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Uri Kaufman on the Yom Kippur War

Uri Kaufman on the Yom Kippur War

Richard Aldous

Click here to access the podcast transcript. Please note: Transcripts of podcasts are generated automatically by AI and corrected manually by the team, and errors may exist.

Richard Aldous (RA): Bookstack with Richard Aldous, the books and ideas podcast, brought to you by Coming up on the show today, Uri Kaufman, author of the new book, Eighteen Days in October, the Yom Kippur War and How it Created the Modern Middle East

Uri, welcome to Bookstack.

Uri Kaufman (UK): Thank you. Great to be here.

RA: And congratulations on the new book. Did you ever imagine when you were writing it that the book would have such contemporary resonance?

UK: No, I wish I were a fortune teller and I could, but I will tell you when I was a nine year old boy running around in my dad's synagogue, he was an Orthodox Jewish rabbi. This is way back in October of 1973. I saw a group of men in the corner of the synagogue where no one could see them and they were huddled together.

And, you know, children are not expected to fast. On the Yom Kippur holiday, but I was still embarrassed as a little boy because I'd been caught in flagrante ice cream-o. Oh, so I thought maybe these older gentlemen were doing the same thing. And I noticed they were actually listening to a transistor radio, which is not something permitted in an Orthodox Jewish synagogue.

And another guy was screaming at them. And little did I know that 50 years later, I'd be a 59 year old man out in the lobby of a synagogue. And once again, the people were all gathered around and listening to war news, only this time I'm one of the grown ups, so the parallels were pretty chilling, but no, no one saw this coming, sadly.

RA: So, I mean, it's 50 years ago — what was the Yom Kippur War?

UK: So the Yom Kippur War was fought in October of 1973. It was a huge surprise because the Arabs launched, and when I say the Arabs, I mean Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated surprise attack on Israel. On the Yom Kippur holiday, which that year fell on October the 6th, 1973, their goal was to win back the territory they had lost in the 1967 war six years before that.

We know that, of course, is the Six Day War. Egypt wanted the Sinai Peninsula. Syria wanted the Golan Heights. They wanted to win those back militarily without giving Israel a peace treaty. Israel offered to withdraw from those territories before the war, but again, only in return for a full peace treaty with embassies and trade and normalization, etc.

So that's where the battle lines were drawn. The battle, the war was fought in its first phase for 18 days, hence the title of my book, Eighteen Days in October. It really shook the world because the two superpowers, America and the Soviet Union, got into a confrontation that, well, on a scale of one to 10, I'd make it maybe a three or a four.

It didn't get quite close enough to World War III, but it was close enough. More importantly, the Arabs who dominated OPEC, which was a cartel, still around, that sells oil, they imposed an oil embargo, which quadrupled the price of oil. It also led to gas lines, which I can remember quite well as a boy, and it changed the whole geostrategic equation.

Before the war, Nobody paid attention to oil after the war. We've been obsessed with it.

RA: Yeah. And as you, as you indicate there, I mean, this is a story of the war, but it's also a story of battles and wars which had been going on since the foundation of Israel in the 1940s. You'd had the Suez crisis in the 50s. You'd had the Six Day War in the 60s. And it also takes place within the context of the Cold War.

So this, this is a pivotal moment, not just in terms of the Middle East, but globally too.

UK: It certainly is and it riveted the world for months and I have to say. I discovered as I researched this what an unbelievably fascinating story it is. If I had brought this to my editor as a novel, she would have just kicked me down the stairs. Nobody would believe that a story this, I'd say, riveting could have ever happened.

It's got all the, the elements, the surprise attack, the suspense, the swashbuckling General Ariel Sharon. On launching offensives against his orders in violation of his orders. It's got the right end man of Anwar Sadat in Egypt, a man named Ashraf Marwan selling secrets to the Israelis. And somehow the Israelis were still caught by surprise.

And it's got above it all Golda Meir. Of course, the movie was out recently and a lot of people might have seen it. I thought it was a great film, by the way. The first woman to rise to become a head of state without being related to any male politician or king, and she led her nation through war and dramatic moments, really just an unbelievable story.

It exceeds anything a novelist could have ever contrived.

