Israel’s resounding victory in the Six-Day War of 1967 left the Arab states humiliated and looking to regain the swathes of territory they had lost. On October 6, 1973, Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Egyptian and Syrian forces attacked Israeli positions in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights, shocking Israel and the United States.
The Egyptian and Syrian militaries had performed maneuvers in the months leading up to the initial strike against Israel, but they were not seen as a threat. As fighting continued, the United States worked to arrange a ceasefire agreement acceptable to both Israel and the Arab states. A first attempt at a ceasefire fell through, but as the military stalemate wore on, a second agreement, worked out with the USSR in advance, was arrived at on October 25, which officially ended the war, although fighting persisted off and on in the following months.
Alfred Leroy Atherton, Jr. was the Deputy Director of Near East Affairs during the Yom Kippur War. He recounts the negotiations between the U.S., the Soviet Union, the Arab states, and Israel that led to the ceasefire in a 1990 interview with Dayton Mak.
Here is another perspective on the start of the Yom Kippur War. The Department did not get much gratitude evacuating Americans out of Egypt during the war. Go here to read about negotiating the Camp David Peace Accords and other Moments on the Middle East.
“We were obviously light-years behind the power curve”
ATHERTON: In retrospect, it was quite obvious that Sadat had already, in collusion with President Assad in Syria, made the decision that they were going to have to take military action in order to unfreeze the situation on the ground and also diplomatically. And it wasn’t very many weeks after that, within a month, to my recollection, that the crisis suddenly erupted into full-scale hostilities.
It was a master bit of deception on the part of the Egyptians and the Syrians. They obviously had to make preparations. They had to do certain things that could not be hidden from photographic and electronic surveillance.
But what they did could be interpreted in different ways. It was interpreted by Israeli intelligence, and by most of ours, as Sadat wanted it interpreted, namely that it was simply preparations for military maneuvers in the eastern part of the country. Since the Israelis and we both had started from the premise that Egypt didn’t have the military capability to launch a successful attack, we therefore interpreted the intelligence to fit that preconception.
But it was obviously a well-planned and a major coordinated attack by Egyptian forces against the Israelis east of the [Suez] Canal, and by the Syrians against the Israelis in the Golan Heights. There was no action on the Jordanian front. The Jordanians had not been part of the plan, though they had picked up intelligence about it as many others had.
Needless to say, there was a certain amount of scrambling in the halls of the Department of State, in the White House, and up in New York [at UN headquarters]…I think it is important to know that [Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger was in New York at the time, and [Assistant Secretary of Near East Affairs] Joe Sisco was with him….
I was in Washington, so I only heard this afterward. Because of the time difference, since the war started early in the morning in the Middle East, it was of course in the middle of the night in Washington. We were all awakened. I was awakened and brought down to the Department of State to the Operations Center [the Department’s 24-hour nerve center] to be on the spot. Joe got word in New York and woke Henry Kissinger up, and he got Henry to try to call the Egyptian and Syrian foreign ministers or ambassadors, whoever he could reach in New York, and say: We’re sure there must be some mistake. Just give it a little time, we’re sure this can be worked out.
Well, we were obviously light-years behind the power curve at this point. The war had started. The war caught everybody, except the Egyptians and the Syrians, off guard.
One of the first messages to come into the Operations Center was a message from Golda Meir, Prime Minister of Israel, to our government, before the actual fighting had started, by which time it seemed they no longer had any doubt that this was a serious attack, or that one was on the verge of being started. And the message was that Israel would not fire the first shot, would not strike if the Egyptians did not strike against them.
Of course that was quite different from 1967. The start of shooting in that war was the Israeli decision to launch a preemptive strike against the Egyptians, before the Egyptians could get the jump on them, assuming the Egyptians in fact intended to. And in 1973, they chose not to launch a preemptive strike, and the Egyptians and Syrians in fact did get the jump on them.
By the time daylight broke in Washington, the fighting had started. All of the usual buttons were pushed. The [UN] Security Council was convened…And since Kissinger, the Secretary, and Joe Sisco, the senior Assistant Secretary dealing with this problem, were at that time in New York, I was asked, as the senior member of the Department’s Near East Bureau in Washington, to go to that meeting. Obviously, the real decisions were going to be made in New York, where Kissinger was, in consultations with the President, but he wanted this meeting to take place to get the collective assessment and judgment of the senior members or their representatives on the National Security Council, the agencies and departments directly concerned.
