After the exhilaration of the victory in the Six-Day War in 1967, Israelis became increasingly dispirited. The growing level of terrorism, combined with increasingly ominous threats from Egypt, made peace seem further away than ever. Rather than reconciling themselves to Israel’s existence, the Arab states looked for a way to avenge the humiliation of their defeat. The Soviet Union was doing its share to stoke the flames of war by pouring arms into the region. And the Gulf Arab states were beginning to take greater control of their oil resources and use the revenues to flex their political muscle.
In 1971, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat raised the possibility of signing an agreement with Israel, provided that all the territories captured by the Israelis were returned. Later, many people would claim Israel missed an opportunity to avoid war, but the truth was that Sadat expected Israel to ignore the threats that led to the 1967 War and to capitulate to Egyptian demands without any guarantee of peace. The suggestion was a nonstarter from Israel's point of view. Moreover, Sadat could not negotiate an agreement until Egypt erased the shame of 1967.
For all the talk of peace, though, it was still violence that grabbed the headlines. During the summer of 1972, Palestinian terrorists infiltrated the Munich Olympics and murdered 11 Israeli athletes.
With no progress toward peace, Sadat began to say that war was inevitable and that he was prepared to sacrifice one million soldiers in the showdown with Israel. Throughout 1972 and for much of 1973, Sadat threatened war unless the United States forced Israel to accept his interpretation of Resolution 242 — total Israeli withdrawal from territories taken in 1967.
Simultaneously, Sadat appealed to the Soviets to bring pressure on the United States and to provide Egypt with more offensive weapons. The Soviet Union was more interested in maintaining the appearance of détente with the United States than a confrontation in the Middle East; therefore, it rejected Sadat’s demands. Sadat’s response was to abruptly expel approximately 20,000 Soviet advisers from Egypt.
In an April 1973 interview, Sadat again warned that he would renew the war with Israel. But it was the same threat he had made in 1971 and 1972, and most observers remained skeptical. In fact, almost up to the start of the shooting, no one expected a war. “The news of the imminent attack on Israel took us completely by surprise,” President Nixon said later. “As recently as the day before, the CIA had reported that war in the Middle East was unlikely.”
Jordan’s King Hussein met with Prime Minister Golda Meir on September 25, 1973, supposedly to warn her of an impending war. Hosni Mubarak, however, claimed it was Yasser Arafat who warned the Israelis.
Had U.S. intelligence realized at the beginning of October 1973 that the Arabs were about to attack, Nixon might have been able to prevent the war through diplomacy or threats.
Despite the conventional wisdom that Israel was surprised by the attack that did eventually come, the truth is the Israelis began to prepare for battle on October 5 and were convinced war was imminent the following morning. But, like U.S. intelligence officials, Israeli analysts were skeptical about the threat of war.
According to documents declassified in 2012, the failure to anticipate the Arab attacks was a result of a number of intelligence failures. For example, Israeli soldiers on the southern front were given a secret document that provided 14 signals that would indicate an Egyptian attack was forthcoming. None of those indicators were apparent before the invasion. Similarly, in the north, a warning was passed on to the commander that Syria planned to attack on October 2. That intelligence could not be confirmed and was dismissed. The Egyptian buildup was also similar to the one that occurred in May 1973 and did not lead to war.
On October 4, a day before learning that Russian civilians were leaving Egypt and Syria, Military Intelligence reported the chances for war were low. Israel had a spy in Egypt; however, Ashraf Marwan,** the son-in-law of ex-president Gamal Abdel Nasser, passed on a warning to his Mossad handler in London that war was imminent a day and a half before it started. The Mossad director, Zvi Zamir, was informed by his aide and planned to meet with his agent in London the next day. Zamir subsequently learned from Israeli Military Intelligence that Soviet scientists were preparing to leave Syria, which added weight to the report of pending war. Two weeks earlier, Israel learned that Russia was transferring Scud missiles to Egypt, another worrisome sign. According to Zamir's aide, Alfred Eini, Marwan's warning of impending war was not passed on to the Prime Minister immediately because the Mossad thought Military Intelligence would do it. Zamir did not reach someone in the prime minister's office until a day later, hours before the attack.
