The Yom Kippur War: Australian controversies of 1973

Oct 29, 2013 | Ahron Shapiro

The Yom Kippur War: Australian controversies of 1973

This blog, the last instalment of a three-part series on the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, uses original Australian source material to obtain some insights into the Australian government’s controversial response to the war at the time, as well as the persuasive but ultimately futile arguments used by Israel’s supporters to convince Canberra to improve its response. Finally, the blog concludes with some observations about how the Australian coverage of the Yom Kippur War can tell us something about the way the Australian media views Israel today.

Before we begin, however, it’s important to look at some of the key developments that occurred between the 1967 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War – particularly in the manoeuvrings by the superpowers behind the scenes.

The growing role of the USA and USSR as military sponsors in the Middle East

The Soviet response to the rout of the Arab armies in 1967 was to increase its military aid to Syria and Egypt. Soviet military personnel trained both armies and air forces and Israel had even downed Soviet fighter pilots in a famous encounter shortly before the end of the War of Attrition (which lasted from July 1967 to August 1970). While it’s true that this relationship was not without its setbacks – Sadat did send away some advisers in July1972 – there is no question that Soviet-Egyptian relationship was never really broken and there are still many academics who believe strongly that the expulsion of Soviet advisers from Egypt was little more than theatrics in order to deceive Israel’s military intelligence about Egypt’s readiness for war. Others argue that it was a negotiating tactic by Egypt to gain Soviet equipment needed for their planned attack, but which the Kremlin was hesitating to supply.

In any case, the US sought to level the playing field by increasing arms sales to Israel, and given US President Richard Nixon’s almost religious conviction that any sign of weakness to the Soviets would be an invitation to expand its influence, this in itself does not necessarily prove US-Israeli ties were particularly close.

(It may come as a surprise to some just how distant Washington and Jerusalem were at the time of the Six Day War. The US was, of course, not a major arms source for Israel at that time – most Israeli equipment was French. A revealing look at the situation can be found in declassified US documents, such as a Memorandum of Conversation between Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy F. Dobrynin on June 16, 1967, just days after the war.

The Secretary remarked that we thought we had had a commitment from Israel not to initiate hostilities. The Egyptian Ambassador had told us upon instructions that they would not begin them.

We were wholly uninformed of any Israeli attack. When Dobrynin asked if we had not known about it on the eve of the attack, the Secretary said we had no advance information whatever. He himself had been called about 2:30 in the morning. We had thought we had about another 10 days before Israel would make a judgment on what it would do about the closing of the Strait of Tiran.

Also of note is a Memorandum of Conversation from June 28, 1967 between President Lyndon Johnson and Jordan’s King Hussein.

The US has never had the influence with Israel that the Arabs thought we had, and in point of fact we now have less influence with Israel than ever.

Even taking into account that Rusk and Johnson may have been coy and their conversations may have been coloured by US strategic interests at that moment, these snippets clearly reflect the considerable strategic distance between the US and Israel up until that point.)

Yet for a variety of reasons beyond the scope of this blog, by the eve of the Yom Kippur War, the situation had indeed changed. The US-Israel alliance had grown, as had the Soviet-Arab alignment.

Australian policy

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s foreign policy did not share the US’ interests in the Middle East. Having assumed the rotating presidency of the United Nations Security Council days before the 1973 war, Whitlam made the infamous decision to keep Australia neutral, to the point of not even condemning Egypt and Syria for initiating the war in contravention of UN Security Council Resolution 242.

(True, the US also stayed mum at first, but had the excuse that it was vulnerable to the threatened Arab oil embargo, something which Australia was not. Also, Australia’s vocal support, especially at the UN, was really the only tangible thing it could have offered. Not so of the US, whose airlift to resupply Israel meant far more than White House statements ever could).

Whitlam’s ill-advised decision was criticised by many inside parliament, including in his own Labor party – most memorably by Joe Riordan, the single-term member for Phillip in Sydney’s eastern suburbs (who, sadly, passed away last December).

On October 15, Riordan challenged Whitlam during Question time.

