The Hidden Calculation Behind the Yom Kippur War

It’s long been the greatest question about the war: why Israel waited to be attacked. But what if it was convinced to wait by its closest ally, the United States?

Israeli soldiers in foxholes on October 14, 1973 in the Sinai Desert during the Yom Kippur War. GPO/Getty Images.

Israeli soldiers in foxholes on October 14, 1973 in the Sinai Desert during the Yom Kippur War. GPO/Getty Images.

Oct. 2 2023
About the author

Michael Doran is a senior fellow and director of the Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East at Hudson Institute. The author of Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East (2016), he is also a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council. He tweets @doranimated.

History records Israel’s triumph in 1967 as the Six-Day War, but the key operations that clinched the victory took closer to six hours than six days. Shortly after 7:45 in the morning on June 5, Israeli jets attacked Egyptian airfields in synchronized waves: the first wave destroyed aircraft on the tarmac before pilots scrambled into cockpits; the second shredded runways to make takeoff impossible; and the following waves destroyed stranded planes that eluded destruction in the first wave. This bold opening gambit secured air superiority over Egypt, Israel’s most dangerous foe, making victory over the entire Arab coalition all but inevitable. Arab tanks turned into sitting ducks, and the Israel Defense Forces became unstoppable.

Swift and total, Israel’s victory in 1967 seemed as if it were ordered from on high, as if Joshua’s battle for Jericho played out on the six o’clock news. Just six years later, however, the Egyptian and the Syrian militaries overwhelmed Israel’s defenses, and they did so precisely as Israel had done to them in 1967—namely, in a single day.

At 2:00 pm on Yom Kippur, October 6, 1973, Egyptian and Syrian forces stormed across Israel’s frontiers in the Sinai desert and the Golan Heights. The speed and power of the attack overpowered Israel’s frontline defenders and discombobulated its military and civilian leadership. It suddenly became clear that Israel’s assumptions about its own strength, the character of its enemies, and the fundamental shape of the modern battlefield were erroneous.

The onslaught brought some Israeli leaders to the brink of a mental breakdown, not least among them Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, the eye-patch-wearing icon of coolness under fire. “The Third Temple is in danger,” he mumbled to senior commanders on the morning on October 7, expressing his fear that the state of Israel stood in danger of destruction. In a briefing to Prime Minister Golda Meir, he suggested exploding a nuclear weapon to deter Egypt and Syria while, at the same time, retreating to the middle of the Sinai Peninsula, ceding total control of the Suez Canal to the Egyptians.

Meir rejected Dayan’s recommendations, but not because she found the situation any less threatening. Weighing heaviest on her mind was the problem of materiel. Israeli generals had planned for a quick war, three to five days in length, along the lines of 1967. They had never imagined anything like the conflict in which they now found themselves: one that was consuming armored vehicles, planes, and ammunition on an industrial scale—to say nothing of men’s lives. By day three, it was obvious that the war might last weeks, possibly months, and that it would soon involve the largest tank battles since World War II. How would Israel obtain the materiel necessary to prosecute a conflict of this scale?

The fate of the Jewish state, Meir tacitly admitted afterward, rested in the hands of America, and specifically those of President Richard Nixon, whom no one had ever accused of nurturing a boundless love for the Jewish people. In the final days of the war, when the balance on the battlefield had shifted dramatically in Israel’s favor, Meir spoke candidly to a group of newspaper editors about her worries in the conflict’s first days. “There was a particularly difficult moment on the issue of military equipment,” she revealed. “Out of desperation, I decided that I had to try somehow to get to America, incognito and without any publicity, by hook or by crook, whatever it took to get one meeting with [President Nixon], and to ask him: ‘What will become of us?’”

Her admission of Israeli dependence cast doubt on aspirations, fundamental to the Zionist movement, which the victory of 1967 had seemed to fulfill. The Six-Day War had given Israelis the false sense of living securely behind invincible walls. Thanks to the redoubtable IDF, Israelis no longer depended for their survival, like their Diaspora ancestors, on the goodwill and generosity of the Gentiles—or so they thought.

How had self-reliance turned to dependence so quickly? Soldiers on the battlefield were asking similar questions. In his memoir, Ariel Sharon, the future prime minister of Israel who commanded a tank division in the Yom Kippur War, describes the confusion he witnessed among Israeli soldiers as they retreated in the face of overwhelming Egyptian firepower. “I . . . saw something strange on their faces—not fear but bewilderment,” Sharon writes. “Suddenly something was happening to them that had never happened before. These were soldiers who had been brought up on victories—not easy victories maybe, but nevertheless victories. Now they were in a state of shock. How could it be that these Egyptians were crossing the canal right in our faces? How was it that they were moving forward, and we were defeated?”

When Israel’s soldiers brought home their stories, the entire nation began debating this question—and has not stopped to this day. How did the vaunted Israeli intelligence agencies fail to see the war coming? Whose fault was it? What should have been done differently? Even the best answers to these questions tend to provide only an incomplete picture of the truth, and they sometimes frame the debate in misleading terms, focusing on the failure to anticipate the surprise attack while missing the larger military and diplomatic context.

This essay seeks to resolve a few of these arguments. It will show that even if Israeli leaders had known the attack was coming, they still would have underestimated its force. And their actions might not have been very different under any circumstance, rooted as they were in decisions made three years earlier. Explaining why this is so will not only set the record straight about 1973, but also reveal some important truths about the history and nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship—truths that have great importance for the present.


I. Sadat’s War


To understand the initial success of the Arab coalition, one must begin with the extraordinary political and military vision of the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, the grand architect of the war. Sadat based his strategy on lessons learned from the failures of his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who provoked the Six-Day War in 1967 and the War of Attrition in 1969-70.

These successive defeats taught Sadat that Egypt lacked the military power to vanquish Israel on the battlefield, and that Egypt’s superpower patron, the Soviet Union, possessed no political influence over Israel. If the central aim of Egyptian policy was to compel the Jewish state to withdraw from the territories occupied in the Six-Day War, then Sadat would have to devise a new formula. That formula, he realized, would include both military and political stratagems, including an improved relationship with the United States, the superpower that did wield influence in Jerusalem.

Nasser died in September 1970. Even before he was laid to rest, Sadat set about convincing Nixon that Egypt was hungry for America’s love. His channel to the president came in the form of Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Elliot Richardson, who led the U.S. delegation to Nasser’s funeral. At one point, the procession stopped so that, unbeknownst to the dignitaries in attendance, the new Egyptian president could recover from a bout of heat stroke. While the Soviet premier Aleksey Kosygin, the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, and Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia waited in a tent for the procession to resume, Sadat instructed aides to escort Richardson to the basement of a nearby building where the Egyptian leader rested on a cot. The prostrate Sadat greeted the American warmly, inviting him to a meeting the next day, where he asked Richardson to tell President Nixon that Egypt “wanted to build an entirely new, friendly, and cooperative relationship with the United States.”