“This was a crisis that Kissinger very much ran himself”
This was very early on. The situation, as is always the case, was rather confused, and it wasn’t quite clear at that point how the war had started. The assumption was made by a couple of the people at that meeting that, like ’67, the Israelis had jumped the gun and had started the fighting….Nobody at the meeting was challenging this, and so I had to speak up.
Even though I was there with cabinet officers, feeling relatively junior, I said, “I think that you’re wrong. This is, first of all, Yom Kippur, the least likely day in the year when the Israelis would start a war. Secondly, we had a message from Mrs. Meir that she was not going to start a war.”
I saw no evidence to support a thesis that the Israelis, this time, had fired the first shot. I thought that they had been caught as much by surprise as everybody else. And so, in retrospect, it turns out that I was right, this was the right analysis, but it was not the initial reaction.
Very quickly the task became first to try to stop the fighting, to try to position ourselves, in the United States, so that we could influence not only the end of the fighting, but the post-hostilities situation as well….
Actually, this was a crisis that Kissinger very much ran himself. He was, in effect, the desk officer for the crisis. All of the major meetings, major messages, major discussions were handled by him, with backup support obviously from intelligence analyses, situation reports, which was the job, as always, of the Operations Center to keep the best and most current information available to the principals. But it was not a committee operation. It was basically Henry Kissinger working pretty much with a very small handful of people, Joe Sisco, [Deputy of the National Security Council Brent] Scowcroft in the White House, trying to do basically two things.
First of all, Kissinger, as always, was preoccupied with the fact that behind the Egyptians and the Syrians were the Soviets; behind the Israelis stood the United States. And you could not, as he liked to say, let Soviet arms defeat American arms. Therefore we had to be certain that the Israelis would not be defeated. There were of course other reasons as well for not wanting to see the Israelis defeated, having to do with our long-term commitment to Israeli security.
But at the same time, Kissinger had another goal, which I think all of us who had a voice in trying to make recommendations were urging, which was the opportunity to see whether the war could not be turned into the basis for getting the peace process going. We knew that Sadat wanted to try to move towards a peace settlement.
And so Kissinger’s goals were really twofold. One, not to let the Israelis be overrun militarily, but at the same time, not to let the Egyptians be defeated and humiliated in a way that would make it impossible for them to talk about peace.
So this was a most remarkable situation, where Kissinger was having frequent exchanges with the Israelis, mostly through Dinitz, the Israeli ambassador in Washington and very close to Kissinger, and at the same time exchanging communications with Cairo, through the Egyptian national security advisor, Hafiz Ismail, a senior Egyptian retired general and diplomat…And so messages were going back and forth all of the time between Kissinger and the Egyptian government.
My recollection is that the initiative for this exchange really began with the Egyptians. At about the time the war started, a message came through saying that Sadat wanted the American government to understand that this was not a war to defeat Israel, it was not a war to destroy Israel, this was simply an attempt to reassert Egypt’s right to recover its occupied territories. Sadat had no intention of trying to invade Israel proper…
I don’t recall any exchanges with the Syrians at all during this period, though they had certainly launched a simultaneous attack. And in fact, at one point, the bigger threat to Israel came from the Syrian front. The Syrians did have a breakthrough and were very close to overrunning Israeli positions on the Golan Heights and threatening the coastal plains of Israel.
The Egyptians had succeeded in the very early hours in getting a large number of forces across the Canal and pushing the Israelis back. So you had, in the first part of the war, the Israelis militarily on the defensive, having to give some ground to the Egyptians in the first instance and to the Syrians.
But all of this time the messages coming through from Cairo were: “We have nothing against the United States. We hope the United States will understand that Egypt is only asserting our own right to our territory. And there is nothing for Americans in Egypt to fear. There is no need to evacuate the Americans, they will be protected.” Very different from the atmosphere in 1967….
So all during the war this channel of communication was open, to explore ways to bring the war to a stop so we could get on with the peace efforts and help Sadat achieve what he had told us he wanted to achieve. But, of course, wars have a way of taking on a life of their own. The situation on the battle front in the early days had the Israelis with their backs to the wall.
And therefore the Egyptians were demanding very stiff terms for a cease-fire. The Russians were supporting the Egyptians. We were trying to argue that the cease-fire should involve a cease-fire back at the lines where the fighting started, which would have meant, in effect, that the Egyptians would have pulled back across the canal, which they weren’t about to do.
“You had a situation in which the Russians were resupplying the Egyptians and we were resupplying the Israelis”
Of course, the tide of battle eventually changed. The Israelis began to first stabilize the front and then recover some of the territory that they had lost, which had been occupied territory anyway, on both the Syrian and the Egyptian fronts. The borders of Israel were never threatened during this period at all. There was no Arab military threat against Israel proper; the threats were against the Israeli military forces in Sinai and the Golan Heights.
