The Ghost Of Yom Kippur, Israel’s Pearl Harbor
When one looks at Israeli history, the two wars that changed and defined the country the most were the Six Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. The Six Day War put Israel on the map as a true military force in the Middle East, and gave it the respect it needed in the eyes of the Arab world and in the eyes of the U.S. The Yom Kippur War in 1973 was a different story altogether; it was Israel’s Pearl Harbor. Israel would eventually overcome the Syrian and Egyptians forces on the battlefield, but it was a frightfully close affair, and ultimately cost the lives of 2,688 soldiers.
In retrospect, the events that came prior to attack on one of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar could have been avoided and Israel should have been far more prepared. Every year since 1973 reminds Israel of that fatal period.
In the aftermath of 1973, and for years to come, Israel’s Chief of Staff at the time – David Elazar (‘Dado’)- was painted as the one responsible for the war. The Agranat Commission which investigated the events that led to the war’s outbreak recommended Elazar’s dismissal, and absolved both the Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan and Prime Minister Golda Meir of responsibility. But reporter Abraham Rabinovich in his book The Yom Kippur War dispels the myth the Elazar was at fault. Dado wanted to call up reserves in preparation for a full-scale military attack on the eve of the war. It was the head of AMAN (Israeli military Intelligence) Eli Zeira who minimized the significance of military maneuvers across the Southern and Northern borders, and managed to belittle the threat by arguing that it was nothing more than Egyptian and Syrian annual military drills. Zeira avowed that there was ‘low probability’ for a war on both Northern and Southern fronts. Prime Minister Golda Meir, not being a specialist, relied on her military advisers, especially Dayan and accepted Zeira’s prognosis.
Of late, recently declassified documents by the IDF archives validate many of these failures, including the breakdown in communication regarding the passing of the warning by Mossad handler Ashraf Marwan – the son-in-law of then- Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser – who allegedly spied on behalf of Israel.
In Israel’s military doctrinal history, there are two types of wars: wars of choice and wars of compulsion. The late Dan Horowitz of Hebrew University of Jerusalem explained that, “in [late Prime Minister Menachem] Begin’s opinion, only wars initiated by Arabs— the War of Independence and the Yom Kippur War — were wars of no choice. All the rest, without distinction between a preemptive strike, preventive war, war in response to violation of predetermined rule defined as casus belli, or war for attainment of political objectives— all are ‘wars of choice.'”
Consequently, Israeli Wars became a subject of great interest in the area of international affairs. The victory of the Six Day War was the beginning of a euphoric era for Israeli society. Much of the world, helped by various Christian sentiments, saw the Jewish State as invincible, and the Israeli public and military felt matchless. For the first time in the fledgling democracy’s short life, Israel saw impressive economic growth. It was suddenly trendy to be an Israeli and to live in Israel, and a large wave of American Jews flocked there. Israel had conquered more than triple the size of the area it previously controlled, from 8,000 to 26,000 square miles, the defense of which would prove a staggering (and ultimately forfeited) task. But in the afterglow of victory, many in the Israeli military high command were more focused on renovating their quarters, and the soldiers who were assigned to the Sinai were improving their fishing skills on the Suez Canal.
Israel’s victory left the Arab world – especially Egypt – deeply wounded, and not only militarily but psychologically as well. It was inconceivable to the Egyptian psyche that a nation (and a nation of Jews no less) as small as Israel would so swiftly and effectively demolish their military might, and above all the Egyptian air force. Following the defeat, a steady acceleration of anti-Semitism began in Egypt. Books such as The End of Israel and Human Sacrifices in the Talmud, and of course, the long-in-print The Protocols of the Elders of Zion became best sellers. News media, films and even monuments commemorated what the ‘Zionist entity’ had done to Egypt. All of this was done in order to instill a motivation for restoring Egyptian pride, to focus the blame for the defeat outward away from the Egyptian government, and to increase the hatred and dehumanization of Israel.
It is true the 1973 war is seen as one of the few diplomatic and military failures Israel has experienced. Yet, one cannot understand Israel today 39 years later and the Israeli mindset – especially with regard to Iran – without understanding the events that took place from 1967-1973. This period surely shaped Israeli society in so many ways, especially the IDF’s military doctrine.
Israel is still attempting to deal with the “what ifs” of the tragedy of October 1973. It was most definitely not Dado’s sole responsibility, though he took most of the blame. Israel cannot afford to make any mistakes regarding Iran because “do overs” are not an option, and the cost of non-conventional warfare is far greater than conventional warfare. As attempts to marginalize the nuclear threat of Iran continue to grow while isolating Israel in tandem, it is clear that the lessons of 1973 continue to drive Israeli policymakers as they lay a course for ensuring Israel’s survival for the next 39 years.
This article was originally published by Forbes.