What if the Crossing had Failed?

My name is Ben Levy. Lieutenant Colonel Shimon Ben Levy, of the historical branch of the Israeli General Staff. My boss, acting in the name of chief of staff General Rafael Eitan (”Raful,” as he is popularly known), has ordered me to do an interesting study: namely to inquire, as best I can, what might have happened if the 1973 Israeli crossing of the Suez Canal—arguably the most important move in the entire war—had failed. Why he wants the study I have no idea. To use it as a weapon in his squabbles with his former commander, Ariel Sharon, whom Prime Minister Menahem Begin has recently made minister of defense, perhaps? Anyhow. He gave me six months to do the study. Today, 31 December 1981, I am supposed to hand in my work. What follows is a brief outline, prepared for my own use, of a considerably larger volume.

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First, a word about the background. In May 1967, following a long series of incidents in northern Israel where the Syrians were actively assisting terrorists and also trying to divert the water of the Jordan away from the Sea of Galilee, Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdul Nasser decided to come to his beleaguered fellow Arabs’ aid. Thereupon he sent five divisions into the Sinai Peninsula—an area that had been demilitarized since 1957—chucked out the hapless United Nations peace keeping force there, and closed the Straits of Tiran (Sharm al Sheik, in Arabic) to Israeli shipping. He also concluded mutual defense treaties with Syria and Jordan. All over the Arab world crowds danced in the streets, brandishing knives and shouting, “itbach al Yahud” (slaughter the Jews).

Whether Nasser really planned to go to war will never be known. Israel, though, was terrified. It felt it could not live with a situation in which it was encircled on all sides and its armed forces, consisting mainly of reservists, kept on a full alert. On 5 June 1967, after coordinating with the Johnson administration, it struck, launching a brilliant blitzkrieg offensive. When a ceasefire was concluded six days later the IDF, or Israel Defense Forces, had occupied not just the Sinai but the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Golan Heights as well.

The years 1969-70 witnessed the so-called War of Attrition along the Suez Canal. By using his superior artillery as well as commando raids on the fortifications Israel had built, Nasser hoped to force the Israelis to withdraw. Outnumbered on the ground, The Israelis brought in their formidable air force. Hostilities peaked in April-May 1970, when the Israelis shot down four Soviet-piloted Egyptian aircraft. Thereupon the superpowers intervened, imposing a ceasefire which could best be described as a draw.

In 1973, at 1400 hours on 6 October, the guns sounded once again. Israel came under a massive combined attack by greatly superior Egyptian and Syrian forces. Fighting back desperately, the Israelis took just five days to clear the Golan Heights, advance part of the distance towards Damascus, and defeat an Iraqi division which had come to Syria’s aid. In the south, however, things did not go well. Two Egyptian Armies, the 2nd and the 3rd, crossed the Suez Canal, captured the nearest Israeli fortifications, and established a bridgehead 5-10 kilometers wide on the eastern bank. Early Israeli counterattacks on 8 and 9 October, launched without adequate preparation, were defeated with loss. Thereupon the front was stabilized.

On 14 October President Anwar Sadat, overriding his chief of staff General Sa’ad Shazli, ordered his forces to resume their eastward move with a force of some 900-1000 tanks. This time, though, they were decisively defeated by well-positioned Israeli armor fighting on the defensive. As one Israeli former chief of staff, General Haim Bar Lev, said at the time, both sides reverted to their customary roles. The Israelis to winning, the Egyptians to losing.

Thereupon Israeli preparations for a crossing got into high gear. The moving spirit behind the crossing was General Ariel Sharon, one of the heroes of the 1967 War and a former commander in chief, southern front. Now he commanded an armored division. Engaging on “deep” reconnaissance to the west, on the night of 9-10 October some of his troops had actually located the critical gap between the Egyptian 2nd Army to the north and the 3rd Army to the south. Now the General Staff planned to use the gap in order to reach the Canal and cross it.

The first crossing was to be carried out by an elite paratrooper brigade. They would be followed, first by the rest of Sharon’s division and then by two additional divisions. The necessary motorized rafts and bridging equipment had been built and were ready. Now they were brought to the front, though not without some delays occasioned by monumental traffic jams on the way. Once across the forces were to take up defensive positions to the north while at the same time pushing south in the direction of the city of Ismailia, thus surrounding the Egyptian 3rd Army.