Sadat followed up with many more such expressions of warmth and good feeling, which quickly bore fruit. In early May 1971, Secretary of State William Rogers visited Cairo, the first secretary of state to set foot on Egyptian soil since John Foster Dulles had arrived in the country some twenty years earlier. “I know what’s uppermost in your mind and I want to talk about it at once. That’s the Soviet Union,” Sadat said the moment the two men sat down together. “I would like to become much closer with the West. There’s no reason why the Arabs should be closer aligned to the Soviet Union. My people like the West better. We appreciate your values and our association with the West—business opportunities.” He knew his audience, and, laying it on thick, added, “I like American businessmen.”

For their part, President Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger did not rush to embrace Sadat. On the contrary, they purposely kept him at a distance, to make him work hard to come toward them. Sadat nevertheless launched several diplomatic initiatives designed to foster a new impression of Egypt in Washington.

And he succeeded. When the Six-Day War had broken out in 1967, President Johnson and his advisors correctly understood Nasser to be a Soviet proxy who intended to undermine the influence of the West across the Middle East. By contrast, when Sadat launched his war on October 6, 1973, Nixon and Kissinger recognized him as at least a potential friend. As we shall see, the success of Sadat’s charm offensive in Washington narrowed Israel’s room for maneuver considerably.

Sadat also concluded that extracting concessions from the Israelis would require Egypt to launch a war in which it struck a mighty blow in the opening round. Well acquainted with Israel’s sensitivity to casualties, he calculated that, while he couldn’t uproot the Israeli military from the Sinai Peninsula (which it had taken from Egypt in 1967), he could at least bleed it. A high body count would shake Israeli leaders so severely that they would begin to question whether holding on to the territory was worth the cost.

To plan an assault that could achieve these goals, Sadat studied Egypt’s failures in previous wars. He solved problems that had easy fixes; for the unfixable ones, he found workarounds. The hardest problem of all was the Israeli air force. “We have no choice but to prepare for a battle under conditions of enemy air superiority,” Sadat’s generals explained to him. But, they continued, Egypt could neutralize that superiority in limited areas by using surface-to-air missiles, or SAMs.

This idea represented nothing less than a revolution in military affairs, the first version of what is today called an “anti-access, area-denial strategy.” In recent years, China’s efforts to make the South China Sea impenetrable to the U.S. Navy have made the initialism A2/AD a commonplace in foreign-policy circles, but it was not always so. The strategy debuted on the world stage in the Yom Kippur War.

Sadat’s plan was brilliantly simple. He would place a huge number of state-of-the-art Soviet SAMs on the west bank of the Suez Canal, so many as to create an impregnable umbrella that would not just cover the canal itself but stretch for miles into Israeli-held territory. All along the main battleline, therefore, there would be a zone Israeli planes couldn’t enter. Shielded by the SAM canopy, Egyptian ground troops could cross the canal unmolested.

We usually think of wars as attempts to crush an enemy military, capture a significant territory, or control a population. But Sadat, following Clausewitz’s dictum that war is an extension of policy by other means, pursued only modest territorial gains that would serve his diplomatic purposes. In doing so he baffled Israeli (and American) analysts, who had difficulty getting inside the mind of a leader who would start a major war, sacrificing thousands of soldiers, merely to seize a few kilometers of the Sinai Peninsula. Why would Sadat launch a war that he could not possibly win?

The failure to understand Sadat’s intentions came at a great cost. Repeatedly, Israel ignored warnings that an attack was imminent. Only the day before the war did the intelligence services change their tune, when the Mossad director Zvi Zamir received an urgent cable from his most prized agent, known as the “the Angel.” As the sun set and Yom Kippur began on Friday, October 5, Zamir rushed to London to meet with him. Zamir cabled Jerusalem at 4 am Israeli time to say that Egypt and Syria would invade “toward evening,” which was understood to mean around 6 pm.

Among senior Israeli leaders, the Angel’s word was gold. There was no longer any doubt: war was certainly coming. Two hours after Zamir’s cable arrived, Defense Minister Dayan and the chief of staff, David Elazar, discussed how to prepare for the coming clash. At 8:00 am, they laid options before the prime minister, who ordered a major mobilization, but decided against launching a preemptive strike. For reasons that we will discuss later, she regarded preemption, the very thing that had won the Six-Day War, as off the table.

At 2:00 pm—four hours before the Angel predicted—air-raid sirens sounded across Israel. To say that the attackers vastly outnumbered the defenders is an understatement. In the north, five Syrian divisions with 1,400 tanks and 1,000 pieces of artillery attacked the two Israeli brigades stationed on the Golan, who had at their disposal only 177 tanks and 50 artillery pieces. In the south, the numbers were even more lopsided. Five Egyptian infantry divisions with nearly 100,000 soldiers, 1,300 tanks, and 2,000 artillery pieces launched themselves across the Suez Canal against some 450 poorly trained Israeli reservists.

The unlucky defenders in Sinai manned the Bar Lev Line, a chain of sixteen defensive strongholds standing behind a huge sand barrier—strongholds that were too far apart to give each other effective fire support. After crossing the Canal, the Egyptian forces rolled through the wide gaps between them with ease.

The Israeli war plan relied on the air force to slow the advance in time to bring up the reserves. But nothing prepared the Israeli pilots for the surface-to-air missiles that they encountered. In 1967, the pilots had seemed invincible. Just six years later they lost between 10 and 30 percent of their operational aircraft in the first 24 hours of the conflict. The Israeli high command was in a state of shock.

Egypt’s mobile SAM-6s, the most advanced of the lot, proved especially lethal, but it was the sheer number of missiles and the density of fire that posed the biggest challenge. “It was like flying through hail,” said one Israeli pilot. “The skies were suddenly filled with SAMs and it required every bit of concentration to avoid being hit.”

SAM-6s were not the only cutting-edge system the Egyptians deployed with creativity. Sadat’s combat infantry crossed the canal with portable Sagger anti-tank guided missiles. At the time, a typical rocket-propelled grenade remained accurate only up to a few hundred yards. Saggers, by contrast, had a range of two miles. A Sagger operator would deploy a launcher and then take cover nearby. From this position of safety, he would fire a missile at an approaching tank. Because the missiles remained connected by a long wire to the control station, the operator, using a joystick, could direct them to their target with deadly accuracy.

Between 1967 and 1973, Egyptian officers had gone to school on IDF doctrine. Israeli tank commanders, the Egyptians understood, would counterattack at the first opportunity. The Israelis followed that script on October 8, which became the most infamous day in the history of the IDF. As Israel’s Patton tanks stormed forward to meet the invaders, Sagger missiles blasted through their armor with ease. One unit lost 22 of its 25 tanks in five minutes. During the entire war, Israel lost a total of about 1,000 tanks—over 100 on the first day—most of them to Saggers.

