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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

The Yom Kippur War, 45 Years On: Israeli Resilience and American Help Turned the Tide


A M60 tank is unloaded from a U.S. Air Force Lockheed C-5A Galaxy in Israel during “Operation Nickel Grass” in 1973. (U.S. Air Force)

“Under a nearly impenetrable umbrella of artillery shells and ground-to-air missiles, some eighty thousand Egyptian troops stormed over bridges and ferried across the Suez Canal. They overran the outnumbered and unprepared Israelis and established an inextricable foothold in Sinai. Hundreds of Syrian tanks meanwhile plowed through the minefields and redoubts on the Golan Heights. The scenes of desert roads lined with charred tanks and blackened bodies were revisited, only this time most of the wreckage was Israeli.”


—Michael B. Oren, Power, Faith, and Fantasy (2007)


“Israeli ordnance teams were hurriedly repairing tanks. New armor and other reinforcements were pouring into the line. Entire brigades were rebuilt, including the Barak Brigade, which had lost 90 percent of its original platoon commanders and the largest part of its equipment. As the strength and morale of their units visibly and dramatically revived, many officers wept in the emotion of the moment.”


Howard M. Sachar, A History of Israel (2007)


“The [American] airlift [of badly needed weapons] was invaluable. It not only lifted our spirits, it also served to make the American position clear to the Soviet Union and it undoubtedly served to make our victory possible. When I heard that the planes had touched down in Lydda [Ben-Gurion Airport], I cried for the first time since the war had begun.”


Golda Meir, My Life (1975)


On Oct. 6, 1973—on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar—massive, Soviet-backed Egyptian and Syrian forces invaded Israeli-held territory in coordinated attacks that caught both Israeli and American intelligence by surprise. Initially, Israel’s territorial losses to Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula and to Syria on the Golan Heights were so sizeable, Israeli casualties so high, and the destruction of Israeli warplanes, tanks and other weaponry so catastrophic, that Israel seemed to be on the verge of defeat. On Oct. 7, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was heard speaking of the possible “destruction of the Third Temple”—i.e., Israel—and is said to have offered his resignation to Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir; she declined.


Within three days, Israel recovered. Through sheer determination and acts of incredible courage and at tremendous sacrifices in personnel and materiel, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) managed to hold the line. But it would take another two weeks of hard, costly fighting, as well as U.S. emergency provision of replacements for lost military equipment, for Israel to emerge victoriously. In the process, Israel lost more than 2,600 soldiers—Israel’s highest death toll since 1948.


Israel: Snatching Victory from the Jaws of Defeat


Israel’s initial setbacks and losses in the Yom Kippur War were largely due to the failure of Israeli intelligence to recognize that Egyptian and Syrian troop concentrations near the borders, of which it was aware, meant that war was imminent. To lull Israel into a false sense of security, both Arab armies staged sham troops concentrations in previous months, each forcing Israel to mobilize reservists at high cost. The IDF’s high command believed—and persuaded the government—that this was one more such deception. Definitive intelligence of the imminent assault did arrive several hours before the onslaught, but Prime Minister Meir elected not to strike first lest Israel be accused of initiating the war and thereby lose Western and U.S. support. There was no general IDF mobilization until the beginning of the war.


Israel’s difficulty in believing that this time the Arab armies were serious about starting a war was buttressed by the common Israeli belief that the terrible beating these armies had suffered in the 1967 Six-Day War and Egypt’s failure to dislodge Israel from Sinai in the costly 1968-1970 War of Attrition had deterred the Arabs from starting another war against the qualitatively superior IDF for many years to come. This over-confidence led the IDF to maintain light forces along the Egyptian and Syrian borders, which were easily overcome in the first day of the war.