The Israelis realized that they were in for a tough fight. They had lost a lot of airplanes in the early days of the war. One of the costs of not having a first strike was that they could not knock out the Egyptian Air Force on the ground as they had done in 1967. And the Egyptians had really been outstandingly effective in their anti-aircraft defenses, not only in fixed defenses but also in shoulder-held SAM 2’s [surface-to-air missiles], I think they were called.
The anti-aircraft missiles that were launched by individual soldiers were very effective, and the Israelis lost a lot of aircraft. They began to get worried about their reserves and asked us to mount an airlift of equipment to replenish their losses. The Egyptians had also sent a request to the Russians. And pretty soon you had a situation in which the Russians were resupplying the Egyptians and we were resupplying the Israelis, and each of us accusing the other of keeping the war going.
Henry Kissinger was saying, “We must assure the Israelis enough to continue militarily, and at the same time we must try to stabilize the situation so that Sadat isn’t defeated totally.” First of all, the Israelis recovered from the Syrians the territory they had lost in the Golan Heights, and had driven the Syrians even further back beyond where the cease-fire line had been, to the point where the Israeli forces were threatening the main approaches to Damascus.
And they did a very daring thing on the Egyptian front, a military maneuver masterminded by General [Ariel] Sharon [Israeli military commander and later Prime Minister], which succeeded in putting some Israeli units back across the Suez Canal onto the Egyptian side. So the war had reached a point where in a way both sides were hurting. The Israelis had very heavy losses, and to get all of the Egyptian forces out of the Sinai would have probably incurred enormous additional losses.
A stalemate leads to talks on cease-fire
At the same time, the Egyptians had lost the initiative, and in fact had the Israelis across the Canal behind their own lines. The Syrians were virtually out of the war, and the Israelis were in a position where, if they wanted, they probably could have gone on to Damascus.
So there was a kind of stalemate on the military front, or at least the signals coming from both the Israelis and the Egyptians were: Let’s get serious about the cease-fire. And that was when a message came from [Soviet Premier Leonid] Brezhnev to President Nixon saying in effect: We would like to negotiate a cease-fire with the United States and the two of us impose it; this fighting must stop. Obviously the Russians were getting worried that the Egyptians were going to be defeated again as they were in 1967. So Brezhnev asked Nixon to send Kissinger to Moscow. Kissinger started to put the team together and the same day organized the flight to Moscow…
We left Andrews Air Force Base sometime in the early morning hours, because Kissinger had a dinner the night before with the Chinese and he didn’t want to break off the dinner. So we all got on the plane and waited several hours for him to finish his dinner with the Chinese in Washington. He came out to the airport, and then we took off for Moscow….
It was a very exhausting flight. We got to Moscow in the late afternoon and went to the Soviet guest houses and thought we would have a night’s sleep and probably start talking to the Soviets the next day, when the word came that Brezhnev would see us that evening before a late dinner and negotiations in the Kremlin.
So all of us, numbed with jet lag, went off to the Kremlin to a meal we didn’t need and negotiations that Kissinger determined would not take place. He said, “I can’t refuse an invitation from the General Secretary [of the Communist Party, Brezhnev] to meet but I can refuse to negotiate with him. Also, what’s happening at the military front will exert more pressure.”
So we did go and have the meeting, and Kissinger strung it out, parried all of the attempts to get on with declaring the cease-fire. The serious negotiations took place the next day, and they were completed in a day.
Once we got started, we worked out the text of the cease-fire and conveyed it to the parties, conveyed it back to the delegations in New York and it was introduced jointly by the Soviet and American ambassadors in New York as a joint U.S.-Soviet-sponsored resolution to bring about a cease-fire in the conflict….
“We had a temporary crisis on the U.S.-Soviet side”
There were some problems. The Israelis did not immediately stop their military movements when the hour came when they were supposed to…It was a fast-moving situation.
The net result was that the Israelis continued their advance west of the Canal even after the cease-fire went into effect on October 22. The initial impression given purposefully by the Israelis was that they were going to march on Cairo, when in fact they turned around and went down south towards the city of Suez and totally encircled and cut off the Egyptian Third Army, which was thereby, in effect, their hostage, without supplies, without not only military supplies but without food and medical supplies being able to get through to them.
This left a somewhat unstable situation, after the fighting finally stopped. The recriminations went on and on about how the Israelis had taken advantage of the cease-fire to continue their advance.