RA: And, and one of the wonderful things about the book is that it does have this kind of novelistic quality because you take us through kind of day by day, minute by minute sometimes with what's going on. One of the things that really surprised me actually was that it, the impression is always that Israel was completely blindsided by this attack, but you make it clear that's not the case.

That they, they did know that something was coming. They were preparing for it. They were even quite, um, asking whether they should launch. First strike themselves. So the idea that they were caught completely cold is not quite right, is it?

UK: That is correct. They were not caught completely by surprise. They had about 10 to 12 hours of warning. Now that turned out to be not much. It actually was quite a bit because that little tiny margin of 10 to 12 hours is what was the difference between Israel holding on to the Golan Heights fighting Syria and losing it.

The Syrian vanguard was stopped about a half hour. That's all it was. The reservists got there a half hour before the Syrians would have reached the Jordan River. And the Golan Heights, if you've never visited, it's a plateau. So it rises very, very sharply from the Jordan River, and then it flattens out.

But that rise is so sharp that to fight your way up it would have really been daunting and even borderline impossible. So if the Syrians had reached the Jordan River, and again, the margin was only a half an hour, you can't make this stuff up. I mean, the cavalry riding in over the hill in the nick of time is what happened.

I have to say also, you know, we talk about surprise attacks. They do usually work. The Americans did not know that Pearl Harbor was under attack until the first bomb was dropped. The French didn't know the German panzers were across until they rolled over the border. You could say the same with the Russians with Operation Barbarossa.

You could say the same about the Korean War, about Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Sadly, you can say the same for what Hamas just did with the terrorist attack. It's very, very difficult to detect a surprise attack. So the Israelis did at least have some warning. 

RA: Yeah, and what you make clear is that a significant element of the decision not to launch a first attack by Israel is fear of losing world opinion, which again, this kind of battle for world opinion is something that is resonant today, has been resonant in so many of these battles. But why in this particular instance, did they not launch that first attack?

UK: So there were a couple of reasons. First of all, they were only about 99 percent sure that Egypt and Syria were actually going to attack. There was that tiny chance that maybe there really wouldn't be a war after all. So would you start a war with your army not mobilized? You're not prepared. And now you're starting a war when maybe it won't even happen, they might be bluffing.

That was the first reason. The second reason was that the first strike would have been, I wouldn't say ineffective, but of limited effectiveness because on the Golan Heights, as it turned out, there was cloud cover. And in those days before precision bombing, pilots needed to be able to see the target on the ground.

So it would have been of limited value. And indeed, after the war, it was debated. It's still debated whether that first strike would have made that big of a difference. But the decisive reason the real reason that a first strike was off the table was Washington. In those days, Israel was completely dependent on America to a degree.

Not today, by the way, but in those days. Israel had only one arms supplier. It got all its weapons from America, the tanks, the planes, the ammunition, the armored personnel carriers. Henry Kissinger, who was then secretary of state, made it clear, you cannot strike first. We will not let you. If you strike first, we may not resupply you.

So don't do it. And America did that for its own interests and its own reasons. And that of course has always been the Israeli quandary. It's very much tied to the United States. And so very often it has to subjugate its own interests to American interests. 

RA: Yeah, and of course, Henry Kissinger, secretary of state in that Nixon administration, was somebody whose own family had been forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1938. So he has this personal affinity with Israel, but he is emphatic, as you say, in this moment, no first strike. And part of the reason for that, it seems to me, as you make clear, is that he sees Israel as integral to this, this kind of broader Cold War strategy, and doesn't want the entire picture to unravel.

UK: Well, he was driven by things that were actually quite material. The fact of the matter is America had very deep oil interests in the Arab world at that time. So for example, Gulf oil pumped two and a half million barrels of oil per day. In 1973, one and a half million of those barrels came from Kuwait. 

What if Kuwait nationalizes its oil industry, as the Iranians did, as the Mexicans did, as the Soviets did, as the Libyans almost, I mean, so there was a real risk of losing key American oil interests. And then, of course, looming over everything was this notion of an embargo, and from day one, they identified that as a risk, and Kissinger was told, look, in World War II, all our rationing and all our, you know, messaging and don't use oil and save gas for the boys at the front.

