TWENTY years after Egyptian troops stormed across the Suez Canal and routed Israeli forces at the start of the 1973 Middle East War, analysts in the region are coming to view the conflict and its torturous aftermath as the first steps along the long and painful road to peace.
When Egypt and Syria attacked neighboring Israel at 2:05 on the afternoon of Oct. 6, 1973, the world held its breath, fearing a repeat of the costly and bloody 1967 Six-Day War, which left the Middle East hopelessly divided and swelled the ranks of extremism on both sides.
But today, with Arabs and Israelis as close to making peace as they ever have been, experts are examining the conflict in a new light. Many believe that the pragmatism that made possible the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt in 1978 and the rapprochement between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Jewish state in Washington on Sept. 13 were forged in the ashes of the 1973 war.
``The October war began to convince the parties that they would have to resolve their differences by bargaining, rather than on the battlefield,'' says Gen. Talaat Musalem, a military analyst in Cairo who commanded an armored division in the Egyptian Army during the 1973 war.
``I think in the long run it may have given momentum toward a political solution [to the Arab-Israeli conflict],'' he says. ``There were many other steps in this process, of course, but this was a push.''
From the start, historians, diplomats and military analysts have differed over who actually ``won'' the conflict, the fourth fought between Arabs and Israelis since the birth of the Jewish state in 1948. Both Egypt and Israel still claim victory - in Egypt, Oct. 6 is ``Armed Forces Day,'' a national holiday - while Syria admits it lost its side of the contest.
So ambiguous is the legacy of the 1973 war that the rivals still refer to it differently: For Israel, it was the Yom Kippur War, named for the Jewish day of atonement when the Arabs attacked. To the Arabs, it is known as the Ramadan War, after the Muslim holy month of fasting, which was underway on Oct. 6.
ut by most standards, the 1973 war was a draw. The two Arab states failed in their primary mission: to reclaim land that Israel seized in the 1967 war. Egypt had sought to retake the Sinai Peninsula, while Syria hoped to regain control over the Golan Heights. By war's end, both armies had been repelled to their prewar positions.
Israel was jolted from its post-1967 military euphoria by the speed and initial success of the Arab assault. Even though the Israeli Army managed to retake what it had lost in the early hours of the war, the myth of Israeli invincibility was shattered.
Some historians argue that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat succeeded in an equally important goal: drawing the United States into the process of forcing Israel to the negotiating table. Following the end of the conflict on Oct. 23, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger began a round of shuttle diplomacy that culminated in two disengagement accords and laid the groundwork for Sadat's historic trip to Jerusalem in November 1977.
``[Sadat] felt that unless Egypt proved itself to be strong enough to demand peace, no one would listen to him,'' says Jihan Sadat, widow of the late Egyptian president, who was assassinated on the eighth anniversary of the conflict in 1981.
``Today, after 15 years, you see that the other countries of the region are following the example that Sadat set.''
Had Sadat not proved himself in battle, historians now agree, he would never have been able to undertake the grave risk of making peace with Israel. But having burnished his military credentials by crossing the Suez Canal and challenging Israel, Sadat established himself as a major regional force and began to enjoy closer relations with Washington. His gesture of peace, which may have cost him his life, is now seen as the prototype for reconciliation between Israel and other Arab states.
The other major legacy of the October War, the oil crisis of 1973, may also have contributed to stabilizing relations between the Arab states and the West. Even though oil prices quadrupled in the weeks after the war, the oil-rich Arab countries began to realize that their interests lay in cultivating solid relations with the West.
``The industrialized countries, having been startled into awareness of the dangers of dependence on cheap oil, began to seek to conserve their own resources and to exploit alternative sources of energy,'' writes British historian Peter Mansfield.
The historical lessons of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War will remain unclear until the final settlement of hostilities between Israel and her neighbors. But the paradox of the war was aptly summed up in the words of a retired Egyptian general.
``I've spent my whole life fighting Israel,'' says Gen. Abdel-Ghani Gamasi, who masterminded the 1973 assault, ``hoping that it would eventually lead to lasting peace between Israel and the Arabs.''