October 1973: Battling to diplomacy

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 4 Oct 2023

In October 1973, Egyptian soldiers crossed the Suez Canal, marking the beginning of the end of Israel’s occupation of Sinai and the start of Israel’s long road to normalisation with its nieghbours.

Crossing the Canal
Crossing the Canal


“It is in the works. The Saudis want it as much as the Israelis. It all depends how far the US manages to accommodate the demands of both sides.” This was how an informed Gulf-based Egyptian source summed up the state of direct and indirect negotiations for normalisation between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Channels of communication between Saudis and Israelis, continued the source, have been open for a few years now. Discussions of normalisation have included high-level but unannounced talks in Europe, the US, and several Arab capitals in the Gulf and North Africa. He adds that political instability in Israel — squabbles within the government, the legal problems that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is facing — and Riyadh’s lack of confidence in the US administration of President Joe Biden, have contributed to the slower-than-expected pace of progress in the talks, “but things are on track and the Americans are pushing to get something announced before the end of the year or at the most early next year, ahead of the presidential electoral season in the US.”

This week, White House Spokesperson John Kirby, said that “a basic framework” for a possible normalisation deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia now exists. On Sunday, Israeli Minister of Communications Shlomo Karhi arrived in Saudi Arabia to attend the Universal Postal Union conference. The visit followed hot on the heels of a trip by Israeli Minister of Tourism Haim Katz to attend the UN World Tourism Conference. Earlier in September, an official Israeli delegation arrived in Riyadh to take part in a UNESCO World Heritage conference. Saudi Arabia has already lifted its embargo on Israeli civil planes flying in Saudi airspace.

While Kirby did not give any details of the “basic framework” to which he alluded, Arab sources say the deal will include mutual diplomatic recognition between the two countries, direct and indirect references to Arab-Israeli peace, containment of Iranian military ambitions and the inclusion of the US in long-term defence agreements. Israel and Saudi Arabia will also begin talks on security arrangements for the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir.

“Now effectively under the sovereignty of Saudi Arabia, the two islands have not yet been fully handed over to Riyadh because of the failure to reach a three-way agreement between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel over security arrangements,” says the Gulf-based source. Proposals by Saudi Arabia and Israel were “in part” subject to Egyptian disagreement but “once Israel and Saudi Arabia are in direct talks, they can decide the details of the security arrangements themselves.”


The Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir have long been integral to the Arab-Israeli struggle. In 1956 and 1967, Egypt, under Gamal Abdel-Nasser, opted to close the Tiran Straits to Israeli ships. While Egypt and Saudi Arabia have had moments of disagreement over the status of the islands, in 1990 Egypt, under president Hosni Mubarak, acknowledged Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty but fell short of executing a handover. In 2017, under President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, Riyadh’s wish for an official ratification of Saudi sovereignty over the islands was granted by Cairo, with details of future security arrangements subject to further discussion.

According to Cairo-based Western diplomatic sources, the Saudi decision to push for Egyptian agreement to hand over the two islands was a clear sign that Saudi Arabia and Israel were moving closer to a normalisation deal.

“Yes, sovereignty represented a big political gain for the Saudi crown prince who struck the deal with President Al-Sisi, but it is impossible that the Saudis would consider managing the two islands if they were not also considering a deal with Israel,” a senior European diplomat said at the time.

A couple of weeks ago, in an interview with Fox News, Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman said that his country and Israel were inching “daily closer” to a normalisation deal. Bin Salman spoke a few days after the Israeli prime minister had told the UN General Assembly that an Israeli-Saudi agreement would change the face of the Middle East.

Netanyahu’s statement was shrugged off as hyperbole by a former Egyptian peace process negotiator.

“The Israelis now speak of a normalisation deal as the big prize when in fact the real big prize was the peace treaty with Egypt,” he said. The face of the Middle East started to change in the 1970s, changes that culminated in the Egyptian-Israeli peace deal signed in March 1979 after two years of tough negotiations.

