For many Israelis, the 1973 Arab-Israeli war was their single most terrifying moment, when a woefully unprepared nation, deluded into believing that its neighbors regarded it as impregnable, suffered a devastating attack and struggled back to victory at enormous cost with last-minute American help.Last week, the confidential discussions of Israel’s top leaders in the first days of that war, known here as the Yom Kippur War because the attack began on that Jewish holy day, were declassified and gripped the public.
For days, newspapers and talk shows examined the anguish of such mythic figures as Moshe Dayan, asking whether, with equally significant choices now on the table, the right lessons had been learned.
“Good morning, Messrs. Prime Minister, Defense Minister and future chief of military staff,” Yaron Dekel, a host on state radio, began his popular morning current affairs show earlier in the week. “Have you read the protocols of the Yom Kippur War?”
If not, he said, do so quickly and ask yourselves: “Have things changed in these 37 years? Have the arrogance, euphoria and supreme confidence that we know the enemy so well and that we have the best army in the world – have those disappeared?”
The transcripts of the meetings show Mr. Dayan, the unflappable eye-patch-wearing defense minister, at the edge of desperation. As Syrian tanks rolled toward the Galilee unimpeded, he understood that he had misread the signals.
“I underestimated the enemy’s strength, I overestimated our own forces,” he is quoted as saying in an early meeting with Prime Minister Golda Meir and others. “The Arabs are much better soldiers than they used to be.” Then: “Many people will be killed.”
Seeking a means of salvation, he urged recruiting older men and Jews from abroad.
Ms. Meir considered a clandestine trip to Washington to persuade President Nixon to help.
A colleague asked what she hoped to get.
“Let him give whatever he has,” she replied. “Does he have tanks in Europe? Let him give them. You want Phantoms? Let him give. Let him see this as his front and not let our guts spill until he gives us one missile.”
In the end, Ms. Meir did not go. But after appealing to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, she did get Mr. Nixon to send an airlift of matériel that made all the difference in Israel’s favor in the 20-day war. Although Israel won, it was the surprise attack and near victory that Egypt and Syria have focused on, and that led Egypt to make peace with Israel five years later in exchange for a return of the Sinai.
Much of last week’s debate in Israel centered on the belief expressed by the chief of military staff at the time, David Elazar, that a war was coming. He urged a troop call-up and pre-emptive strikes on Egyptian and Syrian forces massing on the borders. Both were rejected by Mr. Dayan and Ms. Meir, not only because they did not believe their neighbors would risk war, but also because of fear that the West would accuse Israel of aggression.
Meanwhile, there was no hurry to achieve a diplomatic solution to the problem of the lands conquered by Israel in the 1967 war: the Sinai and Gaza from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan.
Different lessons were drawn by different commentators.
In an editorial titled “Old Wounds, New Lessons,” the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper said that the leaders in 1973 “failed to see the limitations of Israel’s use of force and the possible forms its enemies’ operations would take.”
It continued, “Israel was resting on the laurels of its military achievements and conquests six years earlier in the Six-Day War, and failed to make an audacious, genuine effort to trade territories in exchange for peace and security.”
Not surprisingly, the military chief of staff now, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, weighed in Friday with somewhat different observations in the newspaper Maariv.
“I believe that the intelligence failure and the sense of existential uncertainty that the war brought served as important lessons for the military enterprise, the understanding of the importance of its mission, and the great responsibility that rests on our shoulders,” he wrote. “This is the explanation for the Sisyphean efforts to increase the strength and capabilities of the army. This is why after 62 years of independence we continue to enlist every boy and girl. This is why we place the reservist soldiers at the core of the army. And this is also why they come.”
Yehezkel Dror, one of Israel’s most distinguished political scientists, retired from the Hebrew University, spoke on Israel Radio about what he found most noteworthy from the newly released material. He said that when the 1973 war began, Israel’s leadership saw potential destruction at the hands of its enemies. It did not see the war’s true goal, which he said was to pressure Israel to return the captured territory.
“They did not understand that the Egyptians realized they didn’t stand a chance of destroying Israel,” he said. “They used the war for a political goal. Why didn’t we understand this? Because we didn’t think politically. He who thinks only militarily does not understand that the other side sees the army as a political tool, not to conquer but to reach a better deal on the Sinai.”
Mr. Dror added that when a Turkish flotilla last May tried to breach Israel’s sea blockade of Gaza, the government’s use of military force led to deadly consequences. He said that what is needed in leadership is both subtlety and clarity. Israel’s approach to the peace process with the Palestinians was an example, he added – “the main question of what Israel wants is unclear.”