As we approach the 40th anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War (named for the Jewish holy day, which fell on Oct. 6 that year as Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a surprise attack), Israel finds itself engaged in an unusual wave of analysis and commemoration.
Traces of the profound national trauma of that sobering war linger in the country’s military doctrine, diplomacy and psychology. It’s impossible to facilely transpose “lessons” of 40 years ago on a changed reality, but several lasting legacies do stand out.
The surprise attack, which had Israeli forces reeling for days before they finally declared victory on Oct. 25, was immediately blamed on a colossal intelligence failure that dismissed strong intelligence sources’ warnings of an impending attack. But in the past few years, U.S. archival documents have confirmed a damning diplomatic failure as well: prime minister Golda Meir’s rejection of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s repeated proposals for a peace agreement in return for Israel’s withdrawal from the 1967 lines, including the Sinai Peninsula. Although Sadat knew he couldn’t defeat the Israeli army, he undertook the war in response as a step toward diplomacy – and that’s what happened, at huge cost.
In the following years, U.S.-brokered ceasefire agreements kept Israel’s Syrian and Egyptian borders quiet. In 1979, Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty that transformed regional relations. Over the past three tumultuous years, driven by mutual interests, Israeli-Egyptian security co-operation has remained strong, even though the socio-economic elements of the “cold peace” are non-existent.
More broadly, 1973 was the last conventional, army-to-army Arab-Israeli war. With Egypt at peace with Israel and in the U.S. orbit, Arab governments realized that the military option was futile. It was replaced by threats from terrorist groups committed to mukawama (popular resistance, then a new term). Future wars in Gaza and Lebanon were fought by Israel against the Palestine Liberation Organization (before it entered talks), Hamas and Hezbollah.
The Yom Kippur War also spawned a new political and social reality. In 1977, lingering mistrust of the incumbent, hegemonic Labour Party brought Menachem Begin’s Likud to power. For 40 years, although numerous new parties came and went, Israel’s leadership pendulum swung between Labour and Likud.
The wall of wartime solidarity cracked. Reservists and civilians demonstrated against the 1982 Lebanon War as it was being fought. The Israel Defense Forces’ priorities were influenced by concern for the casualty count as public tolerance for bloody losses waned. Since then, aided by the information revolution, open public debate on military and security affairs has existed in real time.
It might seem surprising that a war fought 40 years ago continues to have such a firm hold on Israel’s psyche, but it shouldn’t be. The fighters and commanders are older and anxious to talk, and emotional testimonies about traumas and their long-term effects are now welcomed. Recently released material has yielded numerous books, in Israel and abroad, reviewing the war from a 40-year perspective. And the legacies remain relevant, although the times have changed dramatically.
With Egypt and Syria no longer a military threat, conventional war is only a distant option. But two other, more recent issues remain very close to home.
It’s tough to draw parallels between the 1973 war and threats that emanate from Iran or suspicion of Palestinian motives, and given the history, Israel has good reasons to be concerned, stand firm and defend its interests. However, the legacy of more than 2,500 Israeli (and nearly 20,000 Arab) deaths 40 years ago – and so many more since – raises inescapable questions about preconceptions, rhetoric and decision-making. Is war, indeed, a necessary prelude to diplomacy?