How the 1973 October War led to a new order within Israel and beyond

Peter Beaumont

The Guardian  /  October 1, 2023

Egypt and Syria’s joint attack ushered in a new dynamic around the fracture lines in the Middle East.

In 1974, a year after the end of the Yom Kippur War [October War], the German-born US political scientist Dankwart Rustow surveyed the implications of the conflict for Foreign Policy magazine. Remarking that the Arab-Israeli “fronts” in the wider conflict were dormant, he noted, however, the huge and continuing impact of the war, not least in the ongoing repercussions of OPEC’s oil embargo – the so-called “oil weapon” that had been aimed by Arab oil producers at supporters of Israel, including the US, shocking the global economy.

Its impact, Rustow assessed, had “spread inexorably to aggravate all previous problems of the world’s economy … spreading ripples of [an] oil war engulfing the entire world”.

On the 50th anniversary of the short and bloody war, they are ripples that continue to be felt today. While the war itself lasted less than three weeks, the consequences continue to be profound. While OPEC’s embargo is now most remembered, that move was itself a response to a significant strategic repositioning of US support for Israel under President Richard Nixon in the midst of the conflict.

Taken together, the two issues would create a new international dynamic around the fracture lines in the Middle East.

Announced on 20 October, a fortnight into the war, OPEC’s oil embargo was a direct response to the Nixon-ordered airlift of arms and other military equipment – Operation Nickel Grass – to resupply Israel’s battered forces. For Washington, it would mark the beginning of a diplomatic balancing act that continues to this day: weighing a new commitment to guarantee Israel’s security in the face of any existential threat against the necessity of maintaining good relations with the Arab oil-producing monarchies, Saudi Arabia foremost among them.

Going forward, Israel would not only enjoy a US guarantee of its security but the military edge in terms of technology if required. What Rustow and others, however, could not see, at such close proximity to the events, was how Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s great gamble of launching a surprise two-front attack with Syria on Israel would play out.

Within four years, Sadat would be visiting Jerusalem to address the Israeli parliament and a year later he would sign the Camp David peace treaty cementing an end to hostilities between the two countries – still Israel’s most important treaty with an Arab state. If the fighting itself did not go the way Sadat intended, the outcome ultimately was largely what he planned: a conflict that bloodied Israel and went some way towards expunging the humiliation of the Arab armies’ defeat in the Six-Day War [June War] in 1967, while pushing to involve Washington in a negotiated settlement that would see the return of the Sinai peninsula to Cairo.

For Israel itself, the war would also mark a series of significant turning points. The demonstrations that followed the end of the war marked a breach between many Israelis and the political establishment that had dominated the country since its founding. Israelis and their media – as the former Israeli ambassador to the UK Mark Regev has remarked – would thereafter be more skeptical of their political institutions. Within a year, prime minister Golda Meir was out of office. Among a new generation of politicians to emerge in the immediate aftermath of the war were Ariel Sharon – feted as a hero for his actions during the war – who had been one of the founders of the new Likud party set up a few weeks before the outbreak of war and who would later become prime minister. Another beneficiary would be Yitzhak Rabin, seen as untarnished by the scandal of the war planning, who would emerge as the Labor party’s leader and agree the Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians.

Perhaps most intriguing is a legacy that has not always been evident during recent decades of failed peacemaking. It was described two years ago by Aaron Jacob, a former Israeli deputy permanent representative to the UN. “The peace treaty between Egypt and Israel,” suggested Jacob, who served on the Egyptian front during the conflict, “provides compelling proof that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not a zero-sum game. Losses for one side can result in losses for the other side, too, just as gains for one party can bring about gains for the other.”

Peter Beaumont is a senior international reporter who has reported extensively from conflict zones including Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East and Ukraine