On October 9, Israel’s counterattack had ground to a standstill. Moshe Dayan was appearing unstable to his colleagues, and Prime Minister Meir was deeply shaken. After less than three days of combat, the war was consuming planes, tanks, and munitions at an unsustainable rate. When Meir turned to Washington for aid, the Nixon administration agreed to help but, for reasons that are still debated, moved slowly; nearly a week passed before Nixon ordered a massive resupply. On October 14, the same day that the American airlift began, the tide of war shifted in Israel’s favor. Elazar called Meir that night with, for the first time, an optimistic assessment of the war in the Sinai. “Golda, it will be all right. We are back to ourselves and [the Egyptians] are back to themselves.”

What changed? Answering that question requires looking to the north, to the fighting with Syria on the Golan Heights. Like the Egyptians, the Syrian soldiers of 1973 were much better trained than those of 1967. They, too, advanced rapidly in the first day of the war. Unlike the Egyptians, however, they lost their advantage very quickly. By day two they were stopped in their tracks. By day three, the Israelis were already pushing them back.

The Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad’s campaign in the north failed to mimic Sadat’s campaign in the south, partly because the Syrians failed to raise an impregnable SAM umbrella. More importantly, the Israelis’ traditional superiority at maneuver warfare allowed them to win engagements involving a small number of their tanks against numerically larger Syrian formations. On several critical occasions, fire from vastly outnumbered Israeli tank units intimidated Syrian commanders, who called off promising attacks.

If the Syrians had pressed their early advantage, they may well have overrun the Israeli defenders on the Golan. From there they could have stormed down to the Galilee and attacked a defenseless civilian population. But a small number of heroic Israelis stopped the Syrian advance long enough to allow large numbers of reserves to arrive. The speed with which the tide of war turned snatched from the Arab coalition a triumph akin to Israel’s victory in 1967.

By October 11, the IDF had driven the attackers out of the Golan and was advancing in the direction of Damascus. Assad appealed for assistance from Sadat, begging him to halt the Israelis’ push into his country by hitting them harder in the Sinai. He demanded that the Egyptian army exploit its advantage and continue eastward into the Mitla and Gidi mountain passes in central Sinai.

But an eastward advance toward the passes would take the Egyptian tanks out from under the SAM umbrella. As in 1967, they would once again become sitting ducks. Israel’s air superiority and tactical advantage in maneuver warfare would rush back into play. For reasons still not understood, Sadat threw caution to the wind and answered Assad’s calls for help. Was he drunk with success? Did the Soviets ask him to support their client Assad? Did his Saudi ally, King Faisal, whom he needed to pressure the Americans, bring his influence to bear?

Whatever his rationale, the results were catastrophic. On October 14, the Egyptian Third Armored Brigade launched an attack toward the Mitla Pass with 124 tanks. In less than eight hours, it lost 60 tanks, nine armored personnel carriers, and virtually all its artillery. By the end of the day, IDF intelligence estimated that the Egyptians had lost 280 tanks—enough to shift the balance of the war.

Which brings us back to Elazar’s call to Golda Meir. His remark about the Israelis and Egyptians having reverted to type occurred on the night of October 14. The statement was true in the sense that the Israelis now enjoyed the upper hand, but some of the worst fighting of the war still awaited them. Determined to press their advantage, the Israeli command developed a plan to deliver a knockout blow to the Egyptians. The operation called for Ariel Sharon to secure a crossing to the west side of the canal, which would allow three Israeli armored divisions to encircle the Egyptian Third Army, the key force holding territory on the Israeli side.

Feeling that they were now back in 1967, the Israelis optimistically planned to complete the crossing operation in two days. But the Egyptians fought for every inch of territory. The next five days saw the most intensive tank battles since World War II. A particularly gruesome encounter took place on the night of October 15, at a place called the Chinese Farm. Sharon, one of the greatest Israeli heroes of the war, describes the carnage in his memoirs. “It was as if a hand-to-hand battle of armor had taken place,” he writes. “Coming close you could see Egyptian and Jewish dead lying side-by-side, soldiers who had jumped from their burning tanks and died together. No picture could capture the horror of the scene. . . . On our side that night we had lost 300 dead and hundreds more wounded.”

But Sharon pressed on and made his way over the canal. This opening allowed Israeli forces to threaten the rear of the Egyptian Third Army, which was holding the southwest tip of the Sinai Peninsula. If the Third Army were crushed, Egypt would lose its foothold in the Sinai. Fearing total defeat, the Egyptian president appealed for a ceasefire. Pressure came to bear on both parties from their superpower patrons, and Israel halted its advance.

The war took an enormous toll on both sides. The Egyptians and Syrians lost approximately 15,600 men in the war, with around 35,000 wounded. The Israelis lost 2,569, with 7,251 wounded. The Egyptians and Syrians lost 440 airplanes; Israel, 102. The Arab coalition lost 2,250 tanks and 770 cannon; Israel lost about 1,000 tanks and 25 cannon. Twelve Arab missile boats were sunk; the Israelis lost none.


II. The Blunder


Who won? The seesaw reversals on the battlefield permit many answers. In Cairo, they tell a tale of the heroic victory of the Egyptian military. It focuses on the opening days of the war: the successful deception, the crossing of the canal under withering fire, and the military successes that allowed the Third Army to retain its beachhead on the eastern side of the canal. This myth bestows on Anwar Sadat and the Egyptian military a special honorific, “the heroes of the crossing.” The second half of the war, the part when Israel wins, blends into the blurry background.

One might expect the Israelis to focus on the period that the Egyptians blur out: the last week of the war, when Israel held the decisive advantage. Indeed, Israelis have at their fingertips all the necessary facts to tell a compelling story of triumph over tragedy, much like the one Americans tell themselves about World War II. A sneak attack by the enemy caught the lion sleeping. He made some early missteps, but once stirred from his slumber, he ripped his enemies to shreds.

The Meir government tried to market such a tale when the war ended, but the public rejected it out of hand. Israel’s collective memory immediately conceived of the war as neither a victory nor a defeat but as a colossal blunder. The word it chose was meḥdal, which technically means an act of omission or neglect that leads to great harm. Israelis remember the Yom Kippur War not just as a meḥdal, but as “the meḥdal”—the meḥdal par excellence. The identification is so total that the phrase “Yom Kippur” has become a synonym in Hebrew for “blunder.”

On November 21, 1973, the government set up the Agranat Commission to investigate the faulty decision-making at the beginning of the war. Shimon Agranat, president of the Supreme Court, chaired the inquiry. With forensic precision, the commission produced a deeply influential analysis of the meḥdal. To explain what went wrong, it introduced a word that has become a permanent element of Israel’s political lexicon: konseptzia, or conception.

