How the Yom Kippur War changed Israel to the core - opinion

The Yom Kippur War had cost Israel 2,656 dead soldiers and 7,251 injured. 294 prisoners of war had been captured by the enemy

 A MAN mourns at the graves of soldiers killed in the Yom Kippur War, at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem. By the time the guns fell silent, the Yom Kippur War had cost Israel 2,656 dead soldiers (photo credit: GIL COHEN MAGEN/REUTERS)
A MAN mourns at the graves of soldiers killed in the Yom Kippur War, at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem. By the time the guns fell silent, the Yom Kippur War had cost Israel 2,656 dead soldiers
(photo credit: GIL COHEN MAGEN/REUTERS)

In the early afternoon of October 6, 1973, on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, the armies of Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated surprise attack against Israel, initiating a three-week-long war on two fronts. While the fighting ended with impressive IDF battlefield victories, it left Israel shocked and traumatized.

By the time the guns fell silent, the Yom Kippur War had cost Israel 2,656 dead soldiers and 7,251 injured. 294 prisoners of war had been captured by the enemy. All this in a country with a population of only 3.3 million.

It was not just the toll in blood – the war was a huge psychological blow inaugurating a period of national malaise. If following the Six Day War of 1967, Israelis perceived their country as invincible, the Yom Kippur War left them feeling vulnerable and despondent.

In the aftermath of the 1967 victory, cockiness had developed in the Israeli psyche that led to a double folly. The first was the assumption that Arab states, knowing the futility of any attempted aggression, would not attack. Surely, they would not launch a war they could not win.

The second blunder was to presume that even if the Arabs did attack, the IDF would nonetheless be able to swiftly block any advance and expeditiously counterattack, automatically repeating the successes of the Six Day War.

 THE PHOTOS chronicle the Yom Kippur War and its aftermath. (credit: YAAKOV SAAR/GPO) THE PHOTOS chronicle the Yom Kippur War and its aftermath. (credit: YAAKOV SAAR/GPO)

But Israel badly underestimated its adversaries. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat understood that the Arabs could not vanquish the Jewish state in battle. Instead, he sought a limited war that would break the status quo, restore Arab pride, give the Israelis a bloody nose, and begin a process in which Egypt regained lost territories.

Sadat gambled that through a surprise attack and the use of advanced Soviet-supplied weaponry, he stood a decent chance of mitigating Israel’s military superiority. He was not wrong. If the IDF’s 1967 triumph had been based on the Israeli Air Force’s domination of Middle Eastern skies and the strength of Israel’s armor columns, in 1973 Egypt’s new anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons changed the battlefield.

Shrewdly, Sadat’s plan involved his forces crossing the Suez Canal and deploying in previously Israeli-controlled Sinai. While Israel could claim that after initial setbacks, the IDF successfully counterattacked, crossed over to the Western side of the Canal, cut off Egypt’s Third Army, and reached positions 101 km. from Cairo – Egypt could still rightly maintain that the IDF had failed to dislodge the Egyptian military from Sinai.

On the Syrian front, the Israeli counteroffensive brought the IDF to within 30 km. of Damascus, but Israel’s gains were hard-fought, the Syrian forces augmented by the presence of Iraqi and Jordanian units.

The Arab strategy in the Yom Kippur War involved a crucial non-military component – the use of the oil weapon. Arab petroleum producers embargoed exports to countries perceived as supportive of Israel. With then near total dependence on Middle East oil, governments worldwide adopted positions designed to appease the Arabs.

In Israel, the onset of the ceasefire saw the eruption of an unprecedented wave of protests over the government’s handling of the war. This led to the establishment of the Agranat Commission, an independent national inquiry to investigate the IDF’s failings in the lead-up to and during the conflict.

THE COMMISSION released its interim report in April 1974 and called for the dismissal of the then-IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. David Elazar, who, it concluded, held “personal responsibility” for failing to see the approaching war and for the IDF’s lack of preparedness. A disgraced Elazar died of a heart attack two years after the report was issued.

In addition, the head of military intelligence, Gen. Eli Zeira, was forced out, the commission finding him “negligent of duty.” Zeira’s erroneous assessment that an Arab attack was of low probability had left Israel unwarned about the coming Egyptian-Syrian assault.

The head of the southern command, Gen. Shmuel Gonen, was also dismissed for “failing to fulfill his duties.” Gonen went into self-imposed exile in the Central African Republic, returning to Israel only intermittently until his death in 1991.

The Agranat commission’s decision not to hold the political echelon accountable added new energy to the demonstrations demanding the resignations of prime minister Golda Meir and defense minister Moshe Dayan. Both left their posts in June 1974.

The 76-year-old Meir, one of the world’s first women leaders, never returned to active politics. However, Dayan did so in 1977, serving as foreign minister in Menachem Begin’s Likud government.

The Yom Kippur War also inadvertently catapulted Yitzhak Rabin to the premiership. Having been Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Rabin was not part of the leadership tainted by the mistakes of 1973; the Labor Party chose him to replace Meir. In November 1995, during his second term as prime minister, Rabin was murdered by a Jewish terrorist.

Furthermore, Dayan’s resignation saw Shimon Peres elevated to the defense ministry. Peres would remain a key player on the Israeli political scene, including twice holding the position of prime minister, until the end of his presidency in 2014.

The war also enhanced the stature of Ariel Sharon who would be elected prime minister in 2001. Sharon’s bold fording of the Suez Canal and advance into Egypt cemented his status as Israel’s preeminent battlefield commander. The wartime photo of a wounded Sharon’s bandaged head became one of the iconic images of the conflict.

Politically, the war was the beginning of the end for Labor Party hegemony. Labor had continuously led Israel since independence in 1948, demonstrated again in its victory at the polls in 1969 when Meir received 56 seats to Begin’s 26. In contrast, immediately following the war, the December 1973 election saw Labor reduced to 51 MKs and the Likud jumping to 39. By 1977, the Likud was triumphant with 43 seats to Labor’s 32.

From a historical perspective, the Yom Kippur War was also the harbinger of Israeli-Egyptian peace, beginning with the disengagement agreement of January 1974 and consummated in the peace treaty of March 1979 (with Dayan playing a crucial role in the negotiations).

Undoubtedly, the war also begat a much more critical approach by the Israeli public towards political leaders and national institutions – the media’s contemporary aggressiveness emerging from the bloodshed of 1973.

Perhaps, if one seeks a silver lining, the war did not just herald Israeli-Egyptian peace but it also spurred a healthy public skepticism so essential for democracy.

The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is the chair of the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy at Reichman University. Follow him at @AmbassadorMarkRegev on Facebook.