Could the Yom Kippur War have been avoided? New documents spark debate

By Robert Gluck/JNS.org

Click photo to download. Caption: The Israel Defense Forces salutes Yom Kippur War heroes at an official annual memorial service for fallen soldiers on Oct. 9, 2011. Pictured is IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz. Credit: Sgt. Ori Shifrin, IDF Spokesperson's Unit.

Newly declassified documents have reignited the debate over whether a chance to avoid the 1973 Yom Kippur War was squandered.

Declassified Israeli government protocols released in June reveal that Egypt rejected then-Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s proposal for secret peace negotiations in July 1973, three months before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. Israel’s State Archives and Israeli-born German historian Professor Michael Wolffsohn jointly released the protocols in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the visit to Israel by then-West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, through whom Meir sent her proposal for peace negotiations to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

Click photo to download. Caption: A Syrian T62 tank during the Yom Kippur War. Credit: Egged History Archive via the PikiWiki - Israel free image collection project.

The Yom Kippur War was fought against Israel by a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria from Oct. 6-25, 1973. The Arab coalition launched a surprise attack on Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.

Egyptian and Syrian forces crossed ceasefire lines to enter the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. Both the United States (aligning with Israel) and the Soviet Union (siding with the Arab states) initiated massive resupply efforts to their respective allies during the war, leading to a near-confrontation between the two nuclear superpowers.

Ehud Yaari, the Lafer International Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of Toward Israeli-Palestinian Disengagement and Peace by Piece: a Decade of Egyptian Policy, said the newly released Israeli State Archives documents “prove, in my opinion, that the Israeli leadership at the time, primarily Moshe Dayan and then Golda Meir, failed to understand the sea change in Sadat’s thinking.”

Click photo to download. Caption: Israeli tanks which crossed into the Suez Canal's western border and reached within 101 kilometers of Cairo during the Yom Kippur War. Using innovative tactics and advanced technology, Israeli forces achieved a remarkable military recovery, breaking the Arab advance and encircling Egyptian forces in the Sinai. Credit: IDF photo archives.

“I doubt that Sadat could move to peace with Israel without some fighting taking place, but the 1973 war could have been averted had Israel moved towards negotiations with Sadat through [then-U.S. national security adviser] Kissinger,” Yaari told JNS.org. “Kissinger’s own private documents, which will be published in a few years, will certainly support this view.”

Yaari said he was always convinced Dayan thought that it was better to absorb and repel an Egyptian attack than to negotiate with Egypt.

“He was wrong. Now we have the evidence,” Yaari said.

But Elan Journo—fellow and director of policy research at the Irvine, Calif.-based Ayn Rand Institute and the author of the book Winning the Unwinnable War: America’s Self-Crippled Response to Islamic Totalitarianism—offered a divergent take on the build-up to the Yom Kippur War. He said the newly declassified documents “seem to provide added evidence that for his own political goals, Sadat was bent on armed conflict, whereas the Israelis sought to avoid it—a recurring pattern in Israel’s history.”

“Blame Sadat for choosing militancy,” Journo told JNS.org.

According to William Quandt, professor emeritus in politics at the University of Virginia and author of Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict Since 1967, the newly declassified documents are of some interest, but pale in comparison with other documents concerning the deliberations of Meir and her inner circle, and communications with Kissinger as revealed in the Hebrew-language book 1973, The Way to War by historian Yigal Kipnis. The book’s English translation will be released this fall.

“[In Kipnis’s book] we learn that Golda was adamant that she did not want a diplomatic process before the scheduled elections toward the end of 1973,” Quant told JNS.org. “[We learn] that she distrusted Sadat; and that she was unwilling to pay the price that he was asking for (the return of the Sinai to Egypt) in an agreement even though Kissinger pressed her to give him something. Her attitude was—if he threatens war, that will be his problem—because we will beat him again, as in 1967.”

Michael Herzog, the Milton Fine International Fellow at the Washington Institute and a retired brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces, called the Yom Kippur War “one of the most documented and well-researched wars in modern history.”

But Herzog told JNS.org that one important aspect of the war that has not been sufficiently covered “relates to the diplomatic efforts in the year preceding the war and whether these efforts could have prevented the war.”

Herzog held senior positions under Israeli ministers of defense including Ehud Barak, Amir Peretz, Shaul Mofaz, and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. Like Quant, he referenced Kipnis’s book as a resource for studying the Yom Kippur War, due to its revelation of “the contents of a secret diplomatic channel between Egypt and Israel, managed through the then-U.S. national security adviser, Henry Kissinger.”

“In January 1973, Egyptian President Sadat launched the initiative through his advisor, Hafez Ismail,” Herzog said. “Egypt’s timeframe for the initiative was until September 1973. According to Kipnis, the Egyptian initiative was serious, but Israel missed the opportunity to avoid the war by opting to postpone any serious discussion until after the Israeli elections scheduled for October 30, 1973.”

According to Herzog, it is a well-established historic fact that Sadat initiated a diplomatic move following the ouster of the Soviet military presence from Egypt in July 1972 and Richard Nixon’s re-election as U.S. president in November 1972. 

Kipnis’s research, however, has been disputed in Israel, Herzog explained.

“Some criticize it for misrepresenting the accurate context of the 1973 diplomatic discussions, ignoring certain facts and therefore creating an imbalanced picture,” Herzog said. “Specifically, Kipnis is criticized for ignoring Israeli initiatives which were rejected by Egypt, beginning with [Israeli] defense minister Dayan’s initiative in late 1970 for a partial Israeli withdrawal in the Sinai Peninsula. Additionally, it is claimed, Israel had legitimate concerns which were not sufficiently met in the secret discussions and was right in being cautious in the face of Egypt’s build-up towards war and its coordination with the Soviet Union.”

Herzog said that whatever is the right interpretation of the events leading up to the Yom Kippur War, what is clear is that when Meir sent her proposal for peace negotiations to Sadat through German Chancellor Brandt in July 1973, it was too late, and Sadat was already bent on going to war.

“The question remains open whether a chance to avoid a war was squandered and if so, whose fault was it,” Herzog said. “Kissinger himself never provided clear answers. It seems that further research is required. These are important questions not only historically but also to guide us in the future. We owe it at least to the thousands who perished in this war.”  

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Posted on June 26, 2013 and filed under High Holidays, Special Sections.