The term refers to the intelligence concept that blinded senior Israeli leaders to all the obvious signs—of which there were many—that Egypt and Syria were about to attack. The Commission borrowed the term from Major-General Eli Ze’ira, the IDF head of intelligence and the man ultimately responsible for analyzing the reports collected by the Mossad, Shin Bet, and other agencies. Ze’ira used it to refer to the “conception” of Egyptian intentions that he and his fellow analysts shared.

The konseptzia rested on two fundamental assumptions. First, Egypt would not go to war against Israel until it had acquired the military capabilities necessary to paralyze Israel’s air force. These capabilities included, among other weapon systems, long-range bombers that could attack Israeli targets in depth. Second, Syria would not launch a major attack except in coordination with Egypt.

It was through the konseptzia that Ze’ira filtered the welter of reports he received indicating that the Syrians and Egyptians were on the verge of starting a full-scale war. Because Egypt did not yet possess the long-range bombers, he reasoned, Sadat must be bluffing. If Egypt was not preparing an attack, neither was Syria.

On September 25, King Hussein of Jordan helicoptered in secret to a Mossad safehouse near Tel Aviv, where he met with Golda Meir and warned her that Egypt and Syria were planning a joint attack against Israel. But Ze’ira was unpersuaded. On October 5, the day before the war, Jerusalem learned that Moscow, the patron of Syria as well as Egypt, was evacuating the families of Soviet officers from Damascus and Cairo. Ze’ira again responded by assessing the likelihood of war as very low.

Sadat and his generals hoodwinked Ze’ira by staging a series of elaborate and sophisticated ruses that desensitized the Israelis to the preparations for war. Between 1972 and 1973, for example, the Egyptian army mobilized 22 times—approximately once a month. These exercises lulled the Israelis to sleep. Sadat describes in his memoirs how, in April 1973, he signaled to the Israelis that war was coming the next month. “I had no intention of starting a war in May,” he writes, “but as part of my strategic-deception plan, I launched a mass-media campaign then and took various civil-defense measures which led the Israelis to believe that war was imminent.” When the real thing came, the IDF just thought it was another routine exercise.

In response to the false signals in April, however, the Israelis carried out a partial mobilization, a step that was economically and politically costly, because, among other reasons, reservists are drawn from the most productive sectors of society. The episode only enhanced the reputation of Ze’ira, who had opposed mobilization. Sadat was bluffing, Ze’ira assumed, because he did not possess the long-range bombers he needed to neutralize the Israeli air force. The konseptzia was vindicated. By the beginning of October, when Egypt’s actual mobilization for war was well underway, Ze’ira’s confidence in his ability to read Sadat’s intentions was running high. Even after Zamir relayed the message from the Angel, Ze’ira insisted that the probability of war was low, although by this time the high command was willing to ignore him.

The Agranat Commission detailed much of this in an interim report published on April 1, 1974, which hit Israeli politics like an earthquake. It called for dismissing several military officers, including Ze’ira and Chief of Staff Elazar, who were removed from their positions shortly thereafter. While the report refrained from assessing the performance of politicians, the image it created of a feckless elite hobbled Meir personally and helped to delegitimate the Labor-party establishment that had ruled the country since its foundation. It is no exaggeration to see the election of Menachem Begin’s Likud in 1977, in part, as an aftershock of the Agranat Commission’s report.

But the most immediate consequence of the report was the debate it generated over the failure of Israel’s early-warning system, which rages on today. In 1993, Ze’ira published a book attempting to exonerate himself. While he has few, if any defenders, there are many analysts and historians whose conclusions at least support his view of things. The most important such conclusion is the claim that the Angel, Israel’s source at the highest rungs of Egyptian power, was a double agent through whom Sadat passed misinformation to the Israelis.

The Angel, we now know, was Ashraf Marwan, the son-in-law of Gamal Abdel Nasser and a trusted member of the ruling elite. The Mossad had been running Marwan as a source for four years prior to the Yom Kippur War. During that time, he provided them with troves of invaluable information. But some Israelis, among whom Ze’ira now counts himself, thought Marwan was too good to be true. The claim that Marwan was a double agent rests on the idea that the accurate information he provided served as a lure to hook the Israelis with misinformation about the most important thing of all: Sadat’s war plans. According to this analysis, even Marwan’s final report about the outbreak of war was misinformation, because it identified the time of the attack as 6:00 rather than 2:00 pm.

The behavior of the Egyptian government has strengthened the claims of those who say Marwan was a double agent. In 2007, after Marwan died, he received a hero’s farewell in Cairo. Then-President Hosni Mubarak stated that Marwan “carried out patriotic acts which it is not yet time to reveal.”

But was this funeral itself an elaborate ruse? A second school of thought suspects that it was, not least because of the circumstances of Marwan’s death. In June 2007, he fell from the balcony of his apartment on Carleton House Terrace, a swanky central London street. Most likely, Egyptian intelligence operatives or their agents helped him fall after his name and a description of the role he played for the Mossad leaked to the Israeli press. Who leaked his name? Evidence points to Ze’ira, against whom an Israeli court of law heard a case which ended inconclusively.

Was Gamal Abdel Nasser’s son-in-law a spy for the Israelis, or a double agent serving the Egyptians? Did assassins hurl him from his balcony, or did he simply fall? Did Ze’ira leak the Angel’s identity in a vain effort to exonerate himself, or did Marwan’s name reach the press through some other route? Straight off the pages of a John le Carré novel, these questions can’t but attract attention. It’s no wonder that Netflix produced a movie, The Angel (based on a Uri Bar-Joseph’s biography of the same name), about Marwan. Every anniversary of the Yom Kippur War draws attention to declassified documents emerging from the archives, and the debate begins afresh.

Just last month, the Mossad itself participated in this tradition, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the war by publishing a volume of declassified documents pertaining to the intelligence debate. When the agency’s director David Barnea hosted a book launch at Mossad headquarters, he could not resist the opportunity to refute the claims that the Angel was a double agent. These claims, he stated, “were checked . . . before the war by an IDF-Mossad joint team, and after the war as well. The conclusions were the same: the Angel was an important and strategic agent.” Israel’s chief spy broke the code of silence regarding past intelligence operations to inform the public that the Mossad got the information right in October 1973; it was military intelligence, whose job it was to analyze and interpret that information, that was to blame.

The inherent drama and intrigue surrounding the intelligence blunders has served to exaggerate the importance of the failure of Israel’s early-warning system. Many Israelis assume that the Yom Kippur War exacted a higher cost than the Six-Day War precisely because they were taken by surprise. The Agranat Commission stated that Ze’ira “assured the IDF that he would be able to give advance warning of any enemy intention to launch all-out war in time to allow for the orderly call up of the reserves.” Early warning, the report assumes, would have triggered a major mobilization which, in turn, would have dramatically changed the outcome of the war, making it more like 1967.

