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U.S. Foreign Policy in the Yom Kippur War, 1973

The Beginning of Shuttle Diplomacy

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U.S. Foreign Policy in the Yom Kippur War, 1973

An M-60 tank rolls from the belly of a C-5 jet transport during Operation Nickel Grass, the U.S. airlift to help Israel in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force

October always signals the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. Since 1973 it has also marked the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War -- sometimes known as the October War -- between Israel and Arab states. The United States became heavily involved in ending the war, and it marked the first time the U.S. carried out "shuttle diplomacy" to forward its foreign policy goals.

Israeli-Arab Conflict

Israel proclaimed its independence in 1948. The United Nations formed it out of the old British mandated region of the Trans-Jordan area in the Middle East. Jews had long pressed for a Jewish state in the Middle East with its capital in Jerusalem. The Nazi mass murder of Jews in World War II furthered western calls for a Jewish state.

As soon as Israel declared itself a state, Arab countries attacked it. Israel won, validating itself as a nation. Some 700,000 Palestinians either fled to neighboring Arab states or found themselves under Israeli control.

Surrounded by enemies, Israel never felt secure with its borders. In 1967 it waged a quick war against the Arab states and significantly increased its territory. In the Six-Day War, Israel took over the Golan Heights from Syria, the West Bank of the Jordan River from Jordan, and the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt.

In the wake of the 1967 war, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 242 which called for Israel to return the Palestinian lands it had taken. Israel ignored the resolution, and in 1971 Egyptian President Anwar Sadat began threatening war to wrest the areas from Israeli control.

In early 1973, Sadat requested updated offensive weapons from the U.S.S.R. The Soviets, however, had agreed to detente -- a mutual softening of Cold War hostilities between the Soviet Union and the U.S. -- when President Richard Nixon made his groundbreaking visit to Moscow the year before. As such they refused Sadat's request, fearing it could turn a regional dispute into a proxy war between the superpowers.

Angry at the Soviet response, Sadat expelled some 20,000 Soviet military advisors from Egypt. That did not mean that Soviet influence was gone in the region. Soviets still backed the Arab states with equipment and had very close ties with Syria. Plus, aware that Sadat was orchestrating an attack on Israel, they neglected to inform the United States, a clear undermining of the "trust" element of detente.

Yom Kippur War

On October 6, 1973, -- Yom Kippur that year -- Arab states launched a surprise attack on Israel. They rightly figured that the Israeli army would have its defenses down on the holy day.

Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, with backing from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, made quick gains in the disputed Palestinian regions. By October 8, however, Israel launched smashing counter-attacks that negated Arab progress.

U.S. Diplomacy in the War

The United States had four diplomatic goals in the Yom Kippur War.

  • Negotiate a quick end to the war.
  • Maintain its support of Israel.
  • Preserve relations with Arab states upon whom the U.S. was increasingly reliant for oil.
  • Prevent the Soviet Union from entering the war and turning it into a Cold War battle.

The last point came close to actually occurring when the Soviet Union began air- and sea-lifting some 75,000 tons of materiel to the Arab armies. The United States responded with an airlift of its own, enabling Israel to turn the tide of the war. The airlift, codenamed Operation Nickel Grass, took 22,325 tons of arms and equipment to Israel; a sea-lift also took another 33,210 tons of materiel to Israel.

An offshoot of the U.S. airlift was the "Energy Crisis" of 1973-74. Arab oil producing nations strangled the supply of oil to the U.S. and Western countries, causing gasoline shortages, long lines at filling stations, and higher gasoline prices.

The United States tried to get the Soviet Union to join it in negotiating an end to the war, but the Soviets refused as long as it looked like the Arab coalition might win. Only when Israel looked set to roll Egyptian forces back across the Suez Canal did the Soviet Union back U.N. Resolution 338, which called for a cease fire. U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, a former German army officer in World War II, also did not throw his support behind 338 until it looked like Israel was winning.

Shuttle Diplomacy

Resolution 338 stopped the shooting, but it did not end the tensions that threatened to reignite the war. A Soviet-organized peace treaty conference in Geneva collapsed when Syria refused to participate. At that point, U.S. Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger began his famed "shuttle diplomacy" -- traveling back and forth between the belligerent nations and the United States, attempting to negotiate a permanent end to the hostilities.

Kissinger's achievements included:

  • Troop disengagements between Israel and Syria, May 1974.
  • Israeli withdrawal from areas won from Syria in 1973.
  • Israeli withdrawal from areas of the Sinai Peninsula.
  • Prisoners of war exchanges.
  • An end to the Arab oil embargo.

Significance of the War

The results of the war and Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy convinced Sadat that Egypt could not defeat Israel and its U.S. backing on the battlefield. He turned instead to diplomacy, ultimately acknowledging Israel's legitimacy. Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin later formed the historic Camp David Accords in 1978 and a treaty of peace in 1979.

Israel, concerned over the security of its 1967 territorial gains, began establishing Jewish settlements in those areas. The Israeli settlement program continues to be an obstacle in Palestine's quest to establish a formal state.

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