Influential Jewish-American statesman and geopolitical expert Henry Kissinger recalls the drama behind the Yom Kippur War, Israel’s finest hour, in this interview.

THEN-ISRAELI prime minister Golda Meir with then-US secretary of state Henry Kissinger and deputy prime minister Yigal Allon at the Prime Minister’s Residence, Jerusalem, in 1973.
(photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO)

“At six thirty in the morning, Joseph Sisco, then-assistant secretary for the Middle East, asked to see me urgently. ‘There is a crisis in the Middle East,’ he said. ‘And if you act immediately you can still stop it.’” Dr. Henry Kissinger, the legendary US secretary of state and national security advisor, was remembering the morning of Yom Kippur, 1973.

He was in New York with the entire State Department senior team on the occasion of the United Nations annual conference. It was both Yom Kippur and Shabbat. Dawn was beginning to break. The most Jewish city outside of Israel was not yet awake.

He recalls: “The reports were vague. It was said that the Israelis must have attacked because nobody believed that the Egyptians were capable of launching an attack across the Suez Canal. I said: ‘The one thing that is not happening is that the Israelis would attack on Yom Kippur. That is practically – almost – impossible. But by the middle of the day, it became apparent that this was a regular war, that it was a full-scale attack. Our team believed that the Israelis would smash them in a few hours. The first thing I did was turn to the Israeli ambassador Simcha Dinitz. He was not in Washington. He was in Jerusalem.”

In Israel, hours and days passed as chief of staff Maj.-Gen. David Elazar’s promise, to “break Egypt’s bones,” made on the first day of fighting, still awaited fulfillment. Israel had been caught off guard.

Fifty years have passed since the drama of the Yom Kippur War. In an exclusive conversation, Kissinger is ready to discuss that chapter of his life. We speak on Zoom at the end of the summer, before he returns home to New York from his Connecticut farm. He sits in his study, surrounded by shelves filled with books and files of as-yet-unpublished documents.

GOLDA MEIR and Israeli ambassador to the US Simha Dinitz with Henry Kissinger at the ambassador’s house in Washington. (credit: Moshe Milner/GPO)

Kissinger expresses himself with ease. His thinking is sharp. His wise gaze is focused. His memory for details belies his age. Four months ago, he celebrated his 100th birthday. His hair, which had already begun to turn gray during his trips, hopping between Jerusalem and Cairo at the end of the Yom Kippur War, has become silver. He is wearing a blue blazer over a gray polo shirt. Vital, as always.

“Forgive me, I am not wearing a tie. It’s summer and it’s not a TV interview,” he half apologizes.

Full disclosure: I am a Henry Kissinger fan. I admire him not only as a statesman, not only for his ability to see the bigger picture, nor only for his writings, or his special way of navigating and influencing. I feel deep affection for him as a human being. I love his implicit sense of humor. Despite the criticism evoked by his controversial statements about Judaism, I believe that the memory of his relatives lost in the Holocaust is sacred to him.

I believe that his Judaism is dear to him; and that his contribution to the existence of the State of Israel was decisive, at a fateful time for our people. I learned about this from Yitzhak Rabin, who spoke of him with much admiration, warmth, and great appreciation.

Over the years, I have made sure to meet up with Kissinger and to learn from him. At first, as a journalist, I was interested in his political analyses, and later – after the founding the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) – I would consult him about setting strategic goals for the Jewish people, and sometimes, as we conversed, he would ask me to analyze the political situation in Israel.

Dr. Kissinger, when was your attention first drawn to the developing situation in the Middle East in the fall of 1973?

I became secretary of state two weeks before the war started, but I was national security advisor for four and a half years prior to that. In the normal course of events, the intelligence reports I received contained no unusual information. My inauguration as secretary of state took place on Saturday [in the third week of September], and then I saw reports about a concentration of Egyptian military forces. I don’t remember that they reported anything about the Syrians, but they were certainly reporting a buildup. We thought it didn’t mean much because in previous years Egyptian president Anwar Sadat had been threatening very often and not done anything. So I thought, if they are building up I want daily reports on the Middle East. Every day they repeated the same thing. I felt uneasy about the developing situation, but there was no news to support my concerns. Israel tried to reassure us. They feared that we would apply pressure, so they told us that they didn’t see any reason for special concern.

IN JERUSALEM, too, in the days preceding the outbreak of the war, news had accumulated about the concentrations of large forces west of the Suez Canal. IDF chiefs and the intelligence services – with the exception of a few mid-rank officers – interpreted it as part of an exercise and were convinced that the Egyptians did not intend to launch an attack. Reports by military correspondents about the amassing of an unusual Egyptian force in Sinai were rejected by military censorship. Yaakov Erez, Maariv’s military reporter (and later its editor) framed one of those reports and it hangs in his office, with sections crossed out in the military censor’s black marker. The Israeli top brass had feared that the information could cause unnecessary tension on the military and home fronts.

