On October 8 in Times Square, Islamists and leftists celebrated the Hamas massacre that had taken place the day before. As documented by journalist Douglas Murray, for whom I work, one keffiyeh-wearing woman proudly hoisted a sign reading “Zionist Nightmares / 10/06/73 Egyptians / 10/07/23 Palestinians.”
Few outside Israel even realized that October 6 had marked the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. Uri Kaufman’s Eighteen Days in October, published little more than a month before the war’s semicentennial, provides a welcome lesson about that supposed “Zionist nightmare.” It wasn’t.
Eighteen Days in October is a blow-by-blow account of the war, including its lead-up and aftermath. Kaufman describes the state of affairs following Israel’s resounding victory in the June 1967 Six-Day War, when it took the Golan Heights, West Bank, Gaza Strip, and the Sinai Peninsula from its Arab foes, and what led Egypt and Syria to attack six years later. He also takes us behind the scenes of the diplomacy that led to a lasting postwar Arab–Israeli settlement.
Kaufman argues that the Yom Kippur War was the seminal event in modern Middle Eastern history. His book is a response to those who see the Six-Day War as more consequential. Its subtitle is an allusion to Michael Oren’s Six Days of War (2002), whose own subtitle is “June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East.” His argument is persuasive. Israel’s triumph in 1967 left much unresolved. Instead of reaching a modus vivendi with its enemies, the Jewish state watched the Soviet-allied Arabs persist in trying to destroy it. But they had little to show for their efforts against a seemingly omnipotent foe. During the War of Attrition, Israel sent warplanes from the Sinai Peninsula deep into Egyptian territory while Cairo could do little to threaten Israeli cities.
That all changed at 2 p.m. on October 6, 1973, when the Egyptians and Syrians attacked simultaneously. Israel’s sense of invincibility cratered. Only after suffering heavy losses in the war’s first few days did the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) turn the tide, in no small part because of a military resupply from the United States. After the war, Cairo and to a lesser extent Damascus showed some willingness to make peace with Israel. This diplomacy culminated in the Camp David Accords of 1978, which were followed by the Israel–Egypt peace treaty the next year. Israel’s strongest enemy was out of the fight. Thereafter the conventional state-on-state wars Israel had been fighting since its inception gave way to irregular wars against non-state actors like Hezbollah and Hamas.
Some of the book’s characters—Prime Minister Golda Meir, President Anwar Sadat, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, and General Ariel Sharon—are familiar. Others not so much, such as IDF Chief of Staff David “Dado” Elazar—who, despite exceptional battlefield decision-making, took the fall for the IDF’s initial setbacks by resigning after the war. Kaufman also sheds light on Egyptian spy Ashraf Marwan, dubbed “the Angel” by his Israeli handlers, who provided Jerusalem with a treasure trove of state secrets before October 6.
Marwan’s intelligence led Israeli strategists to develop “the Concept,” or Conceptzia in Hebrew. The Concept was twofold. It held that Syria would fight Israel only alongside Egypt and that Egypt would take up arms only if it could defang Israel’s powerful air force. The war’s outbreak discredited the Concept, which Israel’s commission of inquiry later took to task.
Kaufman vividly depicts the shock in Israel as things did not go according to plan throughout a war many believed would never come. We get a sense of how terrible the outlook was at first for the IDF. Soviet-made anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles tore through Israeli armor and planes. Egyptian troops triumphantly crossed the Suez Canal, while the Syrians fought their way through the Golan Heights.
Yet the IDF got its act together in the nick of time. Reservists rushed to the front lines to stop the Syrians and Egyptians from rolling on to the Israeli interior. Israeli forces first ousted the Syrians, who posed a more immediate threat. Then they moved on to the Sinai. Under the command of the headstrong Sharon, they beat back Egyptian troops at a place dubbed the Chinese Farm. This allowed the IDF to mount a daring crossing of the Suez Canal and encircle the Egyptian Third Army. Rather than let Egypt be destroyed, Moscow consented to a United Nations–brokered cease-fire. The fighting soon ended. Despite the catastrophes of the first few days, Israel found itself in a stronger position at the war’s end than at its beginning.
Just don’t say so in Cairo. Unlike democratic Israel, authoritarian Egypt has never had an honest accounting of the war. Many Egyptians believe that they actually won it. Even so, the pretense of restored national honor gave Sadat the space he needed to make peace with the hated Zionists. Israel didn’t care that he rewrote history to serve his own interests.
This isn’t so of Kaufman, in whose writing there’s much to like. A real-estate developer by trade, Kaufman spent over two decades writing this book and cut no corners doing so. Among his sources are diaries, memoirs, newspapers, and government documents from the Israeli, Arab, and American sides. He even hunted down sources from Syria from the Stasi files in Berlin. The results are an impressive piece of scholarship.
He is a clear communicator who often displays an irreverent flair. “The Israelis nicknamed the decoy planes with a slang Hebrew term that loosely translates to mean ‘a sexually attractive woman used to dupe unsuspecting men,’” Kaufman writes of IDF aircraft used to determine the locations of Egyptian missile sites. “But sending up flying femme fatales offered no solution,” he adds.
Two objects of Kaufman’s barbs are Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. He blames them for not adequately defending Israel. “Lyndon Johnson did more to guarantee the security and survival of the Jewish state than any American president before or since,” Kaufman writes of LBJ. “Israel would receive far less generous treatment from Richard Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger.” Yet Kaufman later recounts that Nixon and the U.S. government bestowed on Israel “a generous $2.2 billion package—about half the emergency aid Washington gave around the world that year.” Not to mention the resupply of military materiel, which Kaufman states was “the largest airlift in history.” His harsh words for Nixon and Kissinger are not supported by the evidence he himself cites. All the same, Kaufman has produced an excellent work of history showing how transformative a war that reaches a successful conclusion can be for its victor.
Photo: AP Photo
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