Israeli intelligence had also failed to grasp the military significance of several other developments of which it had been aware for some time. Most important, it knew that Egypt was violating the 1970 ceasefire agreement, which had ended the War of Attrition, moving its sophisticated, Soviet-made anti-aircraft missiles right up to the Suez Canal, while Syria moved similar missiles close to the border with the Israeli-held Golan. Israeli intelligence had failed to warn the Air Force that those missiles were extremely effective and would shoot down scores of Israeli warplanes during the first days of the war. Israeli intelligence was also aware that the Soviet Union (USSR) had equipped the Egyptian and Syrian armies with huge numbers of modern anti-tank missiles, but their effectiveness in destroying Israeli tanks had not been predicted. Nor did Israeli intelligence understand the importance of Egypt’s prior purchase of powerful water pumps from East Germany. Egypt used those seemingly innocuous devices to wash out the large man-made sand dunes behind which the small Israeli forces holding the line on the eastern shore of the Suez Canal thought they were safely concealed and protected. As soon as the dunes were flattened, the Egyptian forces easily overwhelmed the vastly outnumbered and unprepared Israeli troops across the canal. In general, Israel’s intelligence failure was in analysis, not in information collection.


For their part, the Egyptians and Syrians made a major blunder that helped Israel recover from the initial shock. They chose Yom Kippur—the only holiday when Israeli roads were not clogged with vacationers driving to beaches or national parks, and almost all Israelis were either at home or at their synagogue. The empty roads greatly facilitated the transfer of IDF reservists to the two fronts, while the presence of almost every reservist in one of just two known venues rather than in a random location somewhere in the country made it far easier to find and mobilize them. The Arab military planners may have believed that religious Jews were not allowed to fight on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, unaware that under Jewish law, saving lives overrides all else. It must have come as a bitter surprise to the invading Arab forces that not only did the IDF achieve full mobilization, it did so in record time

.

But it took a few days for the IDF’s mobilization to affect the fighting. During the first two days of the war, numerically superior Egyptian forces captured the Suez Canal’s eastern shore from the unprepared Israeli defenders, while the Syrians conquered almost half of the Golan from the equally unprepared Israelis there.


For the IDF, the first order of business was to restore the IDF’s air superiority, which had been so crucial to Israel’s stunning victory in the Six-Day War, but which was lost to the Egyptian and Syrian missiles in 1973. This task was achieved by the third day of the war, when Israeli pilots had learned to evade or destroy the missiles; with their superior skills, those pilots never had a problem dispatching enemy jet fighters. And yet, the initial heavy losses in warplanes limited the Israeli pilots’ capacity to help their besieged comrades on the ground.


Much of the heavy lifting in halting—and then slowly reversing—the Arab armies’ advance was thus left to the greatly outnumbered ground forces. It took not only skill and determination to do so, but also individual acts of incredible heroism. Here is just one example.


Twenty-one-year-old Lieutenant Zvika Greengold was put in charge of two hastily repaired tanks on the Golan during the first day of the war. Spotting a column of Syrian tanks advancing unopposed, his two tanks engaged the column and destroyed six Syrian tanks. His tank was damaged, so he sent it back for repairs and took over his only remaining tank. He then spotted an advancing Syrian tank battalion. Moving around in the darkness to fool the Syrians into thinking they were facing a large enemy force, he destroyed or damaged 10 Syrian armored vehicles, causing the entire battalion to withdraw. 


For the next 20 hours he fought, sometimes alone, sometimes with a few other tanks. Having his tank repeatedly knocked out, he constantly changed vehicles. At one point, he was part of a force of 14 tanks that engaged an entire Syrian armored division, made up of nearly 150 tanks and armored personnel carriers. Finally, he rushed to bolster the defense of the IDF’s headquarters on the Golan. By the time he returned home, he had knocked out dozens of Syrian tanks. Greengold became one of only 40 warriors since 1948—including eight during the Yom Kippur War—to have been awarded the Medal of Valor, Israel’s highest military honor.


After stabilizing the front in Sinai and repulsing repeated Egyptian attacks, the Israelis mounted a decisive counterattack on Oct. 15. Exploiting a gap between the two Egyptian field armies (each consisting of several divisions) deployed east of the Suez Canal—the Second Army in the north and the Third Army in the south—Israeli forces crossed the canal to the Egyptian side and within days were in a position to cut off the Third Army from Egypt. By that time, the IDF had managed not only to take the Golan but also push deep into Syria, placing Damascus within artillery range. By the time a final ceasefire went into effect on Oct. 27, Israel had achieved a decisive victory against Syria and was in a position to force the surrounded Egyptian Third Army to surrender by denying it supplies from Egypt; that would have led Egypt to yet another humiliating defeat. Yet Egypt’s Second and Third Armies were still occupying considerable territory east of the Suez Canal in areas they had captured from Israel at the beginning of the war, enabling Egypt to declare victory—a claim of dubious validity but of pivotal postwar propaganda significance.   