It only reduced American domestic demand by 6%. This is in World War Two. I was actually very surprised when I read that I would have thought it was actually a lot more than that, but it was only 6%. If OPEC had imposed this embargo, Kissinger was told, America stood to lose 18 percent of its oil supplies.

And so there we're looking at an economic catastrophe. And that is why Kissinger was so hard on Israel. You say the fact that he was a Holocaust survivor, he was. But the fact is he was America's secretary of state. He pursued American interests only as aggressively as he wished. I would argue that he did a very poor job of defending those American interests.

And again, you know, they made the joke in the movie, Kissinger says to Golda, I'm an American first, a secretary of state second, and a Jew third. And she said, but Henry, we Jews read from right to left. But nevertheless, where I think he failed was. On October the 22nd Kissinger flew to Moscow because the Egyptians were losing.

The Israelis were surrounding their army. Sadat cried out to the Soviets to rescue him. And the Soviets, of course, were only too happy to do so because he was their client state. Why were the Americans so willing to rescue Egypt? Kissinger flew to Moscow immediately. They negotiated a ceasefire in just four hours.

Ceasefire agreements in the Cold War took years to negotiate. Korea, Vietnam, years. He agreed in just four hours he would get the Israelis to stop. Here's the problem. The Arabs had imposed the oil embargo two days before, on October the 20th. This is when Kissinger held all the cards. He had only to pick up the phone in Moscow, call King Faisal in Saudi Arabia, and say, King Faisal, you want me to rescue the Egyptian army?

Okay, I want you to rescue American motorists. Lift the embargo. King Faisal would have had to lift the embargo. So why didn't Kissinger do this? I've never really gotten a good answer to that question. Dr. Kissinger declined two requests by me for an interview. And of course, I don't fault him. He doesn't know who I am. But I did interview two of his former aides. And they said very candidly, oh, he just made a really bad mistake. 

RA: As well as Kissinger, as you hinted, there are really some remarkable characters in this story, not least Moshe Dayan, the minister of defense, and as you've, described, earlier, Prime Minister Golda Meir, I mean, one thing that I found absolutely fascinating in the book is that, that Dayan, who is this war hero, gets most of the calls wrong, whereas Meir, who has no military experience, gets most of them right.

UK: Yeah, there's a real doctoral thesis in psychology in that one. What I suspect happened was, first of all, Golda was listening to the advice of the chief of staff of the Israeli army, a man named David Elazar, known universally by his nickname Dado. Dado Elazar got everything right, which is why it was so shocking that after the war, the National Commission of Inquiry that Israel formed, it's called the Agranat Commission, after the Chief Justice of the then Israeli Supreme Court, a man named Shimon Agranat, they put all the blame on Elazar instead of Dayan. 

Dayan had something of a psychological, I won't say collapse, but he was a bit more pessimistic than he should have been. And psychologists have said very often, when you are this great figure, and he really was, and deservedly so, because more than any other single man, he's the guy who built the Israeli army as we know it.

You know, there's the BMD and the AMD. Before Moshe Dayan and after Moshe Dayan, he became chief of staff in 1953 and changed the whole culture and turned it into this aggressive fighting force that won the war in 1956, won the war in 1967, won something called the War of Attrition, and suddenly he is shown to be just thumpingly wrong.

Got everything wrong. And it seems to have caused something of a break in his psyche. And he suddenly became darkly pessimistic. There's got to be a doctoral thesis in psychology in that one. Fortunately for Israel, Golda, who is the only Israeli prime minister to this day, who never served in the army and never even served in the defense ministry.

So she had literally no military experience of any kind whatsoever. Elazar and she were fortunately made out of galvanized steel. So they made these wild decisions, throwing the dice each time. And luckily for Israel, she ran the table. She got every major decision right. And that's why Israel won the war. 

RA: And you do get a genuine sense in the book, as this crisis is unfolding, of the incredible physical and psychological pressures that are on those who are involved at the highest level. That Golda, you show, is smoking nine packets of cigarettes a day. She even contemplated suicide. On the other side, President Sadat, uh, is under such strain that he's literally urinating blood. So it really does tell us something about the, the strain of leadership in wartime.

