Recovering from a 40-year delusion

The myth of the Yom Kippur ‘defeat’ may finally be loosening its hold on Israelis’ consciousness.

Egyptian soldiers 1973 311 (photo credit: Archives)
Egyptian soldiers 1973 311
(photo credit: Archives)
This year, Yom Kippur didn’t end after 25 hours, as it usually does. In some newspapers, it continued right through Simhat Torah, with a continuous stream of articles commemorating the Yom Kippur War’s 40th anniversary.
Though commemorating the war is an annual ritual, what still shocked me about this year’s coverage was the casual way some interviewees recited a glaring counterfactual – Israel’s “defeat” – as if it were self-evident fact. Take, for instance, Yaakov Hasdai, an IDF officer, attorney, historian and researcher for the 1973 Agranat Commission, which investigated the war: “The failure of the Yom Kippur War hit the Israeli public like a shockwave. The conclusion was, mainly among the Left, that the defeat meant that we were not right.” Or Dr. Gideon Avital-Eppstein, who recently published a book about artistic responses to the war said: “Why is it that these three concepts − shell shock, the POW and the MIA − are so strongly associated with Yom Kippur? I think it has something to do with the perceived result of the war, to the fact that we did not win.”
When this is what younger generations have heard from their elders for 40 years, is it any wonder that in a recent poll asking who won the war, only 64% of Jewish Israeli adults correctly answered Israel? Indeed, it constitutes progress that the number was even that high.
Hasdai, Avital-Eppstein and other Israelis of their generation certainly know the truth: The war ended in an unequivocal Israeli victory, with the IDF threatening both Cairo and Damascus, and the Egyptian Third Army saved from annihilation only because Washington imposed a cease-fire. But even for someone ignorant of these details, there’s the obvious fact that Israel still exists – which it wouldn’t had it really lost the war. Israel’s annihilation was the publicly stated war aim of both Syria and Egypt, and though historians now believe neither seriously expected that outcome, there’s little doubt that both would happily have seized the chance to achieve it had the IDF not swiftly recovered from its initial setbacks. And yet, the counterfactual narrative of defeat persists undiminished.
One pernicious consequence of this, as I’ve written before, is the boost it gave the land-for-peace paradigm. For people who feel as if Israel “lost” in 1973, it makes perfect emotional sense to conclude that Israel must accept Arab dictates and retreat to the pre-1967 lines to attain peace; in war, the loser has no choice but to accept the enemy’s terms. But absent this emotional logic, retreating to borders that endanger the country’s long-term survival would be madness.
After all, the territorial buffer gained in 1967 is precisely what enabled Israel’s survival in 1973: Had the war begun from the pre-1967 lines, Israel would have been annihilated. Instead, the enemy armies were stopped in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights, without ever reaching pre-1967 Israel.
And contrary to popular perception, territory is even more critical in the age of high-trajectory weapons. Israel’s standing army is smaller than those of its neighbors, so its defense doctrine depends on mobilizing the reserves. But missile fire can seriously disrupt this mobilization, meaning the reserves will need more time to reach the front. To buy this time, the army needs a territorial buffer – either space in which to retreat, or high ground like the Golan and the West Bank mountain ridge, where a smaller force can hold for days against a larger one.
Even UN Resolution 242, the foundation of all subsequent peace talks, acknowledged the vital importance of territory for defense:  Recognizing that “Israel's prior frontiers had proved to be notably insecure,” as one of its drafters, US Ambassador Arthur Goldberg, later explained, the resolution explicitly upheld Israel’s right to “secure” (i.e. defensible) borders and was deliberately worded to let it retain some of the territory captured in 1967. This recognition is also why Israeli governments for decades opposed withdrawing to the indefensible 1967 lines, and why all US governments prior to the current one supported that Israeli position.
Thus it’s heartening to see signs that the myth of the 1973 “defeat” may finally be loosening its hold on Israel’s collective consciousness.
Some of the war’s participants have begun publicly challenging it. “We, the fighters, remember the Yom Kippur War as a war that ended in a great victory,” declared Haim Danon, who fought on the Golan, in one media interview. “We stopped them, we made them withdraw, we recaptured the territories taken from us.”
After the war, he explained, most soldiers “simply wanted to return home”; they “didn’t have the strength to deal at the time with history, with the media, with what people would remember.” But now, they are starting to understand that the battle over memory must also be fought.
In addition, Israelis are beginning to recognize the war’s manifold achievements, as detailed recently by Amotz Asa-El in these pages. Inter alia, the Arabs’ inability to defeat Israel even under optimal conditions of total surprise convinced them to give up on conventional warfare: Never since has Israel suffered a conventional military attack. The war also led to Israel’s first peace treaty with an Arab nation: Convinced that regaining Sinai by force was impossible, then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat opted to try peace instead.
Finally, as even Haaretz, a champion of territorial concessions, recently admitted, Israelis have discovered through hard experience that ceding land can be even more dangerous than they’ve been told for 40 years that not ceding it would be. Oslo’s territorial concessions produced a massive upsurge in terrorism, accounting for two-thirds of all Israelis killed in terror attacks since 1948. And Syria’s civil war has made most Israelis grateful that repeated efforts to cede the Golan never succeeded: To quote Haaretz’s military correspondent, “Where would Israel be today without that strategic asset?”
After decades of Israeli opinion leaders telling the world that complete withdrawal is essential, reviving the international support that once existed for more limited withdrawals will be difficult. But Israel can’t convince the world unless it first convinces itself. And that starts with recovering from our 40-year delusion about the Yom Kippur “defeat.”