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The first stage in the crossing, code-named “Gazelle,” was mounted on the night of 15-6 October and went very well. Using their rubber boats, the paratroopers did not meet any resistance and were able to build up a small bridgehead. Some of Sharon’s armor also made it to the other side. It was during the afternoon of the 16th, however, that things started going badly wrong for us. One reason why the initial crossing had been entrusted to General Sharon was because his division was equipped with Soviet-built T-54 and T-55 tanks. Captured in 1967 and modified to carry the heavier Israeli guns, their use was meant to mislead the Egyptian High Command and confuse it, thus giving the Israelis more time to move the rest of their forces. In the event, this did not happen. Thanks in no small part to their Soviet allies, who had satellites covering the front, the Egyptians were not misled. By the 17th they had managed to concentrate all the forces they had available west of the Canal to contain Sharon.

Meanwhile, east of the Canal, the 3rd Egyptian Army, now fully alert to what was happening, launched a counterattack against the Israeli corridor to its south. Barely able to hold their own, the two rearmost Israeli divisions, commanded by Generals Adan and Magen respectively, defended themselves as best they could. So ferocious was the fighting around the so-called “Chinese Farm” that, at times, the two sides’ tanks were only fifty meters apart. Fifty meters! Suffering heavy casualties, the Israelis only barely held on and failed to gain the operational freedom needed to reinforce the crossing. The fact that General Magen was killed by Egyptian artillery fire did not help either, sowing some confusion which took time to clear up.

Forced to slow down so as not to get too far away from his bridges, Sharon was unable to attack the Egyptian anti-aircraft missiles. Right from the beginning of the war, the latter had prevented the Israeli Air Force from intervening as effectively as it had in 1967. Less air support meant heavier fighting and more casualties on the ground, and so on in a vicious cycle. Nevertheless Sharon, an old warhorse if ever one there was, wanted to carry on. As he always used to say, nothing terrifies soldiers more than seeing the enemy come at them from behind.

It was touch and go. Back in In Tel Aviv General David Elazar, Israel’s handsome, 47-year old, chief of staff, hesitated. Early in the war the members of the cabinet put the blame on legendary Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan, more or less neutralizing him. This left Elazar to bear the responsibility almost on his own. Elazar well knew how impetuous, how headstrong, Sharon could be. On the 21st, acting under immense pressure, he reluctantly asked Prime Minister Golda Meir for permission to withdraw Sharon’s division. Meir, a chain-smoking elderly lady who by her own admission did not even know what a division was, had little choice but to agree.

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Luckily for the Israelis the Egyptian counterattacks, which still continued, never succeeded in quite closing the corridor their enemies had created on the way to the Canal. Their discipline held, with the result that most of them, albeit harassed by the pursuing Egyptians and slowed down by the confusion in the corridor itself, got out. Still the Israelis suffered heavy casualties in dead, injured, missing, and prisoners. Some of the prisoners were marched through the streets of Cairo where an enraged population could barely be prevented from killing them all. All in all about one half of Sharon’s division was lost, complete with most of its equipment.

At this stage there took place, at UN headquarters in New York, some attempts to achieve a cease fire; but the Egyptians, buoyed by victory, refused. After some hasty consultation it was decided to withdraw the Israeli forces, about three rather battered (or, as we Israelis say, “attrited” divisions, some thirty kilometers to the east unto the Giddi and Mitlah Passes. For foreign readers who may one day be allowed to see this report, let me add that the passes command the only practical west-to-east roads crossing the Sinai. They provided ideal defensive positions which a relative handful of troops should be able to hold forever.

Here it is worth noting that Dayan, who felt so heavily isolated among his cabinet colleagues that he spent almost all his time visiting the fronts, had advocated this course right from the beginning. Indeed he had proposed it as far back as the autumn of 1970, only to have Ms. Meir, in her usual blunt way, call him “nuts.” Now, however, she had little choice. By the end of the month the Israeli retreat had been completed.

On their part the Egyptians, having learnt their lesson on the 14th, were reluctant to follow. The two sides took up positions and continued to fire at each other. The Egyptians tried to move some anti-aircraft batteries to the east bank of the Canal; however, the Israeli Air Force, now starting to receive new stand-off weapons from the US, was able to prevent them from being properly deployed and used. The outcome was a war of attrition not too different from the one of 1969-70. Except that the Israeli position was, topographically speaking, much superior to the one they had previously held.

