After the death of Nasser in September 1970, Anwar Sadat succeeded him as president of Egypt. As early as 1971, Sadat raised the possibility of a treaty with Israel if Israel returned the occupied territories. While he worked with the Nixon Administration to pursue diplomatic means, Sadat also prepared Egypt for war. One of Sadat’s goals was to reopen the Suez Canal to provide Egypt with a source of revenue.
Talks stumbled over whether Israel would withdraw to the borders of June 4, 1967 or whether the new border would be negotiated. The two sides also had differences on the width of the frontier between the two armies. Another stumbling block was Israel’s desire for recognition from the Arab nations.
Sadat also seemed determined to restore Egypt’s honor and pride after the humiliating loss in the Six-Day War. On becoming president, he said, “the key to everything…was to wipe out the disgrace and humiliation that followed from the 1967 defeat. I reckoned it would be 1,000 times more honorable for us—40,000 of my sons in the armed forces and myself—to be buried crossing the Canal than to accept such disgrace and humiliation. Posterity would say we had died honorably on the battlefield…and posterity would carry on the struggle.”
Sadat had learned several lessons from the 1967 war. First, Egypt prepared a deadly umbrella of surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft guns to shield Arab ground forces from Israeli aircraft. Egypt also worked to coordinate the action of their military units in order to maximize their effectiveness. The Egyptian military improved their logistics plan to move supplies and reinforcements across the Suez. Sadat also decided to plan a surprise attack rather than a public military buildup such as the one that alerted Israel in 1967.
For Israel, terror attacks continued. On May 30, 1972, Japanese Red Army terrorists sympathetic to the Palestinian cause opened fire in Tel Aviv’s airport killing twenty-six people and wounding 78. In September 1972, PLO terrorists murdered eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.
In the spring of 1973, Egypt mobilized their armed forces. Israel mobilized as well. Eventually both sides stood down, but the mobilization had been very expensive for Israel. Over the summer, Egypt conducted deceptions to lull the Israelis into a false sense of security. When Egypt began mobilizing again in the fall, Israeli leaders were reluctant to call up their reserves again. The Israel Defense Force was only partially activated in the hours before the war started.
At 2:00 pm, on Saturday, October 6, 1973, as Israel celebrated Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, 70,000 Egyptian infantry streamed across the Suez and overran the Bar Lev Line of Israeli defensive positions manned by 500 soldiers. The Israeli Air Force was initially ineffective due to Egypt’s air defenses. Israeli reinforcements arrived in the afternoon and were unable to push back the Egyptians, but did manage to stop the Egyptian advance.
Syria launched a simultaneous attack on the Golan Heights with 1,100 tanks opposing 157 Israeli tanks. The Syrians captured Mount Hermon, an Israeli intelligence post, and began to shell northern Israeli settlements. Soon the Syrians controlled the majority of the Heights.
Other Arab nations also joined in the fray. Iraq contributed aircraft to both the Egyptian and Syrian fronts. Jordan contributed two armored brigades and artillery to the Syrian front. Saudi Arabia sent 3,000 soldiers and Libya supplied Egypt with aircraft. Additionally, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Libya helped to finance the Arab armies. Tunisia, Sudan, and Morocco also offered assistance.
This time, the Israelis gave the Syrian front priority since the Egyptian front was relatively stable. On October 8, Israeli armor led a counterattack and, over the next week, pushed the Syrians back and even crossed the border into Syria. Israeli aircraft were unable to destroy the Syrian SAM sites, but Israeli fighter-bombers successfully attacked the Syrian General Command and Air Force Command buildings in Damascus. Israeli troops retook Mount Hermon and advanced to within forty miles of Damascus.
As the war settled into a stalemate, the Soviets resupplied the Arab armies, while the UN attempted to arrange a ceasefire, which Egypt refused to accept. As Israeli losses mounted and the Israeli forces depleted their stocks of ammunition and supplies, the United States began a month long airlift of supplies. This resupply effort may have saved Israel. The TOW and Maverick missiles brought by the Americans accounted for many destroyed Arab tanks. The effort also cost the US much of its influence in the Arab world. This also led to an Arab oil embargo of the US and Europe.
On October 15, the Israelis, led by Ariel Sharon, attacked between the Egyptian Second and Third armies, crossing the canal, and encircling the Egyptian Third Army. In the next four days, the Israelis destroyed much of the Egyptian air defenses, allowing Israeli planes to attack the Egyptians more effectively. Finally, the Israelis were able to reach the Suez-Cairo road and come within 65 miles of Cairo itself.
When it became clear that Cairo was vulnerable to Israeli attack, Egypt finally accepted a UN ceasefire. On October 22, 1973, the war ended and the UN passed resolution 338 which called on the combatants to negotiate toward UN resolution 242, which was passed after the 1967 war. Casualties were estimated at 2,700 Israelis, 3,500 Syrians, and 15,000 Egyptians. The Israelis had destroyed 1,100 Syrian tanks and threatened to totally destroy the Egyptian Third Army. Due to Israel’s small size, its population could not easily absorb the loss as easily as the Arab nations.
The strong showing of Egypt’s armies in the opening days of the war enabled Sadat to reclaim Egypt’s pride and honor. He built upon this limited success and was able to finally talk peace with the Israelis. Agreements were signed between Israel and Egypt in 1974 and 1975, in which Israel agreed to withdraw behind UN security zones in the Sinai. Israel also signed a disengagement agreement with Syria in 1974.
In November 1977, Sadat traveled to Jerusalem to address the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. This, in turn, led to the Camp David Accords, a lasting peace agreement signed in 1979 between Israel and Egypt that has lasted to this day. Sadat shared the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin for their roles in crafting the agreement. For what many Arabs viewed as a betrayal, Sadat was assassinated by Islamic radicals in 1981.