The 1973 War Analogy Is Deeper Than You Think

An Israeli armored brigade makes its way up to the Golan Heights to relieve forces under Syrian attack on the second day of the Arab-Israeli War in Israel in October 1973. David Rubinger/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
An Israeli armored brigade makes its way up to the Golan Heights to relieve forces under Syrian attack on the second day of the Arab-Israeli War in Israel in October 1973. David Rubinger/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

It has by now become commonplace to note that the unprecedented Hamas assault on Israel last weekend came 50 years and one day after the Egyptian and Syrian assaults that began the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. But the similarities, and differences, between these wars go well beyond mere timing. It’s the more fine-grained comparisons that offer insight into how this war may develop—for better and worse.

The deeper you go in the tactical military aspects of the two assaults set 50 years apart, the more you can see the echoes of the one in the other—and the more obvious it is that Hamas mimicked the Egyptians deliberately to replicate Egypt’s success. That should also tell us something about what comes next.

Egypt mounted a complex, ingenious assault to cross the Suez Canal and secure a bridgehead on its east bank. But the Egyptians understood that Israel would respond quickly and ferociously, with its powerful armored and air forces. So Cairo’s war plan included an equally sophisticated defensive scheme, employing vast numbers of early generation surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank missiles, rocket-powered grenades, artillery support, and tanks and infantry that were dug-in to interlocking fields of fire to enable its forces to withstand the blizzard of Israeli counterattacks that the Egyptians knew they would face. Part of Egypt’s early victories came from the success of these defenses in beating back the first waves of Israeli jets and tanks.

Just as Hamas mounted a complex, diabolical assault to break through Israel’s border defenses and slaughter hundreds of Israeli citizens, the Israel Defense Forces have to assume that Hamas learned this second lesson of Egyptian tactical military success from 1973 as well, and has established a similarly formidable set of defenses in Gaza. Hamas has been fighting Israel since 1987, and like the Egyptians, its members know what to expect. Hamas has a vast maze of tunnels under Gaza to enable its forces to hide and move without being exposed to Israeli attack, and that same network is doubtless the backbone of a complex defensive system.

But as similar as the two wars are militarily, that’s where the resemblance largely ends; politically and strategically, they could not be more different. In 1973, then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat ultimately sought peace with Israel. Soon after becoming president in 1970, he made secret overtures to Israel proposing peace in return for Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula.

When the Israeli government of Golda Meir rejected his offer, Sadat concluded that he had to employ the military option. But Sadat’s strategy was to shock Israel with the limited victory of the canal crossing and then have Egyptian troops shift to the defensive and hang on against the Israeli counterattack to change Israel’s thinking about peace. His hope was to convince Israel that as long as it held Sinai, Egypt would never stop trying to take it back, so Israel would never live in peace.

Yet Sadat understood that he could not threaten Israel’s civilian population in this war, because doing so would terrify Israel, and could cause it to respond so ferociously that peace would be impossible. That was an important reason why Sadat wanted to keep the fighting localized to the canal zone—where only Israeli soldiers were present—and made little effort to strike targets within Israel, which Egypt had some capability to do.

The tactics of the 2023 Hamas attack tell a very different story. They are completely unlike those of the 1973 Egyptian offensive but are entirely consistent with the group’s own ideology. Hamas’s goal was certainly to shock Israel and convince the Israelis that they would never be able to live in peace, but its operations were not circumscribed as Egypt’s were to preserve the option of a transition to meaningful peace. It was entirely the opposite. Hamas fighters breached Israel’s defenses in as many places as they could and then immediately struck out for Israeli population centers with the goal of killing and capturing as many civilians as possible.

As we have already seen—and as Sadat understood—that strategy has terrified and infuriated the Israeli people and their leadership. It has made a compromise peace, such as the one that Sadat secured, pretty much unimaginable between Israel and Hamas, and possibly even between Israel and the Palestinians more generally. And that was almost certainly Hamas’s aim.

Sadly, these tactics are entirely consistent with Hamas’s long-standing aim of destroying Israel, not making peace with it. Hamas is not a state seeking peace, not for itself or for the Palestinian people more broadly. It is a militant organization looking only to cause pain, anguish, and mayhem, in part to preclude a compromise peace.