Deputy Chief of Staff General Israel Tal feared war was coming and tried to convince his boss, Chief of Staff General David Elazar, to take precautions, strengthen the front line with Egypt, and call up reserves.
If I am wrong and you are right, he said,
we drafted them for nothing, inconvenienced them during the holidays, and wasted money. That would be a shame, but not too bad. On the other hand, if I am right and you are mistaken, we will face disaster.
It was not until 5 a.m. on October 6 that Elazar first recommended a full, immediate mobilization of forces and a preemptive air strike. He was overruled. A few hours later, a partial call-up of reserves was approved, but Meir still refused to authorize Elazar to take military action. She advised the U.S. ambassador of the situation and asked him to pass on the message that the Arabs should be restrained. Henry Kissinger, who now was secretary of state, subsequently appealed to Sadat and Syrian president Hafez Assad not to do anything precipitously. He also cautioned Meir not to shoot first. Meir found herself in a nearly impossible position. The intelligence community had not given her sufficient warning of the impending attack to adequately prepare the nation for war. Still, Israel’s chances for victory and minimizing casualties could be greatly enhanced by a preemptive strike and the rapid mobilization of the IDF (Israel Defense Forces). However, she feared that striking first, as Israel had done in 1967, might so anger the United States that Nixon would not support Israel’s prosecution of the war or policies afterward. And, unlike 1967, she did not feel Israel could afford to go it alone.
On October 6, 1973 — Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar (and during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan) — Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated surprise attack against Israel. The equivalent of the total forces of NATO in Europe was mobilized on Israel’s borders. On the Golan Heights, approximately 180 Israeli tanks faced an onslaught of 1,400 Syrian tanks. Along the Suez Canal, fewer than 500 Israeli defenders with only three tanks were attacked by 600,000 Egyptian soldiers, backed by 2,000 tanks and 550 aircraft.
Hosni Mubarak, who was the Egyptian Air Force commander, said he started the war by attacking an Israeli communications base in his fighter jet six minutes before the rest of the Arab armies’ surprise attack on the Jewish state began at 2:00 p.m. He said Sadat and two other people were the only ones informed of his mission.
At least nine Arab states, including four non–Middle Eastern nations (Libya, Sudan, Algeria, and Morocco), actively aided the Egyptian-Syrian war effort. A few months before the attack, Iraq transferred a squadron of Hunter jets to Egypt. During the war, an Iraqi division of some 18,000 men and several hundred tanks was deployed in the central Golan and participated in the October 16 attack against Israeli positions. Iraqi MiGs began operating over the Golan Heights as early as October 8 — the third day of the war.
Besides serving as financial underwriters, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait committed men to battle. A Saudi brigade of approximately 3,000 troops was dispatched to Syria, where it participated in fighting along the approach to Damascus. Also violating Paris’s ban on the transfer of French-made weapons, Libya sent Mirage fighters to Egypt. Other North African countries responded to Arab and Soviet calls to aid the front-line states. Algeria sent three aircraft squadrons of fighters and bombers, an armored brigade, and 150 tanks. Approximately 1,000 to 2,000 Tunisian soldiers were positioned in the Nile Delta. Sudan stationed 3,500 troops in southern Egypt, and Morocco sent three brigades to the front lines, including 2,500 men to Syria.
Lebanese radar units were used by Syrian air defense forces. Lebanon also allowed Palestinian terrorists to shell Israeli civilian settlements from its territory. Palestinians fought on the Southern Front with the Egyptians and Kuwaitis.
In September 2013, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak claimed that he personally started the Yom Kippur war during a secret mission during his time as an Egyptian air force commander. Mubarak stated that six minutes before the large attack on Israel commenced, including other Arab armies, he attacked an Israeli communications outpost in his fighter jet in the first attack of the war.
Jordan’s King Hussein, who apparently hadn’t been informed of Egyptian and Syrian war plans, chose not to fight this round, correctly calculating that his forces were vastly inferior to the Israelis.’ Hussein’s decision was crucial to Israel’s defense because it freed up forces that would otherwise have had to fight on a third front.
