The Mideast: A Century of Conflict
Part 5: From the 1973 Yom Kippur War to Peace with Egypt
Morning Edition: October 4, 2002
Listen to Part 5 of Mike Shuster's series.
MADELINE BRAND: This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.
Twenty-nine years ago this week, Israel was attacked by Egypt and Syria in what would become known as the Yom Kippur War, the fourth war between Israel and the Arab states since Israel declared its independence in 1948.
This time though, Israel's attackers were not trying to destroy the country; they were fighting to regain territory they had lost in the 1967 Six Day War.
Israel was shaken by the Yom Kippur War, and six years later it would sign a peace treaty with Egypt.
In the fifth of our seven-part series, "The Mideast: A Century of Conflict," NPR's Mike Shuster reports.
MIKE SHUSTER: Israeli leaders understood that Egypt and Syria might attack in 1973 to regain their lost territories. Israeli leaders were even aware of preparations for war in Egypt and Syria. And yet Israel was taken by surprise when the attacks came, says Benny Morris, author of Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist Arab Conflict.
BENNY MORRIS: This was one of the great surprises in history, the same as Pearl Harbor. This was a major strategic surprise, due to self-confidence basically, over-confidence, a certain type of intelligence blindness which stems from self-confidence. Israel was caught with its pants down on the 6th of October, 1973.
SHUSTER: Egypt was now led by Anwar Sadat, Syria by Hafez Al Assad. Sadat, eager to regain the Sinai Peninsula and the control of Suez Canal, had launched a peace feeler to Israel's Prime Minister Golda Meir in 1971. But Meir rebuffed him; she wanted a full-blown peace treaty.
The Arabs struck on the afternoon of October 6th, the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Syria attacked Israeli positions on the Golan Heights. Egypt launched 200 combat aircraft to hit Israeli forces on the eastern side of the Suez Canal.
By the end of the first day of fighting, the Egyptian army was able to cross the canal and seize positions on the Israeli side, something the Israeli army did not believe the Egyptians could do.
Reporter Michael Elkins described the military balance in the early stage of the war.
MICHAEL ELKINS: Fighting is going on along the entire length of the canal but for the most part the action is said to be very close to the bank of the waterway. This suggests that although the Egyptians have increased their numbers on the Israeli side of the canal, they have not been able to deepen or widen their bridgeheads. As the Israelis move more armor into position, it is to be expected that the canal line battle may be moving into a decisive stage.
SHUSTER: The Yom Kippur War lasted only 19 days. Israel was at first shaken, but then fought back aggressively. Neither Egypt nor Syria regained the territories each had sought. But the armies of both states performed far better than Israeli intelligence expected. Egypt inflicted heavy losses on the Israelis in the Sinai; Syria's thrust into the Golan Heights in the first days looked unstoppable.
Israel recovered, but for the first time, its army did not appear to be invincible. In the last days of the war, tensions peaked between Washington and Moscow, the chief backer of Egypt and Syria, which brought the U.S. to a nuclear alert.
The war ended with Israel still in control of the Golan and most of the Sinai, but the military balance had shifted. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger realized it was a diplomatic opportunity for the United States, says William Quandt, who worked in the White House at the time.
WILLIAM QUANDT: It put the United States in the central negotiating role, and that's what Kissinger wanted. I remember in the situation room as the war came to an end, Kissinger felt that we were in a strong strategic position. We had a close relationship with Israel. President Sadat was making it clear he wanted to work with us, and I heard Kissinger say at one point, this is just where we want to be. We're in the catbird's seat.
SHUSTER: This was the beginning of the peace process, which would go through many stages, be shepherded by seven American presidents, and turn the United States into the key peacemaker in the Middle East to this day.
Kissinger embarked on his journeys of shuttle diplomacy after the 1973 war. His efforts would lay the groundwork for more dramatic diplomatic gains later in the decade.
Big political changes would also unfold in Israel, with the election in 1977 of the Israeli right wing in the form of the Likud Party and its leader Menachem Begin. Historian Anita Shapira attributes Begin's triumph to the outcome of the 1973 War.
