The October 1973 War

The October 1973 War Politics, Diplomacy, Legacy Asaf Siniver (ed.) Hurst and Co 331pp £30

DURING THE EARLY afternoon of October 6th, 1973 the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal and overran the Israeli Bar-Lev line on the eastern bank. This assault on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, was designed to reverse Israel’s conquest of the Sinai peninsula during the 1967 Six Day War.

Six hundred Syrian tanks, outnumbering Israel’s 178, also advanced to reclaim the Golan Heights and to threaten a penetration of Israel’s heartland. The mehdal (blunder) indicated a profound intelligence failure and cost 2,691 Israeli lives. Forty years on, Asaf Siniver has gathered his colleagues to dissect this war in a series of essays.

The October or Ramadan War — as it is known in Egypt — is celebrated as a holiday even though Arab losses were around 18,000. The Yom Kippur war — as it is known in Israel — is regarded more as an enforced stalemate, even though Israeli forces crossed back over the canal, encircled the Egyptian Third Army and were 60 miles from Cairo. The Syrians, too, were pushed back and the Israelis shelled the outer suburbs of Damascus. Soviet threats to involve the USSR directly in the conflict forced President Nixon to stop the Israelis in their tracks.

The Egyptians established three bridgeheads across the canal and five divisions poured over into Sinai. The Egyptian plan was to secure a ten kilometre strip, where Egyptian troops were protected from Israeli air attacks by Soviet SAM missiles. This meant that the Egyptians were wary of advancing into Sinai beyond the range of the protective umbrella. The Syrians, too, halted a short distance from the Jordan, fearing Israel’s nuclear capability.

Jordan’s King Hussein had participated in the 1967 war, losing half his kingdom. As Assaf David relates, this time he sent a token brigade to fight alongside the Syrians. However, Hussein had been warning both the Americans and the Israelis that an attack was imminent. Two weeks before the crossing of the canal he had clandestinely met Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister, in Tel Aviv and warned her again. He even informed the head of Mossad about Syrian positions close to the Golan.

Despite the demands of the heads of the oil companies, Exxon, Mobil and Texaco, to cancel US military aid to Israel, a Watergate-troubled Nixon continued it — in order to match Soviet deliveries to Egypt. As David Painter recalls, once the war had started to go in Israel’s favour, Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, called upon the Arab states to stop oil exports to the US. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait cut their oil production by 10 per cent and Nixon responded by advocating self-sufficiency in the US by the end of the 1970s.

Ahron Bregman reveals the mystery of Ashraf Marwan, President Nasser’s son-in-law, who presented himself to the Israeli Embassy in London and offered to spy for them. Marwan delivered crucial information: his warning about the attack reached Tel Aviv a few hours before the Egyptian move. Bregman revealed Marwan’s identity in the Egyptian press; something he now regrets, especially since Marwan fell — or was pushed — from a Knightsbridge balcony in June 2007. Bregman considers the possibility that Marwan was a double agent; at the end he may not have known for whom he actually worked.

The political backlash in Israel in the aftermath of the war was profound, with resignations by the military and intelligence leadership as well as by senior politicians. It persuaded a new generation of Israelis to endorse Menachem Begin’s Likud in the December 1973 election. The Yom Kippur debacle marked the end of the old Israel, the emergence of Likud and Begin’s eventual electoral victory in 1977. Siniver’s study of this watershed event will interest all who wish to understand the complexity of the Israel-Egypt relationship.

History Today July 2014

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