Is it the intention of the Australian Government to seek United Nations intervention to halt the present military aggression against Israel? As the last Australian Labor Government played such a prominent role in the establishment of Israel as an independent democratic state, will the present Labor Government use its best efforts to obtain a ceasefire and an end to the current hostilities? Further, will the Government intensify its efforts to achieve the objective stated by the Prime Minister earlier this year in the following terms:

“We have affirmed, and we continue to believe, that the best prospect for an enduring peace in the Middle East will flow from an agreement freely arrived at between the parties. My Government will work to secure support for negotiations towards such an agreement, both in the United Nations and in all our diplomatic endeavours.”

To which the Prime Minister answered, in part:

The Australian Government maintains a neutral and even-handed attitude to the conflict in the Middle East, as did the Holt and Menzies governments when conflict broke out there on earlier occasions. Successive Australian governments have always been neutral and have tried to be even-handed in this longstanding dispute. I believe that there is no advantage in seeking to apportion blame.
I adopt the words which Sir Laurence Mclntyre used at the last meeting of the Security Council, when he said:

“We are simply wasting our time if we join in recrimination which only seeks to ascribe blame to one side or the other. We can all understand the frustrations that have increased during the past six years over the failure to build on the foundation provided by Resolution 242; frustrations which have inevitably helped to bring about the present renewal of hostilities. While we must regret lost opportunities we must look forward and not backward.”

Of course, Whitlam’s invoking of the Menzies and Holt governments’ neutrality (during the 1956 Suez War and 1967 Six Day War) was absurd. He might as well have added the US, which maintained an official stance of neutrality in 1967 (The US was opposed to the 1956 Sinai Campaign as a result of its brief courtship with Nasser in an attempt to recruit Egypt as a Cold War ally). While all of the above may have claimed neutrality, under the surface they espoused an unambiguous validation and sympathy for the Israeli position.

Menzies was anything but neutral in the lead-up to the 1956 war as he unsuccessfully tried to convince Nasser face-to-face to rescind his decision to nationalise the Suez Canal. Menzies had also defended Israel’s actions in 1956 when he placed it in a context of “events going back over some years” – specifically Egypt’s sponsorship and encouragement of fedayeen terrorist raids from Egypt into Israel.

In 1967, Acting Prime Minister John McEwen implicitly backed Israel by supporting Israel’s right to navigate through the Strait of Tiran and criticising the “failure of the [United Nations] Security Council to act on the blockade before hostilities began.”

There was no such subtext at work in Canberra during the Yom Kippur War, to the point where the Whitlam Government saw fit to distance itself from a wire story which suggested that Ambassador McIntyre had sent condolences to Israel for their war dead. They insisted on issuing a denial stressing that identical condolence letters had been dispatched to Egypt and Syria as well!

Moreover, if there was ever a time to take the moral high ground and unapologetically stand with Israel, the circumstances of the Yom Kippur War – a surprise attack launched on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar and planned under the cover of duplicitous diplomatic manoeuvrings and in clear violation of key UN Security Council resolutions – was that moment.

Further, even if the goal was to be “neutral”, calling attention to this fact and calling for a ceasefire was hardly a partisan act. Whitlam’s policy amounted to not “neutrality” but an attempt to bend over backwards to avoid any appearance of partisanship toward Israel.

Unfortunately, as the previous blog showed, Whitlam found ample support for his position from Australian editorial writers of the day. He also found succour from a few influential analysts, such as Creighton Burns of the Age, who upset many fair-minded Australians with his viewpoint “Whitlam right: neutrality the best help” (20/10). Saying that supporting Israel in the war would be playing “ethnic politics”, Burns wrote:

There was much wisdom, and a deal of political courage, in Mr. Whitlam’s strong declaration early this week that Australia would maintain a “neutral and evenhanded” attitude to the conflict in the Middle East.

An Australian policy of neutrality is wise because there is absolutely nothing Australia could do, even if it wished, to affect the outcome of the conflict one centimetre. Australian intervention on either side would be strategically meaningless and morally gratuitous.