Fears of an actual war only arose on Friday, October 5, on the eve of Yom Kippur.

Moscow – the start of winter was just around the corner. Red Square was still shrouded in the grayness of the Brezhnev days, far behind the Iron Curtain. The Kremlin ordered Russian diplomats and their families to leave the Middle East and return to their homes in the Soviet Union.

London – it was early evening when then-Mossad chief Zvi Zamir unexpectedly landed in the British capital. He did not visit the Great Synagogue to attend the Kol Nidre service. He had been summoned to a meeting with the “Angel,” the alias of Ashraf Marwan, Nasser’s son-in-law, who was among Sadat’s closest advisers, and a Mossad agent. Jerusalem – just 14 hours before the outbreak of the attacks in Sinai and the Golan Heights, Marwan delivered the most important news about H-hour and the coordination of the attack by Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Syrian ruler Hafez al-Assad. Only later, in the middle of the Yom Kippur fast, did the mobilization of the reserve forces begin. Squadron leaders appeared with emergency call-up papers at the homes of soldiers. Word of mouth spread through the synagogues. Many of the worshipers ran home to replace their prayer shawls with IDF uniforms, kept in their closets for emergencies. In the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem and in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Bnei Brak, queues formed near the Magen David Adom mobile units tasked with collecting blood donations for the wounded.

Washington – it was the early hours of a typical Saturday morning in October when the US capital of politics and intrigue was getting its beauty sleep. The oppressive heat of the summer was receding. The humidity was dissipating. Autumn’s golden-rusty colors spread through the boulevards and parks. Only around noon did the cafes and restaurants on the banks of the Potomac and in the old center of Georgetown fill up. Precisely in the fall of 1973, the city had almost reached boiling point, but not because of the winds of war blowing in the Suez. The Watergate storm had begun to close in on then-president Richard Nixon. His deputy, Spiro Agnew, had become involved in fraudulent activity and faced indictment as the result of a federal investigation. Attention was not focused on the Middle East.

Kissinger continues: “On the Friday before the war started we received the information that the Russians were withdrawing their personnel from the Middle East and then we started making really energetic efforts to calm the situation. I appealed to the Egyptians, I don’t know whether we sent a message to Syria, but it was that we had already said we were going to make a diplomatic effort, and we reinforced that.

“Back in Washington, I assembled what we call the Washington Special Action Group, and we met in the late afternoon to decide on a strategy. My group was by then composed of quality planning staff from the White House that I brought with me to the State Department to strengthen the policy planning division.

“The decision was to take advantage of the Egyptian attack to promote a political process. The concern among the American advisors was that Israel would decide the campaign quickly. We thought that within days the IDF would reach Alexandria even before the Egyptians set foot in the Sinai. Therefore, in order to allow dialogue, we wanted to stop the fighting and return to the previous status quo.”

How did the picture of the battle become clearer – and when did it become apparent that Israel’s situation was not as easy as you had thought?

At the end of a day of fighting, when it was already close to noon on Sunday, it was clear that the two attacking armies had made significant progress. However, we were determined, from the beginning, to prevent an Arab victory which we looked at as a Soviet victory. We were absolutely convinced, from the very first second, that we would restore the status quo, but by the end of the first day, it was clear that the attacking armies had made extensive advances.

THE BATTLE scene was completely different from how the American experts had imagined it when word of the Egyptian attack became known. When the fighting broke out, the Egyptians managed to breach the Bar-Lev line and infiltrate more than 100,000 soldiers, approximately 400 tanks, and commando units into Sinai, and build several bridges over the canal.

In the first days of the war, Israel lost close to 200 fighters a day. Many of the first-line soldiers were captured by Egypt. The Israeli Air Force had no adequate response to the Soviet-produced SA6 anti-aircraft missiles. Pilots who were injured and managed to operate their ejector seats joined the soldiers taken prisoner at the Bar-Lev fortifications. Israeli armored columns that advanced into Sinai in disorder were attacked from the air.

In the first three days of fighting, the Israeli Air Force lost 49 planes and 500 tanks were damaged in Sinai. There was a shortage of artillery munition in the emergency warehouses and equipment was discovered to be partly rusty and unusable. In Israel, mothers and fathers, wives, and children were exposed to images of tanks going up in flames and soldiers being led captive.