America: Countering the Soviets, Supplying the Israelis


At the time of the Yom Kippur War, President Richard Nixon was deeply mired in the Watergate scandal, leaving foreign policy largely in the capable hands of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Kissinger looked at the world through the lens of the Cold War. He was determined not to allow Soviet-backed Egypt and Syria to defeat U.S. ally Israel.


When the war broke out, Kissinger—like most others—expected the qualitatively superior Israeli army to win in short order. That failed to materialize. Meanwhile, on Oct. 9, the Soviet Union started an airlift and sealift, providing more than 8,000 tons of weaponry to Egypt and Syria by the end of the war. Overcoming opposition from the Departments of State and Defense, Kissinger obtained Nixon’s authorization for the supply of U.S. weapons to make up for Israel’s heavy losses during the first days of the war.


On Oct. 10, Israel’s El Al passenger planes were enlisted, but they were ill-configured for handling heavy weapons. On Oct. 14, giant U.S. transport jets started landing at Ben-Gurion Airport at high frequency carrying tanks, disassembled Skyhawk light attack aircraft, helicopters and other heavy weaponry, signaling the beginning of Operation Nickel Grass. By the end of the war, the United States delivered nearly 9,000 tons of equipment.


But what Israel needed most were replacements for its many downed top-of-the-line F-4 Phantom II jet fighters, which even the largest U.S. transport planes were unable to carry. This led to direct flights of more than 100 F-4s from the U.S. to Israel. As soon as the planes landed, their American pilots were replaced by Israelis and the planes’ U.S. logos were painted over with Israeli markings. The jets were immediately refueled and within hours took off to the front. Israel regained full air superiority, hastening the Israeli victory and saving the lives of many Israeli soldiers.


When, toward the end of the war, the Egyptian Third Army was trapped in Sinai, Cairo appealed to Moscow for help. On Oct. 24, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev warned Washington that if Israel did not lift its siege of the beleaguered Egyptian force, the Soviet Union would consider sending in troops to force Israel to do so. Soviet airborne divisions were put on alert, and a naval infantry force was ordered to sail to Egypt.


In response, the Pentagon initiated a worldwide alert, DEFCON (Defense Readiness Condition) 3—the highest level since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Among other actions, the United States put an airborne division on standby for departure to the Middle East, recalled 50 B-52 strategic bombers from Guam and ordered a third carrier task force into the Mediterranean.


Kissinger saw a major opportunity in this dangerous crisis. If the United States, rather than the Soviet Union, forced Israel to lift the siege of the Third Army, Egypt might consider switching alliances from the Soviets to the Americans. More immediately, Egypt might talk directly to Israel about the Third Army, possibly leading to peace negotiations. In Kissinger’s assessment, another humiliating Egyptian defeat would have led Egypt to adopt once again its post-Six-Day-War stance of “no peace, no negotiations, no recognition of Israel.” Indeed, at Kissinger’s urging, Israel allowed nonmilitary supplies to reach the Third Army, and direct Israeli-Egyptian talks led to a full cease-fire. Within a few years, the effects of Kissinger’s diplomacy surpassed even his own expectations.


Postscript: Durable U.S.-Sponsored Israeli-Egyptian Peace and Israeli-Syrian Disengagement


Just as Kissinger anticipated, Cairo informed him on Oct. 26 that Egypt was willing to enter into direct talks with Israel if it agreed to allow nonmilitary supplies to reach the Third Army and implement a full ceasefire. The next day, Israeli and Egyptian generals began direct talks at Kilometer 101 (63 miles from Cairo) on the Cairo-Suez road within the Israeli-controlled area. They agreed to exchange prisoners-of-war.


