What Really Happened in the “Yom Kippur” War?
Here in Moscow I recently received a dark-blue folder dated 1975. It contains one of the most well-buried secrets of Middle Eastern and of US diplomacy. The secret file, written by the Soviet Ambassador in Cairo, Vladimir M. Vinogradov, apparently a draft for a memorandum addressed to the Soviet politbureau, describes the 1973 October War as a collusive enterprise between US, Egyptian and Israeli leaders, orchestrated by Henry Kissinger. If you are an Egyptian reader this revelation is likely to upset you. I, an Israeli who fought the Egyptians in the 1973 war, was equally upset and distressed, – yet still excited by the discovery. For an American it is likely to come as a shock.
According to the Vinogradov memo (to be published by us in full in the Russian weekly Expert next Monday), Anwar al-Sadat, holder of the titles of President, Prime Minister, ASU Chairman, Chief Commander, Supreme Military Ruler, entered into conspiracy with the Israelis, betrayed his ally Syria, condemned the Syrian army to destruction and Damascus to bombardment, allowed General Sharon’s tanks to cross without hindrance to the western bank of the Suez Canal, and actually planned a defeat of the Egyptian troops in the October War. Egyptian soldiers and officers bravely and successfully fought the Israeli enemy – too successfully for Sadat’s liking as he began the war in order to allow for the US comeback to the Middle East.
He was not the only conspirator: according to Vinogradov, the grandmotherly Golda Meir knowingly sacrificed two thousand of Israel’s best fighters – she possibly thought fewer would be killed — in order to give Sadat his moment of glory and to let the US secure its positions in the Middle East. The memo allows for a completely new interpretation of the Camp David Treaty, as one achieved by deceit and treachery.
Vladimir Vinogradov was a prominent and brilliant Soviet diplomat; he served as ambassador to Tokyo in the 1960s, to Cairo from 1970 to 1974, co-chairman of the Geneva Peace Conference, ambassador to Teheran during the Islamic revolution, the USSR Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. He was a gifted painter and a prolific writer; his archive has hundreds of pages of unique observations and notes covering international affairs, but the place of honor goes to his Cairo diaries, and among others, descriptions of his hundreds of meetings with Sadat and the full sequence of the war as he observed it unfold at Sadat’s hq as the big decisions were made. When published, these notes will allow to re-evaluate the post-Nasser period of Egyptian history.
Vinogradov arrived to Cairo for Nasser’s funeral and remained there as the Ambassador. He recorded the creeping coup of Sadat, least bright of Nasser’s men, who became Egypt’s president by chance, as he was the vice-president at Nasser’s death. Soon he dismissed, purged and imprisoned practically all important Egyptian politicians, the comrades-in-arms of Gamal Abd el Nasser, and dismantled the edifice of Nasser’s socialism. Vinogradov was an astute observer; not a conspiracy cuckoo. Far from being headstrong and doctrinaire, he was a friend of Arabs and a consistent supporter and promoter of a lasting and just peace between the Arabs and Israel, a peace that would meet Palestinian needs and ensure Jewish prosperity.
The pearl of his archive is the file called The Middle Eastern Games. It contains some 20 typewritten pages edited by hand in blue ink, apparently a draft for a memo to the Politburo and to the government, dated January 1975, soon after his return from Cairo. The file contains the deadly secret of the collusion he observed. It is written in lively and highly readable Russian, not in the bureaucratese we’d expect. Two pages are added to the file in May 1975; they describe Vinogradov’s visit to Amman and his informal talks with Abu Zeid Rifai, the Prime Minister, and his exchange of views with the Soviet Ambassador in Damascus. Vinogradov did not voice his opinions until 1998, and even then he did not speak as openly as in this draft. Actually, when the suggestion of collusion was presented to him by the Jordanian prime minister, being a prudent diplomat, he refused to discuss it.
The official version of the October war holds that on October 6, 1973, in conjunction with Hafez al-Assad of Syria, Anwar as-Sadat launched a surprise attack against Israeli forces. They crossed the Canal and advanced a few miles into the occupied Sinai. As the war progressed, tanks of General Ariel Sharon crossed the Suez Canal and encircled the Egyptian Third Army. The ceasefire negotiations eventually led to the handshake at the White House.