UK: Oh, I don't know how people do it. Particularly you talk, I mean, we all know the story of Winston Churchill and what Britain went through when you're carrying all that responsibility and you are making decisions. in Golda's case, where literally the very future of your country, and whether you'll even have a country, is hanging in the balance.

And these are things that, certainly in my country, in America, people don't really quite appreciate. When American presidents make decisions, they're on the other side of the world, you know, whether Vietnam is free or communist or Korea, but these are not things that Americans feel really threatened by. I guess the closest we came was the 9-11 attack.

I actually witnessed it. I walked out of my office, and I literally watched one of the towers fall. Then I got out of there because I was standing next to the Empire State Building and decided this was not a good day to be standing next to iconic tall buildings in New York City. And I lost, you know, actually quite a few friends in the attack.

It was just absolutely hideous. But, uh, you know, when you're talking about in Israel, they're actually sitting there debating whether to use nuclear weapons because the country might be overrun. And as we witnessed in this Hamas attack. Being overrun by an Arab army, if you're Israel, it means Holocaust the sequel.

The simple fact is, it has never happened in the history of the Arab Israeli conflict that Jews survived under, in land that the Arabs conquered. If Arabs conquered the land, all the Jews were either murdered Or driven off. It's all ethnic cleansing. The lucky ones got out with the clothes on their back, and that only happened in the 48 war.

Everyone else, they just, they kill them. And so, yeah, these are really stressful decisions. And thankfully for Israel, Golda had the moral and psychological strength to make them. 

RA: And we talk about individual psychology, but as you're hinting there, there's, there's a national psychology, which is at play here that there are some remarkable images from this war. Most famous of all, an Israeli soldier, a rabbinical student surrendering to Egyptian forces carrying a Torah scroll in a copy that clearly came from Europe from the period of the Holocaust.

That picture and pictures like it had an incredible effect on Israeli national psyche, you show at that time, but also for a long time afterwards, it touches a nerve in precisely the way that you were describing there.

UK: It really did. And, the Yom Kippur War touched a nerve and shocked Israel in a way that resonates even to this day. So, for example, every time in Israel something bad happens by surprise, it's called the Yom Kippur War of. So when, for example, a previous Israeli prime minister named Ehud Olmert was tried for corruption and initially he was found innocent. He was later tried on other charges and found guilty, but initially he was found innocent and it shocked the nation because they all thought he was guilty. So the press called it the Yom Kippur war for the prosecutors. And when COVID happened and there were initial failures, it was the Yom Kippur war for the health ministry.

Every time something like that happens in Israel, it's the Yom Kippur war of, and of course, in recent days, it really was a kind of Yom Kippur war. This horrible, hideous attack where The military was caught completely by surprise. And, unfortunately we're seeing the results. So yeah, it damaged the Israeli psyche that in ways that resonates to this day. 

RA: Yeah, and it's interesting how that plays out. The book is about the war, but it's also about the aftermath and the making of the modern Middle East. One of the things that is quite interesting, how even though Israel fought back successfully against Syria and Egypt, it recovers territory, recovers prestige, despite the humiliation of the initial attack.

But it is in the aftermath of the war that it seems to make Israel realize that they could, they could not always expect to dominate the Arab states militarily. And so therefore there has to be some kind of effort, peace talks, reconciliation, accommodation. And of course that's what happened subsequently in the seventies leading up to the Camp David Accords.

UK: Well, what you just said is the conventional wisdom and that's what most Israelis think. I personally don't agree with that. If you look at the historic record, Israel did offer to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights again, in return for a full peace treaty. It was Egypt. And Syria, who refused, the goal of the Yom Kippur War was to create a situation in which the Arabs were faced with a stark choice, make peace with losing the 1967 lands or make peace with Israel.

Sadat, after the war — a number of separation agreements were put into place. This is what Israel achieved. It forced the Egyptians to move their army well west of the Suez Canal, which made any future surprise attack impossible. It also made it impossible for Egypt to defend itself from the Israeli Air Force because the surface to air missiles that they got from the Soviets were out of range.