Kissinger then commenced shuttling between Israel and Egypt, which was in the process of switching its superpower patron from the USSR to the United States. On Jan. 18, 1974, he secured a separation-of-forces agreement (known as “Sinai I”), under which Israel withdrew from the area west of the canal that it had captured and moved its forces 10 kilometers (6 miles) east of the canal. Egypt’s Second and Third Armies withdrew from the areas they had captured east of the canal in return.


Nearly two years later, on Sept. 4, 1975, Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy produced a landmark agreement—“Sinai II”—which provided for a further Israeli withdrawal from about a third of the Sinai in return for a commitment that conflicts between the countries “shall not be resolved by military force but by peaceful means,” opening the canal to Israeli nonmilitary cargo ships, and establishing American early-warning stations in Sinai. 


Building on these foundations, President Jimmy Carter succeeded on Sept. 17, 1978, in persuading Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to sign the Camp David Accords, which paved the way for the March 26, 1979, peace treaty between the two countries. Under the treaty, Israel withdrew from the entire Sinai and Egypt limited its military presence in the peninsula, which became a buffer zone between the two armies. Despite many severe challenges, the treaty survives to this day.


On the Syrian front, Kissinger shuttled between Jerusalem and Damascus. His diplomacy produced a disengagement agreement on May 31, 1974, stipulating an exchange of prisoners-of-war, Israeli withdrawal from the areas it had captured beyond its previously held territory on the Golan, and the establishment of a U.N. Disengagement and Observer Force (UNDOF) stationed in a U.N. buffer zone between the two countries. Consequently, the border with Syria became Israel’s quietest boundary for more than four decades. Only during the last few years have Iran and Hezbollah’s move into Syria and their active involvement in the civil war there disrupted the quiet.


Conclusion: Israeli Lessons from the Yom Kippur War


At the terrible price of more than 2,600 soldiers killed and 9,000 wounded, Israel drew important lessons from the war:


  • If an enemy has the capability to strike, do not be overconfident and assume it will be deterred from striking by your superior military power

  • Do not rely on warplanes and tanks alone to achieve victory. Enhance the training, equipment and numbers of infantry soldiers, particularly special forces, to support the tanks and counter the threat posed by large, well-equipped enemy infantry troops to your military vehicles, including tanks. Concurrently, improve tanks’ armor and protective shield to reduce their vulnerability to enemy anti-tank weapons.

  • Always have on hand war-ready materiel in sufficient quality and quantity to fight a protracted war; don’t expect a 1967-style quick, knockout victory.

  • America is truly Israel’s indispensable ally. Whereas Israel fought the Six-Day War mainly with French-made warplanes, it used U.S.-made jet fighters and relied on the American airlift to turn the tide in the Yom Kippur War. No other world power is as likely to come to Israel’s aid in a future crisis.

  • Upgrade intelligence capabilities—not only in gathering information but also in analyzing its significance. Learn to expect the unexpected. Israel cannot afford another intelligence failure of 1973 magnitude.

  • Do not ignore warnings from low-level intelligence analysts, even if they contradict the assessment of higher-level officers. On Oct. 1, 1973, junior intelligence research officer Lieutenant Binyamin Siman-Tov correctly assessed that Egypt was preparing to cross the canal. His superiors ignored his assessment.

  • To quote Winston Churchill, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Of course, the Yom Kippur War was not a “good” crisis; it was a terrible crisis. But with America’s help, Israel turned it into a durable and enormously beneficial peace with Egypt and a decades-long period of quiet with Syria.


Other than sub-state actors such as terrorist organizations, it appears that thus far, Israel’s potential enemies have grasped that—thanks, in part, to its implementation of these lessons—Israel is far stronger today than it was in 1973; and that even after a successful surprise attack, Israel defeated the two most powerful Arab armies. As a result, no regular Arab army has attacked Israel during the 45 years since the Yom Kippur War.


It appears that today, only Iran—a non-Arab, Muslim-majority country—is actively seeking to oppose Israel militarily, mainly from its bases in Syria. The Israelis are working daily to disrupt any such Iranian preparations.


The United States must continue to ensure that Israel has the means necessary to defend itself—by itself—against this and any other threat or potential combination of threats in the region.


Type: Near-East-Report Near East Report