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Israel's battle with Hamas recalls Yom Kippur War and its fateful effects

Syrian soldiers raise their hands in surrender on Oct. 10, 1973, in the Golan Heights, five days into the Yom Kippur War.
Getty Images
Syrian soldiers raise their hands in surrender on Oct. 10, 1973, in the Golan Heights, five days into the Yom Kippur War.

When the Palestinian militants of Hamas unleashed their attack inside Israel on Oct. 7, triggering the latest war in the Middle East, it was impossible to miss the significance of the timing.

The deadly assaults that killed more than a thousand Israeli troops and civilians in the first four days came just 50 years and a day after the start of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. That brief but intense war, like this month's Hamas attacks, seemed to catch the vaunted Israeli intelligence and front-line defenses with their guard down.

For a few days, the 1973 attackers from Egypt and Syria carried all before them, seizing territory they had lost in the Six-Day War of 1967in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. It seemed possible for several parlous days that the Jewish state, then just 25 years old, might not survive.

But Israel was able to turn the tide, bolstered by enormous shipments of U.S. tanks, jet fighters and ammunition, driving the attackers back.

The Israelis pursued the retreating Arabs and eventually threatened their capital cities of Cairo and Damascus. At that point, the Soviet Union intervened directly and threatened all-out war in defense of its Arab allies. At one point, U.S. nuclear forces were placed on high alert (DEFCON 3). Eventually, the U.S. and Soviet Union agreed to back a U.N. peacekeeping force, and the crisis eased.

The memory of that war still burns bright in Israel, seared into the national psyche even half a century later. And while most Americans today had not yet been born in 1973, the fallout from that year continues to shape the lives of all who have come since.

The consequences of the Yom Kippur War played an outsize role in shaping not only the 1970s but the direction of U.S. foreign policy and energy policy ever since.

Dueling foreign and domestic crises

Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon makes the victory sign in New York City during his last campaign meeting in November 1968. He was elected in 1968 and reelected in 1972 but had to resign in August 1974 after the Watergate scandal.
/ AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon makes the victory sign in New York City during his last campaign meeting in November 1968. He was elected in 1968 and reelected in 1972 but had to resign in August 1974 after the Watergate scandal.

Fifty years ago, President Richard Nixon had a secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, who had dealt extensively with the Soviets and with all the key actors in the Middle East. Flying from Cairo to Damascus to Jerusalem, Kissinger was said to be conducting "shuttle diplomacy" in brokering a peace agreement after the front lines of 1973 had stabilized.

But then, as now, the Middle East fighting had to share the front page with developments in a domestic political crisis in Washington. In our moment, the news is the paralysis of Congress due to the lack of a speaker in the House. Having ousted their own elected leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House's majority Republicans have struggled to coalesce behind a successor, leaving the nation's legislative branch unable to conduct business.

Back in 1973, the domestic crisis was the crumbling presidency of Republican Richard Nixon. Nixon was in the first year of his second term, having won reelection in a 49-state landslide the previous November. But Nixon and his team were distracted by a separate domestic crisis that had increasingly occupied the White House staff that year.

Nixon's reelection campaign had been linked to burglars arrestedinside the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate hotel and office complex in Washington. That June 1972 incident had led to an investigation that Nixon and his inner circle tried to suppress. While prosecution of the burglars proceeded in court in early 1973, a Senate committee was convened to investigate both the campaign "dirty tricks" and accusations of a high-level White House cover-up.

The Senate hearings became a major national sensation, carried live on national broadcast TV daily and summarized by radio and TV programs at night. The hearings went on for months and wrapped up shortly before the first news of the attacks in Israel came in. Nixon and his innermost circle of advisers were debating how to deal with defections in their ranks and the expected indictments of some high-level administration officials.

As the battle was raging in Israel, Nixon decided to take the bull by the horns in Washington. He ordered his attorney general to fire the special counsel, Archibald Cox, who had been pursuing him and trying to obtain tape recordings that Nixon had made of Oval Office conversations. When the attorney general refused the order and his deputy also refused, Nixon fired them both and found a replacement willing to carry out the order.

It was 50 years ago today — Oct. 20 — and a Saturday. Television news went into its own version of DEFCON 3, and the event was soon dubbed the Saturday Night Massacre. It would lead to a protracted argument in the Supreme Court over the tapes, which when released gave witness to Nixon's involvement in the Watergate cover-up. The House moved to impeach, and Nixon resigned.

