The retelling of the history of the Yom Kippur War has taken many forms. In fact, that history — which began 40 years ago, on Oct. 6 — has as much to do with the implications of the war geopolitically, and with the ways in which Israelis reacted to the war, as with the narrative of the war itself. Conventional wisdom has it that the Six-Day War in June 1967 was the turning point, not only in modern Israeli affairs, but in the international geopolitical arena as well. But in fact it was the October War that was the turning point for Israel, internally and internationally.
We know the narrative. The Yom Kippur War was the reverse of the Six-Day War: instead of a swift, dramatic victory, there were large numbers of casualties, intelligence breakdowns, loss of control of the battlefields, conflict amongst the generals, and — perhaps most importantly — the absence of credibility. Everything that could go wrong, did. But despite the bitter failures of the first days of fighting, the war ended with a significant Israeli victory.
But that is not how Israeli public opinion saw it. A profoundly complacent Israel turned, as result of the war, into deep depression. The country had experienced a national trauma whose traces did not disappear for decades. Faith in the political leadership, in the military leadership — seen as a bastion of legendary figures — was irretrievably lost.
Israel, at the end of 1973, had returned to its psychological condition of before the Six-Day War: a small country in constant existential danger.
On the geopolitical front, the implications of the war in terms of America-Israel relationships were profound as well. Understanding the implications of the Yom Kippur War requires a bit of context.
First, American Middle East policy since the Six-Day War has been defined by the famous “Bundy Memorandum.” Former National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy wrote a memo to President Lyndon Johnson in 1967, in which he laid out the constraints on U.S. policy in the Middle East. Keeping Israel strong, argued Bundy, saves the United States the headache of defending it directly. The United States is committed to Israel’s survival, he wrote, but also to good relations with pro-Western Arab states that want Washington to tilt against Israel.
But in the long run, Bundy implied, getting Arabs and Israelis to make peace was the only way to resolve the inherent contradiction in American policy. American administrations have oscillated between these conflicting concerns ever since — and they became salient in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War.
Second, in the first Nixon administration, the Rogers Plan, visited upon American foreign policy by Secretary of State William Rogers in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, was a complicated matter, the gist of it being that Egypt would be brought into the picture as a negotiating partner, and Israel would withdraw first from lands captured during the Six-Day War; in return, the Arabs would give some sort of guarantee of permanent peace. This was not the formal peace treaty demanded by Israel. Moreover, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger did not like this. Reward a Soviet client — Egypt? “No!” roared Kissinger.
This brings us to the Yom Kippur War, which essentially completed the transition of the Arab-Israeli dispute from a nuisance — an international sideshow — to a conflict central to American diplomatic and strategic concerns. Three points are crucial: first, Yom Kippur led to U.S.-Soviet confrontation, and to the Soviet Union playing a role in negotiations that ended the conflict with Egypt and with the more intractable Syria. Second, the war provoked a crisis in the Western alliance, as had the 1947-49 (“War of Independence”) and 1956 (“Sinai Campaign”) conflicts.
Third, there was OPEC, the oil cartel, quadrupling oil prices, which became the compelling international problem of the 1970s. The Arab-Israeli dispute, for the first time, became a factor in U.S. economic recessions, and in American relations with the Third World.
Lest we forget, this was the era of Watergate, and American domestic politics surely influenced foreign policy. Embattled President Richard Nixon needed a major foreign-policy success — “solve the oil embargo!” — and he felt that if he could pressure Israel enough, he would have that success. At the same time, he felt that he could not afford to alienate America’s Jews. So the fear of the devastation of America’s economy offset traditionally strong pro-Israel sentiment. (As it turned out, the oil crisis was a boon to American business, with petrodollars creating an enormous market for American (and British) goods and services.)
The bottom line on the war: for the first time in decades there was attention paid to the Arab world. The Yom Kippur War provided opportunities for Arabs to express their views on the conflict with Israel, and to be listened to. The PLO became a factor, and a voice. The war strengthened the Arab case within the American policy-making community — which was traditionally pro-Arab in any case. For the first time, there was the suggestion that national interest demanded closer ties with the Arabs, even if major Israeli concessions were to be demanded.
Additionally, it was during this period that Kissinger began to push the idea of an “intransigent Israel.” After all, Israel had not deterred the Arab assault, but was nonetheless “intransigent” in America-Israel relations. This suited Kissinger perfectly; he needed a weaker Israel lobby in order to negotiate more flexibly. Before too long, the idea of an “intransigent Israel” had become currency among policy figures and academics, and in some public opinion polls as well.
Nixon, when it came down to it, was just fine; but the legacy of Kissinger’s realpolitik are still with us — and it all came out of the Yom Kippur War.
Jerome Chanes is the author of four books and numerous articles on Jewish history and public affairs. He is a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center, and he teaches in the CUNY system.