And so the struggle went on. On the ground, the Egyptians made no gains. On the other hand, the Israelis no longer had what it took to attack. As had been the case in 1970, the more time passed the worse Israel’s situation. With just three and a half million people, it could not keep its forces mobilized indefinitely. Adding to the strain was the fact that it also had to be on guard against a possible resumption of hostilities on the Syrian front.

With their backs to the wall, the authorities in Jerusalem started dropping hints concerning their nuclear weapons, the ultimate ratio of the modern world. On one occasion they invited foreign military attachés to watch a couple of F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers engaged on simulated toss-bombing, the technique used to drop nuclear weapons. On another they took their missiles out of the silos in which they were housed, thus allowing Soviet satellites to photograph them and pass the resulting images to their Arab friends. As someone wrote at the time, it was like Samson threatening to destroy the temple; but it did not seem to impress Sadat very much.

It did, however, worry the Superpowers. On 24 October 1973, just before the Israeli withdrawal was completed, they had come close to a direct clash. As a result, both got scared lest their respective clients would drag them to war against their will. The outcome was a ceasefire followed by several years of intermittent negotiations. The Americans in particular were very active. Unlike the Soviets, who had no diplomatic ties with Israel, they were in a position to talk to both sides. This meant that, whereas all the Soviets could offer the Egyptians was war without territory, the Americans could promise them territory without war.

In the end, after several interim agreements, this was what happened. In 1980 Israel, now under the right-wing government of Menahem Begin, and Egypt signed a peace treaty at Camp David. Notwithstanding that, even as I was working on this study, Sadat was assassinated by one of his own soldiers, so far it holds.

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Looking back, the most important lesson of the war is that it could have been prevented. Had Meir not rejected Dayan’s proposals out of hand, then there is a good chance that it would never have taken place. For this the Old Lady, as Sadat later called her, should take the full blame.

As is well known, the outbreak of war caught Israel totally by surprise. Nevertheless its armed forces, though heavily outnumbered, only took a few days to clear the Syrians out of the Golan Heights. True, the offensives it launched on the Sinai Front on 6-9 October were abortive. However, as subsequent events were to show, these failures were too small to seriously alter the course of the war. The real turning point came on 14 October, which witnessed the destruction of much of Egypt’s armored forces; without such forces, fighting in the desert was impossible.

The Israeli crossing of the Canal, which started on the night of 14-15 October, was meant to destroy as many Egyptian forces as possible, thereby hopefully bringing the war to an end. However, its success was limited. On both sides of the Canal the Egyptians fought back ferociously, almost succeeding in cutting the corridor through which the Israelis passed.

Arguably Israel was lucky in that its attack was discovered early on and that Sharon’s division did not drive deeper into Egypt than they did. Had they done so, then there is good reason to believe that, finally forced to withdraw, their losses would have been even heavier. In that case they might well have been compelled to bring their nuclear weapons—Doomsday weapons, as they called them—into play even more provocatively than they actually did. For example, by allowing journalists into the Dimona reactor complex or holding a test. Thus triggering off a nuclear arms race whose ultimate consequences both for the Middle East and for the world as a whole can hardly even be imagined.

As Machiavelli once wrote, there are situations in which the best one can do is to do that what the enemy wants one to do out of one’s own free will. By retreating to the passes, a wise move that could and probably should have been undertaken some years earlier, the Israelis largely drew their enemies’ sting. Both they and the Egyptians knew it. The ultimate outcome was peace. Looking back, one can only mourn the losses this highly preventable war inflicted on both sides. In the words of the Old Testament (2 Samuel 1.27): “How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war lost!”

Back in 1970

Back in 1970 Israel and Egypt fought a ferocious “war of attrition” along the Suez Canal. It probably brought Israel closer to destruction than any other since the country had gained its independence twenty-eight years before. The worst moments came in April-May when the Israeli air force shot down four or five—the exact number is disputed—Russian-piloted Egyptian fighters. In response there was serious talk of the Soviet Union extending its already formidable presence in Egypt and militarily intervening on Egypt’s side. In the event escalation was averted, but only by a hair’s breadth. Three months later the two countries signed an American-mediated cease-fire which went into effect on 7 August.