Still, Arab brotherhood required that Hussein contribute to the cause, so he sent two of his best units to Syria. Three Jordanian artillery batteries also participated in the assault, carried out by nearly 100 tanks.
During the October war, the Arab oil-producing states imposed an embargo on oil exports to the United States, Portugal, and Holland because of their support for Israel. The impact was to cause a shortage of petroleum in the United States and a quadrupling of gas prices. Americans soon had to contend with long lines at gas stations.
Several U.S. oil companies that got most of their petroleum supplies from the Middle East and depended on the goodwill of the Arab states to maintain their business relations in the region collaborated in the embargo against their own nation. Oil company executives lobbied the Nixon administration to offer more support to the Arabs and less to Israel. They, along with State Department Arabists, hoped to convince the public that Israel was to blame for the United States’ economic hardships and that it was far more important for the United States to ally itself with the Arab states than with Israel.
The oil embargo was lifted on March 18, 1974, but the United States and other Western nations continued to feel its effects for years to come.
Thrown onto the defensive during the first two days of fighting, Israel mobilized its reserves and began to counterattack. In the south, Israeli forces were having little success in stopping the Egyptian onslaught. Still, the Sinai Desert offered a large buffer zone between the fighting and the heart of Israel.
The situation was different in the north, where the Syrians had swept across the Golan and could, in short order, threaten Israel’s population centers. Consequently, most reserves meant for the Egyptian front were shifted to the Golan. The replenished Israeli forces stopped the Syrian advance, forced a retreat, and began their own march forward toward Damascus.
The Soviets gave their wholehearted political support to the Arab invasion. Starting as early as October 9, they also began a massive airlift of weapons, which ultimately totaled 8,000 tons of materiel. The United States had given Israel some ammunition and spare parts, but it resisted Israeli requests for greater assistance.
As the Soviets continued to pour weapons into the region, Kissinger decided that the United States could not afford to allow the Soviet Union’s allies to win the war. The secretary of state wanted to show the Arabs they could never defeat Israel with the backing of the Soviets. He also couldn’t afford to let U.S. adversaries win a victory over a U.S. ally. By sending arms to Israel, the United States could ensure an Israeli victory, hand the Soviets a defeat, and provide Washington with the leverage to influence a postwar settlement.
On October 12, Nixon ordered an emergency airlift – Operation Nickel Grass – to Israel. Cargo planes carrying spare parts, tanks, bombs, and helicopters flew round-the-clock to Israel. While the U.S. was resupplying Israel, the British, under Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath, imposed an arms embargo. This inhibited Israel’s ability to get spare parts for its British-made Centurion tanks. Heath also denied the U.S. access to British bases in Cyprus to gather intelligence and would not allow British bases to be used to refuel or resupply Israel. One positive outcome of the British policy was to stimulate the creation of Conservative Friends of Israel (Labor Friends of Israel was established in 1957)/
The resupply efforts were further hampered by America’s other NATO allies who, capitulating to Arab threats, refused to allow American planes to use their air space. The one exception was Portugal, which as a consequence, became the base for the operation. Between October 14 and November 14, 1973, 22,000 tons of equipment were transported to Israel by air and sea. The airlift alone involved 566 flights. To pay for this infusion of weapons, Nixon asked Congress for and received $2.2 billion in emergency aid for Israel.
In the greatest tank battle since the Germans and Russians fought at Kursk in World War II, roughly 1,000 Israeli and Egyptian tanks were massed in the western Sinai from October 12 through 14. On October 14, Israeli forces destroyed 250 Egyptian tanks in the first 2 hours of fighting. By late afternoon, the Israeli forces had routed the enemy.
Meanwhile, Israeli General Ariel Sharon had been chomping at the bit to cross the Suez Canal but had been ordered not to do so until after the main Egyptian force had been defeated in the Sinai. With that mission accomplished, Israeli paratroopers snuck across the canal and established a bridgehead. By October 18, Israeli forces were marching with little opposition toward Cairo. For the Israelis, the crossing was a great psychological boost; for the Egyptians, it was a humiliation.