These are dubious assumptions, and making sense of the Yom Kippur War requires questioning them. The initial Egyptian attack surprised the Israelis not just in its timing, but also in its power. Even if the IDF had known it was coming days in advance, it would still not have been prepared, thanks to what today’s military experts would call Sadat’s concept of operations, or CONOPS. A useful bit of military jargon, it refers to the way a commander combines the weapons and capabilities in his possession to solve military problems. As an object of analysis, CONOPS resides one step removed from hard capabilities. Like plans, they are real enough, but unlike tanks and pieces of artillery, intelligence operatives cannot capture them in a single photograph. Thanks to their less tangible nature, they can fall through the cracks of routine intelligence analysis.

Sadat’s CONOPS certainly fell through the cracks of the Israelis’ analysis, and his first punch hit them like an anvil in the face. He combined known capabilities—SAMs and Saggers—in a completely unexpected way. Would an early and orderly mobilization of the reserves have made it significantly easier for Israeli pilots to get past the SAM umbrella? It is difficult to see how.

Nor would it have changed much about October 8. The tank commanders who charged directly at Egyptian lines on that fateful day were, in fact, reservists acting with forethought, following carefully laid plans. They went on the offensive following the model of the tank units that had advanced triumphantly in 1967. This time, however, they encountered a better-trained enemy: Egyptian soldiers who stood their ground, were sheltered from Israeli close air support, and were lying in wait with Saggers. Even if Ze’ira’s early warning had mobilized the reservists, nothing would have prepared them for the ambush that Sadat had meticulously planned.

Suppose, moreover, that Ze’ira’s vision had not been clouded by the konseptzia and that he had raised the alarm of an impending attack 48 or 72 hours ahead of time. In that case, wouldn’t Dayan and Meir have surely ordered a major mobilization? Here, again, evidence suggests that, despite what the Agranat Commission’s interim report assumed, Meir and her ministers would have been far more cautious.

Zvi Zamir’s cable conveying Ashraf Marwan’s red alert reached Jerusalem at 4 am on October 6. At 8 am, Dayan and Elazar met with Meir to discuss preparations for war. In the intervening four hours, Dayan and Elazar clashed over what to do. Elazar favored a 1967-style response: immediate preemptive strikes from the air and a major mobilization of ground forces, involving 200,000 soldiers in total. Dayan rejected both options, arguing that Israel’s major ally, the United States, would hold it responsible for starting the war.  Israel could not afford to lose the trust of Washington.

Unable to arrive at a common position, Dayan and Elazar laid their disagreement before Golda Meir. The prime minister sided with Elazar regarding mobilization but with Dayan regarding preemptive strikes. She explained her thinking on the matter in her testimony to the Agranat Commission, the transcript of which was declassified in 2013.

Her “heart was drawn” to the idea of preemption, she told the Commission, but her mind counseled against it. “I was afraid,” she said. Her fears centered not on how the Egyptians and Syrians might respond, but, like Dayan’s, on the reaction of the Americans. She understood that a major war would likely require the delivery of emergency supplies from the U.S. military. If the Nixon administration were to conclude that Israel had started the war, the Americans might refuse the equipment, or slow down its transfer. “I can say with almost full confidence that if we launched a preemptive strike the American airlift wouldn’t come through,” the prime minister explained.

By waiting to absorb the Egyptian attack, she added, there could be no “accusation that we started the war.” She went on: “I don’t know if you know this, but the airlift didn’t go so smoothly.” She was probably indicating that, even though the Israelis clearly had not started the war, there were still those in the American system who were unsympathetic, and who could be reliably counted upon to find any excuse not to help.

Meir further testified that, in the hours before the war started, she explained to the ministers in her government that, “1973 is not 1967, and we won’t be forgiven this time.” Yes, some Israeli soldiers would certainly die due to the failure to launch a preemptive strike, but, Meir said, “I don’t know how many more others would die due to lack of equipment.”

By the time the prime minister got around to ordering a major mobilization, the Egyptian and Syrian attack was, in her understanding, just ten hours away (in fact it was only six). Even at that late hour, Dayan opposed her decision because he feared that Israel’s critics in Washington would blame Israel for starting the war by depicting the mobilization as the beginning of a surprise offensive. If Ze’ira had raised the alarm 72 hours earlier, Meir would probably have found Dayan’s arguments against mobilization more persuasive. She would likely have devoted at least part of the next two days trying to convince the Americans that the mobilization was a reaction to Arab aggression, lest the Nixon team brand it a provocation that helped cause the war rather than a response to it.

Whatever the case, one thing is clear: even if Golda Meir had ordered mobilization a few days earlier, she would not have launched a preemptive strike. In her first interaction with Washington on the morning of October 6, she cabled Kissinger with two core messages: that Egypt and Syria were about to attack, and that Israel had no intention of launching preemptive strikes. Those messages found Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at 6:15am, asleep in his suite at the Waldorf Towers in New York, where he was attending the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly. What made Meir so certain that the Americans were eager to hear that preemption was not being contemplated? Why did she concede the point without so much as a discussion?

Neither Meir nor anyone else had the slightest clue about the strength of the blow that Sadat had arranged. No one understood the true magnitude of the tradeoffs between launching and not launching a preemptive strike. But that is not the whole of the explanation. Meir and Dayan had been discussing these questions with Nixon and Kissinger for years. They knew each other’s minds. It’s no exaggeration to say that Meir’s fateful decision not to preempt in 1973 was all but set in stone in August 1970—at the end of the War of Attrition, a war that Israelis have all but forgotten. The conflict’s failure to impress the Israeli collective memory, however, should not hide from us just how historically consequential it was—and not just for the Israelis. Every leader in the Yom Kippur War–Israeli, Egyptian, Soviet, and American—occupied a position of responsibility in the War of Attrition. The decisions of 1973 only make sense in light of the events of this earlier conflict.


III. The War of Attrition


Gamal Abdel Nasser launched the War of Attrition in March of 1969. With Soviet backing, this military campaign sought to wear Israel down with commando raids, bombing sorties, and heavy artillery fire across the Suez Canal. With the encouragement of Nixon and Kissinger, Yitzḥak Rabin, then the ambassador to the U.S., lobbied his government to escalate the conflict by conducting reprisal raids deep into Egypt, in the Nile Delta. Meir and Dayan followed his advice.

