Fifty Years After the Yom Kippur War, the US Should End Its Blank-Check Aid to Israel

Fifty years after the Yom Kippur War, its legacy still defines US policy in the Middle East. The aftermath of the conflict saw Washington massively expand aid to Israel — while buying off Arab governments in order to isolate the beleaguered Palestinians.

Israeli chief of staff in a meeting during the Yom Kippur War, October 10, 1973. (Bamahane / Wikimedia Commons)

An Israeli writer once told me how she’d been asked to look at a script for a TV show that hypothesized an alternate history in which the Israeli army lost the Yom Kippur War. Mostly ignorant, I asked what made such an idea compelling. She explained that the nearness of military defeat in the war that began on October 6, 1973 — and what might have happened to the Israeli project in such an event — still haunts Israeli society. Fifty years on from Israel’s (at least qualified) victory, the history of the conflict remains essential to any regional understanding of Palestine, particularly from a Western policy perspective.

Element of Surprise

The Israeli army has fought three major wars with its Arab neighbors. The first came in 1948, when Arab armies attacked in support of Palestinians driven out of their homes and cities by Zionist militias prosecuting the Nakba. The 1948 war ended in Arab and Palestinian defeat, and with it the initial consolidation of the Israeli state project.

Perhaps best-known of the wars is 1967, when, true to its alternative name as the Six Day War, the Israelis defeated a half-dozen Arab armies in under one week. In so doing, they claimed much of the land where the occupation regime still pursues its project of land grabs and settlement building. Its enduring significance derives from its revision of the prewar boundaries — which international law demands Israel withdraw back behind to create a viable Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

With Israel growing complacent after its 1967 victory, the 1973 conflict, also called the Ramadan War, very nearly dealt it a restitution of the status quo ante. Just as the Vietcong’s breakthrough Tet offensive against the United States and South Vietnamese in 1968 was called for the Vietnamese New Year — wrongly imagined to be an unthinkable moment for an attack — 1973 saw Arab militaries seize the element of surprise by assembling during Ramadan, which overlapped that year with the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur.

After two-and-a-half weeks of fighting, the Israeli state survived the conflict. But a new set of facts on the ground had presented itself. It is this set of parameters that, half a century later, still defines US, Egyptian, and Israeli relations in particular.

While Syrian forces tried — and failed — to retake the occupied Golan Heights, perhaps the most significant fighting in 1973 took place on the southern flank of the Israeli state, which at the time occupied not only Palestine but also twenty-three thousand square miles of Egyptian territory in the Sinai Peninsula. The brutality of Israelis’ settlement building in Egypt and its destruction of preexisting communities — followed by the razing of their own settlements upon an aggrieved withdrawal completed in 1982 — would leave a lasting negative legacy. These are key structural factors behind the underdevelopment, weakened social cohesion, and eventually the extremist activity that means that the Egyptian state is now left to manage northern Sinai as a quasi-militarized zone, with repeated state violence against the wider population.

In the aftermath of 1973, however, the Egyptian position was considerably more robust than the one more recently created by Abdel el-Sisi and his sickly (if ever-US-funded) government.

Fifty years ago, Egypt was able to play a deft diplomatic hand between the Soviet Union and the United States, making particularly good use of Soviet tanks for the Sinai offensive. In that offensive, the potential strength of the Egyptian military became apparent; it was understood that Sinai would probably have to be returned by the Israelis, and Egyptians would buy into the Western fold or else drift closer toward the USSR.

Five years after the fighting finished, in a historic 1978 peace agreement, Israel and Egypt normalized relations, unlocking the first US military aid to Anwar Sadat’s administration in Cairo. This payment, to the annual tune of $1.2 billion, still flows from US taxpayers to Egypt. Sadat was understandably hated by Egyptians for making an unwanted peace with the Israeli project, and though Sinai was formally restored to Egypt in 1980, Sadat himself was assassinated for his betrayal of the Palestinian cause and Egyptian pride. Improving relations on Israel’s southern flank gave the Israelis the opportunity to turn their attention northward, first through interference with Lebanon’s civil war, following up with a full Israeli invasion in 1982, less than two months after the Sinai withdrawal was completed.

Though Jordan has a far less authoritarian political system than Egypt’s, it was the Egypt model of US cash-for-peace that in 1994 secured the Hashemite Kingdom, albeit at a price of a further $1.4 billion a year from US taxpayers. Occasional Jordanian marches toward the Palestinian border fence, and a Jordanian MP recently detained as he tried to smuggle cash and weapons into the West Bank, show that whatever the agreement at state level, serious commitment to Palestinians persists among both the Jordanian population and sections of its political class. The parlous state of the Jordanian economy, and the usefulness of a billion annual dollars from the United States, is arguably the only thing that keeps the deal in place.

BDS Goes Large

As for the wider region, while not all Arab states sent significant troop deployments in 1973, a broad solidarity with the Palestinian cause prevailed, particularly among the oil-producing Gulf states and members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The OPEC oil embargo against Israeli allies, including the United States, represented a decisive, nonviolent intervention by the wealthiest quarters of the Arab world in support of Palestine, transforming global energy markets and emphasizing the vulnerability of Western oil dependency.

Today, as Gulf monarchies gather round to see what favors they can extract from the United States in return for recognition of the Israelis, the sheer scope of such economic solidarity with Palestine is almost hard to comprehend. It bears considering, too, that while the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement now thinks often in modest terms of Israeli agricultural products, or brands such as Marks & Spencer or Puma, the 1973 boycott went straight to the energy jugular, cutting Israeli allies from their oil and gas.

From a US perspective, it is no surprise that 1973 clarified that Gulf partnerships needed to be managed carefully, but that the Israelis should be backed fully as a bulwark against Arab relations with the USSR. Emergency financing to Israel as the war broke totaled $2.2 billion (around $13 billion at today’s values), but was only the start of things to come.

After 1973, US military aid to the Israelis rose eightfold, before multiplying constantly and ensuring that by the end of the decade, US spending on the Israelis was on its way toward the $3.8 billion a year it sits at now. Successive Egyptian government were bought off as they remain today, and OPEC and the Gulf have been gradually depoliticized and pacified. While Oman — dubbed a sort of Gulf Switzerland — continues to try and tread a middling line in regional diplomacy, and Qatar has left OPEC but continues to hold a pro-Palestinian bent in its foreign policy, the oil crisis of 1973 remains something of a high-water mark for meaningful Gulf solidarity — military and economic — in trying to achieve justice for Palestine.

By the end of the 1970s, regional politics bore a closer likeness to that which we are familiar with today. The Israelis conceded Sinai but in return saw Egypt, the largest Arab state, begin the process of a political atrophying that has since been arrested only, and even then only briefly, by the Arab Spring and Egyptian Revolution. Although in 1973 the Israelis had six more years of happy relations to run with the shah and his brutal, Mossad-trained secret service, the SAVAK, in 1979 the Iranian Revolution established Tehran as the regional power most opposed to US interference, and most concerned with Palestinian liberation.

A half century since 1973, Western populations have become increasingly familiar with the reality of Israeli apartheid in Palestine and across territories that were — just as Russia has acted in Ukraine — seized through war. Whatever a hypothetical Israeli defeat in that year might have looked like, the actual outcome nevertheless left consequences that are still with us. Overcoming the legacy of this moment is vital to securing a peace in Palestine based on justice and democracy — one that also directs vast US state spending back toward where it is badly needed at home.