“Egypt has always been central to the Arab-Israeli struggle. For the Israelis, getting a peace agreement with Egypt was the most significant political gain in the history of that struggle, far more significant than Israel’s military victory in 1967.”

He added that by occupying all of historic Palestine, including the West Bank that was under the control of Jordan, and Gaza that was under the control of Egypt, Sinai, and the Golan Heights, Israel might have won in military terms but it also compounded Israel’s regional isolation.

According to serving and former Egyptian diplomats who worked on the Arab-Israeli file, while unconditional US and European support of Israel underwrote its army’s supremacy — a point Israeli leaders repeatedly referred to, insisting Israel would comfortably win any future war with the Arabs — it was not a reassuring deterrent since Israel could never be certain there would not be another conflict.

A former Egyptian security source who worked on the Egyptian-Israeli file in the 1960s said that while many in Egypt, including in the diplomatic service, were unsure about what would happen following the defeat of 1967, they never discounted the possibility of a new round of hostilities “regardless of who would win”.

“I followed the Israeli press, and what Israeli diplomats were saying across Europe, closely and it was very clear to me that Israel was aware that the possibility of retaliation for the defeat, especially on the Egyptian front, could not be dismissed,” he said.

When president Anwar Al-Sadat took over in October 1970 following the sudden death of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Israel’s main concern was whether he would continue along the path Nasser had initiated with the War of Attrition.

“They thought Sadat was far too haunted by the demons of the 1967 defeat, and by his own political insecurity in the face of internal opposition, to fight. This compounded their shock when our forces started crossing the Suez Canal on 6 October 1973,” he said.


It is hard to overestimate the shock that spread through Israel’s political and military leadership when war started on both the Egyptian and Syrian fronts on the afternoon of Saturday 6 October 1973. It was Yom Kippur in Israel, and the 10th of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

The memoirs of Israeli military and political leaders make it clear that, despite mounting intelligence that a new conflict was on the cards, such was the level of Israeli confidence the evidence was ignored.

Some testimonies blame the “catastrophe” of the first few days of the war on the “arrogance” of Israeli military and political leaders who thought their country’s military supremacy a sufficient deterrent, and who believed their own propaganda that the Bar Lev Line was invincible.

This week, the Israeli press has been reliving the shock the country faced in the early days of the October War, before Israel’s prime minister Golda Meir called on Henry Kissinger to ask for help. In his own memoirs, Kissinger says it did not take much to convince US president Richard Nixon to approve a massive airlift to equip Israel with a huge arsenal of the latest arms and ammunition which was then used in a significant military push back. On 16 October, Israeli forces broke through and crossed the Suez Canal to the north of the Great Bitter Lake. By 24 October, after much pushing by Kissinger who engaged in intensive contacts with the Soviets, a ceasefire was announced.

According to the Egyptian security source, with or without the breach “which will always be blamed on Sadat’s decision to order troops to advance without the full support of his military aides,” the war was always going to end in negotiations.

“Nobody, including Sadat, thought the world would sit and watch as armies advanced into the heart of Israel. We always knew that the October War had limits. Our objective was to partially reverse the heavy defeat of 1967 to allow for a better negotiating position.”

The negotiations, however, were never going to be straightforward. “Nobody really knew how things would unfold, how negotiations would start and what they would lead to” for Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and the Palestinians.

He argues that it is as wrong today as it was 50 years ago to reduce the October War to either harb tahrik (a war of movement) or harb tahrir (a war for liberation). Like many top military figures who have spoken to Al-Ahram Weekly at different points over the last decade, he argues the war was both. And while the breach allowed Israeli forces to reach Suez, neither this nor the encirclement of Egypt’s Third Field Army detracts from the initial crossing of the Suez Canal, the taking down of the Bar Lev Line or capture of Israeli soldiers as prisoners of war, images of which sent shockwaves through the heart of Israeli society.