ANITA SHAPIRA: The shock of the '73 war brought about a completely new elite to rule the country for better and for worse. This war made people realize that power is not theirs forever, and that compromise is something that is necessary in order to survive in the long run.
SHUSTER: The Palestinians were not involved in the Yom Kippur War, but the war had a profound impact on them, says Rashid Khalidi, professor of Middle East history at the University of Chicago.
RASHID KHALIDI: The Palestinians had very little to do with it. The effect of the '73 war on the Palestinians was very important however, because it signified that the Arab states had given up opposing the existence of the state of Israel by accepting Security Council Resolution 242, which calls for all states in the region to live in peace and to accept them and to recognize them. Syria and Egypt had in effect decided that they would come to terms with Israel. The terms on which they would do so had not yet been agreed. The handwriting was on the wall for the Palestinians. The Arab countries no longer would support them in trying to oppose the existence of the state of Israel.
SHUSTER: And so the Palestinian movement, with Yasser Arafat at its head, adapted as well. The Palestine Liberation Organization shifted its goals, laying the groundwork for the creation of a Palestinian state in the occupied territories, implicitly abandoning the goal of destroying the state of Israel, says Yezid Sayigh, professor of Middle East history at Cambridge University.
YEZID SAYIGH: They couched it in certain language that was acceptable to militant ears. They talked about their right to set up a fighting national authority on any part of land evacuated of the Israeli occupation. This simply meant that they were willing to set up a governing authority in the West Bank and Gaza as long as Israel withdrew from them. And it was understood by everyone that this meant negotiating with Israel and living side-by-side with Israel.
SHUSTER: But the Israelis still would not acknowledge the Palestinians as a political force. Begin, under pressure from President Jimmy Carter, did agree to negotiate with Egypt's Sadat. Only months after Begin's election, Sadat made his groundbreaking trip to Jerusalem and addressed the Israeli parliament.
In 1978, Carter brought both Sadat and Begin to Camp David for an intense two weeks of negotiations. It would take several more months, but on March 26, 1979, Begin and Sadat signed a historic peace treaty at the White House with Carter looking on.
Egypt got back the Sinai; Israel received formal recognition from Egypt. Both Sadat and Begin hailed their achievement.
ANWAR SADAT: Let there be no more wars or bloodshed between Arabs and Israelis. Let there be no more suffering or denial of rights. Let there be no more despair or loss of faith. Let no mother lament the loss of her child. Let no young man waste his life on a conflict from which no one benefits.
MENACHEM BEGIN: Now it is time for all of us to show civil courage in order to proclaim to our peoples and to others: No more war, no more bloodshed, no more bereavement. Peace unto you. Shalom! Salaam! Forever. (applause...)
SHUSTER: Anwar Sadat did attempt to negotiate for the Palestinians. Sadat and Carter pressed Begin to accept an autonomy plan for the West Bank and Gaza to be implemented five years later. Begin never carried it out; Sadat himself was assassinated in Egypt in 1981 by Muslim fundamentalists at a parade marking the eighth anniversary of the 1973 war.
The Palestinians themselves were not yet part of the process, says Rashid Khalidi.
KHALIDI: Most of them were very bitter that Sadat had made a separate deal, had not tried to negotiate with and on behalf of the Palestinians, and in so far as he did so, simply agreed to autonomy with Begin. The Palestinians believed that they had the right to independence, and that the Egyptians had in effect had betrayed them.
SHUSTER: Israel continued its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza through the 1980s, while making war on the PLO in Lebanon in 1982.
But the Palestinian population on the West Bank and in Gaza never accepted the Israeli occupation, and in 1987, violence would erupt in a wholly new and unexpected form. Its aim was to oust Israel from the occupied territories. The Palestinians called it Intifada, the uprising.
Mike Shuster, NPR News, Los Angeles.
BRAND: For background on Anwar Sadat and other key figures, visit the Web site npr.org.
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