If there was a silver lining to Burns’ piece, it was that it created an opportunity for Israel’s defenders to challenge Whitlam’s policy on the pages of the Age. This response – so essential for fully grasping the debate in the country at the time – came five days later from Isi Leibler, the President of the Victorian Jewish Board of Deputies, in an 818-word letter (full text here) that made the case for Israel and against Australia’s “neutral and even-handed” position while standing on one foot.

Leibler wrote:

What kind of “neutrality and even-handedness” is it to adopt a high moral tone of censure on one occasion but to remain silent on the other? Is it “even-handed” not to distinguish between self-defence and aggression as Mr. Whitlam has failed to do? Is it being “neutral” to remain silent as Mr. Whitlam was when the Soviet Union poured in limitless arms supplies to the Arab armies and only to criticise when the United States was forced to ensure Israel’s survival by also supplying arms?

and concluded

We believe, and feel confident the majority of all Australians share the belief, that after 25 years, and having fought four wars, and having fought four wars thrust upon her by her Arab neighbors, Israel has earned the right to the support of those Governments who claim to abide by the minimum standards of international morality. We were disappointed and saddened by Mr. Whitlam’s failure to uphold these principles.

Australian coverage of the Yom Kippur War

With the outbreak of war, Australian newspapers each sent reporters to cover the war zone and Israel’s home front. Bryan Boswell reported for the Australian, Peter Cole-Adams for the Age, Robert Milliken for the Sydney Morning Herald and Jay Bushinsky for the Melbourne Herald.

With few exceptions, their coverage could not be distinguished from the New York Times and other leading media outlets of the day.

Their coverage included a substantial amount of colour about how Israeli society coped with the war, and interviews with soldiers in the field.

There was also a great deal of understanding of the reasons Israel had been reluctant to withdraw from the Golan Heights and the Sinai without a peace agreement.

For example, as Cole-Adams wrote on October 15:

Later, driving down from the Golan Heights into the Hulla Valley, we are shown why the Israelis thought it worth fighting so hard to retain the territory which they seized in the Six-Day War.

The Heights totally dominate the valley, and until 1967 its settlers were frequently under Syrian fire.

“Syria lies under an Israeli sky”, Age, 15/10

And again the following day:

I drove through the Mitla yesterday, and I sympathise with any Egyptian commander assigned the task of fighting his way through it. It is a narrow passage, about eleven miles long, through a range of brown, treeless mountains and hills – a tank trap if ever there was one.

“Bitter deadlock on the southern front”, Age, 16/10

Blunders in coverage by the papers were few. Notably, the Age made an error in judgment on October 22 by running side-by-side op-eds by Mohammed Heykal, editor of the quasi-government-run paper Al Ahram and Nasser confidante explaining the war for the Egyptian side and Peter Cole-Adams offering the perspective from Israel as a counterbalance.

While Cole-Adams is a good, balanced journalist and could not be described as unfair to Israel, Heykal was a partisan voice for Egypt. The correct choice to write the op-ed would have been an Israeli journalist, or better yet, one of Israel’s academics. In fact, on October 21, when the New York Times also ran side-by-side op-eds from the Israeli and Arab perspectives, it chose Ha’aretz columnist and Tel Aviv University Law School Dean Amnon Rubinstein to handle the job for Israel.

It was a brilliant decision on the part of the Times, as Rubenstein, who later became a prominent member of the left-wing Meretz party, could offer insights into Israel’s internal dialogue over the war in ways a foreign correspondent never could.

[Rubinstein’s piece, a very worthwhile read, can be viewed at home by card holders of the State Library of New South Wales in its Proquest Historical Newspaper online collection]

Meanwhile, the Sydney Morning Herald took something akin to the middle road, running Heykal’s interview by itself (23/10), but saying it was meant to balance an analysis they had run much earlier in the war by Israeli General Chaim Herzog (11/10). While the articles were very dissimilar, at least they were written by an Israeli and Egyptian.

