On October 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated surprise attack on Israeli forces in the Sinai and the Golan Heights. Israel ultimately repelled the attack and regained lost ground, but only after the United States made the decision to supply the Israeli military. This war ultimately compelled the Nixon administration to step up its efforts to settle the decades old dispute.
Following the end of the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, the United States Government had worked toward implementing United Nations Resolution 242 that required Israel and its Arab neighbors to conclude peace treaties in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory. Initial efforts proved unsuccessful. The Jarring initiatives, begun in November 1967 to broker a peace agreement, collapsed in 1971. The Rogers Plan of 1969 called for a settlement requiring Israel to return to its pre-1967 international borders in return for Arab recognition of Israel. However, Israel and its Arab neighbors were unable to reach a compromise over the occupied territories.
With negotiations stalled, Egyptian and Syrian forces attacked Israeli forces on October 6, 1973 in the Sinai and the Golan Heights in an effort to regain territory they had lost during the 1967 war. These attacks occurred on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, and took Israeli forces by surprise as Israeli intelligence had failed to detect the months of secret preparations by Egypt and Syria.
During the first few days of the war, Egypt and Syria secured victories in the Sinai and the Golan. In the south, Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal and overran the Israeli military’s extensive fortifications, forcing the Israelis back. The Israelis did not fare better in the Golan Heights. Israeli positions in the eastern Golan fell to the advancing Syrian army. With a lack of tanks and manpower, Israeli troops had to withdraw from many positions in the southern sector of the Golan Heights.
By October 9, Israeli forces were able to contain the threat on both fronts. Because Egypt had consolidated its positions in Western Sinai instead of assisting the Syrians to the east, the Israelis used more of their resources against the Syrian forces in the Golan. Once Syria was put on the defensive, Israel could concentrate more of its forces in the Sinai. Despite these successes, Israel could not take the offensive without the certainty of an adequate supply of military equipment.
In response to Israeli losses and encouraged by Soviet support of Egypt and Syria, the United States, after much deliberation, decided to intervene on behalf of Israel. The United States offered Israel a full-scale airlift of military equipment on October 10. This U.S. assistance served to replenish Israeli forces and Israel launched an offensive that retook most of it territorial losses and even gained some ground against both the Egyptians and Syrians. Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries responded to the U.S. airlift by organizing an oil embargo against the United States.
Israel’s refusal to stop fighting after a United Nations cease-fire was in place on October 22 nearly involved the Soviet Union in the military confrontation. On October 25 and 26, the Soviet Union threatened to send troops into Egypt to save the Egyptian Third Army from Israeli encirclement. The United States went on nuclear alert and, fearing that the situation might escalate into global conflict, applied pressure on Israel to obey the cease-fire.
The Arab-Israeli War of 1973 ended the stalemate in peace negotiations that had existed prior to the war. Following the military confrontation against Syria and Egypt, Israel was more amenable to a peace settlement. The United States also began to re-examine its policy in the Middle East when it faced the Arab oil embargo at the end of the war. Settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict became a top priority for the United States, and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger embarked on a negotiation mission that became known as “shuttle diplomacy.” Although he did not succeed in ending the Arab-Israeli conflict, he did achieve two disengagement agreements signed between Israel and Egypt in January 1974 and September 1975 and a similar agreement between Israel and Syria in May 1994.