The Yom Kippur War – 40 years on

Oct 11, 2013 | Ahron Shapiro

The Yom Kippur War - 40 years on

On October 6, 1973, as Israelis observed Yom Kippur – the holiest day in the Jewish calendar – the Egyptian and Syrian armies launched simultaneous surprise offensives against Israel across the ceasefire lines from the 1967 war.

Four decades later, the consequences and lessons of the 19-day war are still being analysed and debated. Meanwhile, once-classified information about the war from the archives of some of the principle players in the war, as well as their superpower patrons, are slowly coming to the surface, adding to our understanding of the events.

Today, AIJAC begins a three-part blog to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Israel’s last major multi-front conventional war.

The first entry will examine recent stories about the war that might interest to our readers, including commentary about how the lessons of the Yom Kippur War are being applied to Israel’s current security outlook.

The second and third blogs, however, will take us back to 1973, to the war as it was covered by some of the major newspapers here in Australia. This will include looking at some of the themes of the editorials, viewpoints, analysis, and letters of the period. Afterwards, we’ll have a peek at some of the more interesting dispatches of Australia’s war correspondents. Finally, similar to our blog from June coinciding with the Six Day War, we’ll ponder some of the key contextual facts of the Israeli-Arab conflict that were widely understood by journalists at the time but are largely absent from the narrative in the news today.

But first, and important discussion was held on Sunday at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) with two controversial figures of the Yom Kippur War: Eli Zeira, the head of the Israel Defence Forces Intelligence division during the war, and then-Mossad chief Zvi Zamir.

Zeira was among those tapped for dismissal in the April 1974 interim report by the Agranat Commission that was set up to investigate the failures that led to Israel being caught by surprise in the war. For years now, he has been at loggerheads with Zamir over Zeira’s exposure of Israel’s best-placed spy in Egypt of the time, Ashraf Marwan (son-in-law of Gamal Abdel Nasser). In an effort to rehabilitate his own image, Zeira had accused Marwan – who is credited for tipping Israel off to the attack at the last minute – as being a double agent for Egypt. It should be said that most experts agree with Zamir that Marwan was not a double agent. (An interesting aside by Shmuel Rosner on this matter from last year appears on the New York Times‘ website). Zamir and Zeira are now in their late 80s, so this tense meeting was also seen as perhaps the last opportunity for them to offer their versions of the war in the same forum.

The INSS’s video of the historic discussion can be found here, but before you view it, have a look at Tablet Magazine‘s curtain-raiser feature for the event, which includes a good deal of background information. Afterwards, you might want to compare notes with the coverage in Tablet, Ha’aretz (behind paywall), the Times of Israel, and Israel Hayom.

In another interesting twist to this plotline, also at Israel Hayom, former high intelligence official Brig. Gen. (Res.) Aharon Levran contended that the Israeli intelligence establishment had put too much focus on the information provided by Marwan, at the expense of other intelligence sources that might have yielded information about the Egypt’s war plans much earlier.

The other big story of this anniversary has been the release by the Washington-based Wilson Centre of an interview between Israeli-born nuclear proliferation expert Avner Cohen and Arnon Azaryahu, who served as an aide to Yisrael Galili – one of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s advisers at the time of the war.

In the interview, Azaryahu says Galili told him that – after the first disastrous day of the war, when it appeared that the two fronts were collapsing – Defence Minister Moshe Dayan suggested to Meir that Israel ready a nuclear device to unveil as a deterrent if it appeared that the Arab tanks were about to break through into Israel’s heartland. According to Azaryahu, Meir immediately ruled it out.

It’s important to recognise that even Azaryahu admitted he did not witness this exchange first-hand. Cohen’s decision to release the video now, five years after Azaryahu’s death, has also prompted some analysts to question his motives. It’s also worth noting that this is not the first time an allegation has surfaced suggesting that Israel, which has always maintained nuclear ambiguity, had considered showing its nuclear card as a deterrent either before or during a war.

Nevertheless, Azaryahu’s interview made news in the Times of Israel, the New York Times and Ha’aretz (behind paywall), among others.

Meanwhile, Israel Hayom columnist Dan Margalit criticised both the Zamir/Zeira event and Cohen’s Azaryahu tape, saying they tarnish Israel’s image and only serve the narrow interests of the players involved.