The government was stunned. Defense minister Moshe Dayan and prime minister Golda Meir were on the verge of collapse. The need to replace the downed planes soon became apparent. Ammunition was needed to make up for the deficiencies discovered within the first hours of the war.

Israel’s isolation in the world and the special political situation that prevailed in Washington left only one central address – Kissinger, who held the two most important positions in the Nixon administration: secretary of state and national security advisor. The political leadership in Israel realized how central his influence could be, in achieving a transformation at the front.

Opinions prevailed in Jerusalem that it would be better for Israel to have a situation where bilateral issues with foreign countries were discussed with non-Jewish senior officials. They felt that Jews who held key positions in other countries often found themselves embarrassed. They would feel the need to prove a lack of bias in Israel’s favor – and this often works against the vital interests of the Jewish state.

However, from personal experience as a Maariv emissary to Washington in the mid-90s, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy, and President Emeritus of the Jewish People Policy Institute, I have a different take on this issue. There is no doubt that the first loyalty of Jews who are American citizens is to their homeland, the United States – and that is how it should be, especially if they serve in public positions.

Relations between states are based on mutual values but not solely. Jews who reach key positions in various administrations first pursue the interests of the United States and the success of its policies. However, the great majority of them also feel an obligation and responsibility, as Jews, to the existence and prosperity of Israel. Each in his or her own way looks out for the tangential interests of both countries, even if they do not always agree with the policies of this or that government elected in Israel.

Kissinger was no different. In the Yom Kippur War, the American airlift changed the battlefield’s configuration.

“Then the question of resupplying Israel came up,” Kissinger continues. “Remember that we had based our early discussions about the war on the fact that the military advantage was on Israel’s side. We had never considered seriously having a situation of a Soviet-backed advance in the Middle East, so when that became apparent we started to talk about resupply. The Pentagon was strongly opposed to any resupply of American equipment. So we arranged that the Israelis send their own airplanes and we would load them up. At that time it was mainly hi-tech equipment that could be used immediately.”

When did the first call come from Jerusalem, and at what point did receiving the equipment become urgent?

There was no urgency from Israeli communications with us on the highest level until Tuesday morning. Then the Israeli ambassador returned. Simcha Dinitz, an excellent ambassador, who was also a good friend of mine, came to my office. He arrived accompanied by the military attaché [Gen. Mota Gur]. They described the extent of the Israeli losses in the last 48 hours and urgently requested the renewal of supplies. It was the day that vice-president Spiro Agnew was resigning from office [due to charges of tax evasion and bribery] and Nixon had to deal with that constitutional crisis. He himself was under attack. It was the high point of the Watergate investigation and hearings that were ongoing, so I couldn’t see Nixon until five o’clock on Tuesday afternoon. I told the ambassador and the military attaché that only then could I give them an answer. I discussed it with Nixon and around 5:30 in the evening I gave Dinitz my answer: There were two separate problems, the immediate battle, and the longer-term battle. In the immediate battle, Israel had to stop the enemy advance and go on the offensive before American diplomatic intervention could meaningfully occur, and I urged them to start an offensive on some fronts – and said that we would act diplomatically only after that had succeeded.

In the meantime, we would organize a civilian airlift to Israel, starting immediately, and we thought that could be done very quickly. A civilian airlift consists under that authorization, of telling civilian airlines to make their planes available for a civilian airlift, under their management.

How did the civilian airlift become the military one?

At the same time, we were continuing the resupply via Israeli aircraft. It turned out to be more difficult to organize a civilian airlift. But one has to see that from some rational perspective. When I said ‘difficult,’ it meant 48 hours to organize it. So the Israelis were going to start an offensive in the Golan Heights, and they were discussing a ceasefire offer at the same time. I was very opposed to reaching a ceasefire while the battle was going in favor of the offensive. We looked at it in part also as the impact on the international system of Soviet-armed countries gaining diplomatic benefits from military action. When it became apparent that the civilian airlift could not be organized as quickly as we had originally thought, I went to Nixon and told him we needed another level of airlift to affect the situation, that we needed a military airlift. And then Nixon, in his characteristic way, which was that once the decision was made he did the full-scale of it to the extent that it could be done. He ordered the immediate airlift for the Israelis and we began a major military airlift on Friday evening and at full scale on Saturday morning.

Meaning a week after the outbreak of the war?

