Israel, Hamas and throwback to fifty years ago to Yom Kippur and US-Soviet détente

By Mayank Chhaya-

One interesting question to consider in the current brutal fight between Israel and Hamas is whether the United States would view the now scuppered possibility of a Saudi Arabia-Israel accord with the same urgency as it did its own détente with the Soviet Union in 1973 amid the Yom Kippur war almost exactly around the same time fifty years ago.

On October 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel’s forces in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. Then, as now, Israel was caught unawares by the combined Egyptian-Syrian onslaught. The Israeli Defense Forces or IDF suffered early setbacks as they failed in their counter attacks against the Egyptians. It was on October 9, that is today 50 years ago, that Israel asked the Americans to do what the Soviets had done for Egypt—resupply weapons.

Worried that Israel could be defeated then President Richard Nixon agreed and within five days American military planes carrying weapons started arriving by October 14. Under its Secretary-General Leonid Brezhnev the erstwhile Soviet Union had done the same. In a sense, Israel and Egypt had become American and Soviet proxies respectively in a version of the Great Game.

Despite all this America was worried that the Yom Kippur war could dismantle the US-Soviet détente. In this context it is important to quote from a backgrounder from the office of the historian of the US State Department. “On October 24, Brezhnev sent Nixon a hotline message suggesting that the United States and the Soviet Union send troops to Egypt to “implement” the ceasefire. If Nixon chose not to do so, Brezhnev threatened, “We should be faced with the necessity urgently to consider the question of taking appropriate steps unilaterally.” The United States responded by putting its nuclear forces on worldwide alert on October 25. By the end of the day, the crisis abated when the Security Council adopted Resolution 340, which called for a ceasefire, the withdrawal of all forces to their October 22 positions, and U.N. observers and peacekeepers to monitor the ceasefire. This time, the Israelis accepted the resolution.

The 1973 war thus ended in an Israeli victory, but at great cost to the United States. Though the war did not scuttle détente, it nevertheless brought the United States closer to a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union than at any point since the Cuban missile crisis.”

Although the Saudi-Israel normalization process is nowhere close to a reality and its stakes are not comparable to the US-Soviet détente in the immediate, it is still in the interest of Washington and the Biden administration to not give up on it altogether. Of course, in the foreseeable future the Saudi-Israel normalization seems unachievable. Eventually though there will have to be some measure of that process bearing fruit.

It is both instructive and troublesome that in 50 years since the Yom Kippur war nothing of consequence has changed in the regions except that leaders on all sides are different. The animus remains as intense now as then.

There are fears of a wider war breaking out with allegations of Iran, the mentors of Hamas, having helped if not altogether instigated the attacks which have as of this morning killed 1260 people, 700 Israelis and 560 Palestinians. If it turns out that Iran was indeed involved, something Tehran has strongly denied, then it has the potential of drawing America even deeper behind-the-scenes into the game as the Biden administration’s efforts to bring back a semblance of normalcy with them become upended.

Like in 1973, there is also the Russia factor; this time even though not as explicit and obvious. It is reasonable to assume that President Vladimir Putin of Russia is closely monitoring the unraveling in the Middle East as he senses its potential to weaken America’s resolve over Ukraine. As it is support for Ukraine has become an intense fight between the Republicans and the Democrats with the former increasingly rejecting any U.S. involvement. As President Biden battles that domestic challenge he has this new crisis on hand where he has clearly committed to standing firmly with Israel against Hamas.

Hovering on the periphery is China, Russia’s vocal ally, which has not taken a position on the Hamas attacks which can be called avowedly pro-Israel. Beijing has said it is “deeply concerned about the increase in tension and the escalation of violence,” Mao Ning, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, did not express any direct support for Israel during a regular news briefing. It is unlikely that Beijing would come out unambiguously in support of Israel.

On a separate but related matter the scale, coordination and surprise factor of the Hamas attacks are being increasingly viewed as thoroughly exposing Israel’s steadfast claims of running the world’s most effective intelligence-military-surveillance machine. The fact that Hamas operatives could breach the border fencing with bulldozers came as a stunning illustration of this weakness.

So much so that the former National Security Agency (NSA) expert Edward Snowden tweeted, “Netanyahu nurtured a zillion-dollar industry selling spying tools to despots that use them to break into the iPhones of critics, elected opponents, human rights lawyers, and even students (these are all real examples). Turns out they’re not very useful for spying on Hamas, tho.”

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