For me, the Yom Kippur War (as we called it) was an important part of my autobiography. A young paratrooper, I fought that war, crossed the canal, seized Gabal Ataka heights, survived shelling and face-to-face battles, buried my buddies, shot the man-eating red dogs of the desert and the enemy tanks. My unit was ferried by helicopters into the desert where we severed the main communication line between the Egyptian armies and its home base, the Suez-Cairo highway. Our location at 101 km to Cairo was used for the first cease fire talks; so I know that war not by word of mouth, and it hurts to learn that I and my comrades-at-arms were just disposable tokens in the ruthless game we – ordinary people – lost. Obviously I did not know it then, for me the war was a surprise, but then, I was not a general.
Vinogradov dispels the idea of surprise: in his view, both the canal crossing by the Egyptians and the inroads by Sharon were planned and agreed upon in advance by Kissinger, Sadat and Meir. The plan included the destruction of the Syrian army as well.
At first, he asks some questions: how the crossing could be a surprise if the Russians evacuated their families a few days before the war? The concentration of the forces was observable and could not escape Israeli attention. Why did the Egyptian forces not proceed after the crossing but stood still? Why did they have no plans for advancing? Why there was a forty km-wide unguarded gap between the 2d and the 3d armies, the gap that invited Sharon’s raid? How could Israeli tanks sneak to the western bank of the Canal? Why did Sadat refuse to stop them? Why were there no reserve forces on the western bank of the Canal?
Vinogradov takes a leaf from Sherlock Holmes who said: when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. He writes: These questions can’t be answered if Sadat is to be considered a true patriot of Egypt. But they can be answered in full, if we consider a possibility of collusion between Sadat, the US and Israeli leadership – a conspiracy in which each participant pursued his own goals. A conspiracy in which each participant did not know the full details of other participants’ game. A conspiracy in which each participant tried to gain more ground despite the overall agreement between them.
Before the war Sadat was at the nadir of his power: in Egypt and abroad he had lost prestige. The least educated and least charismatic of Nasser’s followers, Sadat was isolated. He needed a war, a limited war with Israel that would not end with defeat. Such a war would release the pressure in the army and he would regain his authority. The US agreed to give him a green light for the war, something the Russians never did. The Russians protected Egypt’s skies, but they were against wars. For that, Sadat had to rely upon the US and part with the USSR. He was ready to do so as he loathed socialism. He did not need victory, just no defeat; he wanted to explain his failure to win by deficient Soviet equipment. That is why the army was given the minimal task: crossing the Canal and hold the bridgehead until the Americans entered the game.
Plans of the US
During decolonisation the US lost strategic ground in the Middle East with its oil, its Suez Canal, its vast population. Its ally Israel had to be supported, but the Arabs were growing stronger all the time. Israel had to be made more flexible, for its brutal policies interfered with the US plans. So the US had to keep Israel as its ally but at the same time Israel’s arrogance had to be broken. The US needed a chance to “save” Israel after allowing the Arabs to beat the Israelis for a while. So the US allowed Sadat to begin a limited war.
Israel’s leaders had to help the US, its main provider and supporter. The US needed to improve its positions in the Middle East, as in 1973 they had only one friend and ally, King Feisal. (Kissinger told Vinogradov that Feisal tried to educate him about the evilness of Jews and Communists.) If and when the US was to recover its position in the Middle East, the Israeli position would improve drastically. Egypt was a weak link, as Sadat disliked the USSR and the progressive forces in the country, so it could be turned. Syria could be dealt with militarily, and broken.
The Israelis and Americans decided to let Sadat take the Canal while holding the mountain passes of Mittla and Giddi, a better defensive line anyway. This was actually Rogers’ plan of 1971, acceptable to Israel. But this should be done in fighting, not given up for free.
As for Syria, it was to be militarily defeated, thoroughly. That is why the Israeli Staff did sent all its available troops to the Syrian border, while denuding the Canal though the Egyptian army was much bigger than the Syrian one. Israeli troops at the Canal were to be sacrificed in this game; they were to die in order to bring the US back into the Middle East.
However, the plans of the three partners were somewhat derailed by the factors on the ground: it is the usual problem with conspiracies; nothing works as it should, Vinogradov writes in his memo to be published in full next week in Moscow’s Expert.
Sadat’s crooked game was spoiled to start with. His presumptions did not work out. Contrary to his expectations, the USSR supported the Arab side and began a massive airlift of its most modern military equipment right away. The USSR took the risk of confrontation with the US; Sadat had not believed they would because the Soviets were adamant against the war, before it started. His second problem, according to Vinogradov, was the superior quality of Russian weapons in the hands of Egyptian soldiers — better than the western weapons in the Israelis’ hands.