Once that happened, Egypt no longer had a military option. Same thing happened to Syria. Sadat took a cold hard look at it and said, I'd rather make the peace treaty, sign the peace treaty, suck it up, and get the Sinai Peninsula back. So Egypt got the Sinai Peninsula back. Syria chose not to make peace. Hafez al Assad, the father, and then Bashar al Assad, the son, they chose not to make peace and so Syria never got back the Golan Heights, and I can now be said with a near certainty that it never will.

RA: But is there not always this, sense hanging over, uh, Israel that, uh, things, may change at a particular time, but in the background are always these words that you use right at the end of the first chapter from, uh, the, uh, former, Egyptian president Nasser, uh, in 1967 after the defeat in the Six Day War, where he says, no matter what the circumstance is and no matter how long it takes, when imperialism has been liquidated in the Arab world, and Israel stands alone, the day of revenge will come. That's always there in the background, isn't it? 

UK: It's always there, and Israel is literally the only country on the planet that stands, that has an existential threat hanging over it at all times. I have no doubt that even now, Egypt, most Egyptians. And certainly most Jordanians would wipe Israel right off the map if only they had the ability to do so. And no one in Israel has any illusion about this. And what Nasser said most famously was, that which was taken by force will be returned with force. It's often said Mohammed conquered the Arab world with the sword and Nasser did with the radio. He was a very, very charismatic individual. That feeling still resonates to this very day. And so you have this absolutely appalling Act of butchery and terrorism and in the Arab world, people are celebrating. The point has been made by others that the Nazis at least had the good sense to try to cover it up. These guys butcher people, behead babies, burn people alive, and they're posting it on social media. They're actually quite proud of it. So you've got this very, very different attitude and it's just a very, very difficult situation if you're Israel. 

RA: And does the response in the United States, where are you particularly on some very prominent university campuses, I mean, we see in the aftermath of the war that fighting the war cost Israel a year of its gross domestic product. But the United States picks up half that tab. Washington also rearms Israel. So the importance of the United States and opinion in the United States is essential, isn't it, to the survival of Israel? 

UK: What it is but it's not nearly as essential as it once was. If you go back to the 1970s, Israel was a really tiny country. Its whole population was only a little more than 3 million, which is barely more than Brooklyn, New York. 

Very, very small population adjusting for inflation. Their GDP was about 49 billion. That's in today's dollars. So Israel today has about nine and a half million people and it has a GDP of 564 billion. So it's a much, much bigger country. It is not nearly as beholden to the good, will of the United States as it once was.

They make most of their own weapons now. They make their own tanks. They make their own smart munitions. They make their own artillery. They make their own armored personnel carriers. The main weapons class that they get from America is still fighter jets. But I have no doubt that if Israel really had to, they could probably make their own fighter jet as well.

Most importantly, American aid at its height in the 1970s. Was 17 percent of Israel's entire GDP was about a third of their foreign exchange today. It's less than 1 percent of their GDP and it's oh, it's a very small fraction of their foreign exchange Israel's become an incredibly wealthy country I mean just give you one statistic in the last 20 years since o3 Israel's economy has grown by almost four and a half times So that works out to year over year growth of 8% For 20 years, if we achieved 8 percent growth in one year, we'd be popping champagne.

They did it for 20 years in a row. Even if that drops by a half, 4%, go out 10 years, they'll have like, what, a 750 billion economy. And just to put this in one other term, There was an unwritten rule in Israel for many years that they would spend 10 percent of GDP on the army. That's very high. That's like the highest you can do.

And it's sustainable. I mean, obviously, in time of war, you can go even higher than that. But if you're doing a long term sort of thing today, they spend much, much less than that. But if they had to go back to the bad old days of spending 10 percent of GDP on defense, that would be about 56 billion. Britain only spends about 40 to 43 billion. Same for France. Same for Germany. I mean, 56 billion a year is a lot of money for defense. So, you know, this is a very different country. I don't think they can be bullied by America in ways that they once could. And to your other point, American campuses, I hate to say it, but for many on American campuses, I've just washed my hands of it and abandoned them to the devil that possesses them. 

