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From foe to friend: 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War 

Just 25 years after the founding of modern-day Israel, the country was pounded by enemy fire.

A memorial monument at Tel Saki hill in the Golan Heights. The battle of Tel Saki was one of the first of the 1973 Israeli Yom Kippur War. Feb. 11, 2021. Photo by Moshe Shai/Flash90.
A memorial monument at Tel Saki hill in the Golan Heights. The battle of Tel Saki was one of the first of the 1973 Israeli Yom Kippur War. Feb. 11, 2021. Photo by Moshe Shai/Flash90.

Israel has always been the tiny David surrounded by dozens of hostile Islamic countries—the regional Goliaths. This reality is often lost given the skill of Israel’s military in defending the country from danger. Under constant threat and multiple attacks since 1948, the Jewish state is now finding new friends and allies once thought unimaginable even a few years ago. As the Jewish New Year begins and Jews remember the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, there is a growing movement for peace and stability in the volatile Middle East.

Yom Kippur War

Israeli Jews were praying in their synagogues on the holiest day of the Jewish year in 1973 when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise assault on Israel. Reserve soldiers left their synagogues and rushed to report for service. The ferocious attack on Yom Kippur caught Israel’s leaders off-guard and plunged the country into an existential crisis. Israelis were fighting for their survival against an onslaught that could have ended the Jewish state’s existence and killed hundreds of thousands of Israelis.

Jews around the world feared another Holocaust was imminent. A mere 25 years after the founding of modern-day Israel, the country was surrounded and pounded by enemy fire. American rabbis gave permission to their worshippers to listen to the radio—the use of electronics on Yom Kippur is prohibited under Orthodox Judaism—so that they could follow events as they unfolded.

American Jews organized blood drives, prayed for the well-being of Israelis and publicly spoke out in support of Israel. Jewish leader Martin Raffel recalled how “in synagogue, a man very dramatically walked up to the front and spoke quietly to the rabbi, who made the solemn announcement that Israel had been invaded.” Political activist Shoshana Cardin described how Jews were united by the “fear that the only Jewish homeland we had was under attack.”

Israel’s most hostile enemies at the time—Egypt and Syria—led a coordinated surprise attack on Israeli positions in the Sinai Peninsula in the south and the Golan Heights in the north. “We and others had wrong assessments about what would happen,” acknowledged Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, well-known for the eye patch he wore after losing his left eye fighting for the British during World War II.

Israeli leaders considered a pre-emptive strike but were concerned about being condemned by other nations and that Israel “would not receive assistance when we have the need for it,” according to Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. She stated after the war that her “heart was very much drawn to” a preemptive strike, “but I was scared” of the international reaction. After multiple appeals, the Jewish state finally received crucial supplies, including tanks and fighter jets, from America.

The Arab coalition made significant territorial gains during the initial stages of the war. Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal and established an important position in the Sinai, while Syrian forces made advances on the Golan. Despite initial setbacks, Israel mounted a counteroffensive and regained lost territory. More than 2,600 Israeli soldiers were killed defending Israel from being overrun, a devastating number in a country that was only 2.6 million at that time.

International pressure, particularly from the United States and the Soviet Union, led to a ceasefire after 19 days of fighting. The war ended with no significant change in pre-war borders, but the conflict had far-reaching diplomatic consequences. The war triggered an international crisis as Arab oil-producing states implemented an oil embargo against countries seen as supporting Israel, leading to major economic disruptions.

The war marked a turning point in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Some Arab nations began to see that Israel was here to stay. This attitude led to increased diplomatic efforts, including the Camp David Accords in 1978 between Egypt and Israel, which resulted in Egypt becoming the first Arab country to officially recognize Israel’s existence.

The IDF Chief of Staff commemorated the war’s 50th anniversary: “The many acts of heroism during the war in the face of enemy fire are a source of inspiration for us.” Recently, more than 1,000 IDF soldiers from an armored brigade participated in the 2nd annual 116-mile Yom Kippur run from Haifa to the Golan Heights, where the brigade defended the country against the invading Syrian Army. American-Israeli Jonathan Davis reflected on his “willingness to sacrifice and possibly die for the State of Israel.”

Prospects for Normalization and Peace with Saudi Arabia

Now, 50 years after the Yom Kippur War, the prospect of peaceful relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel is at an all-time high. There has been a flurry of reports over the past several weeks about a potential announcement of more overt ties between the two nations. The Saudis and Israelis are considered covert allies against Iran’s nuclear threats.

Saudi hostility against Israel has changed markedly over the past few years. The Saudis were once one of the biggest threats to Israelis. Saudi Arabia bankrolled Palestinian terrorists, promoted anti-Israel and anti-Jewish propaganda, and sent government-trained imams to spread their intolerant messages. The Saudis provided a nominal amount of troops and leadership in the Arab wars against Israel since 1948.

But the tide has begun to turn. The Saudi crown prince, who is expected to become the next king, recently stated that peace with the Jewish state is “getting closer every day.” Educational content in Saudi textbooks has recently changed, with the removal of references to Jews as “monkeys” and “pigs,” as well as conspiracy theories about Israel. The Saudis also appear to be giving more leeway to Israel in its wars against Iranian-backed Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza.

The U.S. government is playing a major role in advancing Saudi-Israeli dialogue. Important factors under consideration include U.S. defense pacts with Saudi Arabia and Israel, and explicit approval for the Saudis to start their own nuclear power program.

The Saudis also seek the creation of a Palestinian state. The traditional diplomatic position was that regional peace was only possible with the creation first of a Palestinian state; the new model is an outside-in approach with Israel inking deals with its regional neighbors first. The Palestinian president stated in response that there cannot be regional peace without a Palestinian state. The Iranian-backed Hamas leader “called on the Arab countries to stop the normalization with Israel.”

Points to consider:

1. The Yom Kippur War showed Israel’s vulnerability in a volatile region.

The surprise attack led by Egypt and Syria, caught Israel off-guard and exposed its security challenges. The conflict revealed the precarious nature of Israel’s geographical positioning in a region marked by longstanding tensions and unresolved disputes. The initial territorial gains made by the Arab countries underscored Israel’s susceptibility to sudden military actions. However, Israel’s subsequent counteroffensive demonstrated its resilience and ability to adapt in the face of adversity. The war’s aftermath led to diplomatic initiatives underlining the imperative for negotiated agreements to ensure regional stability.

2. Israel has always faced existential threats, but a nuclear-armed Iran would be terrifying.

The Jewish state has struggled against Arab and Islamist foes throughout its 75-year history, making its security a top priority. The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran raises significant alarm. Given Iran’s past rhetoric and behavior, the acquisition of nuclear capabilities would likely escalate tensions in an already volatile region. A nuclear-armed Iran would embolden anti-Israel proxies—Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad—to attack Israel and create a regional arms race. Israel and its Arab neighbors must act jointly to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons. Iran’s nefarious record of regional hostility is a threat not only to the Jewish state’s existence but to many of its neighbors as well.

3. The war initiated diplomatic relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Israel’s historic triumphs in the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War encouraged diplomatic initiatives, shaping the course of future Arab-Israeli relations, and eventually leading to the Abraham Accords. The United States helped broker the Camp David Accords of 1978, leading to a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. This marked the first time that an Arab nation officially recognized Israel’s right to exist. Israel uprooted its settlements and returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egyptian control. Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1994. Recently, Bahrain, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan normalized relations. A growing list of once hostile nations, including Saudi Arabia and Libya, are turning to diplomacy to resolve conflicts and build a lasting peace in the Middle East, rather than contributing to the continuation of permanent war and destruction.

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