Overall, the use of foreign correspondents in Europe and the US was quite good among the Australian papers, though they relied solely on copy from staff writers, like Drew Middleton and James Reston of the New York Times, for example.

It’s unclear whether they had access to use the materials of guest writers, like Rubinstein, or syndicated columnists like William Safire. If they did, they passed over them, which was a missed opportunity to gain some insights into Israel, as mentioned above, and Washington.

Safire’s column during the war, “On Moxie”, (published on 18/10) stands the test of time as an excellent insight (albeit sugar-coated) into how Nixon viewed Israel and how his resupply airlift fit into his overall foreign policy outlook.

On the other hand, there would have been no way for Australian papers to easily republish former US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Eugene V. Rostow’s illuminating letter in the New York Times (14/10) about UN Security Council Resolution 242.

Rostow, an authority on international law who was closely involved with the drafting of UNSC Resolution 242, sheds light on something that is not well understood today by people who refer to a need for Israel to return to “pre-1967 borders”.

Rostow explained that UNSC Resolution 242 was never intended to force Israel back to the 1949 Armistice lines, which were, after all, arbitrary. Instead, the resolution was a framework for a land-for-peace exchange that would leave Israel with secure and recognised boundaries.

This content of the Resolution was determined by the fate of the 1957 Suez settlement, which we negotiated as broker between Israel and Egypt.
Under that agreement, Israel withdrew from the Sinai without a peace treaty, in exchange, for promises which Nasser broke, one by one, until he occupied Sharm-al-Sheikh and made the Six Day War nearly inevitable.

In 1967, the international community therefore decided that there should be no Israeli withdrawal until the parties made an agreement establishing peace – an agreement fixing boundaries; assuring their inviolability through measures including demilitarized zones; guaranteeing freedom of navigation through the Suez Canal in the Strait of Tiran; in settling the refugee problem.

In establishing boundaries, the parties would be free to modify the Armistice Demarcation lines of 1949, which, it had been expressly provided, could be altered by agreement when the parties moved from armistice to peace.
The heart of the matter is that Egypt and Syria decided to make war against Resolution 242 rather than obey its mandate to negotiate peace.

Back to the Australian papers, also of special note was the excellent coverage by T.S. Monk of the Sydney Morning Herald in London, regarding the flap over the UK’s disgraceful embargo of arms and spare parts to Israel during the war, including this memorable exchange in the British parliament involving the Foreign Secretary Sir Alec Douglas-Home (20/10).

Israel, [Sir Alec] said, could not be preferred against Egypt or Jordan, or the reverse. It was a question of denying or giving to both sides as both had contracts for British arms.

But he said: “I can give the firm assurance to the house that were the existence of Israel at any stage at risk, of course we would reconsider our policy.”
“It is our firm intention that Israel should continue to exist within secure frontiers,” Sir Alec said.

But then Labour MP, Mr Reginald Paget, interrupted Sir Alec.

“The assurance that we would reverse our policy if the existence of Israel were menaced is precisely the same undertaking we gave to Czechoslovakia.”
(This was a reference to an undertaking given to Czechoslovakia in 1938).
“This time it is meant”, retorted Sir Alec. MPs looked stunned, and then there was a barrage of cat-calls. “May I please withdraw that,” said Sir Alec. “It is not what I meant to say.”

Labour Party leader, Mr Harold Wilson, regretted that Sir Alec had remained silent on the “act of aggression” by the Arabs.


The Yom Kippur War was a watershed event for Australian newspaper coverage on Israel.

While still close enough to the war of 1967 to elicit sympathy with Israel’s insistence on adjustments to the 1949 Armistice lines in the interests of security, such sympathy was not deep, largely because Israel had become a victim of its own success.

Australian journalists may have been forgiven for their overconfidence that Israel would easily defeat the invading Arab armies in spite of being vastly outnumbered and outgunned at the onset of the war, given Israel’s walkover successes in 1956 and 1967. The overconfidence, it must be said, was also partly a product of what many Israeli military leaders were saying at the time, as they projected an air of invincibility as a deterrent to war and in hope that it would push Israel’s enemies into making a deal on terms more favourable to Israel.

