In October 1973, the fourth Arab-Israeli war broke out. And for the first time war was an Arab initiative, taking by surprise Israel’s military and security establishment, which had dismissed such a possibility. After short-term gains by the Arab militaries, Israel (with significant US support) responded and pushed back into Arab territory. The war held up by the Arab regimes as a victory, and there is no doubt that in many respects it marked the swan song of Arab unity in confronting Israel and proved the centrality of the Arab-Israeli conflict to Cold War confrontation in the region. But it also opened the way to a separate Egyptian-Israeli settlement.
In November 1971, frustrated by the failure of attempts by U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers and United Nations special envoy Gunnar Jarring to broker a political settlement between Israel and the Arab states, Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat told his parliament: “We cannot remain forever suspended in the current situation of neither peace nor war. We must take our decision at the appropriate time and in the appropriate manner.” In February 1972, Sadat visited Moscow, where he assured the Soviet leadership that “the situation in the region no longer allows any postponement of military action” and asked them to “accelerate the implementation of military contracts” that the Soviet Union had signed with Egypt.
When no Soviet response to the requests for arms had been received by the end of the first week of July 1972, Sadat decided to expel some 15,000 Soviet military advisers and experts working in Egypt. While the Israeli government interpreted this decision as the abandonment of the military option, the Egyptian president—facing growing Egyptian popular discontent with the continued state of limbo between war and peace and feeling that the U.S. administration had proven itself unwilling to take the steps necessary to make diplomatic progress—had arrived at the conclusion that a “limited” military operation was the only way to break the deadlock.
Egypt coordinated its planning with Syrian president Hafiz al-Asad; Jordan’s King Hussein was also aware of the possibility of a joint Egyptian-Syrian attack, but he refused to participate and even cautioned Israel that such plans were afoot. (The warning went unheeded.) On the afternoon of 6 October 1973, Egyptian tanks backed by war planes broke through the Bar Lev Line, Israel’s line of fortifications along the eastern edge of the Suez Canal. As Egypt’s forces advanced toward Israeli lines deep within the Sinai, Syrian tanks penetrated Israeli lines in the north, advancing five kilometers into the occupied Golan Heights.
A week passed before Israeli generals recovered from this shock and regained the advantage on the military fronts. On 16 October, Israeli forces began their counterattack and succeeded in crossing the Suez Canal in the area of Deversoir. They proceeded south toward the city of Suez, imposing a tight siege on the Third Egyptian Army. Meanwhile, Israeli forces also succeeded in stopping the Syrians’ surge, advancing well behind the armistice lines and deep into Syrian territory. These gains were achieved in large part thanks to an American airlift of large quantities of military equipment to Israel.
In response to the Israeli counteroffensive, representatives of the Arab oil-producing states met in Kuwait on 17 October 1973 and decided to raise the price of oil by 75 percent and to embargo oil sales to countries supporting Israel, notably the United States. This Arab position contributed to the acceleration of international efforts to reach a cease-fire and on 22 October 1973, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 338. The resolution called upon the warring parties “to cease all firing and terminate all military activity immediately” and to “start immediately after the cease-fire the implementation of Security Council resolution 242 (1967) in all of its parts,” while deciding that “negotiations shall start between the parties concerned . . . aimed at establishing a just and durable peace in the Middle East.”
Resolution 338 was immediately accepted by Egypt, followed the next day by Syria. Israeli forces, however, did not comply with the cease-fire on the Egyptian front until 27 October, only after the Soviet leadership threatened to intercede by sending military forces to Egypt and the U.S. administration responded by increasing the Defense Condition (DEFCON) from four to three, a state reached only once before, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (and years later, during the attacks of 11 September 2001).
After the cease-fire was imposed on all fronts, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger intensified efforts to remove Egypt from the bloc of Arab confrontation states and to push it toward reaching a separate settlement with Israel. Sadat began moving down the path of the “step by step” policy formulated by Kissinger, agreeing on 11 November 1973 to a meeting between the Egyptian and Israeli militaries at Kilometer 101 on the Cairo-Suez road, where the two parties accepted an invitation to reach a “disengagement” agreement and to begin the exchange of prisoners.
In opposition to this Egyptian unilateralism, Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) convened an Arab summit in Algeria at the end of November 1973. At the top of the summit’s agenda was the issue of Arab participation in the international peace conference that the two global superpowers had agreed to hold. Also at the Arab summit, the Arab heads of state—despite Jordan’s opposition—reached a secret decision to recognize the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people. When the international peace conference opened in Geneva on 21 December 1973, representatives from Egypt, Jordan, and Israel attended, while representatives of Syria and the PLO did not. At this conference, it was decided to form a joint Egyptian-Israeli military committee to investigate the separation of forces on the Sinai front. This led, on 17 January 1974, to a partial agreement for “disengagement” known as the "Sinai 1" agreement.
Under intense U.S. pressure, the Arab oil ministers agreed to lift the Arab oil embargo in March 1974. At the end of May 1974, Henry Kissinger succeeded in bringing Syrian and Israeli representatives to Geneva, where they reached an agreement for the separation of forces on the Golan front. The next step was to reach an agreement in the West Bank, but the Israeli government refused to agree to the Jordanian demand that Israeli forces withdraw to a distance of between 8 and 10 kilometers from the Jordan River.
The “victory” achieved by the Egyptian and Syrian armed forces in the first week of the 1973 war, despite the ensuing Israeli military success, served as a remedy to the humiliation suffered by the Arab armies during the 1948 war, 1956 war, and 1967 war. In 1973, Arab solidarity was demonstrated by the use for the first time of oil as a weapon. However, as a result of the war the United States achieved two goals: removing Egypt from the Arab bloc of confrontation with Israel and weakening the influence of the Soviet Union in the region. It also encouraged Sadat to continue on the path of reaching a separate peace with Israel, which ultimately led to the Camp David Accords of September 1978.
As for Israel, the war was seen as bringing on a political and psychological crisis, resulting in the formation of a commission of inquiry headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Shimon Agranat and the resignation of Prime Minister Golda Meir in April 1974. In the long term, the war’s fallout spelled the end of the Labor Party’s dominance in Israel, a position it had enjoyed since the founding of the state in 1948, and the arrival of the right-wing Likud, which, led by Menachem Begin, came to power in May 1977.
Ashkar, Riad. “The Syrian and Egyptian Campaigns.” Journal of Palestine Studies 3, no.2 (Winter 1974): 15–33.
al-Bitar, Salah al-Din. “The Implications of the October War for the Arab World.” Journal of Palestine Studies 3, no.2 (Winter 1974): 34–45.
Heikal, Mohamed Hassanein. The Road to Ramadan. London: Collins, 1975.
Rubin, Barry. “U.S. Policy, January–October 1973.” Journal of Palestine Studies 3, no.2 (Winter 1974): 98–113.
Shoufani, Elias. “Israeli Reactions to the War.” Journal of Palestine Studies 3, no.2 (Winter 1974): 46–64.