Days of wrath and sacrifice

On the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, remembering a tragedy that history will not forget.

PRIME MINISTER Golda Meir (photo credit: Reuters)
(photo credit: Reuters)
On the eve of Yom Kippur 1973, Israel’s highest echelons took a holiday from reality. The very idea of an Arab onslaught on that day was an affront to Jerusalem’s divinity of military doctrine, which postulated that neither Egypt nor Syria was capable of waging all-out warfare. And much as actors at dress rehearsals reassure their anxious producers, “Don’t worry, it’ll be all right on the night of the opening,” so did Israel’s top brass reassure prime minister Golda Meir not to worry because the IDF would be ready to meet any emergency.
But the IDF was caught napping. The thinly held lines in the north and south were sent bleeding and reeling under the hammer blows of a 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, allowed the Egyptians and the Syrians vast opening day victories.
Along the Suez Canal, 450 Israeli soldiers with 50 artillery pieces vainly tried to hold back 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 ever deployed. Within a few days, two whole Egyptian armies had occupied the entire Israeli-held east bank of the Suez Canal, while simultaneously, on the Golan Heights, 1,400 Syrian tanks hurled themselves against Israel’s 160. Its defenders fought back 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 that left the IDF hemorrhaging.
Imagine the inexpressible astonishment of people at prayer on this Shabbat of Shabbatot, hearing in horror the sudden wailing of air-raid sirens filling the sky; of rabbis announcing from pulpits to their congregants in tallitot 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 brokenheartedly chanting the liturgical Unetaneh Tokef prayer – “Who shall live and who shall die.”
Defense minister Moshe Dayan, the man who purportedly embodied the Jewish state’s undaunted defiance, gloomily predicted that this was going to be a long war. Unless the IDF’s stocks were speedily replenished, he warned, the nation would be left without the means to defend itself – an apocalyptic prospect that left Meir gasping. It was as if David had aimed with his sling and missed.
The thought of suicide passed through her mind.
Having finally regained her composure, she famously said to Dayan in her Milwaukee-sounding voice, “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.” Whereupon she phoned Simcha Dinitz, who was Israel’s ambassador to Washington, and told him to tell US secretary of state Henry Kissinger to tell US president Richard Nixon something they already knew – that huge military Soviet transports were replenishing the Syrian and Egyptian arsenals; that Israel was feverishly shopping around for foreign carriers to transport materiel to the IDF, but none would agree to do so; that the French and British had actually imposed an arms embargo; that Israel was losing aircraft to Soviet SAMs at an intolerable rate; and that casualties were mounting at a dreadful pace.
Kissinger and Nixon knew full well the direction the war was taking, acutely cognizant that, unless checked, it could drag the US into a perilous confrontation with the Soviet Union with consequences too terrible to contemplate. So, on the ninth day of the war, October 14, the president telephoned the secretary from his retreat in Key Biscayne, Florida, where he was taking refuge from the ever-mounting legal and congressional pressures emanating from his skulduggery in the Watergate scandal. Pundits would claim that by this time, Nixon was drinking heavily and losing sleep, distracted by the shadow of possible impeachment. Yet though his speech was slurred and his mind foggy, he was focused enough on the Middle East inferno to know what he wanted to do.
With Kissinger as his consignee, he wanted to mount a massive airlift to balance the Soviet airlift. He wanted the Soviets to know that he would end his airlift if they ended theirs. He wanted to give Israel the means to win the war, but did not want the Arabs to totally lose it. And he wanted the war to end in such a way as to humiliate the Soviet Union and enable Washington to reap its political fruits.
And this is exactly what happened.
Reequipped and reenergized, the IDF moved over to the offensive, and what had begun three weeks earlier as an ignoble retreat ended with the Egyptians and the Syrians suing for a cease-fire – and their patron, the Soviet Union, humiliated. 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 the president and the secretary put the squeeze on the prime minister, saying in effect, “Okay, Golda! Good job! Enough! Stop! It’s over!” And over it was: Israel won, but the Arabs did not lose. Egypt’s residual military might – the Third Army – was rescued from total annihilation and the IDF was robbed of a decisive victory, enabling Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to declare to his people that he had wiped clean the shame of 1967’s Six Day War. Kissinger was now able to fly into the region to fine-tune the war’s outcome, by 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 America.
Meir made no bones about it when she candidly told her cabinet: “Let’s call a spade a spade. Black is black and white is white.
There is only one country to which we can turn, and sometimes we have to give in to it. But it is the only real friend we have, and a very powerful one at that. There is nothing to be ashamed of when a small country like ours, in this situation, has to give in to the United States. And when we do say yes, let’s for God’s sake not pretend that it is otherwise, and that black is white.”
Two thousand six hundred and eighty-eight soldiers died in the Yom Kippur War. And as the 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. Why did they allow the country to be taken by surprise? they wanted to know. Anti-government demonstrations proliferated. By April 1974, following the findings of the inescapable panel of inquiry (the Agranat Commission), the once indomitable Meir, the woman who was the epic embodiment of true legends and legendary truths, became fully discredited in the eyes of her exhausted and grieving nation. For having allowed the IDF to slumber while the enemy mobilized, she and her fellow ministers, morally crippled, were compelled to resign.
To many, the name Golda Meir evokes the memory of the unconquerable grandmother of the Jewish people. In many senses, she was. This old woman, with her wrinkled features and tired eyes, who knew nothing of things military, emerged as a great war leader when that most horrible of wars came. And yet, with each passing year, at this time when bereaved families in the thousands rise to recite kaddish, one recalls that it was on her watch that the Yom Kippur War crashed down upon us 40 years ago. It is something history will never forget.
The writer, a retired diplomat, is the author of The Prime Ministers (Toby Press), now a major documentary (Moriah Films).