At one time or another most of us are like Don Quixote, all more or less the dupes of our own illusions. Even the alleged infallibility of the Israeli intelligence community is not immune. On the eve of Yom Kippur 1973 its highest echelons took a holiday from reality when they predicted that hostilities were not in the offing. The very idea of an Arab onslaught was an affront to Jerusalem's divinity of military doctrine, which postulated that neither Egypt nor Syria was capable of waging renewed all-out warfare at this time.
And much as actors at dress rehearsals reassure their anxious producers, "Don't worry, it'll be all right on the night," so did Israel's top brass reassure prime minister Golda Meir, "Don't worry the IDF will be ready on the day, should it ever dawn."
And dawn it did, and the IDF was not ready. The thinly held lines in the north and in the south were sent bleeding and reeling under the hammer blows of the combined Egyptian-Syrian surprise attack, splintering and crushing the army's defenses as if caught in the jaws of a closing nutcracker. A combination of highly effective preparations and deceptions, astutely planned to make them look like training maneuvers, would allow the Egyptians and the Syrians vast opening-day victories.
Along the Suez Canal, 450 IDF soldiers with 50 artillery pieces tried in vain to stop 100,000 Egyptian troops crossing the waterway under the covering fire of 2,000 artillery pieces and under the shield of one of the most extensive anti-aircraft SAM missile umbrellas in the world. Within a few days, two whole Egyptian armies had occupied the entire Israeli-held east bank of the Suez Canal. Simultaneously, on the Golan Heights, 1,400 Syrian tanks hurled themselves against Israel's 160. Its defenders fought ferociously at point-blank range, lurching and roaring and dying in an unequal entanglement of tanks and armored personnel carriers and howitzers and other lethal paraphernalia that culminated in a contest of wills which left the IDF hemorrhaging.
Imagine then the inexpressible astonishment of people at prayer on this Sabbath of Sabbaths hearing in horror the sudden wailing of air-raid sirens filling the sky; of rabbis announcing from their pulpits to their congregants in prayer-shawls to report forthwith to their reserve units; of military vehicles violating the awesome silence of the sacred day as they sped along normally empty streets on errands of high emergency; of radios blaring out code names for instant mobilization; and of cantors chanting the brokenhearted liturgical, Unetaneh tokef - "Who shall live and who shall die."
Hours after its outbreak defense minister Moshe Dayan gloomily walked into the prime minister's room, closed the door, stood in front of her and said, "Golda, do you want me to resign?"
Golda shook her head. "No, Moshe, under no circumstances."
"Then you should know this is not going to be a short war. The attrition is serious."
"If our stocks are not speedily replenished, we won't be left with sufficient arms to defend ourselves."
Golda, shocked at this apocalyptic prospect from the man who purportedly embodied the Jewish state's undaunted defiance, gasped, "Are you saying that we'll ultimately have to surrender to the Syrians and the Egyptians for lack of arms?"
It was as if David had aimed with his sling and missed. The thought of suicide passed through her mind.
"What I'm saying," said Dayan, "is that if our stocks are not replenished at a fast rate we may well have to pull back to shorter, more defensible lines, particularly in Sinai."
"Pull back? Retreat?" Golda Meir's features went ivory white. She looked despairingly at her defense minister, covered her face with trembling fingers, rose to stare out of the window, and the more she pondered the more the color seeped back into her cheeks until, composure restored, she turned to face her defense minister and said, "Moshe, one way or another I'll get you your weapons. Your job is to bring us victory, mine is to give you the means to do so."
She picked up the red telephone and instructed her secretary, "Get me Simcha." Simcha Dinitz was the ambassador in Washington.
"Simcha," she said into the receiver, "Dayan is here with me. I want you to call Kissinger immediately..."
"But it's three in the morning here..."
"I don't care a damn what time it is. We need help today because tomorrow may be too late. We are in desperate need of an airlift."
"What do you want me to tell him exactly?"
"Tell him what he already knows - that huge military transports of Soviet aid are being supplied by sea and air to the Syrians and the Egyptians. Tell him that we're feverishly shopping around for foreign carriers to transport material to us, but they refuse. Tell him that the French and the British have chosen to impose an arms embargo on us when we are fighting for our lives. Tell him that we are losing aircraft to the Soviet SAMs at an intolerable rate. Tell him I'm ready to fly to Washington incognito right now to talk directly to the president myself if I have to."
BUT GOLDA did not have to. Washington understood that the direction this war was taking could drag America into a perilous confrontation with the Soviet Union, with consequences too terrible to contemplate. So, on October 14, the ninth day of the war, after the prime minister herself had spoken to Washington personally any number of times, president Richard Nixon telephoned secretary of state Henry Kissinger from his retreat in Key Biscayne, Florida, where he was taking refuge from the ever mounting legal and congressional pressures emanating from his skullduggery in the Watergate scandal.
Pundits claim that by this time the president was drinking heavily, was losing sleep and was so distracted by the shadow of possible impeachment that he was not fully focused on the Middle East inferno. Certainly, when he phoned Kissinger that day his words were slurred and rambling. However, as the following extracts indicate, when it came to the crunch he was crystal clear: The Russians had to be reined in, a massive airlift to Israel had to be launched forthwith and Israel must be enabled to win without Egypt being totally defeated:
Nixon: Hi, Henry, how are you?
N: Look, we've got to face this... we've got to come off with something on the diplomatic front. If we go the cease-fire route, the Russians will figure that we get the cease-fire and then the Israelis will dig in and we'll back them as we always have. That's putting it quite bluntly, but it's quite true, Henry, isn't it?