At about the same time, Israeli troops were on the outskirts of Damascus, easily within artillery range of the Syrian capital. Prime Minister Meir did not want to attack Damascus, so the IDF stopped its advance and focused its activities on recapturing Mount Hermon — the highest peak in the region and a key Israeli radar and observation post that had fallen to the Syrians early in the fighting. On October 22, Israel once again controlled the Golan Heights.
Meanwhile, the air battles were one-sided. Israel lost only five planes and the Egyptians 172 in more than 50 dogfights. Israeli pilots shot down at least 334 Arab aircraft in aerial combat.
As Israeli troops began to advance on Damascus, the Soviets started to panic. On October 12, the Soviet ambassador informed Kissinger that his government was placing troops on alert to defend Damascus. The situation grew even tenser over the next two weeks as Israeli forces reversed the initial Egyptian gains in the Sinai and began to threaten Cairo. The Egyptian Third Army was surrounded, and Israel would not allow the Red Cross to bring in supplies. At this point, Sadat began to seek Soviet help in pressing Israel to accept a cease-fire.
On October 24, the Soviets threatened to intervene in the fighting. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reported that the Soviet airlift to Egypt had stopped and that it was possible the planes were being prepared to change the cargo from weapons to troops. Responding to the Soviet threat, Nixon put the U.S. military on alert, increasing its readiness for the deployment of conventional and nuclear forces.
The United States was in the midst of the political upheaval of the Watergate scandal, and some people believed Nixon was trying to divert attention from his political problems at home, but the danger of a U.S.–Soviet conflict was real. In fact, this was probably the closest the superpowers ever came to a nuclear war other than the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Fortunately, the Soviets backed down and never sent troops to fight.
The Soviet Union showed no interest in initiating peacemaking efforts so long as it looked like the Arabs might win. The same was true for UN secretary-general Kurt Waldheim. After the situation on the battlefield changed in Israel’s favor, however, desperate calls were made for the fighting to end.
On October 22, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 338, calling for “all parties to the present fighting to cease all firing and terminate all military activity immediately.” The resolution also called for the implementation of Resolution 242. The vote came on the day that Israeli forces cut off and isolated the Egyptian Third Army and were in a position to destroy it.
Israel reluctantly complied with the cease-fire, largely because of U.S. pressure but also because the next military moves would have been to attack the two Arab capitals, something few believed would be politically wise. By the end of the fighting, 2,688 Israeli soldiers had been killed. The one homefront casualty occurred when a FROG missile struck the pilots’ headquarters of the Ramat David air base. Combat deaths for Egypt and Syria totaled 7,700 and 3,500, respectively.
Ironically, the United States had helped save Israel through its resupply effort and then rescued Egypt by forcing Israel to accept the cease-fire. Henry Kissinger used U.S. power and diplomacy to try to bring about a war result that would allow Egyptians to erase the stain of 1967 without allowing them to win or Israel to humiliate them again.
In January 1974, Israel and Egypt negotiated a disengagement agreement (Sinai I) thanks to Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy — so named because he flew back and forth between the two countries with American suggestions, as well as offers and counteroffers from the two governments. The Sinai I Accord allowed the Egyptians to retain control of the Suez Canal, freed the Third Army, and drew a cease-fire line on the east side of the canal, with a buffer zone between the two forces.
A second disengagement agreement (Sinai II) was signed in September 1975, which called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from two strategic passes in the Sinai and some surrounding territory. The Egyptians were not allowed back into this neutral zone. Instead, U.S. peacekeepers were deployed to monitor the area.
The negotiations with the Syrians were more torturous. It was not until May 1974 that a separation of forces agreement was signed that created a UN–policed buffer zone, a reduction in troop deployment, and the return of the town of Kuneitra to Syria. And that came only after the renewal of fighting in March. Syria fired artillery at Israeli positions between March and May, during which 37 more Israeli soldiers were killed.
The United States rewarded Syria for the agreement with a modest grant of financial assistance[md]the first in 30 years — in hopes of building a new relationship with the regime of Hafez Assad and encouraging him to negotiate a peace agreement. As Nixon’s successors would also discover, Assad was happy to take whatever the United States was willing to offer, but he gave nothing in return. Rather than join the peace process, Assad became one of the leaders of the Rejectionist Front.