Starting in June 1967, hostilities along the Canal cost the Israelis almost fifteen hundred dead. So bad were things that youngsters out of high school and about to be drafted used to tell each other, “see you in the military cemetery.” However, for Egypt the outcome was little short of catastrophic. Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Days’ War had already resulted in the closure of the Suez Canal, depriving Egypt of an important source of revenue. The subsequent fighting along the Canal not only destroyed the country’s largest oil refinery but completely demolished the cities of Port Said, Ismailia and Suez, turning hundreds of thousands of people into refugees Perhaps worst of all was the blow to Egyptian pride, given that its enemy continued to sit right on its doorstep and could not be dislodged.

It was against this background that, not long after the ceasefire took hold, former chief of staff and then minister of defense Moshe Dayan (1915-82), came up with the following plan. Israel would withdraw its forces to a line approximately 30 kilometers to the east, a move that would hardly weaken, and in some ways strengthen, its ability to defend itself against an eventual Egyptian attack. The evacuated territory would remain demilitarized. In return the Egyptians would agree to leave the evacuated territory demilitarized, reopen the Canal to international shipping, repair the damage to their cities, and repopulate them. By doing so, they would create a really powerful incentive towards eventual peace.

Later Dayan claimed that, in his meetings with Anwar Sadat during the Israeli-Egyptian peace negotiations that started late in 1977 and led to the Camp David Accords, the latter told him that the plan had been “brilliant, brilliant.” At the time, however, Israel’s Prime Minister, Ms. Golda Meir, strongly disagreed. By one account she went so far as to call Dayan a “madman” and suggest that he be sent to an asylum. Whether or not the story is true, there can be no doubt that, in refusing to consider any kind of withdrawal, she was strongly backed by the cabinet, the Knesset, her party, and Israeli public opinion as a whole. The outcome was the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War which at the time was the largest interstate war fought anywhere in the world since 1945. It ended in a draw; two years later Israel, now under Yitzhak Rabin, and Egypt signed a Separation of Forces Agreement that followed Dayan’s proposal quite closely.

Forty-four years later Israel once again engaged on a struggle of attrition. This time the opponent was not Egypt but Hamas; an organization incomparably smaller and less powerful than the Egyptian army, yet one capable of attacking Israel’s rear and holding its people to ransom in a way Egypt never did. The struggle has now been going on for three weeks. The population of Gaza is suffering horribly—all because Hamas, Israel, and the other parties involved (Egypt, the PLO, Turkey, Qatar, and The U.S—seem unable to find a way out that will please all of them.

Good or bad, everything must come to an end. Can the events of 1970-75 tell us something about what may be possible in 2014? Obviously the first thing to do is to make the weapons fall silent. But that should be the first step, not the last. Using Dayan’s proposal as a model, Hamas should undertake to cease any kind of military operations, including the construction of tunnels, and embark on the road towards co-existence if not peace. Israel should agree to withdraw, relax its border controls and permit an extension of trade. Eventually this should lead to the construction of a port and an international airport. Egypt should reopen the border crossings in return for Hamas ceasing to support the Islamist-Bedouin Uprising in the Sinai. The international community, including Saudi Arabia which has every interest in ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, should pull its weight. It could do so by supervising the implementation of the agreements, ensuring that they are not abused. It should also provide money to rebuild the Strip so as to provide the people there with something to lose.

Such a plan will no doubt be hard to agree on. Should it be carried out, though, nobody stands to benefit more than the inhabitants of Gaza. Gaza itself is a very ancient city that goes back 4,000 years and more. As Napoleon’s troops noted when they entered the city back in 1798, it has all the climatic and physical attributes needed for economic success. By way of a comparison, look at Singapore on the other side of the Asian continent. Singapore has a per capita GDP of 52,000—almost a hundred times that of Gaza, which is around $ 550. Yet Gaza, for all the density of its population, has more land per capita than Singapore does. Some of it is agricultural, well suited for raising vegetables, orchards, and flowers.

Unlike Singapore, Gaza has some water. Following the example of Singapore, given sufficient investment it could obtain any amount it needs from the sea by way of desalinization. The labor force is young, large, and very cheap. A vast potential market, in the form of the European Union, is not far off. Finally, the magnificent seashore could well be developed so as to attract tourists. Given these facts, there is no reason at all why Gaza could not become a prosperous country, “the Singapore of the Middle East,” as Shimon Peres, Israel’s recently departed president, once called it.

Such a plan would require both sides to climb down from the high tress they are occupying at present. Will it happen? Or must there take place another round of bloody fighting before both sides finally realize they have no choice but to live side by side?