Widening waves of shock and aftershocks

The enormous outpouring of U.S. support for Israel after the Yom Kippur assaults in 1973 led directly to a series of decisions by Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Persian Gulf region to cut off crude oil shipmentsto the United States. Although still producing large amounts of domestic oil, the U.S. had become heavily dependent on foreign producers with lower production costs.

The price of a barrel of crude oil went up 300% on the world market, and gasoline prices quadrupled at the pump. After generations of cheap oil and gas, Americans were ill-prepared for what was called the first "oil shock." But as the 1970s continued, the expanding repercussions of the Arab oil embargo and lesser disruptions that followed affected all aspects of American car culture.

Yet the focus for many Americans was not on the price of gas but its availability. For the first time since World War II, drivers were either waiting in line for a few rationed gallons or going without.

Moreover, the sudden spike in oil prices affected other energy prices as well, driving a larger upward movement in prices for all consumer goods. The resulting inflation would lead the Federal Reserve Board eventually to raise interest rates, creating years of "stagflation," the unwelcome combination of tight money and ever-escalating costs.

The dislocation associated with these conditions would deeply bruise all three presidents who served during the decade of the 1970s and contribute to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Reliving the fallout of the past?

It is too soon to know whether current events will be nearly as momentous as those of 1973 — for the region, for the U.S. or for the world at large. But it is also possible they could be more so.

U.S. officials have been focused on preventing a wider war in the region that could involve surrounding Arab countries and also the Islamic Republic of Iran, the state that has been Israel's most implacable foe in recent decades.

Daniel Yergin, a scholar of energy economics and politics who now heads S&P Global, has said he does not see a return to 1973 — at least yet. Yergin said the Saudis still want to get past the current crisis and have some sort of relationship with Israel (and the U.S.). He also pointed to the increases in U.S. oil production in recent years as a counterweight to changes in the global market.

But on CNBC this month, Yergin also hedged his bets. "The big question," he said, "is will it involve Iran?"

Iran is a rather small contributor to the global market at present but has been scaling up its production. And a confrontation over prices could lead to one involving supply and possibly to the seizure of tankers in the Persian Gulf.

"But we're not there yet," Yergin said. And much depends on whether that can be avoided.

The Iran issues are not all about oil. Iran has also emerged as a major supplier of Russia's drones and other forms of tech weapons used in Ukraine. That could make Russia and its nuclear arsenal once again a factor in the high-stakes politics of the region and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular.

The role played by Iran so far in the Hamas attack may be seen as a prelude to a larger involvement. Iran is believed to have supplied many of the munitions used by Hamas fighters in the latest conflict. That larger role could be expressed through Iran's longtime supportive relationship with Hezbollah, another political-military organization, operating in and from Lebanon — Israel's neighbor to the north. It could also involve a more visible role in supporting Hamas and resisting Israel's incursion into Gaza.

Still a fight to fund aid from the U.S.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said he will seek a third vote to become House speaker after failing to get enough support in the first two votes.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said he will seek a third vote to become House speaker after failing to get enough support in the first two votes.


Although there are differences within their ranks, both major parties in Congress support further aid to Israel and have expressed support for that country since this month's Hamas attacks.

But that does not ensure the aid that Israel is counting on. Just as in 1973, Israel relies on the U.S. as the ultimate guarantor of its security, an ally prepared to go as far as needed — whatever the consequences. That made all the difference in 1973, and it could do so again this fall.

But first, the power of the Israeli connection will have to overcome a seemingly intractable problem within Congress itself — specifically among the Republicans, who have a narrow majority in the House.

At this point, with President Biden having addressed the nation on Israel and Ukraine aid, his administration is preparing new defense packages for both countries and new commitments to security on the border with Mexico. A bipartisan group in the Senate appears willing to go along. But the House is literally unable to act, hamstrung by its own leadership struggle in the Republican majority.

Unable to elect a speaker with the votes of the party's narrow majority and unwilling to make a deal with the Democrats, the Republicans are unable to deal with any legislation or any matter of any kind. House rules depend on there being a speaker before action may be taken.

Meanwhile, the historic crises of the moment continue.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
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