As an Israeli soldier of the time I must confirm the Ambassador’s words. The Egyptians had the legendary Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles, the best gun in the world, while we had FN battle rifles that hated sand and water. We dropped our FNs and picked up their AKs at the first opportunity. They used anti-tank Sagger missiles, light, portable, precise, carried by one soldier. Saggers killed between 800 and 1200 Israeli tanks. We had old 105 mm recoilless jeep-mounted rifles, four men at a rifle (actually, a small cannon) to fight tanks. Only new American weapons redressed the imbalance.
Sadat did not expect the Egyptian troops taught by the Soviet specialists to better their Israeli enemy – but they did. They crossed the Canal much faster than planned and with much smaller losses. Arabs beating the Israelis – it was bad news for Sadat. He overplayed his hand. That is why the Egyptian troops stood still, like the sun upon Gibeon, and did not move. They waited for the Israelis, but at that time the Israeli army was fighting the Syrians. The Israelis felt somewhat safe from Sadat’s side and they sent all their army north. The Syrian army took the entire punch of Israeli forces and began its retreat. They asked Sadat to move forward, to take some of the heat off them, but Sadat refused. His army stood and did not move, though there were no Israelis between the Canal and the mountain passes. Syrian leader al Assad was convinced at that time that Sadat betrayed him, and he said so frankly to the Soviet ambassador in Damascus, Mr Muhitdinov, who passed this to Vinogradov. Vinogradov saw Sadat daily and asked him in real time why he was not advancing. He received no reasonable answer: Sadat muttered that he does not want to run all over Sinai looking for Israelis, that sooner or later they would come to him.
The Israeli leadership was worried: the war was not going as expected. There were big losses on the Syrian front, the Syrians retreated but each yard was hard fought; only Sadat’s passivity saved the Israelis from a reverse. The plan to for total Syrian defeat failed, but the Syrians could not effectively counterattack.
This was the time to punish Sadat: his army was too efficient, his advance too fast, and worse, his reliance upon the Soviets only grew due to the air bridge. The Israelis arrested their advance on Damascus and turned their troops southwards to Sinai. The Jordanians could at this time have cut off the North-to-South route and king Hussein proposed this to Sadat and Assad. Assad agreed immediately, but Sadat refused to accept the offer. He explained it to Vinogradov that he did not believe in the fighting abilities of the Jordanians. If they entered the war, Egypt would have to save them. At other times he said that it is better to lose the whole of Sinai than to lose a square yard on the Jordan: an insincere and foolish remark, in Vinogradov’s view. So the Israeli troops rolled southwards without hindrance.
During the war, we (the Israelis) also knew that if Sadat advanced, he would gain the whole of Sinai in no time; we entertained many hypotheses why he was standing still, none satisfactory. Vinogradov explains it well: Sadat ran off his script and was waited for US involvement. What he got was the deep raid of Sharon.
This breakthrough of the Israeli troops to the western bank of the Canal was the murkiest part of the war, Vinogradov writes. He asked Sadat’s military commanders at the beginning of the war why there is the forty km wide gap between the Second and the Third armies and was told that this was Sadat’s directive. The gap was not even guarded; it was left wide open like a Trojan backdoor in a computer program.
Sadat paid no attention to Sharon’s raid; he was indifferent to this dramatic development. Vinogradov asked him to deal with it when only the first five Israeli tanks crossed the Canal westwards; Sadat refused, saying it was of no military importance, just a “political move”, whatever that meant. He repeated this to Vinogradov later, when the Israeli foothold on the Western bank of became a sizeable bridgehead. Sadat did not listen to advice from Moscow, he opened the door for the Israelis into Africa.
This allows for two explanations, says Vinogradov: an impossible one, of the Egyptians’ total military ignorance and an improbable one, of Sadat’s intentions. The improbable wins, as Sherlock Holmes observed.
The Americans did not stop the Israeli advance right away, says Vinogradov, for they wanted to have a lever to push Sadat so he would not change his mind about the whole setup. Apparently the gap was build into the deployments for this purpose. So Vinogradov’s idea of “conspiracy” is that of dynamic collusion, similar to the collusion on Jordan between the Jewish Yishuv and Transjordan as described by Avi Shlaim: there were some guidelines and agreements, but they were liable to change, depending on the strength of the sides.