In early January 1970, Nasser secretly traveled to Moscow, where he made an emotional appeal for better weapons. Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet premier, responded by launching Operation Kavkaz, which delivered to Egypt a large number of state-of-the-art SAMs and MiG fighter jets. Moscow also provided men. Soviet pilots flew the MiGs and Soviet soldiers manned the SAMs. At its peak, the number of Soviet soldiers directly involved in the fighting probably reached over 15,000 men on the ground, and possibly as many as 150 pilots in the air.

The war thus became a direct Soviet-Israeli conflict. In response to the buildup, the Nixon administration, which was preoccupied with the war in Vietnam, opted to deescalate. It advanced a ceasefire proposal, which went into effect at midnight on August 7, 1970. That very night the Egyptians, in contravention of the agreement, moved their SAM batteries—which would cause so much difficulty for the Israelis three year later—right up to the Suez Canal.

Some Israelis were eager to destroy the Soviet systems as soon as they were positioned along the canal. Nixon opposed the idea, but in return for Israel’s acceptance of the ceasefire, he provided assurances to Israel that constitute a major advancement in the relationship, transforming it into the strategic partnership that we know today.

At the time that partnership was based on two major American commitments. The first concerned the territorial dimensions of potential peace settlements between Israel and its neighbors. In a letter to Meir, Nixon explained that in the negotiations following the ceasefire the Egyptians would demand a total Israeli withdrawal from the areas occupied in the 1967 conflict and seek to resettle Palestinian refugees within Israel’s borders. “I want to assure you,” he wrote:

that we will not press Israel to accept the [Egyptian demands]. Our position on withdrawal is that the final borders must be agreed between the parties by means of negotiations. . . . Moreover, we will not press Israel to accept a refugee solution which would alter fundamentally the Jewish character of the state of Israel or jeopardize your security. We will also adhere strictly and firmly to the fundamental principle that there must be a peace agreement in which each of the parties undertakes reciprocal obligations to the other and that no Israeli soldier should be withdrawn from the occupied territories until a binding contractual peace agreement satisfactory to you has been achieved.

These ideas outlined here have become so familiar to us as pillars of American policy that we forget that it was not always so.

Before August 1970, there were still many in the American national-security system who sought to impose territorial concessions on the Jewish state. Never far from Golda Meir’s mind was the second commitment that Nixon made to Meir concerned arms. “I want again to assure you,” he wrote, “of my support for Israel’s existence and security and my intention to continue to provide Israel with the necessary assistance to assure that the balance of power will not be altered to the detriment of Israel.” Five decades later, we can see that those promises included, as Middle East analyst David Wurmser has argued, what is now a cornerstone of American foreign policy, namely, maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge or QME. Recognizing that Israel, which relies on the mobilization of civilian reserves for its defense, must compensate for the greater size and larger population of its adversaries through superior weaponry, Congress has since enacted legislation requiring the United States to maintain Israel’s QME. The first documented use of the term dates from 1981, when Secretary of State Al Haig, answering a Congressional query in writing, identified the maintenance of Israel’s QME as a legacy of the Nixon administration. So important were these commitments to the Israelis that, when Nixon first made them, Rabin writes in his memoirs, some considered them “a latter-day Balfour Declaration.”

Three years later, in the first days of the Yom Kippur War, when Golda Meir descended into her darkest hour, these commitments guided her forward. When the problem of resupply weighed on her mind, she called her ambassador to the U.S. at three in the morning and told him to wake up Kissinger and Nixon to get things flowing. In her memoirs she explained her behavior. “I knew that President Nixon had promised to help us, and I knew from my past experience with him that he would not let us down,” she writes. “Let me, at this point, repeat something that I have said often before (usually to the extreme annoyance of many of my American friends),” she continues. “However history judges Richard Nixon—and it is probable that the verdict will be very harsh—it must also be put on the record forever that he did not break a single one of the promises he made to us.”

But those promises came with strings attached. At a meeting in Washington in August 1970, Rabin told the president that Meir had accepted the ceasefire in the War of Attrition only because of Nixon’s personal letter guaranteeing the QME and promising not to impose any territorial withdrawals. In response, Nixon stressed that Israel should never be held responsible for breaking the ceasefire. If conflict were to resume, Nixon wanted to ensure that Egypt, not Israel, would be seen as the aggressor. These were most difficult times for Israel, the president said, but it must demonstrate a maximum degree of self-restraint.

As a result of this and countless similar exchanges in the ensuing three years, Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan made their calculations on October 6, 1973 with the understanding that they had entered a quid pro quo with Washington: the Nixon administration offered a strategic partnership, which included a commitment to provide arms; in return, Israel agreed not to launch a preemptive strike—not to deploy the tool that had made victory in 1967 all but certain—lest it risk drawing the United States into direct conflict with the Soviet Union.


IV. Nixon, Kissinger, and Israel


The restraint that Nixon demanded from Israel bore a superficial connection to the traditional attitudes of the State Department, which also sought to shackle Israel. However, these two calls for restraint emanated from very different strategic assessments. The traditional policy arose from the calculation that Israel was a liability to the United States. Close relations between Washington and Jerusalem, so the argument went, alienated the Arabs, driving them into the arms of the Soviet Union. To keep the Arabs in the Western camp, the United States must distance itself from Israel and, more specifically, demonstrate to them it was not building up Israel militarily.

Kissinger was a staunch critic of this approach, and his ideas set him at odds with William Rogers, then Nixon’s secretary of state. In Kissinger’s view, Rogers and the State Department had a mania for negotiation without any sense of strategy. He surveyed the Middle East and concluded that the fundamental conditions for an agreement between Egypt and Israel simply did not exist. His goal was to create those conditions rather than engage in further fruitless negotiations. In memo after memo to Nixon, he argued that efforts to buy Arab goodwill at Israel’s expense were not helping the cause of peace but rewarding the Soviet Union and Egypt for engaging in the major military escalation that was the War of Attrition.

In a sharp break with traditional American thinking on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Nixon and Kissinger concluded that Israel’s military power was an asset to the United States. Watching Israel stand up not just to Egypt but also to the Soviet Union, they calculated that the Jewish state could help to shift the balance of power in the Middle East. It could even serve as a fulcrum for flipping Cairo from the Soviet to the American camp. To regain its lost territory and reopen the Suez Canal, Nixon and Kissinger reasoned, Egypt must be compelled to negotiate directly with Israel. The Soviets could help Cairo make war, but only the United States could help it make peace. Washington could deliver the Israelis and broker a lasting settlement—but only if Sadat, who by this time had replaced Nasser, would first agree to abandon Moscow. In the meantime, the United States would build up Israel militarily.

The Israeli archives contain a remarkable document from 1971 recording a meeting between Kissinger and Yigal Alon, the former commander of the Palmach, the elite fighting force of Israel’s pre-state military. Alon, at the time Meir’s deputy prime minister, was in Washington to discuss an Egyptian diplomatic initiative that, Kissinger feared, the State Department would use to impose unilateral concessions on the Israelis.

