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Declassified Documents Shed New Light On 40-Year-Old War


Forty years ago, the Middle East was at war.


SIEGEL: Each side calls the war by the holiday it fell on in 1973. To Arabs, it was the Ramadan War; to Israelis, it was Yom Kippur War. Both Egypt and Israel suffered heavy casualties, and both achieved battlefield victories. And the result was sufficiently ambiguous. Neither side had suffered a humiliating defeat that a few years later, Egypt and Israel could make peace, and Egypt could regain the Sinai Peninsula.

With 40 years of hindsight and research, our sense of the October 1973 war continues to evolve. And today, we're going to hear an Israeli perspective. Ehud Yaari is a commentator for Israel's Channel 2 television. He's also a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington. And he joins us from Jerusalem. And first, Ehud Yaari, how do recently declassified documents alter your view of what happened in the Yom Kippur War?

EHUD YAARI: Well, I think we have a series of documents published and some still to be published, especially from Dr. Henry Kissinger's personal archive, which shed light on the fact that the Egyptians were trying to get the Israelis to move toward some sort of an arrangement over the reopening of the Suez Canal. The Israeli government - at the time led by Mrs. Golda Meir - was preoccupied by the coming elections in Israel; and President Sadat, of Egypt, felt that he couldn't afford to wait, and launched the war.

Basically, the situation was that there was an Egyptian offer on the table. There was a recommendation by Dr. Kissinger to go for it. There was an Israeli response that let's wait after - until after the elections, and Sadat felt that he could not afford to wait that long.

SIEGEL: But you're describing a war that seems, with hindsight, more of an avoidable war than it might have seemed at the time.

YAARI: Absolutely. President Sadat launched the war together with Hafez Assad, the president of Syria at the time, in order to break the diplomatic deadlock, not in order to capture the Sinai Peninsula or invade Israel itself. He saw the war as a tool of diplomacy rather than as an ending itself. And indeed, it took four years between the launching of the October war of '73, and Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem in November '77.

That was his intention from the start. I'm telling you this as the proud man who had the privilege of being the first Israeli passport allowed into Egypt. That was the story. He launched the war in order to get a peace process going.

SIEGEL: At the time, did you envisage a peace that would be, as they say, as much of a cold peace as this has proved to be between Egypt and Israel?

YAARI: Not really because I'll tell you, the moment I have arrived in Cairo and the immigration officer - back then in December '77- waved my Israeli passport in the air and said, first Israeli passport in Cairo. It was immediately after President Sadat visited Jerusalem and spoke in front of our Knesset, the parliament. And the whole - everybody at Cairo Airport went into a big applause.

I thought it was going to be much warmer than it proved to be. But the fact is, that was the game plan. Let's get peace with Israel, get the Sinai Peninsula back, have a good relations and assistance from the United States, but let's not have too much to do with the Israelis next door.

SIEGEL: Of course, one observation that's been made over the years is that President Sadat's motives, Egypt's motives in going to war in 1973 were sufficiently nuanced, or sophisticated, that they weren't understood well by Israeli intelligence. Israeli intelligence figured they can't defeat Israel, they can't destroy Israel; therefore, they won't make war.

YAARI: Well, you see, this is a very sore point in Israel because Israeli intelligence had every piece of information needed in order to give the alert that there is going to be a war. It was the decision of - mainly - then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, the one-eyed man, who has decided that he would rather absorb the first Egyptian offensive, respond to it militarily, and then get to the table on better terms.

He was mistaken because I think what happened is that the Israelis did not expect the Egyptians to mount such a crossing of the Suez Canal the way they did. They did not expect the Syrian army to launch such a fierce attack across the Golan Heights up north. So Israel, in a way, was caught by surprise, and it took the Israelis about a fortnight to launch their counteroffensive and basically encircle the Egyptian army.

But if the question is whether the '73 war was avoidable, the answer is absolutely yes. Everything we know today indicates that there was a way to avoid that war, which did cost 15,000 lives on both sides.

SIEGEL: Ehud Yaari, thank you very much for talking with us today.

YAARI: You are most welcome.

SIEGEL: Ehud Yaari, a longtime reporter and now commentator for Israel's Channel 2 television, talking about the war in the Middle East 40 years ago this week. Tomorrow, an Egyptian perspective. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.