This week, to mark the 50th anniversary of the October War, Israeli President Isaac Herzog said Israel “should never forget this war” and “must always be prepared for another”.

In a televised speech in 1973, before the start of the October War, Sadat said he was convinced Israel would not halt its aggression against the Arabs until it had achieved control of all the land “from the Nile to the Euphrates”. Later, following the October War and the launch of his peace initiative in 1977, he struck a different note, saying he hoped Israel and the Arabs could reach a fair peace that would make the October War the last in the line of Arab-Israeli conflicts.


 Sadat was proven right, in part at least, on both accounts. The October War saw Egypt engineer the crossing of the Suez Canal that then allowed Sadat to pursue negotiations for a political settlement. But following the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in March 1979 Sadat faced a barrage of criticism. Egypt was placed under an Arab boycott, expelled from the Arab League and the headquarters of the pan-Arab organisation was moved from Cairo to Tunis.

According to two former Egyptian foreign ministers who were serving diplomats in the late 1970s, the price Egypt paid for its peace treaty with Israel, irrespective of the legal and political qualities of the final text, was high, undermining Egypt’s leadership of the Arab world.

“I don’t think that the question was whether Sadat should or should not have pursued a political settlement. It was unrealistic to think that, after the October War, it was possible to regain all Egyptian territories without a political deal,” said one. “The question is whether or not it was possible for Sadat to have done things differently and to have secured at least partial Arab support for the deal. But Sadat was impatient. He felt it was his call and his alone.”

Both former foreign ministers agree that Sadat’s unilateral peace deal was at the time perceived as a stab in the back of the “central cause of all Arabs”, ie the Palestinian cause. They both blame Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for lacking the vision to seize the opportunity when Sadat requested self-rule for the Palestinians as part of the Egyptian-Israeli settlement.

Arafat, who appeared totally shellshocked while sitting in a front seat in the Egyptian parliament when Sadat announced his intention to go to Israel in pursuit of peace in 1977, and who subsequently labelled Sadat a traitor, ended up pursuing peace talks with the Israelis himself, first openly in the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference and the subsequent Washington talks, and later in the secret talks hosted in Norway that resulted in the Oslo Accords, signed at the White House in September 1993 in a ceremony that concluded in a handshake between Arafat and both Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres.

“Just as Arafat labelled Sadat a traitor in the 1970s, Arafat’s adversaries labelled him a traitor. And just like Sadat’s aides protested the nature of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, so Arafat’s aides questioned the Oslo Accords and the deals that followed, including the Gaza-Jericho Agreement signed in Cairo in 1994,” said an Egyptian diplomat who was member of the negotiating team that worked on the Camp David Accords.

According to this diplomat, while it is wrong to argue that Israel chalked up political losses in the agreements reached with Egypt and with the Palestinians, and with Jordan following the signing of the Wadi Araba Treaty at the White House in October 1994, it is also true that Israel was in a weaker position on 24 October 1973 than on 5 October 1973, and a long way from where it was on 4 June 1967.

The same diplomat says Sadat was pragmatic. He wanted to close the chapter of wars with Israel and usher in an era of economic prosperity for Egyptians. And with “Egypt out of the military equation” it became clear that the Palestinians could not think of a new war with Israel. Then came the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, making negotiations the only possible route to a settlement.

It is an analysis that not only never gained a Palestinian or Arab consensus, but for many years it was considered defeatist. In the 1970s, it was the left that consistently opposed any political deals with Israel. The subsequent rise of Islamism across the Arab world and the foundation of Hizbullah in Lebanon in the early 1980s, and of Hamas and other Islamist resistance movements in Gaza in the late 1980s, shifted that opposition, which was now spearheaded by Islamist movements.

A former European foreign minister argued that the emergence of these resistance movements alarmed Israel and helped prompt deals like the Oslo Accords and the Wadi Araba Treaty. Israel, he said, could not countenance the spate of settlements that began with its peace treaty with Egypt to be reversed.