords laid out conditions for an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, and a framework for Israeli-Palestinian peace using Resolution 242, which called for a withdrawal of Israel from territories occupied during the Six Day War in 1967.
Israel agreed to pull out its forces and civilians from Sinai in exchange for diplomatic ties with Egypt and access to the Suez Canal after the Camp David Accords signed in 1978.
While Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979, the framework never materialised.
Egypt suspended from the Arab League
Egypt was expelled from the Arab League, and all Arab countries broke diplomatic relations with Cairo following its normalisation with Israel.
Egypt was accused of disregarding the Palestinian cause, but 50 years on more Arab countries are eager to establish ties with Israel relegating the Palestinian issue to the side.
Jordan followed Egypt in signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1994 while several countries, including the United Arab Emirates, recognised Israel as part of the so-called Abraham Accords in 2020.
Cairo was brought back to the Arab League in 1989.
Fifty years after the Arab-Israeli war, Israel continues to occupy the Palestinian territory of West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. The US continues to see the Golan Heights as Israeli territory.