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Good Wednesday Morning,
Though there were rumors of war, the strategic surprise was the result of Egypt's brilliantly planned military maneuvers during the months beforehand which led the Israeli's to believe that Egyptian and Syrian maneuvers during the days preceding October 6th, 1973 were simply joint another exercise... they were not.
For the first 48 hours of the war it did not look all that good for the Jewish State. Her border defenses were overcome by concerted attacks in the Golan in the north and the Sinai in the south, backed by massive Soviet resupply lines and military intelligence operations. Scores of Israeli planes were destroyed by Soviet SAM missile batteries as they neared battle areas along the Suez Canal thus giving air cover to Egyptian forces as they re-crossed the Suez Canal into the Sinai itself. Finding its much vaunted air force useless against Soviet ground-to-air missiles, Israel resorted to a massive tank assault against oncoming Egyptian and Syrian forces.
Two days after initial successes and Israel's mobilization of roughly one third of her army, both Syrian and Egyptian armies found themselves on the defensive with the Syrians eventually forced out of the Golan and beyond the 1967 cease fire lines, and the Egyptian Third Army entirely surrounded and cut off by Israeli forces who were now on the Egyptian side of the Suez Canal only a few miles from the outskirts of Cairo itself. Egypt's Third Army, unable to resupply itself with even the basics of water and food, were prepared to capitulate and surrender in total to Israel.
The result of the war was the Arab loss of 10,000 men and 20,000 wounded and 2600 Israeli's killed and 7500 wounded. Based on her population, Israeli losses were three times as great as that of the US during the entirety of the Vietnam war, and this in barely three weeks time.
What was the cause of this war?
After the 1967 war in which both the Sinai and the Golan were lost in battle to Israel, the Knesset voted in secret on June 19th, 1967 (just one week after the end of that war) to return - in full - both those territories in return for a peace settlement. The message was sent to the US government for relay to Egypt and Syria but for reasons unknown the US opted to delay delivery of the terms.
In September of 1967 Arab states met in summit at Khartoum resulting in a Resolution, Section 3 of which states:
3. The Arab Heads of State have agreed to unite their political efforts at the international and diplomatic level to eliminate the effects of the aggression and to ensure the withdrawal of the aggressive Israeli forces from the Arab lands which have been occupied since the aggression of June 5. This will be done within the framework of the main principles by which the Arab States abide, namely, no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it, and insistence on the rights of the Palestinian people in their own country.Israel saw the Resolution in absolute terms but some Arab moderates saw openings for negotiations. For example, "no peace" to them meant no peace treaty, not 'no state of peace between warring parties'.
Beginning in July of 1967, Israeli and Egyptian forces engaged in almost daily bombing and artillery duels across the Suez Canal in what has become known as the "war of attrition". Egypt was backed by some 15,000 Soviet military advisers and Israeli forces engaged Egyptian flagged but Soviet operated MiG's on several occasions. On August 7, 1970 a cease fire was arranged which guaranteed no change in military positions within 50 kilometers of the front. In direct violation of the accord, Egypt immediately rushed Soviet SAM missile batteries into the field, something she was not able to accomplish under Israeli bombardment the previous year and a half.
Later in 1970, moderates were able to see Israel, Egypt and Jordan agree to terms stipulated in the "Rogers Plan" conceived by President Nixon, which laid out an orderly withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied territories according to UN Resolution 242. However, the plan placed control of the West Bank in the hands of King Hussein of Jordan, a fact which radical Palestinians found untenable, hoping instead for the destruction of the Jewish state from Palestinian controlled territory. Civil war then erupted between Palestinians and Jordan.
On September 18th, 1970, at the height of the civil war, Syria invaded Jordan with 300 tanks in support of the Palestinians. The Israeli air force staged mock attacks (they fired no guns) on the invading Syrians forcing them back across the border which dealt a severe setback for radical Palestinians who had, at that time, gained an upper hand in the conflict. This event turned the tide of the civil war to Jordan's favor. The Syrians, still smarting from the 1967, war were not prepared for an all-out battle with Israel which they would have surely lost.
Jordan slowly regained control over the West Bank with estimates of between 10,000 and 20,000 Palestinian casualties. The war led to the creation of radical groups such as "Black September" by Yassir Arafat, which would go on to engage in a terror campaign against Israel until they were forced out of the West Bank and into Lebanon by Jordan several years later, thus precipitating a civil war in that country, too.