The Israeli record of the conversation captures a side of Kissinger that rarely appears in American documents: Kissinger, the friend of Israel, coaching the Israelis on how to protect themselves from the American bureaucrats who seek to roll Israel back from the territories occupied in 1967—exactly as Eisenhower had rolled them back in 1957.

“The situation you confront today is that everybody in the U.S. government wants to impose a settlement on you at least along the Rogers lines. Get that into your heads,” Kissinger explained. Alon asked Kissinger whether Israel, in the eyes of the State Department, is a “liability.” “Yes!” Kissinger answered emphatically. “Most of the Arabists,” he continued, “are colonialists who remember the Arabs in their pre-war image and long for those days again. And the State Department is not the worst of the lot! You have today a totally united government against you. You have never been in such a position here before.”

Kissinger emphasized that Nixon was the only person in the American system who could counterbalance the State Department. “You Israelis don’t seem to understand that you have only one single hope—the president.” The State Department’s approach to peacemaking, informed by its particular ambitions and worldview, would leave Israel weakened. Thus, Kissinger advised, the Jewish state must be stiff-necked with the State Department, so that eventually the president would have to intervene personally. When making concessions, Israel should deliver them only to the president himself, to ensure that Nixon felt personally invested.

To engage Nixon directly, Kissinger explained, the Israelis had to understand the man. “The president,” Kissinger said, “is very good on big strategic issues. He has no particular love for Jews. He does not give a damn for Israel in the abstract. It interests him only within the strategic context of the Middle East. He told me so. He has a good conception of the strategic significance of the Middle East.”

The War of Attrition had taught Nixon that an escalation of the Egyptian-Israeli conflict might prompt Brezhnev to increase the size of the Soviet contingent in Egypt. The U.S. would then have to choose between countering Soviet moves or backing down and handing Moscow a victory. Nixon sought to ensure that if this sort of confrontation emerged, he would be well positioned to manage it. An Egyptian-Israeli war would inevitably lead some influential voices in the State Department and the Pentagon to accuse Israel of dragging the United States into a war with the Soviet Union. Nixon and Kissinger demanded that the Israelis preempt such accusations by exercising restraint to ensure that Egypt would be blamed for any breach of the 1970 ceasefire.

Between 1970 and 1973, Nixon and Kissinger calculated that the post-War of Attrition status quo worked to Israel’s advantage. Egypt was under severe economic pressure: the conflict had closed the Suez Canal; the perpetual war footing was extremely costly and, moreover, scared away Western investors. Sitting tight and waiting for Egypt to come toward the United States with requests was the name of the game.

In July 1972, Sadat expelled the Soviet military personnel from Egypt.  Through Hafiz Isma’il, his national-security advisor, he opened a direct channel to Kissinger. In February 1973, Isma’il informed Kissinger that Egypt would be willing to make peace with Israel but normalization of relations would have to await a full Israeli withdrawal from all territories occupied in 1967. The Israelis responded with uncertainty to the offer. Nixon and Kissinger, for their part, favored postponing a major diplomatic initiative, convinced that the balance of power strongly favored Israel against Egypt and Syria. Kissinger communicated to Sadat his intention to launch a peace initiative after the Israeli elections, scheduled for October 30.

When, on Yom Kippur morning 1973, Kissinger was awakened in his hotel and received the commitment from Golda Meir that Israel would not launch a preemptive strike, he immediately called the Soviet ambassador Anatoli Dobrynin to inform him that the Israelis wanted the Soviets to know that they had no intention to attack—but also that the United States was “warning against a precipitous move.” At 6:55 am, fifteen minutes after placing the call to Dobrynin, Kissinger phoned Mordechai Shalev, a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington, and said, “We would like to urge you not to take any preemptive action because the situation will get very serious if you move.” At 7:00 am he called the Egyptian foreign minister and informed him, “I have just called [Mordechai Shalev] and I have told him that if Israel attacks first, we would take a very serious view of the situation and have told him on behalf of the United States that Israel must not attack, no matter what they think the provocation is.”

We can only imagine the joy Sadat and Brezhnev felt when they learned that Kissinger bent over backwards to inform them that he was restraining Israel. By the time Kissinger got off the phone with the Egyptian foreign minister, less than an hour remained before the combined assault on Israel by Egypt and Syria would begin. At that moment, the difference between American and Soviet policy was stark. Whereas Moscow armed its allies to the teeth and then stepped out of their way, Washington was tying the hands of its ally as it was about to be assaulted. Kissinger’s policy therefore invites precisely the same critique that, time and again, he had leveled against William Rogers in Nixon’s first term: it rewarded Soviet and Egyptian aggression.

But giving Egypt and Syria a major advantage over Israel was never Kissinger’s goal. In common with the entire Israeli leadership, including Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan, to say nothing of the CIA, he had no inkling of the power of the blow that Sadat had prepared for Israel. Like everyone else on the morning of Yom Kippur, he assumed that the war would last only a few days, and that Israel would win handily.

Kissinger’s blunder stemmed from a temporary misunderstanding of the military balance, but in terms of his strategic intentions, he was nothing if not consistent. From 1970 until leaving office, he pursued the same strategy that he and Nixon had formulated at the end of the War of Attrition in 1970, namely, to use Israel as a lever to pry Egypt away from the Soviet Union. When he called the Soviet ambassador and the Egyptian foreign minister on October 6, 1973, he sought the same outcome he had pursued in 1971, when he had tutored Alon on how to dance around the State Department: a balance of power that favored Israel.

But the key word is “balance.” A balance of power allowed the United States—in the person of Kissinger—to step in and mediate between Cairo and Jerusalem, with an eye to drawing Sadat out of the Soviet sphere and into the American. What Kissinger feared most on the morning of Yom Kippur was an Israeli blow-out, another lopsided victory in which Israel would take even more territory from Egypt and Syria and potentially shake the regimes. In such a situation, domestic considerations would prevent Sadat from making concessions to Israel. Egypt would instead be forced back into the arms of the Soviet Union, as it had been after the Six-Day War, to prepare for another round of fighting.

By securing Meir’s restraint and then informing the Soviets and the Egyptians about it, Kissinger was pursuing two immediate goals. First, he wanted to prevent a direct Soviet escalation of the kind that he had already seen in the War of Attrition—that is, a reintroduction of Soviet combat troops. Such an escalation would put pressure on Nixon to match Brezhnev’s moves, and the Egyptian-Israeli conflict would escalate into a superpower confrontation. Second, he wanted to preserve an open line to the Egyptians so that, after the conflict ended, he could jumpstart the diplomacy that he had delayed until after the Israeli elections, hoping Israeli success on the battlefield would give him greater leverage.

