November 16, 2018

Yigal Kipnis on Yom Kippur War’s lessons

Yigal Kipnis is an Israeli historian; since 1978 he has been a farmer and a resident of the Golan Heights. He teaches at the University of Haifa and researches the settlement geography and political history of Israel. Kipnis also served as a pilot in the Israeli Air Force for 31 years (26 of them in the IAF reserves). The following exchange focuses on his book, “1973: The Road to War,” which came out in Hebrew in late 2012. The book has received fantastic reviews in the Israeli press by various acclaimed critics and is scheduled to appear in English later this year.

Shmuel Rosner: Your book, and this is no big secret, was immediately embraced by the Israeli so-called “peace camp.” I always find it a little disturbing that history books become a political tool, but in today’s political environment this is probably unavoidable.

The conclusion drawn by many of your readers was this: Israel wasn’t vigorous enough in pursuing peace back in 1973, and the result was devastating. It should therefore be careful not to miss such opportunities today, and be more forthcoming in its conduct when negotiating with its neighbors. 

Is this your conclusion as well? Are we in danger of repeating the mistakes of 1973?

Yigal Kipnis: Your question links the realm of my research — history — and the area you deal with: investigating and interpreting the present.

The book “1973, The Road to Waris entirely devoted to the events of 1973 (except for the Marwan story, which continues up to the present). As I wrote in my introduction, the findings relating to that year were that: “Decision makers in Israel had been mistaken in thinking that their military superiority and deterrence, along with the political support of the United States, would both prevent a political process which they did not want and uphold the favorable (to Israel) status quo. The Israeli prime minister and minister of defense did not comprehend that, in order to ensure Israeli security, military superiority was not enough; a peace agreement was also necessary.”

But I was careful to end the introduction with the following paragraph: “Despite the fact that the book discusses the events of 1973, the attention of many readers will be directed toward the present. History, as is well known, does not repeat itself, but it is important to be familiar with it, as such knowledge assists us in better evaluating current events.”

Nevertheless, many readers examined the book’s findings in accord with their own attitudes about the present-day political situation, a fact that you justifiably deplore. Members of the “peace camp” were indeed happy with these findings so that they could base their present positions on the lessons of 1973. Correspondingly, for the same reason, the “right-wing camp” found it difficult to accept the facts about 1973, some without even learning these facts. There were those who went further, ignoring the findings and viewing only the present, maintaining that Israel should not have considered coordination with the United States and should have launched a preventive attack. With regard to 1973, they are mistaken.

In this paragraph, I reply specifically to your question:

“The actions of the prime minister and the minister of defense that led to the Yom Kippur War evoke thoughts about the role of a national leader, about the relations between decision makers and evaluation bodies, about the price of silencing a mobilized or a paralyzed media, about the price of the ‘national euphoria’ that characterized Israeli society in the ‘euphoric period’ between the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, and, particularly, about the price of a sense that time is working in Israel’s favor.”

But the position that Israel should take at present must be investigated comprehensively considering the Zionist process and present realities, and not according to those of 1973.

I believe, and with no connection to the events of 1973, that Israeli peace agreements with the Arab states surrounding it were and have remained a strategic Israeli goal and thus, it had to act to achieve this goal and still should. These agreements must be based on the international border that defined, for the first and only time in history, the state entity of the land of Israel. This definition stemmed from a decision by the Israeli unity government in June 1967, nine days after the end of the Six-Day War. This decision also expressed how its ministers, both on the left and on the right, and including Menachem Begin, conceived of the way to turn the military achievement of the Six-Day War into a political achievement. This policy was implemented in the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. The withdrawal from Lebanon was based on this borderline, as were the negotiations with Syria, conducted by Rabin, Peres and Netanyahu in two terms of office, Barak and Olmert. The problem remaining is what happens within the international border of Israel — the west bank of the Jordan River. One state? Two states? If there are two states, how will we share the land?

In my opinion, without casting doubt on the historical connection of the Jewish nation to the entire land, realization of Zionist aspirations and ensuring the existence of the State of Israel as a national home for the Jewish people requires us to reach an agreement with the Palestinian leadership, if only to ensure proper security and freedom of entry to places that will not remain under Israeli sovereignty. The outline of this agreement is well known. The problem is how to achieve it. In this context I expressed my opinion a few weeks ago in an op-ed article in Ha’aretz: “The Arab initiative for comprehensive peace with Israel is one of the important political achievements of Zionism. Its implementation is likely to lead to regional stability, which will enable Israel to direct its resources and its efforts to the areas of education, society and the economy. No Palestinian leader will be able to reject an agreement that has been accepted in this discussion channel, under the patronage of the Arab world, the United States and the European Community. This patronage will make it easier for both Israeli and Palestinian leaders to compromise on issues that would have been difficult to agree on in direct negotiations between the sides. An Israeli leader who really aspires to peace and security must accept this initiative.”

In addition, I believe that the Israeli public will support a leader who adopts this policy. Not as a lesson drawn from the price we paid in the Yom Kippur War because the Israeli prime minister rejected a peace initiative from President Sadat, an initiative whose principles formed the basis of the treaty Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed six years later with Egypt, but as a vital interest of the State of Israel as a national home for the Jewish people at present in the land of Israel.

For more of this exchange, read Rosner’s Domain at

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, please visit Rosner’s Domain at