- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 5, 2003

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the fourth Arab-Israeli major conflict, the 1973 October War — or, as it is known in Israel, the Yom Kippur War. This year, Oct. 6 also happens to be Yom Kippur.

What is particularly important about this war is that without it there could never have been a negotiated peace with Egypt. Nor, for that matter, would the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians have been possible. In short, the Middle East would have been in far deeper turmoil than today, if that is at all possible to imagine.

This particular conflict was so important because it awakened the antagonists to some rather harsh realities of Middle East politics: Basically, the need to reach a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Eighteen days after the flare-up of hostilities, the conflict came to a halt. The tides had turned when an Israeli force led by Gen. Ariel Sharon — now the prime minister — encircled the Egyptian 3rd Army and crossed the Suez Canal, placing Israeli troops a mere 101 kilometers from Cairo. Israel then turned its military effort to the Syrian front, retaking the upper hand and dominating the strategic Golan plateau. The Syrian capital, Damascus, was now within easy reach.

However, Soviet and U.S. pressure, particularly relentless diplomatic efforts by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, finally paid off, and both sides accepted disengagement agreements. Under the accords, Egypt was to reclaim the Sinai and Syria would take control of the devastated town of Kuneitra, the capital of the Golan. A newly created United Nations force was to police the cease-fire. Thirty years later, they remain in place.

The October War had been the costliest war in armament since World War II. The Arabs lost nearly 2,000 tanks and approximately 500 warplanes. Israel’s losses amounted to 804 tanks and 114 planes. Israel lost about 3,000 men, while Egypt suffered about 20,000 casualties. Syria, for its part, lost 7,000 killed and 21,000 wounded. The monetary cost exceeded $20 billion — $80 billion by today’s standard.

Yet both sides claimed victory. In Egypt as in Syria, bridges, avenues and newspapers were renamed after the war and Oct. 6 was decreed a national holiday. The outcome of the war, like everything else in the Middle East, was muddled. To some extent both sides won, while to some degree they both lost.

For the Arabs, the October War shattered decades of belief that Israel was an invincible enemy. In the Arab world, Israel was often seen as a giant, impenetrable and incapable of losing a war. Israeli intelligence was thought to be foolproof. The Mossad was reputed to have penetrated the highest military and government circles in Syria and Egypt. It was thought the Arabs could never launch an offensive of this magnitude without tipping off the Israelis.

Yet for the first time since the creation of the state of Israel, Egypt and Syria were able to plan, prepare and implement a successful major assault. Both countries were able to mass a considerable amount of men and armament close to Israel’s borders without detection.

The crossing of the Suez Canal and the capture of the Bar Lev lines, thought to be impenetrable, was a major victory for the Egyptian army and an extraordinary morale booster for the Egyptian people and the Arabs in general. Footage of victorious Egyptian troops crossing the waterway, assaulting Israeli fortified positions on the eastern bank of the canal and raising the Egyptian flag was played over and over in cinemas and on televisions across the Arab world.

For the Syrians too, the initial stage of the war proved successful, despite later setbacks. In fierce fighting, elite Syrian troops retook parts of the Golan and temporarily erased the humiliating defeat of June 1967. Even when Israeli planes bombarded the Syrian capital, the mood in Damascus remained jubilant and defiant.

The frame of mind in Israel, however, was reversed, as the people questioned their leaders. Prime Minister Golda Meir and her charismatic minister of defense, Moshe Dayan, the hero of 1967, were harshly criticized by the public. How were the Arabs able to prepare and launch an attack of that magnitude without Israel (and the United States) learning about it? The Israeli army was caught largely unprepared, with far too many troops furloughed for Yom Kippur holidays. Significant traffic between the Egyptian and Syrian military had not been intercepted or had been misinterpreted. The country and its people realized they were not infallible.

But amid the gloom-and-doom atmosphere, there also was one of victory. Ariel Sharon managed to encircle an entire Egyptian army, turning the tables of the Sinai campaign. On the Syrian front, the Israelis retook the Golan, albeit at a high cost in human lives.

It was largely those elements, the bittersweet victories and defeats, that helped pave the way for peace between Egypt and Israel. Both sides realized there could be no ultimate victor in the Middle East conflict and that the stakes were high. There could be the alternative of negotiations. The turning point in contemporary Middle East history is that the Arabs realized Israel could not be defeated, and Israel realized it could.

One would now hope the Israelis and Palestinians will learn from the area’s history and realize walls, fences and suicide bombings will not pave the road to either peace for Israel nor to statehood for the Palestinians.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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