That drives home another lesson from 1973, which is that Israel must win a decisive military victory. Back then, Israel needed to be the unequivocal winner because it needed to restore its strategic deterrent. The Israeli people would not have had the confidence to make peace with Egypt had they felt that the Arabs believed they could attack Israel and win. Even before that war, Sadat knew that Egypt could not defeat Israel militarily, not even with Syrian help, as did a handful of his most senior generals. But the vast majority of Egyptian soldiers, officers, and political leaders did not. Plus, the Egyptian and Syrian tactical victories in the first days of the war stoked that fantasy that war was the solution to the Arab states’ problems with Israel.

Only, Israel’s decisive military victory by the end of the war convinced all of them—and all of the other Arab leaders, except Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Qaddafi—that the Arab states could not hope to fight Israel and win. That is what made peace between Israel and Egypt possible. It is what preserved that peace even after Sadat’s assassination by Islamist fanatics, and it is what ensured that no other Arab army would try to attack Israel for the next 50 years, right up to this past weekend.

The difference in goals between Egypt in 1973 and Hamas in 2023 only reinforces that same necessity. Hamas has once again demonstrated that it is a bloodthirsty militant group uninterested in peace, or even in bettering the lives of the Palestinian people. Instead, it is single-mindedly determined to inflict as much pain on the Israeli people as it can to destroy the state altogether. There is no basis for compromise. Under these circumstances, all that Israel can do is to try to do as much damage to Hamas as possible to reduce its ability to attack Israel and deter it from trying another such attack for as long as possible—perhaps another 50 years, and hopefully forever.

The 1973 war was one of the great wars of the 20th century because of Sadat’s vision. His goal was to use a limited war that was purposely devised to inflict shocking, but limited, damage to Israel in order to convince Israel’s leaders to negotiate a peace in which both sides would make critical, difficult compromises. As history has demonstrated time and again, wars are very unpredictable, and the fact that Sadat made all of that work is simply remarkable.

But so too was former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin crucial to that wondrous outcome. Begin, the rabid hard-liner who took over as prime minister in 1977, learned to trust Sadat and to see the virtue of a negotiated peace, albeit only because Israel’s military victory four years earlier had restored its deterrent posture.

We can wonder if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can follow in Begin’s footsteps. Like Begin, Netanyahu has shown little but distrust for the Palestinians and has evinced little real interest in peace. Perhaps, if the United States plays the same intermediary role as it did after 1973, he could be coaxed into taking the same journey as Begin. Or perhaps, as was the case after 1973, Netanyahu’s government will fall for its mistakes at the start of the war, and another Israeli leader who is more interested in making peace will take office.

Either way, the world will then confront an even greater problem: the abyss of leadership on the Palestinian side. Hamas rules in Gaza and does not want peace with Israel, seeming to seek only war until the Jewish state is destroyed. It is certainly true that you make peace with your enemies, not your friends, but you can only make peace if your enemies are willing to stop fighting. By the appalling conduct of its latest attack, Hamas signaled that it has not changed at all; it has no such interest in peace. But then, who will?

Certainly not Mahmoud Abbas, who has uselessly monopolized the presidency of the Palestinian Authority since his only election 18 years ago. Abbas has rejected every Israeli peace proposal that has been proffered, from the ridiculous (such as former U.S. President Donald Trump and Netanyahu’s 2020 fiasco) to the profound (including former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s 2007-2008 proposal, which was likely the most generous and realistic that the Palestinians will ever see). Yet Abbas also blocks any new leaders from emerging in the West Bank, such that when he finally dies, it is impossible to predict who will succeed him, under what circumstances, and if there will even still be a Palestinian Authority left to rule, let alone to negotiate on behalf of Palestinians.

Perhaps the Arab states will use their influence and their new interest in peace with Israel to find and anoint a genuine leader of the Palestinians—one who could play the role of Sadat and turn the tragedy of the Hamas attack into a genuine peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Or perhaps this war will end as tragically as it began. We can hope for the former, but in light of the differences between 1973 and 2023, we should not be surprised by the latter.

Kenneth M. Pollack is a senior fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and a former Middle East military analyst for the CIA. He has written extensively on Arab military history, including the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, most recently in Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness.

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