Thirty Years Later:
Lessons of the Yom Kippur War
Falls Sie Lust haben diesen Artikel fuer
haGalil onLine (ehrenamtlich) zu uebersetzen, melden Sie sich bitte
Thirty years ago, on Judaism's holiest day, Israel faced
its worst security nightmare when Syrian and Egyptian troops overran Israeli
lines in the Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula. Within three days, the
country feared for its very survival. Two weeks and thousands of casualties
later, Israeli troops were poised to capture Damascus and invade Egypt. In
Israel's consciousness, the legendary Yom Kippur War demonstrated both the
country's vulnerability and military superiority. Today, the lessons of that
formative event are more relevant than ever.
None of this can be understood without some context. In June, 1967, Israel's
lightning victory over the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan had left it
holding the Sinai and the Golan, along with the West Bank (previously held
by Jordan), and the Gaza Strip (previously held by Egypt).
For many Israelis, the extent of the territory captured provided the
strategic depth that had eluded the country 19 years earlier in Israel's war
of independence. Most importantly, many Israelis believed that their
'67 victory showed their invincibility — something that would deter Arab
leaders from future military moves.
The product of this attitude was a colossal intelligence blunder. First, the
Israeli leadership minimized then Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's overtures
for a negotiated settlement. Then, it dismissed evidence of Cairo's war
plans. In later years, Israelis would dub this national blind spot "the
conception." It gave birth to the 1973 war.
That war's aftershock reverberated deep and hard in Israel. An independent
commission of inquiry blamed the country's unpreparedness on the military,
but the public's loss of confidence in its political leadership forced Golda
Meir to resign as Prime Minister. Three years later, Menachem Begin was
elected in a profound political upheaval that unseated the formerly dominant
Labour Party. Shortly after, in November 1977, President Sadat made a
historic visit to Jerusalem that led to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.
These seismic changes reflected the dialectical outcome of the 1973 war.
Israelis never felt more vulnerable than in its early days, and never
stronger than at its conclusion. That paradoxical combination led to the
pragmatic conclusion that political accommodation with a neighbour offered a
better guarantee of security than occupying disputed territories, and that
even a peace amounting to little more than non-belligerency was better than
any kind of war.
Anwar Sadat paid with his life for making peace with Israel. Not
surprisingly, other Arab leaders declined to follow in his footsteps. But
domestic Israeli politics were another reason that peace with Egypt wasn't
expanded. The rise to power of Menachem Begin, a result of Israelis'
insecurity since the '73 war, dramatically reshaped the debate in Israel
over the country's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The new Prime
Minister was ideologically wedded to the notion of ancient Jewish
sovereignty over the entire area west of the Jordan River.
Although Mr. Begin had agreed in his peace settlement with Egypt to
implement an autonomy plan for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, he
chose to delay the plan's implementation so he could establish a permanent
Israeli foothold in the occupied territories. He and his successor, Yitzhak
Shamir, institutionalized the fledgling Jewish settlement drive that had
been tolerated by earlier Labour governments and dotted the landscape of the
West Bank with scores of Israeli settlements located among Palestinian towns
Mr. Begin and Mr. Shamir believed that a benign occupation could pacify the
Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza into accepting what the
Israeli leaders hoped would become an irreversible reality. The 1987-1992
Palestinian uprising (or Intifada) proved them wrong. Faced with an
indigenous struggle, Israelis could no longer deny the existence of a
distinct Palestinian nationalism and their own role as occupiers.
Ultimately, the Intifada led to the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the
Palestine Liberation Organization. But the failure of that peace process and
the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising starting in 2000 reinforced
Israelis' latent, ever-present insecurity.
Here's where the analogy to 1973 is important. Ariel Sharon's government
also believes in a "conception" — the myth of Israel's ability to defeat the
Palestinian national will militarily. The lesson of 1973 is that while time
has certainly not been on the Palestinian side, neither is it necessarily on
Israel's. In 1973, the belief that Egypt would not attack Israel resulted in
a tragic outcome. Today, the belief that time will inevitably bend the
Palestinian national will is folly. Meanwhile, Israel is paying an enormous
economic and social price for its continued presence in the West Bank and
Gaza, and unless it disengages from these areas, the high Palestinian birth
rate will, before long, make Jews a minority in the land they occupy.
Therefore, even if the Palestinian leadership does nothing to contain the
murderous terrorism of extremist factions, Israelis have to face tough
questions about their own future.
But the 1973 war provides another important lesson. Social and political
forces unleashed by that war led to sober soul-searching, a more open media
and vigorous internal debate, and greater tolerance of dissenting voices.
The post-1973 generation of Israelis easily punishes its leaders at the
polls and appreciates the role of civil society organizations freed of
As in 1973, when Israelis were bolstered by their ability to overcome an
unprecedented military onslaught, their resilience in the face of thousands
of terrorist attacks over the past three years is a source of national
strength and confidence. That confidence now needs to be translated into
courageous actions that will secure their country's future.
The Globe and Mail, October 6, 2003.
Distributed by the Common Ground News Service.
Geoffrey Weichselbaum, Editor
Taly Lind, Jerusalem Editor
Emad Khalil, Amman Editor
Gayle Meyers, Washington Editor
Michael Contet, Brussels Editor
Kristin Joplin, Coordinator