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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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!”