Remembering the Yom Kippur War: Decision to resupply arms solidified U.S.-Israel ties

WASHINGTON — With Egyptian and Syrian troops inflicting heavy loses on Israel's army and air force, a panicked Jewish state pleaded with the United States for help.

Just days after Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on the holiest day of the Jewish year, Israel urgently needed more tanks, planes and ammunition, its leaders argued.

But 25 years ago, at the height of the Yom Kippur War, the White House responded that it would study the request.

Facing the worst battlefield losses in Israeli history, Prime Minister Golda Meir offered to leave her command post to fly to Washington to personally plead with President Nixon to resupply Israel.

That's when the promise came from the White House that helped Israel change the course of the war and began a process that forever altered relations between Jerusalem and Washington.

"The president has agreed — and let me repeat this formally — that all your aircraft and tank losses will be replaced," Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told the Israelis on Oct. 9, 1973.

The U.S. decision allayed some of Meir's fears and allowed Israel to send hundreds of additional tanks and planes into battle that were being saved in case of future losses.

But it was not just a concern about Israeli forces that moved the White House. The Nixon administration weighed its moves during the war through the lens of the Cold War. The Soviet Union had already begun a massive resupply operation to Egypt, and Nixon concluded that the United States could not sit and wait.

While much of the history of the war has focused on the delay of a U.S. airlift to Israel, the promise to resupply actually set in motion a shift in American policy that would solidify the U.S.-Israel relationship.

As a direct result of the war, the United States quadrupled its foreign aid to Israel, and replaced France as Israel's largest arms supplier. In fact, the doctrine of maintaining Israel's "qualitative edge" over its neighbors was born in the war's aftermath.

Israel's push for supplies both during and after the war led Kissinger, only half-jokingly, according to Moshe Dayan, Israel's defense minister during the war, to ask if the Israeli government would stop paying its ambassador's salary if he failed to raise the subject of arms fewer than 10 times a day.

Before the war, Congress managed to pass annual loans to Israel in the $535 million range by a few votes.

But after the war, Israel began to receive about $2.1 billion a year, half in loans and half in grants. Almost all of the money went to purchase American-made military hardware.

Five years later, Israel began to receive $3 billion in grants as a result of the Camp David Accords, which led to the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

But while the U.S. substantially increased its economic and military aid to Israel, the Jewish state actually became a less important ally of the United States, analysts say.

Diplomatic successes after the war pushed the Soviet Union away from the Middle East and Egypt closer to the United States.

"Israel lost its strategic importance to the United States as a bulwark against the Soviet Union," said Morris Amitay, who served as executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee beginning in 1974 during the crucial period after the war.

Because Kissinger wooed Egypt away from its alliance with the Soviet Union, the United States "did not need Israel as much as before."

Steven Spiegel, an expert in U.S.-Israel relations, said it was not until after the 1978 Camp David Accords and the Islamic revolution in Iran a few months later that Washington once again began to view Israel as an "important strategic asset."

As Israel, a U.S. ally, met Syria and Egypt, Soviet client states, on the battlefield, policy-makers in Washington and Moscow jockeyed for position.

For a few hours, Washington and Moscow both weighed the possibility of a direct confrontation between the superpowers. The United States put its forces on nuclear alert after the Soviet Union threatened to dispatch troops to defend Egypt.

When the threat ebbed, it became clear to the United States that Washington had to become directly involved in solving the Middle East conflict.

"The 1967 war changed the Middle East map but it was the 1973 war that was exceedingly important in changing American views that the U.S. had to be involved," said Spiegel, a professor at UCLA.

"The Nixon administration believed, as a consequence of the war, that they had to have some breakthroughs" on the peace process because of the Soviet influence in the region and the crippling effects the Arab oil embargo, imposed near the end of the war, was having on the United States.

Shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East was born, as Kissinger began his famous trips between Arab capitals and Israel.

"The Yom Kippur War was a tragic corrective to the euphoria and even the triumphalism that followed the '67 war," said Henry Siegman, senior fellow and director of the U.S. Middle East project at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The United States realized it can't be a bystander."

Even before the war ended, the United States began to prepare a major peace initiative. The first meeting of Egyptian and Israeli military officials in 25 years took place at the now-historic Kilometer 101 marker in the Sinai Peninsula.

With Israel feeling more secure, the United States could embark on an ambitious Middle East peace process, Kissinger argued.

Disengagement agreements after the war led to direct peace talks that six years later culminated in the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. Israeli recognition in that treaty of the Palestinian cause eventually spurred the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians that are the basis of the current peace process.

None of the agreements would have been possible without Israel's victory in the Yom Kippur War.