Assad was also determined to impede Israeli-Egyptian negotiations. He feared that an agreement between them would reduce Egypt’s willingness to fight for the Arab cause and that Sadat would accept a separate deal with Israel that would not address Syrian grievances.
The fact that the Arabs had succeeded in surprising the IDF and inflicting heavy losses in the early part of the war against the supposedly invincible Israeli army was a traumatic experience for Israel. Its government reacted to the public’s calls for an inquiry by establishing a commission chaired by Shimon Agranat, the president of Israel’s Supreme Court.
The Agranat Commission concluded that Israeli intelligence had sufficient warning of the impending attack but, for a variety of reasons, had failed to interpret the information correctly. The commission did not assess the role of Prime Minister Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, but the public viewed them as the officials who were actually responsible for the mistakes that were made. Chief of Staff Elazar bore the brunt of the commission’s blame and resigned.
The report also called for the removal of the head of IDF intelligence Eliyahu Zeira and his deputy, Arye Shalev. It was not until 2020, however, that the public learned that the commission found that Zeira made a critical error by not activating “special means” in time to learn about the impending Egyptian attack. “It was his obligation to enable contact to be made with these sources so as to do everything possible to determine the enemy’s intentions,” the document reads. “A mistake that leads to the non-utilization of a vital intelligence source when it is most needed is a severe professional failure.” The commission also accused Zeira of misleading Israel’s military and political leaders into thinking he had activated the “special means.”
According to Ofer Aderet, “The exact nature of these means remains unclear to this day. Various reports, both in Israel and abroad, say they were sophisticated listening devices that could record telephone calls by Egyptian army officers. On the eve of the war in October 1973, Israel’s decision-makers were sure the technology would give the country a 48-hour warning.”
The public was angered by what many viewed as scapegoating career military officials for the mistakes of their political leaders. This outrage ultimately led Meir to resign. Dayan would have been the logical heir, but his reputation was now in tatters. The alternatives of the dominant Labor Party for a successor came down to a choice between two very different men. One, Minister of Information Shimon Peres, was a popular nonmilitary man who had played a key role in building the nation’s military might through his diplomatic skills. The other was Yitzhak Rabin, a native-born Israeli and military leader from the days of the Haganah, who had served as chief of staff during the Six-Day War and later as ambassador to Washington. In a tight election that fueled a 20-year political rivalry, Rabin was chosen to be prime minister.
Although Egypt lost the war, with Israeli troops prepared to march on Cairo and the Third Army saved by the United States from annihilation, Egyptians saw the battle as a victory for them. They had surprised the arrogant Israelis and nearly defeated them. If not for U.S. support, many believed, they would have driven the Jews into the sea. Sadat did not seem to have that as his objective. It was more important for him to erase the humiliation of 1967. As Egyptian chief of staff Sa’ad Shazli said on October 8, 1973, “The war has retrieved Arab honor.” This psychological shift was critical to Sadat's ability to enter negotiations later to reach a peace agreement with Israel.
Sources: Mitchell G. Bard, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Middle East Conflict. 4th Edition. NY: Alpha Books, 2008;
Roi Mandel, “Declassified documents reveal failures of Yom Kippur War,” Ynet, (September 25, 2012);
Yaakov Lappin, “Declassified Yom Kippur papers reveal failures,” Jerusalem Post, (September 21, 2012);
Yom Kippur War Redux / How Israeli and U.S. leaders ignored the Arab drums of war in 1973, Haaretz, (October 8, 2011):
Neville Teller, “The Conservative Friends of Israel,” Jerusalem Report, (March 23, 2020);
Ofer Aderet, “Military Intelligence Chief Misled Israeli Leaders Ahead of 1973 War, Declassified Doc Reveals,” Haaretz, (May 9, 2020).
“Air battle of Mansoura,” Wikipedia.
*In the United States, the October 1973 war is typically referred to as the Yom Kippur War. Because the war was fought during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Arabs and Muslims refer to it as the Ramadan War.
**An intelligence controversy exists over whether Marwan was a double agent. We will never know; Marwan fell to his death under mysterious circumstances in 2007.
***Ironically, Sadat was assassinated during a parade in Cairo in 1981 celebrating Egypt's “victory” in 1973.