The unintended consequence of Israel’s success and bravado on the battlefield was a growing belief among journalists that Israel’s insistence on defensible borders was mostly just an excuse to avoid making peace based on total withdrawal, because, as the journalist’s thinking went, “after all, isn’t Israel truly strong enough to defend herself regardless of where the border is drawn?”

At least one paper, the Age, even went so far as to say that Israel could no longer fear an existential threat given their budding alliance with the United States – obviously not comprehending just how narrow Israel was before 1967. A surprise attack from Israel’s former borders could easily bisect the country and present the world with the elimination of Israel as a fait accompli. As Prime Minister Golda Meir is reputed to have said to US President Richard Nixon (whether before, during or after the war is unclear) on the subject of US security guarantees: “By the time you get here, we won’t be here”.

One important lesson of the Yom Kippur War understood by Australian journalists at the time, was that while the military advantage from the surprise attack earned Egyptian President Anwar Sadat a toehold in the Sinai and the political capital which he later used to make peace, it simultaneously undermined the Israeli peace movement (this was eloquently explained by Professor Amnon Rubinstein in his aforementioned op-ed in the New York Times from October 21, 1973). This was because Israel’s doves had believed Israel could take substantial risks for peace because they felt Israel was strong enough to always prevail.

While the situation that developed in the first 24 hours of the war – at one point no Israeli defenders stood between Syrian tanks in the southern Golan and the Galilee – was eventually reversed, it was a close enough call that no Israeli, hawk or dove, could afford to say that it could not happen again.

It took Sadat’s grand gesture of speaking before the Knesset in November 1977 before the doves truly found their voice again.

It was an important lesson which most Australian reporters failed to fully grasp when it resurfaced in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

How so? When Palestine Liberation Organisation Chairman Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accords in 1993, it ignited the enthusiasm of a generation of Israelis who were prepared to withdraw from the West Bank as part of a deal which would end the conflict with the Palestinians permanently.

However, the combination of Palestinian incitement and a wave of terrorism from rejectionist Palestinians who Arafat was unwilling to control eroded that support over time. This was followed by an even greater blow to the Israeli peace camp with Arafat’s decision to reject the 2000 Camp David accord and plan the second Intifada – at the cost of over 1,000 Israeli lives.

After the second intifada, most Israelis did not abandon the two-state paradigm, however they had a more sobering and realistic view of the chances for real peace as a result of the violence – much as Israeli doves became more cautious following the Yom Kippur War.

For reporters, the failure to explain why Israelis have come to question the Palestinians’ intentions has left readers with the inevitable impression that Israelis are uninterested in peace.

As the Age‘s Ruth Pollard wrote earlier this year:

One of the most devastating realisations for the left has been Israelis’ apparent loss of faith in the possibility of reaching peace with the Palestinians.
Polls conducted by both sides of the political spectrum regularly indicate a majority support a two-state solution – they just don’t believe it will happen.

Yet, whether dealing with the armies of Egypt and Syria or Fatah’s Al Aqsa Brigades of the West Bank and Gaza’s Hamas and Islamic Jihad, attacks on Israel undermine popular support for a land-for-peace deal based on UN Security Council Resolution 242. And Israel is still ready to make a most generous peace with the Palestinians if the Palestinians would be willing to make a genuine, binding and lasting peace with Israel, which would end the conflict once and for all.

Rubinstein’s words of 1973 still ring true:

One can argue that with more Israeli flexibility at crucial junctures in the post-1967 period, the current war and its new vicious circle might have been averted. Yet, there are those who would argue, in reply, that Israeli tenacity in adhering to the cease-fire line averted total catastrophe. These are matters of speculation. However, one thing can be stated with certainty. The Israelis were never offered the option of choosing between territory and peace, the real peace with all its trappings – diplomatic relations, trade and open borders. Had they been offered these alternatives, I think the majority of Israelis would have opted for the trade-off.

Ahron Shapiro



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