- The October 1973 War: Politics, Diplomacy, Legacy ed. by Asaf Siniver
Forty years is a good period of time from which to look back on major historical events with a sense of perspective and access to a large volume of declassified material. The memoirs have all been written, many participants in the events have been interviewed, and once-sensitive issues can now be discussed with a high degree of objectivity. Thus it is no surprise that Asaf Siniver has been able to assemble an impressive group of scholars to bring new light to bear on the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Without [End Page 256] significant exceptions, the chapters are well researched and present largely convincing pictures of aspects of this major crisis.
Siniver wants to avoid two types of scholarship: one that engages in the “blame game,” prominent in Israel among those who ask who bore responsibility for a war that may have been avoidable; and a second that lumps the October war into generic categories of conflict, without paying enough attention to its unique features.
Each of the contributions to this volume deserves attention, but several stand out. Siniver contributes a useful introduction and a chapter on Henry Kissinger. He focuses on Kissinger’s role before the war, the airlift decision, Kissinger’s trip to Moscow, and the alert at the end of the war. The U.S. archives are now largely available, and Siniver has made good use of them. On the controversy surrounding the airlift, where Kissinger himself is less than fully reliable as a source in his memoirs, Siniver does a good job of relating the delay in the airlift to the surrounding diplomacy, a point I have tried to make in my own writing on the topic, Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict since 1967, 3rd ed. (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2005).
Since Siniver completed his study, one new source has appeared that forces a reassessment of the prewar diplomacy. In 2012, Yigal Kipnis wrote a book in Hebrew that made use of the recently declassified Israeli war cabinet files, and it was published in English as 1973: The Road to War (Charlottesville, VA: Just World Books, 2013). Kipnis adds considerably to the story of the stalemated diplomacy before the war, Kissinger’s growing realization that Egypt was genuinely interested in a diplomatic move, and the complete intransigence he encountered on the part of Golda Meir. Anyone reading The October War should also read 1973: The Road to War.
Other chapters of note are by Yoram Meital on Egypt, Galia Golan on the Soviet Union, and Ahron Bregman on the role of Ashraf Marwan. Meital works at something of a disadvantage insofar as the Egyptian archives have not been opened. He has, however, made good use of memoirs and puts together a convincing picture of Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat’s move toward war. He leaves unanswered the question of whether robust U.S. diplomacy in spring 1973 might have dissuaded Sadat from going to war. There is probably no way now of resolving that issue, but my impression is that Sadat did not make his final decision on war until after the U.S.-Soviet summit in the summer of 1973. That, combined with the results of Kissinger’s second meeting with Hafiz Ismail in Paris in May 1973, seems to have convinced the Egyptian leader that war was his only good choice. Once he was sure in August that he had Saudi backing, it was just a matter of coordinating the plan with Syria and getting his own forces ready for a surprise attack.
Golan, a veteran Israeli scholar of Soviet policy in the Middle East, argues forcefully that Soviet leaders did not want war to take place. They saw it coming and warned President Richard Nixon and Kissinger, but to no avail. In Golan’s view, the Soviet Union did not want to put the policy of détente at risk by encouraging adventurism in the Middle East. And yet, on 10 October (not 8 October...