With the Rogers Plan in shambles, the Syrians angry and vindictive, and the newly elected Egyptian President Anwar Sadat seeking a place in Arabic history as the savior of the Palestinians, moderates were sidestepped by radical positions - on all sides.
Both Egypt and Syria desired return of lands lost in the 1967 war and since they were now in no position to negotiate with the Jewish state, opted for war instead. Planning began almost immediately and by October 1973, fully re-supplied with Soviet weapons, they were ready to invade - with disastrous political and military results.
Just after a cease-fire was arranged in late October, the Soviet Union issued a direct threat to the US: If the US and Soviets do not act in concert to assure Israel allows food and water to reach Egypt's captured Third Army and removes her troops from Egyptian soil, she would involve herself directly in the hostilities on Egypt's side. The Soviets then placed her military forces on alert, dispatching soldiers and materials, and mobilized amphibious vessels loaded with troops to the Mediterranean within striking distance of the Suez Canal and Israeli forces.
Henry Kissinger met with executive staff at the White House and sent a letter to the Soviets asking them to think again, a letter to Anwar Sadat telling him that he should drop his request for direct Soviet intervention and then raised the US DEFCON level from Four to Three. Sensing a US nuclear escalation and military alerts at the highest level, Mr. Sadat withdrew his request to the Soviets and the Soviets backed down deferring instead to the United Nations. The Soviets, upon backing down, claimed that the US was "too nervous" and had no real desire for a nuclear showdown.
UN resolutions were then enforced and peace keeping troops arrived to settle between the warring parties, arranging a disengagement and the delivery of humanitarian supplies to the Egyptian Third Army while negotiations continued.
At the initial cease-fire between Israeli and Egyptian forces and before the Soviet threat, had Henry Kissinger not forced Israel to lay down her arms at a time when she was prepared to make the decisive, killing blow against her enemies, the shape of the Middle East - and its politics - would be very different today.
Seeing that Israel not only had a foothold on Africa proper but was poised to deliver a crushing blow to a planned Syrian counter attack in the Golan, (Israel had learned a few tricks to outwit Soviet SAM batteries), and possibly the loss of Damascus itself, the idea that Israel could be defeated militarily became another victim of the war and Arab nations have since refrained from direct military attacks against the Jewish State.
After the war, Arab unity was in disarray and extreme positions weakened through their decisive defeat in war. With few other options, Arab nations enforced an oil embargo against nations seen as aiding Israel which lasted through early 1974 before financial pangs began to show themselves. Oil producing states had worked through their cash reserves and money was in short supply. During the embargo, the price of petroleum based US exports (steel, fertilizers, ) to Arab nations increased, often as much as 300%, thus hurting them even more. Publicly stated Arab determination to "push the Jews into the sea" had taken a back seat to economic realities.
Once the embargo ended direct relations between the US, Egypt and Syria were re-established. And, with the Khartoum Summit Resolution decidedly in tatters, actual negotiations were finally able to begin.
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter was able to bring the Egyptians and Israeli's together at Camp David to sign a peace accord that has held through the present time. Jordan and Israel came to a final resolution in October of 1994. (Unofficially, Israel and Jordan had been in a state of non-aggression since late 1968 with frequent, though secret, ongoing communications between the two governments. Jordan's involvement in the 1973 war was token, at best.) To date, Syria has steadfastly refused any negotiations with Israel and remains a pariah state working quietly towards nuclear capabilities.
The fate of the Palestinians today is even more complex. With the Arab world seeing no military solution to Israel's existence and having accepted, de facto, that she exists, and with the failure of Palestinians to cooperate with each other in order to build a viable state, they have lost support of their Arab neighbors and benefactors and now stand alone and abandoned by much of the political world who once supported their cause.
The 1973 War marked a decisive change in the geo-political and military situation in the Middle East. It set down realities for the Arabs and for Israeli's as well. It told the Arabs that Israel could not be wiped off the map through force of arms. It told the Israeli's that she was not invincible and those realities eventually brought both sides to the peace table establishing relations that, although officially cold and hostile, have not resulted in the use of arms since.