Tonight marks the start of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, and thus - at least by the Hebrew calendar - the 40th anniversary of a war that affects us today in ways we seldom notice.
In some Arab countries, the 1973 conflict between Israel and its then-principal opponents Syria and Egypt is remembered as the Ramadan War, because the Islamic holy month of Ramadan also coincided with the fighting. But it is most often called the October War. On our secular calendar, the anniversary of its outbreak will not come until Oct. 6. But the commencement tonight of Yom Kippur, Judaism’s Day of Atonement, strikes me as a logical moment to reflect on what has changed in the past 40 years, and what has not.
Egypt is no longer Israel’s enemy. The 1973 war led almost directly to the Camp David Accords in 1978 and to a peace treaty soon thereafter. It has mostly been a cold peace, which got even colder during the brief administration of recently deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, but it seems to have warmed since the Egyptian military deposed Morsi last month.
Israel still sees Syria as its adversary, and it still occupies the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967. The Syrians sought to recover the Golan in 1973. They would doubtless still be seeking it today if they were not caught up in their own grisly civil war. But Israel does not view Syria as a primary actor any longer. Instead, the Israeli government views Bashar Assad’s regime as a proxy for, or puppet of, its implacable enemy, Iran.
That’s quite a reversal. In 1973 Iran at least tacitly supported Israel. Younger Americans may find this hard to believe, but in 1973 Egypt actually blockaded a crucial waterway, the Bab-el-Mandeb, which links the Gulf of Aden with the Red Sea and through which Israel imported 18 million tons of Iranian oil annually. Iran’s ruler at the time, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was America’s closest ally in the region after Israel itself. The shah was deposed in Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. U.S.-Iranian relations broke down shortly thereafter when hostages were seized at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and the Tehran-Damascus alliance was solidified during Iran’s war with Iraq in the 1980s.
Egypt and Syria entered the 1973 war as client states of the Soviet Union, which supplied both nations with arms and military advisers during the conflict. But while Syria still draws extensive support from the current Russian government, the Camp David peace process - and the billions of dollars of American military aid that followed - pulled Cairo firmly out of Moscow’s military orbit. Egypt remained a solid American ally through the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. Since his fall, Washington’s influence in Cairo has steadily waned under both the Morsi administration and the military-dominated administration that deposed it. We don’t yet know whether Russia will seek to exploit this vacuum, or whether such an attempt would succeed. The Cold War may have ended a couple of decades ago, but geopolitical jockeying certainly did not.
On the night war broke out in 1973, Israel - besides controlling the Golan Heights - occupied eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank, which it captured from Jordan in 1967, as well as the Gaza Strip and the Sinai peninsula, which it had taken from Egypt’s control. Israeli troops were stationed along the east bank of the Suez Canal, where they built towering earthen fortifications. Egypt used a low-tech approach to breach those defenses at the start of the war, firing streams of water drawn from the canal through high-pressure hoses to blast gaps in the Israeli barrier.
Though a few intelligence analysts had spotted signs of impending trouble, the coordinated attacks by Egyptian and Syrian forces took both the Israeli and American governments by surprise. Israel had counted on air superiority to quickly counter any assault, but Soviet-supplied anti-aircraft defenses provided an umbrella under which Egyptian and Syrian forces rapidly advanced at the opening of the conflict. Israeli losses, in soldiers and equipment, were high. The early days of the war brought a desperate holding action, as Israel summoned reserves to the front lines and awaited American resupply for its diminished equipment.
Though the initial Syrian attack nearly succeeded in pushing Israel off the Heights, the defenders held, and in about three days they had rebuffed the attack. Prime Minister Golda Meir then ordered Israeli troops to proceed toward Damascus. Despite strong resistance, they ultimately came within 30 miles of the Syrian capital, which was also under fire from Israeli air power. The newly captured territory was just a means to save face and a bargaining chip. When the war ended, Israel returned to its pre-conflict positions.
Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat ordered his troops eastward into the Sinai, hoping to capture the strategic Gidi and Mitla passes. But the Egyptian columns took heavy losses once they left their air defense shield, and Israel countered with its own strike across the canal, coming within about 60 miles of Cairo. By the time the serious shooting stopped on Oct. 28, both the city of Suez and the Egyptian Third Army, which had crossed into Sinai, were encircled. One unexpected but immediate consequence was direct talks between Egyptian and Israeli military leaders, as the two sides worked out disengagement arrangements. This was the first direct collaboration between Israel and Egypt, an early step toward peace. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s mediation also paved the way for Washington to assume the role of intermediary between Israel and its neighbors.
A few other odd tidbits emerge from a look back. One is that Iraqi and Kuwaiti forces fought side-by-side in Syria, 17 years before the Iraqis invaded Kuwait. Jordan, which had participated in the 1967 war, mostly sat out the 1973 version. Jordan’s King Hussein even made a secret visit to Tel Aviv on Sept. 25 to warn Meir of an impending Syrian attack. However, the Israelis did not believe Syria would fight without Egyptian help, and they did not believe the Egyptians were prepared to attack, so the king’s timely warning was disregarded.
On the third night of the war, Meir is said to have ordered Israeli forces to assemble 13 nuclear weapons for use against Syrian and Egyptian targets - but to do so in a way that American reconnaissance could easily detect. As she hoped, this prompted the Americans to launch an emergency airlift that gave Israel the materiel it needed to stop the advancing enemy. The incident is recounted in William Gibson’s one-woman play “Golda’s Balcony,” which I saw Valerie Harper perform about seven years ago.
Clearly the war still reverberates. Today we pay a lot of attention to Iran’s nuclear program. Less remarked upon, Israel recently tested a long-range missile in the Mediterranean Sea, an implicit warning to Teheran that rockets can fly in any direction.
Former friends now are enemies; former enemies are, if not friends, at least no longer in conflict. A king made a secret mission to avert war; a prime minister ordered nuclear weapons assembled in virtually plain sight in the hope of not having to use them. The war that began that long-ago Yom Kippur eve is a story that took only a few weeks to write, yet we still await the final chapter.