A Short War Fifty Years Ago

4 October 2023

A Short War Fifty Years Ago

By Gwynne Dyer

In 1973, fifty years ago on Friday, 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 ‘preemptive’ 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 inquiry 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’s 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.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“Some…bones”; and “Sadat’s…success”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘The Shortest History of War’.