This was when the Russians responded. Sadat was desperate enough so he called on the U.S. and Soviets to send in troops together to stop the Israelis, to rescue the Third Army. The Soviets announced that they would respond.
And Kissinger said, “This is intolerable. We can’t have Soviet troops introduced into this situation.” And that was when Kissinger ordered putting the U.S. forces on the alert, basically saying to the Soviets: You make a move to put troops in Egypt, we are prepared to countermove. And so we had a temporary crisis on the U.S.-Soviet side, although really there was probably not as much of a crisis as some people thought it was at the time. It was over very quickly.
Sadat withdrew his request for the introduction of Soviet and U.S. forces, and we and the Soviets together got a resolution passed that U.N. forces should be introduced. The nearest U.N. forces were in Cyprus, so the plan was to have some of the U.N. peacekeeping forces in Cyprus come in and begin to insert a United Nations presence along the cease-fire lines, to try to stabilize them….
The Egyptians and the Soviets were saying that the Israelis had to pull back to the lines of the hour on October 22, when the cease-fire was passed. The Egyptians and the Soviets were pressing us to press the Israelis to withdraw to the lines where they had been when the cease-fire was supposed to be in effect. That was the only point where there was an argument.
The forces east of the Canal had stopped shooting at each other, and they were drawn up where they had stopped fighting. There were still Egyptians east of the Canal. They had crossed the Canal and were on what had been the Israeli side of the Canal, the Israeli-occupied side. But the Israelis, who had crossed the Canal in the other direction, were on the Egyptian side. Nothing was happening on the Syrian side. The Syrians were totally stalemated by the Israeli presence within artillery range of Damascus.
And this is where I think one of Kissinger’s brilliant initiatives took place, because he began to develop the concept of not wasting a lot of energy to try to force the Israelis a few miles or a few kilometers back, but of using this as a basis for beginning to negotiate a much broader and more stable resolution of that particular military confrontation. But there was the problem of what to do about the Egyptian Third Army, which was still without a means of resupply.
“It was a rather complex setup, but the arrangement was worked out fairly quickly”
There were some preliminary discussions about this in Washington with the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ismail Fahmy, and with the Israelis. And then it was decided that Kissinger should make a trip to the Middle East, that he should go to Cairo and meet Sadat, deal directly face to face with Sadat. (Read about Sadat’s assassination.)
And that became really, in retrospect, a very historic, momentous moment and in some ways a turning point. Kissinger had never been in an Arab country, he had never dealt with an Arab chief of state…He really didn’t have much Middle East experience, but he was a fast learner. We all pumped him full of all the information we could about the people he was going to meet, their points of view, their perspectives, their hang-ups, their concerns. And he took off. We all took off.
Again I was part of the team. We made quick stops in Morocco and Tunisia, to talk to our friends the King of Morocco and with President Bourguiba in Tunisia, to ask them to use their good offices with the Egyptians to be receptive to Kissinger and basically tell Sadat this is a man to deal with, because obviously there was a need for a certain amount of getting to know you.
We arrived in Cairo; I remember it was the 6th of November 1973. And Sadat, always a master of the dramatic, staged a meeting at the palace where he had set up his war headquarters. He was still in uniform because during the cease-fire it was still a wartime situation. We were all invited, the delegations, the Egyptian, the American, to sit out on the lawn while Kissinger and Sadat withdrew and had a totally private tete-a-tete. No note takers, nobody present. (Photo: Getty Images)
It went on and on and on. The rest of us ran out of small talk. We had friends, some Egyptians friends with whom we could talk and get reacquainted with each other…But we all sat and cooled our heels while Kissinger and Sadat had this long getting acquainted meeting, at the end of which they announced that they had basically reached agreement on the principles for relieving the Third Army and starting a larger process of negotiation, which would look towards the disengagement of forces, not just a return to cease-fire lines…
They negotiated an agreement of a certain number of points to convey to the Israelis, the main elements of which were to open up the lines for medical supplies, food, and water, but no military, no arms, to go through the Israeli lines to the Egyptian Third Army, with U.N. troops brought from Cyprus to man the checkpoints through which the Egyptian supplies would go.
It was a rather complex setup, but the arrangement was worked out fairly quickly, though with the usual hitches and distrust by each side or the other. Finally it became necessary to send Hal Saunders [Near East Affairs Specialist with the National Security Council] and Joe Sisco on to Israel to explain and to get the Israeli government’s agreement with these points which had been negotiated with the Egyptians. The rest of us went on to Jordan and eventually on to Saudi Arabia.