RA: Do you think that in some ways Israel had, if not become complacent, but perhaps, was seeing a more optimistic future that turned out to be misleading after all this year had Israel had celebrated the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the state. There had been the Abrahamic Accords and a tentative peace that seemed to be developing with Saudi Arabia. Everything seemed to speak to a more secure future, which clearly the events of October this year, have completely disrupted. 

UK: That's absolutely the case. The country was doing incredibly well economically. Yeah, there was controversy over judicial reform, but yeah, it really did feel like there was, there was change in the air. What really did them in this time was they had a core assumption that turned out to be false. That is actually what happened in 1973. 

As I described in the book, the core assumption was Egypt would not go to war until it got advanced Soviet fighter jets. That even had a name. It was called the concepsia or the concept. The Israelis found out that Anwar Sadat that had concepsias of his own. The concepsia in modern times was the following:

Israel is the only country in the history of the world supplying its enemies in time of war. Israel supplies Gaza or in 2022 supplied Gaza with over 67, 000 trucks filled with supplies, food, clothing, baby diapers, etc. Israel supplied Gaza with 5. 7 billion gallons of water without which Gaza would die of thirst.

They supplied Gaza with two thirds of their electricity. Fuel for a small power plant in Gaza for the other third. Now they[‘ve] got to pay for this. So almost 20, 000 Gazan Palestinians had license to work in Israel and take a paycheck back home to Gaza. Imagine in World War II, Germans working in Britain to take a paycheck so they could pay for supplies sent to Berlin.

It's unthinkable. Israel is the only country that did this, partly because they really are a light on two nations, but partly to give Hamas an incentive to keep things relatively quiet. And so the concept here was Hamas would never go full force and cut off their only economic lifeline. Well, we now know what happened.They did exactly that. It's tragic for Israel. It is going to be much more tragic for the Gazan Palestinians because they are not going back to work in Israel. 

Their prospects are bleak. Gaza is now going to become basically a ward of the international community. They're going to live on humanitarian assistance, not unlike the Arabs who live in Idlib in Northwestern Syria today. So it's really going to be a very, very difficult road ahead for them. 

The Israelis never thought they would actually up and do that. Sadly, they went ahead and commit economic suicide, Hamas did.

RA: It's a depressing, bleak outlook that you paint there. The war that you write about in 1973, as we discussed earlier, although quite why we may disagree about, but eventually led to those Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt by 1979. Is it too naive, do you think, for us to take any kind of optimism whatsoever from the fact that in that instance war did eventually lead to peace? 

UK: I am very optimistic, believe it or not. There will not be peace between Israel and the Palestinians in my lifetime. I've given up on the Palestinians. They've rejected every compromise proposed since 1922. I have every reason to believe they'll reject every compromise between now and 2122. But this is the key point.

The things that pushed the Saudis to the peace table before the war are going to push them back to the peace table after. So nothing's going to happen while the shooting is going on, but eventually the Saudis are going to come back. And now the Saudis have a decisive bargaining chip because someone is going to have to go into Gaza and run it. And what I suspect is going to happen is they're going to at least attempt to create a multinational Arab force spearheaded by perhaps Egypt, but I think perhaps Saudi Arabia, and they're going to go in there. There's going to be humanitarian assistance to keep the population alive, and they're going to make sure that security is preserved for Israel.

That will be the decisive bargaining chip that gets Saudi Arabia what it needs, which is a defensive pact with America and the right to enrich uranium, hopefully with controls. And they also really want an economic relationship with Israel because frankly, Saudi Arabia is staring into the abyss. They will not be able to live off of oil in 15 years. Just look at all the electric cars on the road. They understand this. They get this. Saudi Arabia needs this deal more than Israel does. That's counterintuitive, but it's the truth. So that is where I see a measure of optimism. I do think it will result in something like that. But time will tell. 

RA: So the book is Eighteen Days in October, the Yom Kippur War and How It Created the Modern Middle East. It's written by my guest Uri Kaufman and it's published by St. Martin's Press. But for now, Uri, congratulations again and thanks for joining us on Bookstack. 

UK: Thank you so much.

RA: So that's it from us this week. Don't forget to check our website and to leave us a review on your podcast app. The show is produced by Laura Silverman and this is me, Richard Aldous, saying thanks for listening.