It took three days to mobilize the entire American military airlift behind Israel. Every ally should be so lucky that we do that! I don’t accept the notion that there was any delay in this effort because until Tuesday morning we were under the impression that the Israelis would easily defeat the Arab attack. And so this is why from Saturday morning we went along with the ceasefire proposal, to be put forward in the UN, not by the United States but by some other country, and we tried to get Australia and then England to submit the proposal. Sadat turned it down because he thought he was winning – and he ordered two armored divisions to cross the canal, thinking they could because Israel didn’t have air superiority there. However, once they were outside the range of Soviet anti-aircraft artillery and weapons they became very vulnerable to the Israeli air force, and Sadat lost several hundred tanks in that Sunday battle. That was when the battle shifted and Israeli forces, on Tuesday I believe it was, crossed the Suez Canal. There was no delay to begin with, it started from the first night. It was inconceivable before the war that Israel would need an airlift when the war started.

What caused the change in the battle map?

The change in the battle map began to be seen following the counterattack in the Golan and the pushing back of the Syrians to 40 km. from Damascus. Syria demanded that Egypt increase the fighting in the South in order to relieve the pressure in the Golan. The Egyptians tried and failed. Then came the crossing of the canal and the encirclement of the Egyptian Third Army. Sadat invited me to Moscow. At that time the Israeli forces had already crossed the Suez Canal and when I got there I insisted on an immediate ceasefire. From the time I asked Brezhnev for a ceasefire until it was implemented was another 48 hours which improved the situation of Israel on the battlefield.

In February, eight months before the outbreak of the war, you met with Sadat’s national security advisor Hafez Ismail. What was the background to the meeting? Before the war, Sadat sent his security advisor to Washington to discuss the possibility of a peace move. But it was an initiative based on the Arab program. That is, on a retreat to the pre-1967 war borders, in exchange for Arab recognition of Israel.

It’s amazing that they came on the eve of the war with a proposal to promote a peace process. Do you believe today that the start of the campaign by Egypt and Syria could have been prevented?

I think the war could have been avoided only if Israel had agreed to withdraw to the ’67 borders, which it couldn’t do because that would have exposed the road between Tel Aviv and Haifa, and would have placed it under adversaries’ gunfire. And also every political party in Israel was opposed to such a move – so it would have had to be imposed on Israel, which we rejected. And even then I am not sure it would have avoided the war because Sadat, who turned into a major advocate for peace after the war, was convinced that the Arab world needed some successful military action. Nixon was totally unwilling, with my strong agreement, to consider it.

Did the channel with Hafez Ismail continue during the war?

During the war, there was a delegation of Arab foreign ministers including the Egyptians and the Saudis who came to us and proposed a withdrawal to the ’67 borders, saying that the oil embargo which was demoralizing some of our allies in the world, would not be lifted until Israel withdrew. By that reasoning, the war could not even have been stopped by an agreement to withdraw, it had to be an actual withdrawal. But we never considered that. It must be strongly emphasized, it was never part of our policy.

The greatest art of the activities in which we were engaged diplomatically was to induce the other side to accept a partial withdrawal in return for precise political conditions that for Israel represented an augmentation of its security.

We not only talked of a ‘step by step’ approach territorially but also diplomatically. That is to say that we would negotiate with any of the adversaries who were willing to make a partial withdrawal or were prepared to make some diplomatic or political concessions that increased Israeli sovereignty and control over the situation.

OVER THE years, secret documents and tapes from the Nixon administration have been revealed to the public. Some of Kissinger’s statements about Jews, Judaism, and the Jewish state, were interpreted as self-hating, as an escape from his Jewish roots and support for antisemitic views that characterized his political environment.

At his 100th birthday, The Forward (a New York liberal Jewish newspaper) published several quotes attributed to Kissinger over the years, without providing the proper context. I chose not to publicize them.

In the early 1990s, as a journalist, I had weekly meetings with the late Yitzhak Rabin in his office in the Knesset, after he resigned from his position as defense minister and before he decided to compete for the leadership of the Labor party and the position of prime minister. These were deep conversations on strategic decisions and tactical approaches to achieve long-term goals. Among others, we discussed the background to the Yom Kippur War and its lessons for Israel.

Rabin admired Kissinger as a statesman and his analytical abilities. He saw him as a proud Jew who had experienced the rise of the Nazis in Germany as a child, was saved from hell with his parents, and managed to climb to the top sphere of influence in the free world. Rabin dismissed Kissinger’s statements against Jews with a wave of his hand. He saw them as a tactic to deal with a hostile antisemitic environment in order to establish his influence. He believed that the credit for Nixon’s order to activate the airlift went mainly to Kissinger, who knew how to present the need for an Israeli victory to achieve the goals of the United States. Kissinger also greatly appreciated Rabin and his ability to see the “big strategic picture.” He liked his directness and integrity.

“I want to emphasize my relationship to Rabin,” Kissinger said. “Besides the insights I got from him, I think of him with great affection and great admiration. Yitzhak Rabin was a great analyst and had a deep understanding of the historical context. He was a human being who combined extreme warmth with extreme reticence.”

