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Following are excerpts from the paperback edition of The Yom Kippur War by Abraham Rabinovich, published this month by Schocken Books, New York. The author provides context for the excerpts in italics.
Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, Israel's military icon, was severely shaken by the surprise Egyptian and Syrian attack on Yom Kippur, 1973, and began warning colleagues within hours that â€œthe Third Temple is in danger,â€ a reference to the State of Israel. The depth of his despair is illustrated in the following episode describing, for the first time, an encounter with division commander Gen. Moussa Peled, on the second day of the war.
With a few hours at his disposal, Peled drove towards the Golan Heights. Near Almagor, he saw Moshe Dayan on the roadside sitting on a rock as he looked across the Hula Valley at the heights. Aides stood behind him. Smoke and flashes could be seen in the distance and the sound of explosions reached them. Peled had grown up on the farmstead adjoining Dayan's in the village of Nahalal. This intimate relationship prompted Dayan now to let down his guard. As Peled would remember it two decades later, Dayan spoke of the destruction of the Third Temple. Peled put a hand on the older man's shoulder and saw tears start to flow from his eyes. The harder Peled pressed encouragement, the more Dayan wept.
Earlier in the day, Dayan had briefed prime minister Golda Meir on what he had seen on his visits to the Golan and Sinai fronts.
The impact of Dayan's words on Mrs. Meir was predictable. She heard them â€œin horror,â€ she would write, and the thought of suicide crossed her mind. Her long-time assistant, Ms. Lou Kedar, was at her desk in the room next to the prime minister's when Mrs. Meir rang after Dayan's departure. â€œMeet me in the corridor,â€ she said. There were other people in Mrs. Meir's office and she wanted a private space. Although she had the country's top military and political advisers on call, she could share her deepest feelings only with an old friend. When Kedar emerged into the corridor, Mrs. Meir was already waiting for her. Kedar was shocked at her pallor, which matched the grey jacket she was wearing. There was despair in her face. Kedar would remember the prime minister leaning heavily against a wall and saying in a low and terrible voice, â€œDayan is speaking of surrenderâ€.
If Dayan had used that word, it is inconceivable that he used it in the conventional sense. But he had spoken of surrendering territory pulling back from the Bar-Lev line. He had offered his resignation, which Mrs. Meir refused. When she asked what his reaction would be if the UN ordered an immediate cease fire, he said he would grab it.
Mrs. Meir intended to start putting pressure on the American administration for arms. Many excruciating days still lay ahead, but psychologically the prime minister had touched bottom and begun to regain her balance.
The failings of the Israeli political and military leadership were made up for by the soldiers in the field.
The collapse of the southern Golan front would, paradoxically, prove the mettle of the individual Israeli soldier and field commander more strikingly than any other battle in the war. The sheer weight of the Syrian attack and the failure of Northern Command to reinforce and deploy adequately accounted for the Syrian breakthrough. Unlike in the northern Golan, where brigade commander Yanosh Ben-Gal and his battalion commanders were waging a tight, disciplined fight, effective battle control was lost in the south. But the surviving defenders did not pull back. They fought tenaciously in small, isolated groups guided less by direction from above than by the skills and motivation they had brought with them.
â€œYou have a choice to succumb to shock or to become a tiger,â€ a tank platoon leader would later say. â€œIt became clear in the first hour that the battle had been left to the company and platoon commanders and individual tank commanders. The adrenalin rush was tremendous. Orders from some officer in the rear didn't matter much. We were alone and we made the decisions.â€
Though there would be scattered cases of battle shock, the tank crews and the riflemen in the frontline outposts performed magnificently, breaking the impact of the Syrian onrush, slowing it down and inflicting heavy losses.
In fierce fighting, Northern Command pushed to within artillery range of Damascus's outskirts.
The next night, (artillery commander Col. Aldo) Zohar was ordered to hit targets in Damascus itself. To reach firing range, Zohar entered the Leja (a boulder-strewn, virtually impassable expanse). A reconnaissance team led by Yoni Netanyahu led the way. Five military and government structures were designated as targets but Zohar dropped one because of its proximity to the city's Jewish quarter. The guns had just reached firing position when an order was received to abort the mission. The political level in Tel Aviv, reportedly Golda Meir herself, had ruled it out, whether for fear of Soviet reaction or of retaliatory Syrian rocket attacks on Israel's cities.
The general who won the most fame in the war was Ariel Sharon, although for the wrong reasons. He led the crossing of the canal but he was not, as widely believed, the man who initiated it. Sharon's merits lay in less visible spheres. He was one of the few senior commanders not stunned by the surprise attack. He did not for a moment lose his aggressive instincts and was able to uplift the spirits of the troops in a desperate hour by his very presence.
Once across the canal, it was primarily (Gen. Avraham) Adan's war. Adan (virtually forgotten by the public today) deftly maneuvered large armored forces across a broad landscape in the war's strategic endgame. Adan pushed for abrogation of the first cease fire in order to complete the encirclement of the Third Army, fundamentally altering the outcome of the war.
(Despite his breakdown at the beginning of the war) Dayan was the most far-seeing of the nation's leaders. His ability to fuse political and military considerations and to think creatively was of the same order as (Egyptian President Anwar) Sadat's. If the Six Day War had imbued Dayan with a sense of Israel's power and Arab weakness, the Yom Kippur War made him determined to explore the road to peace.
Chief of Staff General David Elazar: In this, the most perilous period in Israel's history, the effort to avoid national disaster hinged in good measure on the steady nerves of one man. Given the gloom all about him, given the debacle on the battlefield and the abrupt collapse of the military doctrine on which Israel had rested its security, given too the appalling prospect of national annihilation that was suddenly perceived, David Elazar merits a niche in history's pantheon of military leadership just by virtue of not losing his head.
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