Finally, in another interesting development, last month the Israeli archives released a new round of declassified documents on the war including some previously sealed testimony of Golda Meir to the Agranat Commission.

Looking back at the strategic impact of the war, most analysts noted first and foremost that the war ended Arab hopes that Israel could be defeated in a conventional war. As the Jerusalem Post‘s Amotz Asa-El put it last month:

…following the Armageddon that included some of history’s largest armored battles, Israel’s enemies never again unleashed on it a conventional army.
The realization that Israel prevailed even in a war waged, from the Arab viewpoint, under ideal conditions, convinced Arab leaders to abandon traditional war, and opt for assorted alternatives – from guerrilla and terror wars to peace deals. While far from reflecting a pro-Zionist conversion, the Arab abandonment of the traditional military option is a major strategic gain for Israel, and a direct result of the Yom Kippur War.

But even more importantly, Asa-El added, the war brought about a transformative effect on Israeli society.

The establishment’s subsequent transition from secular socialists to traditionalists and capitalists; the disappearance of the European-born generation that led Israel in its first three decades; and the passage of the settlement ideal from the kibbutzim’s liberal farmers to the West Bank’s messianic rabbis, make the Yom Kippur War a watershed in practically all aspects of Israeli history.

Meanwhile, Prof. Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies (who will visit Australia later this month in a trip sponsored by AIJAC) noted that one of the biggest lessons of the war was that Israel needed to have closer strategic coordination with the United States.

The 1973 war also underscored the dependency of a small state such as Israel on its superpower patron. Whatever dreams of self-sufficiency in weapon development and production were entertained in Israel before the war were soon abandoned. Jerusalem learned that it needs close strategic coordination with Washington to secure the capability to act forcefully, as well as freedom of action. This was a crucial corrective to the pre-war hubris that introduced much caution to Israel’s foreign policy.

Meanwhile, a new analysis by former AIJAC staffer and Melbourne University History Fellow Daniel Mandel on the Yom Kippur War settled on the tragic figure of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.

In terms of the conflict that united Arab sentiment as does little else, Anwar Sadat was the most successful leader of the Arabs. He launched the most destructive attack on Israel ever devised by an Arab leader, secured later the return of Egyptian territory without firing another shot, and put the Palestinians firmly on the Israeli map through the autonomy provisions for the West Bank and Gaza. However, his Arab opponents, the Islamists … killed him. His treason was to have recognized Israel, irrespective of the advantages Egypt had thus accrued.

Mandel said Sadat’s assassination showed that even a leader seen as a military hero in the eyes of his people was not safe from retribution from his ideological foes, and this sends a chilling message to those who would follow in his peacemaking footsteps.

Even creditable performance on the battlefield grants only a temporary ascendancy and merely a revokable warrant for change. That is one lesson of the four decades since Egyptian tanks rolled into Sinai.

Elsewhere, a number of writers have sought to apply lessons gleaned from the Yom Kippur War towards modern-day Israel’s handling of the Iranian nuclear threat.

Embracing the position of University of Haifa professor Yigal Kipnes that Golda Meir missed opportunities to resolve the conflict with Egypt through diplomacy, the Washington Post‘s David Ignatius says that Netanyahu must now give Iran the chance to prove its sincerity for reaching a deal that, in his view, Meir did not give Egypt.

(Kipnes’ view it should be noted, runs counter to the account provided by Yitzhak Rabin, who served as Israeli Ambassador to the US in the early months of 1973. In his 1979 memoirs, Rabin said that Sadat had committed to going to war months before the war occurred, and that the hints at diplomacy following that decision were merely cover for the war preparations.

Indeed, mounting evidence points to a protracted disinformation campaign by the USSR, Egypt and Syria in the months ahead of the war aimed at camouflaging their arms buildup.
Furthermore, recently released documents confirm that Meir had not, by any means, forsaken diplomacy in the months leading up to the war.)

However, INSS director Israeli Maj.-Gen.(Res.) Amos Yadlin has sensibly warned against making comparisons between the situation that preceded the Yom Kippur War and the current Iranian nuclear impasse.

According to Yadlin, “everyone takes from that war exactly what they believe in now,” and he added that it could be equally argued that the lesson of the Yom Kippur War is to showcase the merits of taking pre-emptive military action against Iran as much as the merits of trying to seek a diplomatic solution.

Ahron Shapiro



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