The two became close before the war, during the years when Rabin was Israel’s ambassador in Washington and Kissinger was still serving as national security advisor. Those were years in which the strategic relationship between the two countries deepened. In those years the IDF and the Israeli Air Force began to rely on equipment made in the United States, following the French embargo during the Six Day War.

Regarding Kissinger, there was unanimity between Rabin and Shimon Peres. At the first Tech Tomorrow Conference initiated by president Peres after his election, he awarded Kissinger the first Presidential Medal for his contribution to the world, to the State of Israel and to the Jewish people. Kissinger was already 85 years old. He traveled especially to Jerusalem for the event and speaking as the son of Holocaust survivors who had rebuilt their lives in the United States, he expressed regret that his parents were unable to be there.

He was born Heinz Alfred Kissinger in Fuerth, Germany, to a traditional Jewish family. His father, Ludwig, was a teacher. His mother, Paula, dedicated her life to raising him and his brother, and they had a happy childhood until the Nazis came to power. Heinz excelled as a soccer player and was active in the Agudat Israel youth movement as a teenager. After the rise of the Nazis in 1933, the idyll ended. Heinz was expelled from the junior football team in Fuerth, and attacked and humiliated for being a Jew.

In 1938, at the last minute, the Kissinger family managed to escape to the United States via Britain. During World War II, he enlisted in the American army and, thanks to his knowledge of the German language and his intellectual abilities, he became involved in military intelligence in Europe. This was the preface to his academic and political take-off.

Rabin believed that your Jewishness, your roots, and your home influenced your policies during the Yom Kippur War.

You have to understand that it was a commitment to Israel, but it was also part of a strategy to expel the Soviets from the Middle East. So for me and Nixon, from the very beginning, we wanted to use the war to preserve Israel – but in the American context, to remove the Russian presence from the region.

And your Jewishness?

I am Jewish, so it doesn’t take anything for me to respect the Jewish people. I lost 11 members of my immediate family in the Holocaust and untold numbers of people with whom I went to school, maybe 50%. So for me, it is as a matter of course that I take the survival of the Jewish people and of the Israeli state as a personal objective.

But I was secretary of state at the time. I was the first Jewish secretary of state. I was the first foreign-born secretary of state, and it had to be defended in terms of American interests in order to be able to lead the diplomacy that followed. From the beginning, we had a special approach to the peace process, different from any previous one from either us or our allies. The premise of previous peace efforts had been to get an overall solution and force Israel back to the ’67 borders. We were convinced that was unattainable and therefore I had argued for years that diplomatic cooperation should be done on a piecemeal basis, in a step-by-step approach. I also felt that if Israel were forced back without any main concession by the other side, the morale of Israel, which is essential to maintain the state and its high pitch of readiness would not be so easy to maintain.

How do you see today the prospects for a peace settlement between Israel and Saudi Arabia and the vigorous American activity in the matter?

I am not commenting on this right now because I prefer that the effort be exhausted before I express my opinion. I favor the outcome, but I am uneasy about the concessions that we are offering. I think they are very high and I am uneasy about it. However, I am not ready to discuss this now, because I want negotiations to lead to a concrete result before I express myself.

In any case, we are in a new situation today following the Abraham Accords.

The Abraham Accords are a significant achievement and they provide the basis for an Israeli-Saudi accord. I don’t want to say more because when I was secretary of state I didn’t like my predecessors getting involved while I was conducting a diplomatic effort.

How do you see the effects on Israeli deterrence of the turmoil taking place in Israel currently and the anti-government demonstrations of recent months?

To me, it is incomprehensible, in the situation in which Israel finds itself, that such a disintegration of the political process could occur without any leadership, on all sides, deciding that they cannot permit civil-war-type conditions. I respect Netanyahu for what he does for the security of Israel. His management of domestic affairs I cannot judge, but I am very worried about the divisions in the nation which are very dangerous for the State of Israel.

THE YOM Kippur War ended with an impressive victory for Israel – despite a starting point that had endangered its very existence – with the IDF stopping at 101 km. distance from Cairo and 40 km. from Damascus. However, in the Israeli mind, this remains a traumatic and painful event, while in the Egyptian mind, it is recorded as a victory. On the one hand, it toppled several governments and leaders, and on the other hand, it began to pave the way for peace and mutual recognition between Israel and its neighbors.

There is no summary for this kind of conversation. I can only thank Dr. Kissinger for the interview and wish both of us many more years of shared dialogue as the State of Israel regains itself, completes itself, and prospers. 

As reported by The Jerusalem Post