Jews are supposed to search their souls between Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. But this year there should be some special soul searching inspired by two seminal events:
∙ The 20th anniversary of the September 1993 deal between Israel and the PLO.
∙ And the 40th anniversary of the 1973 “Yom Kippur War,” also known as the “Ramadan War” or simply as the October War.
Almost three thousand Israeli soldiers died in the 1973 war that Israelis called ha-mehdal—a Hebrew term that literally means “failure.” Mehdal also has the connotation of a catastrophic fiasco, and the 1973 war was seen as a catastrophic failure by Israel’s political and military commanders, who were guilty of the sin of complacency.
“We will break their bones,” commented Lt. Gen. David Elazar, the top army commander, several days into the 1973 war. A few months and thousands of deaths later, he was forced from office. He died a few months thereafter, a broken man.
Elazar was a tragic figure. He bore blame for the strategic surprise and unreadiness, but he bravely led Israel’s army to an amazing come-from-behind triumph that left Israeli forces in Africa, on the west bank of the Suez Canal, 60 miles from Cairo, and less than 20 miles downhill to Damascus.
But the war that began on Yom Kippur, the day of fasting and atonement, left no room for Israeli jubilation, only the licking of wounds and the crying over graves, often amid shouts against leaders who should have known better.
This was especially jarring for leaders such as Moshe Dayan, the one-eyed defense minister who was a darling of the media, and who had been cocky and supremely confident of his ability to control events. Dayan had resisted calls from some army officers to call up reserve units as a safety measure.
After the war, Israeli reporters began to reevaluate their role as journalists, and instead of chanting amen to the words and actions of glorified politicians and generals, Israeli journalists began a process of asking tough questions, even of themselves. Military correspondents stopped serving as enlisted cheerleaders for the army’s top brass.
Prime Minister Golda Meir relied on Dayan’s judgment and the promises of Henry Kissinger to ward off war. Kissinger told Meir that the U.S. would not aid Israel if it preemptively attacked the massing Syrian and Egyptian forces. This is one of many things for which Kissinger must atone.
Golda Meir held her post for a few more months, but she resigned after public protests grew stronger. It was only a matter of time before the Labor Party, which had dominated Israeli politics, would also be swept from power.
A commission of inquiry whitewashed political leaders, but the Israeli public did not forgive the ruling Labor Party, which lost its leading role in Israeli society.
Labor barely won narrow control of the prime ministry again only in 1992, and its leaders prepared the PLO-Israel deal that came to be known as “The Oslo Accords.”
Unlike the 1973 war, the September 1993 deal did not lead to 3,000 soldiers’ deaths in three weeks, but it led to more than 1,000 civilian deaths in the worst period of terrorism in Israel’s history. Those involved in the crafting of the Israel-PLO agreements—Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin—have lost all real power.
Peres, who holds the symbolic post of president of Israel, never won another election in the 20 years after Oslo, abandoning Labor to join Ariel Sharon’s Kadima Party after Peres lost an internal Labor party fight to Amir Peretz, a minor league unionist from the border town of Sderot.
Dr. Yossi Beilin, the real architect of the Oslo accords, was also pushed out of the Labor Party, and then failed to gain a leadership role in the even more left-wing Meretz Party. This reflects Israeli disappointment and even contempt for the peace-processors and their utopia-sounding promises of peace with the Palestinians.
Public opinion polls in Israel (New Wave, Dialog, Steinmetz Center of TA University, etc.) routinely show that more than 60 percent of Israelis do not believe there is a chance for peace with the Palestinians, while fewer than 30 percent believe in trying to find ways to talk to the PLO.
The policy-makers who made the catastrophic mistakes in 1973 and 1993 both suffered from errors in judgment and inflated egos: many of the leaders of 1973 felt they were too strong to be defeated by war, while the leaders of 1993 believed that Israel was so strong it could afford to take ridiculous risks.
The men of ’73 and ’93 believed in their own abilities to manage events more than in common sense and in pesky intelligence findings that spoke of Egypt and Syria training for war or Yasser Arafat planning terror.
Most leaders of ’73 paid a big price and some admitted some error, but the leaders of ’93, including Israel’s current president, still pretend they were right. Some of the 93-ers like Yossi Beilin are still treated as respected analysts and commentators, though no one would invite the IDF’s head intelligence in 1973 as a commentator.
As Maimonides once wrote, the path to penitence begins with admitting one’s mistakes, one’s sins. One cannot correct what one does not admit.
Dr. Michael Widlanski is the author of Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat, published by Threshold/Simon and Schuster. He teaches at Bar Ilan University, was Strategic Affairs Advisor in Israel’s Ministry of Public Security, and is editing the Orient House Archives of the PLO. He will be the Schusterman Visiting Professor at University of California, Irvine in 2013-14.