During the first week of the war, as Kissinger absorbed the reality of Israeli vulnerability, he received impassioned pleas from Golda Meir for planes, tanks, and ammunition. Nixon approved the resupply, but the initial shipments were small, and their delivery was unreliable. Meir complained about the delays, but the president was inaccessible, distracted by the resignation of Vice-President Spiro Agnew on October 10, and the Watergate scandal, which was building toward its October 20 climax, when Nixon ordered the dismissal of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox and made impeachment all but inevitable.

Kissinger either chose not to sort out the problems or failed in his efforts. Finally, on October 14th, Nixon ordered a major airlift, one of the biggest in history, putting an end to all obstacles.

Controversy surrounds the issue to this day. Did administrative inefficiencies and logistical difficulties cause the delays in delivery? Or did someone actively scuttle it? Was that person Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, known to be unsympathetic to Israel? Or Kissinger? Or both? In 1976, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who had been chief of U.S. naval operations at the time, published a memoir claiming that Kissinger sought “to bleed” Israel to make it more compliant. For Israelis of a certain age, memories of this accusation evoke strong emotions.

But the testimony of Zumwalt, who was running for Senate as a Democrat when he made the accusation, is unconvincing. Throughout the war, Nixon and Kissinger remained true to their strategy of pursuing a balance that favored Israel—slightly—while trying to avoid any precipitous moves that would spark a direct Soviet escalation.

By the end of the first week of the war, Nixon realized that Moscow was exploiting American restraint beyond what he could tolerate. Brezhnev had launched a massive operation to resupply the armies of Syria and Egypt, and it was obvious to Nixon that the Arab coalition had no intention of pursuing a ceasefire. These facts convinced him and Kissinger that, in keeping with their promises to Meir in 1970, they had no choice but to match any weapons system that the Soviets might introduce into the Middle East. It was necessary to demonstrate to the world that America would put its weapons into more capable hands—Israeli hands—come what may.

Nixon called Kissinger on October 14 to emphasize that the resupply must not only be effective, but massive. “We are going to get blamed just as much for three planes as for 300. . . . Henry, I have no patience with the view that we send in a couple of planes. My point is, . . . if . . . we are going to make a move, it’s going to cost us. . . . I don’t think it’s going to cost us a damn bit more to send in more.” Two hours later Nixon called back for an update. “If I contribute anything to [this] discussion, it is [this]: don’t fool around with three planes. . . . Just go gung-ho.”

And they did. A total of 550 U.S. transport planes flew to Israel over the next few weeks. At its peak, one plane landed every fifteen minutes. Within a few days, the U.S. effort had surpassed the Soviet airlift to Egypt and Syria. At the same time, the administration placed before Congress a $2.2 billion request for emergency loans and grants to Israel.

Nixon and Kissinger delivered on all previous commitments to the Jewish state, risking a confrontation with the Soviets. When the administration placed nuclear forces around the world on alert, critics accused Nixon of manufacturing the crisis to distract from Watergate. If anything, the opposite was true. Fear that the United States might look impotent due to the president’s political travails convinced Kissinger and everyone else around the president of the necessity of sending a signal of seriousness to Moscow.

In sum, Kissinger and a wounded Nixon were behaving according to their strategy, which called for demonstrating that the United States would not be cowed by Soviet moves and that regional powers, such as Egypt, could attain their aspirations only within the American camp.

To Israelis traumatized by the Yom Kippur War, and by the deaths of friends, comrades in arms, and family members, Kissinger’s view that Israel is an asset in a larger game is disturbingly Machiavellian. To this day, mention of the former secretary of state often stirs strident reactions. In the view of the Israeli left, the Yom Kippur War could have been avoided, if only Washington and Jerusalem had been more attentive to Sadat. Instead, the argument goes, the U.S. let him stew in his own juices when a territory-for-peace agreement was already available. Those who accept this view take Kissinger to task for the strategic relationship that he and Nixon developed with Meir and Rabin between 1970 and 1973. In the view of the right, meanwhile, Kissinger deliberately weakened Israel—bled it, according to Zumwalt—in order to create a balance of power with Egypt.

In truth, neither accusation is true. Kissinger was completely transparent about his intentions. At a press conference on October 12, 1973, he stated them up front: “After hostilities broke out, the United States set itself two principal objectives. One, to end the hostilities as quickly as possible. Secondly, to end the hostilities in such a manner that they would contribute to the promotion of a more permanent, more lasting solution in the Middle East.” In other words, he wanted to use the war as a tool to achieve an important American objective.


V. The Upside


This leads us to the final way in which 1973 was unlike 1967: it produced a significant political settlement. With the help of Kissinger, Jerusalem and Cairo concluded a disengagement-of-forces agreement in February 1974. It was the first direct peaceful engagement between countries after nearly a quarter of a century of hostilities. In the 50 years that have passed by since, not a single shot has been exchanged in anger between Egypt and Israel. One day, Kissinger will meet his maker, and the totality of his actions will be weighed in the balance. When that day comes, his behavior on the Day Atonement 1973 will give him much less to atone for than his critics assume.

One could, of course, arrive at a very different conclusion based on the evidence presented here. If you believe that Israel’s failure to preempt—or even to mobilize sooner—was the essential blunder of 1973, then it wasn’t Golda Meir or Israeli arrogance or the konseptzia or Ashraf Marwan that was at fault. It was Nixon and Kissinger, who restrained Israel, and thus caused the meḥdal. But such an interpretation is narrowminded in the extreme. It ignores, first, how much the failure to understand the Egyptian concept of operations was responsible for the traumatic Israeli losses in the first few days of the war. More importantly, it fails to see the significance of the strategic alliance that Nixon and Kissinger cemented with Israel. They might have restrained Israel, but in return for Jerusalem’s cooperation they provided it with the arms necessary to win the war, a security commitment that endures to this day, and a strategic alliance.

And that brings us to the most crucial fact about the Yom Kippur War: it was a joint Israeli and American victory, even if it was for Sadat a successful military operation of the kind that he had envisioned from the beginning. By simultaneously repulsing the Syrians and the Egyptians and going on to threaten Cairo and Damascus, even in the face of an overwhelming surprise attack, the IDF demonstrated that there was no way an Arab military coalition could defeat it by conventional means. Syria has remained Israel’s enemy, but it hasn’t dared to attack again. Egypt became an American and Israeli ally, and the relationship between the Jewish state and the United States emerged stronger than ever. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union’s best weapons proved to be no match for America’s.

It is true that there was no shortage of Israeli and American blunders in 1973, but there were Soviet and Egyptian blunders as well. The Jewish state may not have achieved a victory of biblical proportions as it had in 1967, but ultimately it achieved a more durable one. This was thanks to Golda Meir’s determination and the courage and resourcefulness of countless Israeli soldiers and officers, but also to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, the greatest supporters of Israel that have ever run American foreign policy.

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