K: There's a lot in that.
N: So we have to be in a position to offer them [the Russians] something. We've got to squeeze the Israelis when this is over and the Russians have to know it. We've got to squeeze them goddamn hard. And that's the way it's going to be done. But I don't know how to get that across now [to the Russians]. We've told them before we'd squeeze them and we didn't.
K: Well, we are going to squeeze them...
N: The other point I want to make, what are we doing on the supply side [to the Israelis]?
K: Basically what we are trying to do is to stop military planes [from shipping supplies] and put commercial charters in.
N: Yes, yes. As I say though, it's got to be the works. What I mean is - we are going to get blamed [by the Arabs] just as much for three planes as for 300 - not going to let the Russians come in there for - with a free hand. On the other hand, this is a deadly course, I know, but what I mean is, Henry, I have no patience with the view that we send in a couple of planes, even though they carry 60 some... My point is, when we are going to make a move it's going to cost us out there. I don't think it's going to cost us a damn bit more to send in more and - I have to emphasize to you that I think the way it's being handled in terms of our things - we are sending supplies, but only for the purpose of maintaining the balance [with the Russian re-supply to the Arabs] so that we can create the conditions that will lead to an equitable settlement. The point is, if you don't say it that way, it looks as though we are sending in supplies to have the war go on indefinitely, and that is not a tenable position.
K: Right. Right. If it hasn't been said before, we'll say it certainly today.
N: The thought is basically: the purpose of supplies is not simply to fuel the war; the purpose is to maintain the balance, which is quite accurate incidentally, and then - because only with the balance in that area can there be an equitable settlement that doesn't do in one side or the other. That's really what we're talking about.
K: Exactly. Exactly right.
TWO HOURS LATER
N: Hi, Henry. I got a fill-in [on the airlift]. I'm glad to know we are going all out on this.
K: Oh, it's a massive airlift, Mr. President. The planes are going to land every 15 minutes.
N: That's right. Get them thereâ€¦ If we are going to do it - don't spare the horses. Just let...
K: Actually, Mr. President, in the big planes, [cargo C-5 Galaxies] we have flexibility. We can fly Skyhawks in them.
N: Put them on the plane, you mean?
K: Yes. I don't think there is another way - no [European] country will let them overfly [nor grant refueling rights].
N: All right. How many can a big plane take?
K: It can take five or six.
N: All right - put some Skyhawks in; do that too. You understand what I mean - if we are going to take heat for this, well, let's go.
K: I think that is right. And I think, Mr. President, we can offer to stop the airlift if the Russians do after a cease-fire is signed.
N: Exactly. I think we should say - I think a personal message now should go. I mean you have been sending messages, but one should go from me to Brezhnev [the Soviet leader].
K: Everything I am sending is in your name.
N: Good. But I think he should know - now look here: the peace is not only for this area but the whole future relationship [with the Russians] is at stake here, and we are prepared to stop if you are, and we are prepared - you know what I mean. I don't know - have you got anything developed along those lines so that we just don't haveâ€¦?
K: I have. I'm developing it now and I think I could call Dobrynin [the Soviet ambassador] and point it out to him.
N: Right. Right. Put it in a very conciliatory but very tough way that I do this [the airlift] with great regret - great reluctance - but that we cannot have a situation that has now developed, and that we are prepared to give tit for tat...Well at least I feel better. The airlift thing, if I contributed anything to the discussion it is the business that, don't fool around with three planes. By golly, no matter how big they are, just go gung ho.
K: One of the lessons I have learned from you, Mr. President, is that if you do something, you might as well do it completely.
And do it completely he did. Reenergized and reequipped, the IDF decisively moved over to the offensive. What had begun three weeks earlier as an ignoble retreat ended in an almost total rout of the Egyptians and the Syrians, and the humiliation of their patron, the Soviet Union. Israeli forces advanced to a mere 40 kilometers from the gates of Damascus, battled their way along the highway to Cairo, smashed two Egyptian armies, surrounded a third and were poised to strike a knockout blow when Nixon and Kissinger put the squeeze on, saying in effect, "OK, Golda! Good job! Enough! Stop! It's over!"
Exactly as they had envisaged in their cryptic telephone exchange a few weeks earlier, Egypt's residual forces were rescued from total annihilation and Israel was robbed of a decisive victory. This enabled president Anwar Sadat to declare to his people that he had wiped clean the shame of 1967, and Kissinger was enabled to fly into the region to fine-tune the war's outcome, using the currency of Israeli concessions to convince Sadat that Washington, not Moscow, was henceforth the arbiter of affairs in the Middle East, and that it paid to be a friend of the United States of America.
As more and more reservists were demobilized and came home their anger boiled over. It was an anger fueled by that matchless fury which Israelis reserve for their fallen heroes. Anti-government demonstrations proliferated. By April 1974, following the findings of the inescapable commission of inquiry, the once indomitable Golda Meir, the woman who was an epic embodiment of true legends and legendary truths, became so discredited in the eyes of her exhausted and grieving nation that she and her fellow ministers, morally crippled, were compelled to resign.
Two thousand six hundred and eighty-eight soldiers died in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. In the Yizkor prayers of this holy day Israel pays homage to its fallen. For the bereaved there is no solace as they mourn and weep over their private plots of grief on this day and on every day.
The writer served on the personal staff of five prime ministers, including Golda Meir.