The US “saved” Egypt by stopping the advancing Israeli troops. With the passive support of Sadat, the US allowed Israel to hit Syria really hard.
The US-negotiated disengagement agreements with the UN troops in-between made Israel safe for years to come.
(In a different and important document, “Notes on Heikal’s book Road to Ramadan”, Vinogradov rejects the thesis of the unavoidability of Israeli-Arab wars: he says that as long as Egypt remains in the US thrall, such a war is unlikely. Indeed there have been no big wars since 1974, unless one counts Israeli “operations” in Lebanon and Gaza.)
The US “saved” Israel with military supplies.
Thanks to Sadat, the US came back to the Middle East and positioned itself as the only mediator and “honest broker” in the area.
Sadat began a violent anti-Soviet and antisocialist campaign, Vinogradov writes, trying to discredit the USSR. In the Notes, Vinogradov charges that Sadat spread many lies and disinformation to discredit the USSR in the Arab eyes. His main line was: the USSR could not and would not liberate Arab soil while the US could, would and did. Vinogradov explained elsewhere that the Soviet Union was and is against offensive wars, among other reasons because their end is never certain. However, the USSR was ready to go a long way to defend Arab states. As for liberation, the years since 1973 have proved that the US can’t or won’t deliver that, either – while the return of Sinai to Egypt in exchange for separate peace was always possible, without a war as well.
After the war, Sadat’s positions improved drastically. He was hailed as hero, Egypt took a place of honor among the Arab states. But in a year, Sadat’s reputation was in tatters again, and that of Egypt went to an all time low, Vinogradov writes.
The Syrians understood Sadat’s game very early: on October 12, 1973 when the Egyptian troops stood still and ceased fighting, President Hafez el Assad said to the Soviet ambassador that he is certain Sadat was intentionally betraying Syria. Sadat deliberately allowed the Israeli breakthrough to the Western bank of Suez, in order to give Kissinger a chance to intervene and realise his disengagement plan, said Assad to Jordanian Prime Minister Abu Zeid Rifai who told it to Vinogradov during a private breakfast they had in his house in Amman. The Jordanians also suspect Sadat played a crooked game, Vinogradov writes. However, the prudent Vinogradov refused to be drawn into this discussion though he felt that the Jordanians “read his thoughts.”
When Vinogradov was appointed co-chairman of the Geneva Peace Conference, he encountered a united Egyptian-American position aiming to disrupt the conference, while Assad refused even to take part in it. Vinogradov delivered him a position paper for the conference and asked whether it is acceptable for Syria. Assad replied: yes but for one line. Which one line, asked a hopeful Vinogradov, and Assad retorted: the line saying “Syria agrees to participate in the conference.” Indeed the conference came to nought, as did all other conferences and arrangements.
Though the suspicions voiced by Vinogradov in his secret document have been made by various military experts and historians, never until now they were made by a participant in the events, a person of such exalted position, knowledge, presence at key moments. Vinogradov’s notes allow us to decipher and trace the history of Egypt with its de-industrialisation, poverty, internal conflicts, military rule tightly connected with the phony war of 1973.
A few years after the war, Sadat was assassinated, and his hand-picked follower Hosni Mubarak began his long rule, followed by another participant of the October War, Gen Tantawi. Achieved by lies and treason, the Camp David Peace treaty still guards Israeli and American interests. Only now, as the post-Camp David regime in Egypt is on the verge of collapse, one may hope for change. Sadat’s name in the pantheon of Egyptian heroes was safe until now. In the end, all that is hidden will be made transparent.
Postscript. In 1975, Vinogradov could not predict that the 1973 war and subsequent treaties would change the world. They sealed the fate of the Soviet presence and eminence in the Arab world, though the last vestiges were destroyed by American might much later: in Iraq in 2003 and in Syria they are being undermined now. They undermined the cause of socialism in the world, which began its long fall. The USSR, the most successful state of 1972, an almost-winner of the Cold war, eventually lost it. Thanks to the American takeover of Egypt, petrodollar schemes were formed, and the dollar that began its decline in 1971 by losing its gold standard – recovered and became again a full-fledged world reserve currency. The oil of the Saudis and of sheikdoms being sold for dollars became the new lifeline for the American empire. Looking back, armed now with the Vinogradov Papers, we can confidently mark 1973-74 as a decisive turning point in our history.
ISRAEL SHAMIR has been sending dispatches to CounterPunch from Moscow.