October 22, 2018

War and Remembrance

The Yom Kippur War, which yanked thousands of Israeli soldiers out of the synagogue and onto the battlefield just 25 years ago, rears like a watershed halfway between the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and its 50th anniversary this year.

Israel and its Arab neighbors are still feeling the effects, militarily, politically and psychologically, of the coordinated Egyptian-Syrian surprise attacks and of the desperate Israeli struggle to drive the invading forces back across the Suez Canal and the Golan Heights.

The intoxicating myth of Israel’s invincibility, sown by the triumph of the Six-Day War only six years earlier, died when the first fortress of the Bar-Lev Line, the chain of bunkers dug along the canal’s Asian bank, fell to Egyptian shelling and when the first Syrian tanks rumbled toward the Sea of Galilee. The late Chaim Herzog rightly dubbed it the War of Atonement.

Months later, when Israel could claim a measure of victory, however ambiguous, I was taking stock with a reserve colonel who had commanded an armored battalion in the decisive battle of the Chinese Farm. Rashly, I reminded him of Moshe Dayan’s smirking advice to the Americans in Vietnam when they asked the old warrior what they could learn from Israel’s experience: “First, choose the Arabs as your enemy.”

The colonel stiffened. “Don’t underestimate them,” he reproached me. “This time they fought. They didn’t run away. They didn’t leave a trail of shoes strewn across the desert in their haste to escape. They fought and fought bravely.”

The Egyptian and Syrian high commands laid the ghosts of 1967, for themselves and for Israelis. They planned the attacks, they concealed their intentions and they almost succeeded. In combat, their soldiers demonstrated courage and aggression. Men who were scorned as peasants in uniform destroyed Israeli warplanes and tanks with shoulder-fired missiles.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat claimed afterward that he had never expected to win. His objective was to restore Arab self-respect, to make it possible to negotiate a peace agreement from parity, not from weakness.

Without what Egyptians celebrate every year as the “October crossing,” there would have been no Camp David breakthrough, and Israel would not have withdrawn from the whole of Sinai. (Ironically, Sadat was assassinated while reviewing an anniversary parade two years after signing a peace treaty with Menachem Begin.)

Israeli security chiefs were burned by their complacency. They spotted signs of military preparations in the weeks before Yom Kippur, but they had assured each other so often that an attack was out of the question that they couldn’t believe what they saw.

It sometimes looks as if they have digested the lesson too well. To make sure they don’t suffer the fate of their disgraced 1973 predecessors, the army, the Mossad and the Shin Bet almost invariably take the pessimistic view of any potential threat.

In 1977, when Sadat announced his intention to fly to Jerusalem and address the Knesset, then-Chief of Staff Mordechai Gur publicly warned Prime Minister Begin that it might be a trap. To this day, his successors go for the worst-case scenario. It is prudent, but it leaves a question mark against the quality of their assessments. Are they just covering their backs, or is there genuine cause for anxiety?

Yom Kippur dented Israel’s deterrence. It is arguable that without the humiliation of the war’s opening days, there would have been no Palestinian intifada. Even to schoolchildren in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israeli soldiers were no longer supermen. And without the intifada, there would have been no Oslo accords.

Among Israelis, the 1973 trauma wrought a sea change in the attitude of the rank and file toward their commanders. Israelis had never blindly obeyed orders, but now the celebrated cry of “After me!” was not enough. Especially after the politicized Lebanon war of 1982, soldiers (and increasingly their parents) were liable to ask: “Where to and why?” Generals can make mistakes, and their men are reluctant to pay for them with their lives.

Yom Kippur also demolished any pretense that Jewish settlements can play the same strategic role in modern warfare as they did in 1948. The kibbutzim and moshavim of the Golan did not withstand an epic siege, like the defenders of Negba and Yad Mordechai. They did as they were told and evacuated as soon as the Syrian tanks rolled. They left the fighting to the army and the air force.

Political leaders were damaged too. Israelis felt let down by “giants” such as Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan. Although an investigating commission absolved the prime minister and defense minister after the war, the people were not convinced. The Labor Zionists, who had ruled uninterruptedly since 1948, scraped home in the first postwar elections (on the wry slogan “Despite everything, Labor”), but their days were numbered.

Deference died in 1973, and Menachem Begin reaped the harvest four years later. The 1950s Sephardi immigrants, smoldering under the condescension of their Ashkenazi masters, were emboldened to vote for a more congenial (if Polish-born) alternative.

It was no accident that Begin was helped to office by a new party, Yigael Yadin’s Democratic Movement for Change, which won 15 seats at the first time of asking. The DMC grew out of the protest movement spawned by the Yom Kippur disenchantment. For good or ill, the Labor hegemony was over forever.